In this conversation, Dr. Alyssa M. Alcorn discusses her experiences of being a postdoctoral researcher on large interdisciplinary projects and some of the key challenges for interdisciplinary collaborations. She also talks about what skills interdisciplinary researchers can bring to projects to mitigate these challenges.
Research under many different banners
Alyssa is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, and the lead researcher on the Learning About Neurodiversity at School Project . She has moved between different institutions in her research career sitting in a variety of different disciplinary centres from Psychology, to Informatics and Education. Although on paper it may look like Alyssa has moved between different disciplines, she says that actually she has worked on closely related projects that have ‘lived’ in different locations based on where the funding and project partners were. Over the past ten or more years, her general focus as an autism and technology researcher has not changed, but her specialism requires her to work at the intersection of many different disciplines. This has meant that she has often had to work in very different environments and with different sets of colleagues.
When asked how this has affected her sense of belonging to an ‘academic home’ or how she fits within disciplinary structures in universities, Alyssa says that in terms of what seminars she might sign up to, she has had to pick and mix which she goes to. She describes how she often gets lonely for wherever discipline or department she is not currently based in, and misses working with colleagues from different disciplines who can understand different aspects of her research.
(4 min excerpt)
Differences in disciplinary norms the biggest challenge for interdisciplinary collaborations
Alyssa started working on interdisciplinary projects during her Masters research, as part of a big EPSRC/ESRC funded project. She then continued on to do a PhD working on some of the datasets that came out of that project. Her first postdoc was in a very large interdisciplinary Horizon 2020 funded project, with 50 or 60 people spread out over 8 partners. Her experience of working on two different large interdisciplinary projects presented similar challenges, she says. The main challenge, in her experience is that even though everyone on a project has a shared goal, they don’t often realise how little their disciplines have in common. Their standards of what it means for a programme or a technology to “be working”, or even the norms of what kind of data is required to know that something is working, differ greatly. Even between disciplines that seem like they should be similar, such as education and psychology, there can be some very important differences in terms of what data they need to collect in order to answer a question, and for that to be publishable. Unfortunately, some of these conversation don’t happen early enough in big projects. This means there can be some difficult conversations later on when someone questions the utility or publishability of your data. Alyssa suggests that these conversations need to be had up front to ensure that whatever data are collected, that they will be acceptable and of a useful standard of evidence for people in different disciplinary groups. Alyssa says that these differences in disciplinary norms are probably the single biggest challenge, and that these differences are usually not addressed early enough in project development. When the issue does arise later on, it is often too late to resolve due to lack of time and resources.
(7 min excerpt)
Interdisciplinary understanding takes patience
When asked how she has dealt with the challenge of developing understanding across disciplines as an early career researcher, and how she has voiced her opinions on how interdisciplinary collaborations might be improved, she mentions that she has used concrete examples or anecdotes from previous experience when illustrating the problems to later colleagues. She also mentions that some of that interdisciplinary understanding is often done unofficially by the early career researchers, who do the vast majority of the hands on work. Making small changes to how we talk through and explain our research to each other, and not assuming that your colleagues are on the same page as you, is a small way to promote understanding and to avoid disconnects later on. It can be tricky to do this in a way that’s both clear and respectful. She adds that this requires patience because you will need to have these conversations over and over again throughout the entire project. The issue can’t be solved once, but needs to be revisited across project phases and outputs.
(3.5 minute excerpt)
Valuing interdisciplinary skills
When asked about her experience of being one of the people who knows how to integrate different disciplines or methodologies on a team, becoming a go-between for the disciplines, Alyssa says that often projects don’t get to that ‘expert level’ of integration. The team might still be working on more basic problems by the end of the project, such as understanding what evidence looks like in different disciplines. She has experience of being the person who is “in the middle” enough to understand what the different disciplines need to be able to work together, and has spent a lot of time getting teams to communicate meaningfully to make sure they produce something that is useable to others. She also has a lot of experience translating research findings to different audiences. This can take a lot of time, as you often can’t use the same presentation or materials when communicating research to different stakeholders and researchers. The information that the different audiences will find interesting will be completely different, and the questions they will ask will also be different. The extra time it takes to communicate the research to different audiences isn’t always appreciated by others.
Alyssa considers being the “go-between” for different disciplines a main part of her job and her function. She gets angry when people try to pigeonhole her into one discipline, as it can mean others might dismiss her opinions in a different area of research where she also has experience. That can be very strange if you are used to being valued for your mediation and translation skills in larger projects. Interdisciplinary skills are often undervalued and absent from large collaborative projects, though they are necessary for integration and collaboration to happen. “Interdisciplinary skills don’t have names” Alyssa says, so that makes it very difficult to say, this is what I’m good at. If we could label the skills it would be much easier to communicate the value of them to others, she adds.
(9 min excerpt)
Pursuing an interdisciplinary career path
When asked if she would continue to pursue an interdisciplinary career path, Alyssa says her research experience has always been interdisciplinary, and therefore she has not really considered working in more disciplinary ways. It was not a deliberate decision to work in blended research areas. Had she had a greater understanding of the research landscape as a Masters student, and some of the challenges of publication and in research careers in general, she might have hesitated to pursue an interdisciplinary path.
(3 minutes excerpt)