I recently went to a great workshop on interdisciplinarity. Now, there are different definitions of interdisciplinarity (and particularly how it relates to multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity) though, personally I tend to follow definitions somewhere along the lines of what these people found in the health sector, and what this music researcher says. The workshop was about interdisciplinarity in the sense of truly integrating theories, methods and expertise from different disciplines to conduct environmental research. Interdisciplinary research can occur in teams, though moving from multidisciplinarity (where several people bring different expertise to a research theme / problem but where there is no true research synthesis and often, poor understanding of what is being done in each part of the team) to interdisciplinarity comes with many difficulties. Overcoming these difficulties was a large focus of discussion at the workshop. I was also asked to speak at the workshop, about my own experiences with interdisciplinarity. This is a bit of a step away from work in interdisciplinary teams. I consider myself an interdisciplinary individual because I use approaches from ecology and social sciences to tackle my research questions; I conduct my research alone (though with plenty of guidance) so these approaches are synthesised in my own head and thesis rather than out loud and between members of a team.

And that’s what I want to talk about here: what it’s like being an interdisciplinary individual, and what can be done to make it a bit easier. I think doing an interdisciplinary PhD is incredibly worthwhile, and something I chose to do because I believe that combining social and environmental research is the best way to understand issues that affect both people and nature, and to generate impacts that aren’t detrimental to either. However, I also think it can add a significant additional layer of difficulty to PhD research… as if it wasn’t hard enough. I talked a little bit about this at the workshop but, being in a room full of people who understood well how hard interdisciplinary research is, I tried to focus a bit more on what has helped me along my interdisciplinary journey, and thoughts about how we (as students? supervisors? departments? institutions?) might help other interdisciplinary individuals in future.  Here, I summarise what I said at the workshop, with a bit more of a focus on how you, if you’re an interdisciplinary student, might help yourself with potential challenges – just in case your supervisor, other academics, department and institution aren’t reading. I highlight three key areas that I needed (and got) help with as an interdisciplinary student: 1) planning your interdisciplinary project, 2) finding out about the subject(s) you know less about, and 3) gaining project-specific knowledge:

  1. I’m lucky in that during my PhD I’ve been offered formal trainings on a whole host of subjects (how to write a thesis, how to make a poster, statistics, ecological modelling etc.). But, I’m not in an interdisciplinary programme, so I haven’t been offered training specific to an interdisciplinary project. Planning an interdisciplinary project is quite different to planning other PhDs, and I think it would have been really useful to have received training in how to plan an interdisciplinary project early in my PhD: this is something that can (and I think should) be offered in a simple course at your institution. If formal training isn’t available to you, seek out resources (and people) who can help you. I found Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research useful, as well as alternative ways to think about my project plans such as by constructing something akin to a theory of change connecting your research questions to aims and outcomes. There are loads of great resources out there and new ones appearing all the time, so actively search for guidance that’s relevant to you.
  2. Having no formal grounding in half of your project can make it hard to know how to direct your learning on this side of the project. For example, I came from a natural sciences background, so thinking about the social science aspects of my research was harder and involved me learning lots from scratch. However, I didn’t really know what “from scratch” even meant from a social science perspective when I started – which textbooks and papers should I be reading to start off my learning? It can be very easy to miss possible training opportunities which might help with these problems if you’re not in the right circles to find out about them. I have rarely been offered formal training in social science, because my project and I sit in the natural sciences part of my institution and because the groups offering me training are more natural-sciences focused. You too might feel siloed, and like the methods and skills training offered to you are only relevant to small aspects of your project. The truth is, there’s probably loads more training out there that’s available to you – you just don’t know about it. Increased collaboration and conversation between departments, institutions and research groups to increase awareness of opportunities for student training across disciplines would help with this issue in a widespread and long-term way, and we should all encourage this as much as possible. I mean, there are also arguments for complete overhauls of how universities are structured break down some of the walls standing between different disciplines… But, leaving that discussion for another day, let’s assume that you’re a student navigating existing structures for yourself and your peers and, again, you’ve got to do some investigation and reaching out for yourself. Look for resources (I liked Introduction to Social Research for social stuff!), email academics and students working on the stuff you want to know more about, ask if there are seminar series you can go to, look through Masters courses at your institution and find out if you can go and sit in on some lectures. For example, just getting on the right mailing list you didn’t know existed might make a huge difference to what you learn and who you can meet.
  3. Loads of what I’ve learned has come from individuals, informally, rather than through formal training. You do need lots of project-specific knowledge during your PhD, which may come more from discussions with colleagues or by conducting a pilot study, rather than from a structured course. So, once again, don’t forget to make the most of the people and opportunities around you. Ask for help from supervisors, reach out to other students working on similar problems to you, build up your network. Someone might be able to recommend a book or a particular method to you. You might even realise that there are a few of you who with similar interests and it would be useful to form a peer support group, or a reading group. Also, if you know two people with similar interests to each other (but not to you), put them in touch with each other. In my experience, there is a really nice culture in academia of introducing colleagues with mutual interests, with no benefit to the person making the introductions. Keep that culture going to help out your colleagues (and foster better research).

A key theme uniting my above points is that (despite a PhD being an individual journey), building on other’s experience, and even just knowing you’re not alone can be really important. Your interdisciplinary project might seem unrelated to the work that other people in your office and department are working on, but know that there are lots of people out there who have knowledge and experiences you can draw on. That can come in the form of structured training offered to you (ahem institutions and funders), or in the form of seeking out knowledge and skills for yourself. Try to take advantage of those things as early as possible – PhDs are time-limited (maybe especially interdisciplinary PhDs when the student is having to learn more stuff from scratch), so having clear ideas about how you’re going to plan your project, and getting stuck into the right literature early on can be incredibly helpful, and make you feel less stressed by how much you think you don’t know in the long-run.

I do think that formal training, and maybe some cultural change, can really help with these issues. And part of their benefit is that they can be timely and make sure you get set on a good track early on in your project, rather than spending a long time being unsure about stuff and unsure about who to ask for help with that. But, if you feel like you’re completing an interdisciplinary PhD in a world that isn’t set-up to best support interdisciplinary work, know that there are courses, books, websites, and people that can help you. You just have to be extra pro-active in finding them, and we all should be more helpful towards other PhD students struggling with the same problems.

And also, though I’m telling you now that you should find help with these issues early in your project, that doesn’t mean you should stop seeking help later on, or feel like you’ve missed the boat to do so. Lots of the things that helped me across the three issues that I highlight here, I came to later than you’d expect. I attended the interdisciplinarity workshop during my third year, and part of what made it great was that I was able to speak to other people who faced similar problems to me in different contexts, and if nothing else, we could come together to discuss those problems. And that in itself can move your own work forward, even if you don’t come up with the solutions to your own interdisciplinary problems (and, in the case of the workshop, how to make interdisciplinarity work more broadly) yet.

A bit of extra reading about interdisciplinary work:

And there’s lots more!