10 tips for interdisciplinary research careers

Interdisciplinarity has been a hot topic in academia for several decades and is probably here to stay. Having done interdisciplinary research for almost 10 years in the UK/US academia, I feel I am in a position to offer my advice regarding the challenges and rewards of crossing the treacherous boundaries of disciplines (and departments). For a concise summary of the various definitions of multi-inter-trans-disciplinarity and more, the second chapter of Frodeman et al. (2017) is an excellent starting point (see also Figure 1).

interdisciplinarity
Figure 1: Typologies of interdisciplinarity (Frodeman et al, 2017, p. 17)

These tips are primarily targeted at research students and at early career researchers who want to develop an interdisciplinary career. Spelling these things out is also useful to remind myself what I need to do on a daily basis to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of engaging with different disciplines.

A disclaimer to put these tips in context: I have a background in computer science (first as a software engineer), I did a PhD in computer science, and then my research has expanded to geography, data science, and the humanities (mainly media studies). Hence, my experience might differ widely from that of somebody who works between, say, biology and archaeology, or geography and physics (see O’Sullivan & Manson, 2015).

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The tips

In what follows, I refer to discipline A and discipline B as general examples:

  1. Interdisciplinarity of what? Researchers produce new knowledge by mixing research questions (often linked to problems that motivate the whole enterprise), data, and methods in complicated ways. It is useful to think explicitly about where all these components are from, and how A and B are being assembled. For example, a project might use data and methods from A to address a problem in B. What are the benefits in terms of new knowledge, data, and methods with respect to A and B?
  2. Choose a core discipline! Each discipline values specific research questions, accepts only some answers as legitimate, and venerate different authors, and likes some journals and not others. So, from the beginning of your PhD, try to place yourself within a recognised area, and learn as much as you can about the standards in that discipline (e.g. its top journals). Be very cautious in saying that you do both A and B. Choose either A or B as your core discipline, particularly at the beginning of your career. The other discipline(s) should be presented as a way to enrich your core discipline. Show that you are open to other fields while knowing where you belong (see also tip 7). In Anglo-American academia, it is acceptable to change core discipline over time, as long as the transition from A to B is presented as a scientifically coherent and is supported by the publication/funding record.
  3. Tell a good story about your research. In your CV and cover letters, you should communicate clearly why you do what you do, and how interdisciplinarity makes you special, original, creative, and competitive. Research is a tough, overcrowded arena where excellence does matter. Most people would prefer to hire an excellent person in either A or B, rather than an average person in both A and B. In hiring panels, a comment that you want to avoid is “I don’t understand what s/he is doing. Is it in A or in B?”
  4. Choose your projects carefully. Create or join projects where your core discipline can benefit too. Avoid pure applications of your skills to contexts where you cannot give an intellectual contribution (e.g. you possess methods/skills from A, you apply them to B, but A does not advance at all). Make sure from the outset that you will get publications in your core discipline and that you will participate in setting the intellectual direction of the project.
  5. Choose your collaborators carefully. Some researchers are fiercely mono-disciplinary (often for good reasons) and might turn out to be hard to work with. So, choosing people who are genuinely curious about other disciplines and academically promiscuous is important (i.e. see if they published in different fields, or not). Be aware of power relations in a team, as is not uncommon to have the most influential professors to advance their agendas from their disciplinary angle. Interdisciplinarity must be (re)negotiated often and explicitly by collaborators.
  6. Write to a target audience. When you write a paper/proposal/presentation, try to tailor it to your audience. People from A and people from B might differ widely in terms of interests, background knowledge, and language and, if you aim at both, you risk making neither happy. People in different disciplines value and understand different things, and the same piece of work can be great in A and entirely uninteresting in B. Do not take basic knowledge for granted when crossing disciplines, and do not be afraid of over-explaining core concepts.
  7. Think of the job market. Most departments hire people in a single field—interdisciplinary centres do exist, but they are relatively uncommon. So you will compete for jobs with single-discipline researchers who are easier to understand and place in a department in A or B. Particularly at the beginning of your career, your CV is unlikely to be strong enough in both A and B, and you must avoid the risk of being great in neither A nor B (the “jack of all trades, master of none” problem). In some cases, it might even be advisable not to include minor secondary works in your CV that do not build up towards a clear “story.”
  8. Frame your interdisciplinarity explicitly. Many people claim they do interdisciplinary work, while in practice they might work in two small sub-fields in a rather narrow discipline (A1 and A2, rather than A and B). When you present your work as interdisciplinary, state explicitly how it is so, and use precise technical terms to show that it is not all hot air (see Frodeman et al., 2017). Say for example that you do mainly A with elements of B, or that you solve problems in A with methods from B, or that you are bringing ideas from A to B, etc. Say whether your work is multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary (see Figure 1 for core definitions). There are also ideas on how to quantify interdisciplinarity based on publications and referencing (Porter et al., 2007).
  9. Balance mono-disciplinary and interdisciplinary publications. It is hard enough to advance a single discipline, and “Renaissance” researchers and polymaths who reach international excellence in more than one area are rare (e.g. Bertrand Russell, Herbert Simon, and Noam Chomsky). Hence, try to make sure that, if A is your core discipline, at least half of your publications are in good single-discipline journals in A. The rest can go to journals with a less clear identity. See some examples of interdisciplinary journals in data science and related fields.
  10. Talk to disciplinary experts. When you engage with a new discipline, it is possible to feel more knowledgeable than you actually are (this is related to the well-known Dunning–Kruger effect). It is therefore essential to keep talking to disciplinary experts to stay grounded and prune bizarre ideas that people in the field immediately find unconvincing.

Last, but not least, have fun! An interdisciplinary career is a guarantee you will never run out of new intellectual stimuli.

References

Frodeman, R., Klein, J. T., & Pacheco, R. C. D. S. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

O’Sullivan, D. & Manson, S. M. (2015) Do Physicists Have Geography Envy? And What Can Geographers Learn from It? Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 5608, 1–19.

Porter, A., Cohen, A., David Roessner, J., & Perreault, M. (2007). Measuring researcher interdisciplinarity. Scientometrics, 72(1), 117-147.

Web resources

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