More than you wanted to know about how to do interdisciplinary research


I have nothing but good things to say about the management of NorMER - it encourages us as young researchers to explore our own ideas and collaborations. We post-docs have been tasked with being the “glue” that binds together our nodes, disparate in nationality and discipline, as a single unit. A challenge? Yes. Can we do it? Heck yeah – go team!


But wait, what did I just say I would do? Ok, international collaboration is easy to define, but what actually is interdisciplinary research? Am I doing it already or is this a skill I need to work on? And if I’m not sure of this, then how am I supposed to help the doctoral students figure it out?


Ultimately, we are all the designers of our own on-going educational experiences, whether we are nominally students or not. What does a good student do when faced with a crux? Ask the experts, of course! (At least the ones that live inside Web of Science…) Below I compiled excerpts from educational research literature that has helped me reflect on what doing interdisciplinary research means, and why and how I want to incorporate it into my career.


But first, here is a summary of what I took home from this exercise:


First, ask the simple question: Why are international collaboration and interdisciplinary research valued?


Get a simple answer: Many of the world’s most pressing problems are interdisciplinary and international in nature; therefore the best solutions must incorporate multiple disciplines.


Second, ask the harder question: How do we know where to focus our efforts to acheive the best educational pay-offs?


Get a soul-searching answer: 1) Identify your personal goals and your funding’s (i.e., the public’s) goals; remember you have a responsibility to both. 2) Identify the barriers between you and these goals (hopefully the passages below will help with that). 3) Then wreck them, Ralph.


Excerpts from educational literature (please note that many articles are from the same authors – this is not an exhaustive list):


Borrego, M., and Cutler, S. 2010, Constructive alignment of interdisciplinary graduate curriculum in an analysis of successful IGERT proposals. J. Engineering Education 99: 355 – 369.


“Despite the proliferation of interdisciplinary graduate programs designed to fill the need for interdisciplinary Ph.D.s, there is little archival literature identifying learning outcomes, methods or benchmarks for assessing interdisciplinary graduate programs and associated student learning…The purpose of this study is to understand how engineering and science academics conceptualize interdisciplinary graduate education in order to identify common practices and recommend improvements… Four desired student learning outcomes were identified: contributions to the technical area, broad perspective, teamwork, and interdisciplinary communication skills. Student requirements (educational plans) addressed these outcomes to some extent, but assessment/evidence sections generally targeted program level goals—as opposed to student learning. This lack of constructive alignment between components is a major weakness of graduate curriculum… Alignment occurs when desired learning outcomes are communicated to students, and learning activities and assessment tasks are coordinated to achieve these outcomes… In other words, learning outcomes should be well-defined, and all

teaching and learning activities should support achievement of the learning outcomes. If they do not, faculty members should consider whether the activities are worthwhile, and if so, whether learning outcomes should be added to reflect these values.”


The study then goes on to say it analyzed 130 IGERT proposals to identify the most frequently mentioned “...desired outcomes, evidence, and learning experiences.” Desired outcomes included “technical outcomes,” “broad perspective,” “teamwork,” “interdisciplinary communication,” and “interdisciplinary environment.” The last three warrant a little more explanation since we don’t normally think much about them: “For example, under a heading of “Teamwork and Professionalism,” one proposal listed three specific outcomes: (1) ‘Understanding of group dynamics associated with leadership, membership, and peer-to-peer interactions,’ (2) ‘Ability to listen, give, and receive feedback,’ and (3) ‘Ability to set appropriate goals, milestones, and division of labor.’… The most frequent allusion to interdisciplinary communication was describing the communication barrier that generally exists between different disciplines (e.g.,Bromme, 2000; Salter and Hearn, 1996) and emphasizing that students will overcome that barrier. One proposal stated, ‘As disciplinary language is often a barrier to collaboration and understanding, Fellows will learn to ‘speak one another’s languages’ by studying the approaches, methods, terminology, and questions of other disciplines.’… Creating an interdisciplinary environment for learning is important for two reasons. First, it allows for interactions between disciplines (Newswander and Borrego, 2009). Interdisciplinary education lends itself well to a sociocultural perspective on learning that takes into account the environment for learning as well as social interactions as a source of learning (Nardi, 1996), e.g., when graduate students help each other in a research lab. Second, specific to this proposal analysis, it is indicative of an indirect approach to interdisciplinary education of graduate students.”  


They went on to analyze “learning experiences proposed to promote interdisciplinarity” such as courses, workshops, retreats, formal and informal meetings, etc: “Teamwork was one of the most explicitly stated objectives in the proposals… There was an equal number of references to the students working as a team in and out-of-class… However, the descriptions of in-class activities were expressed more clearly with focused objectives and detailed team tasks. On the other hand, the out-of-class learning experiences offer an opportunity to create a more long-term interdisciplinary research project that would be more authentic preparation for eventual employment, particularly in the case of internships. Many of these were described only vaguely, through claims that students would be ‘trained to work in teams’ or the activity would be ‘essential to building teams.’… Finally, we note that while there were indeed a total of 62 sites that referenced teamwork and teambuilding in their education plans, only 43 of those associated the team or its task with interdisciplinarity…


…our finding that ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 1999) between learning outcomes, assessment evidence and learning experiences is severely lacking in interdisciplinary graduate programs is noteworthy. While a handful of these proposals enumerated specific learning outcomes or what skills specific student activities would cultivate, most spoke in broad generalities that provide little guidance once the proposal is funded… Strongest alignment [between learning outcomes and learning experiences] was observed for activities to build interdisciplinary community. We argue that while this may be a necessary condition for interdisciplinary learning, it is by no means sufficient. Students’ ability to conduct research in teams is severely hindered if their training is restricted to course projects of limited duration or indirect experiences such as organizing a dissertation committee of faculty members from different disciplines. Although dissertation committees comprised of faculty members from different departments were common in the proposals, there was little evidence that dissertation research would be explicitly evaluated for interdisciplinary integration… Similarly, communication experiences emphasize presentation of results, rather than interpersonal negotiation and collaboration skills emphasized in the learning outcomes. The focus of assessment on program- level goals [such as grades, number of publications, percentages of under-represented groups, or job placements post-graduation ] rather than providing evidence of student learning is particularly troubling. Very few of these programs had planned from the outset to collect the data that would tell them whether their students were actually becoming better interdisciplinary researchers. Specific recommendations for engineering and science faculty members are: define clear learning objectives, enlist assessment/evaluation expertise, and constructively align all aspects of the curriculum.”


Borrego, M., and Newswander L.K. 2011. Definitions of interdisciplinary research: toward graduate-level interdisciplinary learning outcomes. Rev Higher Education 34: 61 – 84.


“Among the recommendations for future interdisciplinary graduate education published in a recent NSF report is the desire to ‘develop specific outcome goals for skills development in the broad topic of professional skills and match training to these goals’ (Van Hartesveldt & Giordan, 2009, p. 4). Developing operational definitions of interdisciplinarity through learning outcomes is an important first step to developing and assessing the effectiveness of interdisciplinary graduate programs. A number of authors note that, while engineering and science faculty have little difficulty writing learning outcomes for technical work, the domains of teamwork, graduate education, and interdisciplinarity are challenging in their own rights and usually lie well beyond the background or experience of most technical faculty members (Boix Mansilla & Dawes Duraisingh, 2007; Felder & Brent, 2003; Hoey, 2008; Klein, 2008)… The purpose of our analysis is to combine practical knowledge from engineering and science faculty with peer-reviewed literature from interdisciplinary studies in the humanities to advance understanding and make constructive suggestions for the outcomes of interdisciplinary graduate education. The research questions which guided this analysis are: (a) How do science and engineering faculty implicitly or explicitly define interdisciplinary research for the purposes of graduate education? (b) And how can the interdisciplinary literature from humanities guide the articulation of desired learning outcomes for interdisciplinary graduate education?...”


The authors then explained that they are analyzing IGERT proposals (probably the same as in the above paper) and comparing results with Humanities literature that reflects theory about interdisciplinary education. “Disciplinary grounding was an important value emphasized in both the humanities literature and the engineering and science proposals. Only the proposals, however, were concerned with the perceived tradeoffs of breadth and depth. This pattern could be attributed to their focus on graduate education, which is already plagued with concerns about time to graduation (Nettles & Millett, 2006) and closely aligned with perceived career risks of interdisciplinarity to untenured faculty (Rhoten & Parker, 2004). It could also, to some extent, be attributed to positivists’ tendency to view disciplinary boundaries as natural and logical rather than socially constructed, arbitrary power structures (Lattuca, 2001; Salter & Hearn, 1996).


…To a surprising extent establishing common ground was faculty driven rather than presented as a transferable skill for students to develop…Both sources valued disciplinary grounding, communication and establishing common ground, and the integration of disciplinary perspectives…Integrating appropriate disciplinary perspectives toward increased understanding is a common theme of interdisciplinarity, across disciplinary perspectives. However, we might argue that humanists operationalize integration as critical awareness, while engineers and scientists operationalize it as teamwork.” That is, the humanities literature indicates that all individuals will gain a better understanding of all disciplines, whereas the engineers and scientists think this is achieved by partitioning work among members of a team to those who are the experts in that field (e.g., the geneticist does the genetics portion of the work, the economist does the economics portion…). “As Boix Mansilla and Duraisingh (2007) explain, it is not enough to simply integrate disciplinary perspectives well; skilled interdisciplinarians explicitly reflect on the challenges and processes of integration, including the limitations of various disciplinary perspectives and the synergistic value of the interdisciplinary approach. Explicit discussions of epistemology would therefore have value in advancing the creativity of engineering and science graduate students, particularly in interdisciplinary research domains.”


 Öberg, G. 2009. Facilitating interdisciplinary work: using quality assessment to create common ground. High Educ 57: 405 – 415.


“Newcomers often underestimate the challenges of interdisciplinary work and, as a rule, do not spend sufficient time to allow them to overcome differences and create common ground, which in turn leads to frustration, unresolved conflicts, and, in the worst case scenario, discontinued work. The key to successful collaboration is to facilitate the creation of a climate that will stimulate awareness of such challenges. Differing perceptions of quality and credibility among disciplines are major obstacles to successful collaboration. Some of these differences are incommensurably rooted in different epistemologies while other differences are more a question of culture. In the present paper, a framework is proposed which is designed to initiate a process necessary for success. First, the framework is designed to stimulate discussions about quality and credibility, and second it is designed to help separate epistemological differences from differences in culture. The framework takes its point of departure in five questions that deliberately include terms, such as ‘sufficiently’, ‘coherently’, and ‘reliable’, which are unproblematic in a group with shared norms but become increasingly ambiguous as diversity increases. Experience suggest that pondering these questions, alone or in a group, stimulates reflection, leads to increased awareness of one’s own perspective, and facilitates dialogue, collaboration, and creation of common ground...


... Assessment of credibility is rooted in implicit academic cultural norms. It is widely acknowledged that it is in the breaches of the taken-for-granted, rather than in the following of expectations, that we come to understand our values, norms, and taboos (e.g. Feldman 1995; Holstein and Gubrium 1998). Good research comes in many forms, and full awareness of the effects of this multiplicity is certainly more likely to develop if scholars strive to uncover and discuss both the explicit and the implicit norms guiding perceptions of good versus bad research….” The authors go on to describe that this study comes from his experiences in trying to formalize an interdisciplinary program at his university and was revised based on discussions with other universities.


“Drawing on empirical studies of interdisciplinary projects, several scholars, such as Lisa Lattuca (2001), Julie Thompson Klein (2005), John Bradbeer (1999) and Veronica Boix Mansilla (2005) argue that successful interdisciplinary research groups invest considerable time in managing differences and creating common ground. Clearly, those able to create a climate that stimulates dialogue within the group have a greater chance of success. Interestingly, studies such as the one by Rossini and Porter (1984) indicate that the greater the disciplinary distance among core team members, the easier it appears to be to initiate such discussions. It seems likely that broad diversity in an interdisciplinary team increases awareness of the need to work toward integration…. Paradoxically, it seems as if the challenge is to find ways to stimulate dialogue in interdisciplinary groups with smaller disciplinary distance, as the need for such dialogue appears to be more easily overlooked in such groups…


Irrespective of discipline, empirically-based research traditions generally demand that a study be conducted in accordance with some sort of broadly-standardized structure which involves asking questions such as: What kind of information is going to be collected and how? How is the information going to be analyzed? and What theoretical framework is going to be used? It is clear that there are large variations among disciplines as to what components comprise the research procedure… Some disciplines expect a detailed description of the procedures, whereas others prefer more overarching, sweeping descriptions. Yet others demand detailed accounts for some of the basic procedural components at the undergraduate level but omit this demand during graduate studies or at the post-doctoral level, as a scholar is expected to be familiar with the basic craftsmanship elements when the doctoral thesis has been successfully defended… As a direct consequence, it is both easy and common for scholars to judge the work of other disciplines as less credible than that of their own…


…Academic credibility is, to a certain extent, a question of keeping to agreed-upon norms for how things should be done—and norms are handed on by tradition. When one starts to cross academic borders, scholarly traditions meet and mix, and the distinction between good and bad becomes blurred. Sometimes very good interdisciplinary papers may be viewed in a very negative light simply because narrow disciplinary criteria have been used to assess them (Boix Mansilla 2004). A basic prerequisite for successful interdisciplinary scholarship is thus the ability to acknowledge and navigate among contradictory or competing knowledge claims.”


Boden, D., Borrego, M., and Newswander, L.K. 2011. Student socialization in interdisciplinary doctoral education. High Educ 62: 741 – 755.


“Abstract Interdisciplinary approaches are often seen as necessary for attacking the most critical challenges facing the world today, and doctoral students and their training programs are recognized as central to increasing interdisciplinary research capacity. However, the traditional culture and organization of higher education are ill-equipped to facilitate interdisciplinary work. This study employs a lens of socialization to study the process through which students learn the norms, values, and culture of both traditional disciplines and integrated knowledge production. It concludes that many of the processes of socialization are similar, but that special attention should be paid to overcoming organizational barriers to interdisciplinarity related to policies, space, engagement with future employers, and open discussion of the politics of interdisciplinarity.


The higher education institutions in which graduate students are trained are ill-equipped to facilitate interdisciplinary research, teaching, and other aspects of interdisciplinary graduate training. The challenge is two-pronged. Not only do professors and students need to work laterally across an organization that is typically very hierarchical in nature, often finding that deans and department heads are unwilling to commit their own resources to benefit other divisions, but this disciplinary department structure is a schema that extends well beyond any individual institution to discourse communities reinforced by professional societies, journals, and the like. These disciplinary communities have been described as territorial ‘tribes’ with their own characteristic cultures (Becher and Trowler 2001; Reich and Reich 2006), and a number of studies have highlighted associated differences (e.g., Anderson 1996; Donald 2002; Turner et al. 2002). This conception of disciplinary culture is useful in describing socialization of newcomers such as graduate students and new professors, including understanding why some succeed in a given set of circumstances while others fail (Gardner 2008; Tierney 1997)…


…Tierney summarizes, ‘culture is the sum of activities in the organization, and socialization is the process through which individuals acquire and incorporate an understanding of those activities’ (1997, p. 4)…. In other words, while typical graduate students are being socialized to a particular discipline and department, they are also socialized to a culture of higher education as being organized by disciplines. The result is feelings of isolation by students in programs or projects that span traditional disciplines (Tress et al. 2009) due to conflict with ‘the longaccepted structure of the academy’ (Holley 2009, p. 242)….” The authors go on to describe this study as an “interview study of 43 students, professors and administrators from four different interdisciplinary programs at two large public universities…Students in traditional discipline-based programs have the benefit of an established disciplinary culture, or at least consensus regarding ‘what counts as knowledge’ (Tierney 2008, p. 52)…


…Established disciplines—some more than others—have reached a degree of consensus regarding what constitutes quality work (Pfeffer 1993) that is absent in most interdisciplinary domains. Since so few referees are sufficiently knowledgeable about multiple foundational disciplines and their synergistic integration, interdisciplinary work is far more challenging to evaluate (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research 2005; Oberg 2009; Payton and Zoback 2007; Pfirman et al. 2005). Administrative concerns over efficient use of budgeted funds, difficulties evaluating interdisciplinary work, and the additional time it takes to sufficiently integrate perspectives all stand as strong disincentives for junior researchers (particularly untenured professors) to pursue interdisciplinary scholarly work (Pfirman et al. 2005)… Thus, the additional time and career risk arising from organizational barriers to interdisciplinarity prevent researchers from taking the time to develop common ground between differing disciplinary lexica and perspectives by interacting with the very colleagues with whom they can collaborate on interdisciplinary research or learn about alternative perspectives. If professors cannot survive the promotion and tenure process by conducting interdisciplinary research or supervising interdisciplinary theses and dissertations, then they cannot create or sustain the organizational culture required for socialization to an interdisciplinary research career. The result is additional time and frustration for students, supervisors who discourage interdisciplinary thesis projects, and student feelings of isolation that could ultimately lead to attrition (Golde and Gallagher 1999; Graybill et al. 2006; Tress et al. 2009)…


…Nonetheless, a cadre of professors committed to interdisciplinary research has emerged and is working toward training the next generation…In addition to funding opportunities, the graduate student-supervisor relationship was an important means for students to integrate academically with other scholars, particularly those beyond their home department—one aspect of socialization that is particularly important in interdisciplinary programs…Several students from both institutions echoed the sentiment that the relationships forged through their interdisciplinary graduate programs provided greater contact with preeminent scholars from various fields whom they might not have met otherwise. This is significant in that a lack of care in selecting this most basic level of colleagues can jeopardize a project’s integrity or produce unintended consequences... Several of the professors interviewed spoke of the importance of developing their own community for students within the interdisciplinary programs. In describing how the space has been of personal benefit, another student said that it provided a place for discussions between students regarding ‘what we’re working on at the moment or in general other things that we’ve talked about [in class].’ For this student these relationships with colleagues from disparate academic backgrounds made it ‘easier’ in and out of class to ‘ask [discipline-specific] questions’ that did not fit into her ‘current knowledge space.’


…Student socialization is significant within traditional academic disciplinary settings; however, in interdisciplinary research areas with less clearly defined career paths, knowledge of potential employers’ expectations— in industry as well as academia—are particularly important for students to find appropriate post-graduation employment (Borrego and Newswander, in press)… Additionally, she [as dean at a university with an IGERT program] has worked toward bringing graduate students from across campus together through the creation of a series of courses related to common issues in academia such as teaching and research…In studying graduate student socialization to traditional disciplines, organizational structures are often taken for granted because they have evolved to support disciplinary socialization relatively well. However, structures, policies and reward systems come to the fore in understanding socialization in interdisciplinary programs because universities are ill-equipped to facilitate work integrating traditional disciplines…Students can be shielded from direct attacks on their research interests, particularly if they are surrounded by supportive peers and mentors. However, many of these students also recognize that they are ‘academic deviants’ (McKenzie and Galar 2004)…

…It takes a unique type of student to succeed and flourish in these circumstances, which suggests a need to reevaluate what is traditionally meant by student success (Gardner 2009). For this change to be achieved, professors must explicitly define what it means to be successful within the program. The WSU-A PI explained they seek to recruit students who strike a balance between being too group-oriented where they ‘[do] not self actualize’ and too self-interested where they ‘[create] so much damage to the social network that it becomes very hard to recover.’ In this way, WSU-A is not looking for ‘that one, best, brilliant person’ with high GPA and GRE test scores but rather students who have ‘much better social skills and much better community skills andare coming here to collaborate.’

By Pamela Woods, NorMER Postdoc
Published Nov. 28, 2012 7:02 AM