PhD students are increasingly expected to be interdisciplinary, but how does this work in practice? This guide offers tips for beginning to collaborate with others.
Most PhD projects are, at some level, interdisciplinary. Although every thesis deals with a specialist topic, there will inevitably be areas which impact on scholars in other fields. These other fields can in turn inform your own work. Identifying these points of intersection, however, can require some creative thinking.
Collaboration should not be an end in itself. Rather, it should enhance your own research and place it in a wider context. It does not mean dumbing down your work for the sake of collaboration, but rather drawing on new intellectual frameworks for mutual benefit. There are different types of interdisciplinary collaboration, and several ways to identify interdisciplinary areas in your research. For example:
Some research topics simply lend themselves well to multiple disciplines. Political and philosophical issues are often at stake in scientific research, historical studies may be influenced by attention to cultural and social aspects, and those working on contemporary events will encounter a range of viewpoints. What is your topic, and who else might be interested in it?
Theoretical frameworks offer great potential for crossing disciplinary boundaries. A school of thought such as feminism, for example, can inform on political, literary, sociological, scientific, economic and cultural fields. Exploring these links can deepen your understanding of your topic. Quantitative research methods are also often applicable to various fields. How might your surveys, focus groups and case studies help you connect to a broader range of disciplines?
Platforms for dissemination and learning are often shared across fields. Whether interrogating the role of television news in science, politics and culture, or exploring the impact of social networking on the way your topic is discussed, attention to the media themselves can open bigger questions.
Major public issues and debates are routinely influenced by a variety of viewpoints and factors, and offer a great opportunity for interdisciplinary conversation. The question of nuclear power is an example. Physics and chemistry, economics and politics, history and geography, poetry and theatre, all help to give a voice to different opinions. By paying attention to these different approaches, you can appreciate the wider implications of your own angle.
From terrorist atrocities to natural disasters, from cultural events like the Olympics to budget announcements, major events can affect research in a broad range of areas. If your research is implicated in an event, you may find it useful to see how the same event has informed other researchers’ work.
Escape niche thinking in your research.
Interdisciplinary work can give your research a wider audience. It’s tempting, as a PhD student, to concentrate exclusively on the importance of your research to your immediate subject area, where your topic and methodology are understood. Yet this “niche thinking” is increasingly difficult to sustain. Funding bodies are now looking to reward broad impact, and even specialist publishers encourage work that will reach the widest possible audience.
A specialism does not need to be a niche. Even the most obscure medieval poetry poses religious and philosophical questions that resonate in contemporary global politics. High-end astrophysics can lend itself to economic and psychological interrogation. In thinking critically about your own work, cross-disciplinary issues will inevitably crop up.
Interdisciplinary research: goals and challenges
The challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration are also its advantages. Thompson Klein argues that the objectives of interdisciplinary work include: “to answer complex questions”, “to solve problems that are beyond the scope of any one discipline” and “to achieve unity of knowledge” (11). By engaging with new thought processes, you can expand the scope of your inquiry.
The methods suggested above offer some straightforward approaches to interdisciplinary work. It requires imagination, energy and patience, but the rewards can be great. A PhD project that embraces interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to better opportunities for sharing your research and developing it further in the future
For further information on this subject, you might want to pick up this book, Klein, J.T., 1990. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State UP
Written by Peter Kirwan
Photo Credit: Helga Weber/Creative Commons
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I was told to make my thesis less interdisciplinary at my upgrade examination… my examiners said to remember that the thesis will ultimately be judged within a discipline (in my case, sociology) and so the thesis structure and content needs to reflect this tradition. I understand what they mean but it goes against the supposed move towards greater collaboration etc!