For many of us who are undertaking research in the twenty-first century, one of the buzz words to include on any grant application or report is ‘interdisciplinary'. What does this actually mean? And are there any benefits to your career in getting involved in these sorts of activities or might their also be pitfalls?
In recent years undertaking interdisciplinary research has meant scholars from different departments within the same faculty (such as historians and English literature scholars) working together on a small project. However, there is also a new trend which encourages cross-faculty co-operation, such as between historians and scientists. So why should you do interdisciplinary research?
The Funding Issue
In answer to that question let's have a look at what the AHRC (Arts and Humanties Research Council) have to say on the matter: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk
The way that funding bodies such as the AHRC behave influences the framing of research proposals by academics, so if it becomes clear funding institutions want to see interdisciplinary, then academics offer it to them! The word is mentioned in the AHRC's mission statement and it sees interdisciplinary activity as working not only within the academic sector but engaging with commercial and public sector bodies as well. However, the AHRC does acknowledge that it ‘can be challenging, particularly in terms of adapting to the different languages and methodologies of the partners involved'.
The benefits of this sort of research, says the AHRC, is ‘shared understanding and mutual respect'. A sort of ‘two heads are better than one' approach to learning, and many people would argue that this is a valid justification. As an historian I have learned a great deal by thinking about the approaches of literary critics and anthropologists and applying it to my own work. The aim is to achieve ‘genuine collaborative research'. An example of a successful interdisciplinary project is the collaboration of an artist and three biomedical scientists from the University of Glasgow to digitally photograph birds. Researchers from both disciplines then used the photos, the artist to create an installation, the scientists to create a forensic record.
However, there are challenges in accomplishing this sort of research. When scholars of different disciplines come together they naturally have different working styles and methods. They will have different expectations of the outcome of the research project. Time must be given to allow researchers to come together and work out coherent ways of working. In practice this is extremely challenging as our departmental and faculty structures are deeply entrenched in our Higher Education system, perhaps in the UK more than Europe or the U.S. and we rarely move beyond them. However, this does not mean that we ought not to try to do so and there are surely some career benefits in undertaking interdisciplinary research.
So how can doing interdisciplinary research enhance your career? Apart from the benefits to your intellectual life, there will be some practical career development benefits too. Meeting scholars from other disciplines and even from the commercial or public sectors can only be a good thing. It gives you the chance to network, to discuss future directions for your career. Perhaps an opportunity will come up for you to go on a commercial placement for a short time, or a whole new job could present itself to you. If you do stay within academia or within your own department, it will still be beneficial to know scholars from outside in terms of raising your profile at different sorts of conferences.
Because interdisciplinarity is so fashionable at the moment it could be the case that your research attracts more publicity, more publication possibilities and more funding than a more conventional internal research project. It still has to have an intellectual integrity and value and you should not just pay ‘lip-service' to the term ‘interdisciplinarity' but you might find it opens new doors for you.
Are there any disadvantages? As with any research project, make sure it is well planned. Plunging into a research project with diverse partners who find they are unable then to work together to complete the task will do your career no good at all. Equally, any researcher can get him or herself in a position of being taken advantage of so make sure you know what your role will be, how long for, and for what remuneration. So in general, the pitfalls of interdisciplinary research are similar to those of other sorts of projects. If you get the opportunity to be part of something exciting and intellectually adventurous: go for it!