10 tips for developing interdisciplinary researchers


There’s a lot of discussion out there about the value of interdisciplinary research, but not that much information about how to do it. Mike Rose, Researcher Development Officer in the University of Surrey’s Doctoral College, shares his top 10 tips for interdisciplinary research. 

1. Know what you mean

Is your work cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary? These can seem like dry distinctions, but it can help to understand and communicate your own project if you can characterise it in these terms.

2. Scope

You’ve probably found that your project scope is gradually narrowing as you find out all the work that’s been done in your area before. With interdisciplinary work, the research area effectively doubles. You’ll need just as much expertise in multiple areas as you do in your grounding discipline, but within a relatively narrow remit. So, keep a tight focus!

3. Learn the language(s)

Words can mean something very different depending on what field you’re in. Make sure you have a sound grasp of the philosophical and methodological groundings of your disciplines and are able to ‘code switch’ for different audiences (and supervisors). A glossary in your thesis is often not a bad idea.

4. Grounding discipline

You’ll need to have one discipline that is your home base as this helps people to understand your project – and it’s also important if you’re looking for academic roles in future. Acknowledge your dominant perspective, even if your research is aimed at challenging that discipline’s assumptions.

5. Build for uncertainty

Interdisciplinarity has probably more opportunities than most for encountering the dreaded ‘impostor syndrome’, so be prepared. Avoid comparisons with people on more predictable paths and accept that part of your process is striking out on new paths; not all of them will lead where you expect.

6. Enjoy the freedom

You’re an explorer with license to burrow, borrow and experiment. This can be a huge thrill and also make your work exciting to others. It doesn’t come with many guarantees, but when it pays off, it’s terrific.

7. Find allies

Be proactive in building connections with different disciplines (and speaking the language of each) to gain access to multiple networks and obtain their support.

8. Crash the party

Part of drumming up allies might be attending events that are not obviously in your area; you may have to tailor your pitch considerably to make your work relevant and comprehensible to the organisers.

9. Reflect on your possibilities

With interdisciplinarity, it can be harder to see your route ahead. Spend some time recognising what you’ve achieved and where you might apply it in future. (Or better yet, apply for a mentor to discuss it with.)

10. Measure your impact

An interdisciplinary project has much greater potential for impact, since it automatically links different areas, but it can be harder for outsiders to spot since it doesn’t conform to the norm. Invest some thought into how you can measure, record, and communicate the impact of what you do; evidence the value of doing things differently.

This article is taken from the Spring 2021 issue of Perspective, the University of Surrey’s postgraduate magazine.

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