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Matthew Haynes
/ Categories: TIP, 564

The Pros and Cons of Interdisciplinarity as a Junior Academic: How to Decide When it’s Worth it

Dorothy R. Carter & Hayley M. Trainer, The University of Georgia

A little over 2 weeks ago, I (Dorothy) traveled for many hours in order to attend a fascinating small group meeting in Berlin, Germany where I presented research that my graduate student and coauthor of this column, Hayley Trainer, and I are working on together related to leadership networks and gender. The conference was organized and hosted by a multidisciplinary group of researchers, including Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organizational Psychology Mark van Vugt and scholars from fields like Biology, Zoology, and Anthropology, who are interested in laying a foundation for research on “female leadership in human and other mammalian societies.” I thoroughly enjoyed meeting, talking with, and learning from these amazing researchers, and I left feeling incredibly inspired and full of fresh ideas. Then, last week, we (Dorothy & Hayley) traveled a much shorter distance to attend another fascinating conference in Pine Mountain, Georgia hosted by the Georgia Clinical and Translational Science Alliance (CTSA). The Georgia CTSA, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, aims to accelerate clinical and translational research, education, and community engagement in Georgia and beyond and, in particular, speed the translation of observations in the laboratory, clinic, and community into interventions that improve public health. Hayley and I attended this conference in our capacity as part of the “evaluation and continuous improvement” team that helps ensure the Georgia CTSA system is meeting its objectives and also because we are collecting and analyzing data related to “scientific teamwork” using CTSA scientists as our sample. Hayley and I left this conference with a clearer picture of how to frame our paper and also how to contribute to the bigger picture goals of the project.

To us, participating in both of these conferences was “worth it,” and in fact (we hope) the experiences we had enhanced the research and ideas we are working on currently.  However, any time you attend a conference—and especially a conference outside of your “area” of expertise—there are costs associated. There are only so many hours in the day, and as a junior academic (i.e., grad student, assistant professor on the tenure track), it is important to make effective choices about how you spend your time.

So, these experiences got us thinking: How could we make the “right” choices that are “worth it” in terms of attending interdisciplinary conferences (or disciplinary conferences outside of your area) and, more broadly, conducting interdisciplinary research? To clarify, the National Science Foundation defines interdisciplinary research as a mode of research by individuals or teams that “integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.” The rest of this column summarizes the conversations Hayley and I have had over the past week and a half related to interdisciplinary conferences and conducting interdisciplinary research. We hope you find our conclusions useful!

Pros

1) Thinking beyond your discipline may help you achieve your “proximal” (i.e., individual, disciplinary group) goals.

For many of us in academia, publishing our research findings in “top-tier” disciplinary outlets respected by our close peers and having a substantial impact (e.g., citation count) on science are top priorities that are reinforced by our reward structures (e.g., job opportunities, tenure, awards, etc.). The good news is, thinking about and engaging with people and ideas outside of your specific discipline can help you achieve those proximal goals. In fact, some of the highest impact publications are those that leverage deep disciplinary expertise from different domains in novel ways (Uzzi, Mukherjee, Stringer, & Jones, 2013). There are many ways in which thinking beyond your discipline can help you achieve your proximal research goals. For example, presenting your research at interdisciplinary conferences may allow you to gain feedback and critiques from scholars with different perspectives. Scholars from other domains may point you in the direction of research that is beyond the top-tier disciplinary publications you usually read but that could be useful as you conduct your research. Attending interdisciplinary conferences can also provide you with the opportunity to learn about new research methods, statistical approaches, and theories. For example, the Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research (INGRoup) annual conference that we both attend each year—which attracts scholars from communications, engineering, management, and psychology—offers preconference workshops on cutting-edge methodologies for studying groups and teams. You may become better aware of the limitations of your current knowledge and the ways in which the assumptions you are making about how to “do science” may not hold across disciplines. For example, while I (Dorothy) was attending the conference in Berlin, one interesting discussion centered on the way that biologists leverage observational techniques to study leadership networks in animal populations, whereas I-O psychologists typically rely on self-report surveys to understand and map patterns of leadership relationships among employees. Both groups took something new away from that discussion. Sometimes these types of conversations can reignite your creativity, and sometimes they can lead to collaborative and productive partnerships.

2) Thinking beyond your discipline may help you contribute to more distal bigger picture goals that help society

More broadly, thinking beyond your discipline can help you contribute to the bigger picture “superordinate” goals that we all (hopefully) care about. The really important ‘”grand” challenges facing organizations and societies—related to things like resource scarcity, political instability, economic volatility, and social upheaval—are inherently interdisciplinary (George, Howard-Grenville, Joshi, & Tihanyi, 2016). For example, the changing climate doesn’t care that we have siloed ourselves into different disciplines and reward ourselves for publishing in disciplinary outlets. In fact, thinking bigger picture can also help you achieve other proximal goals that are valued in some academic departments. For example, grant funding agencies tend to prioritize funding for projects that connect multiple disciplines to solve grand human challenges. Interdisciplinary conferences and conferences outside of your area can help get you thinking in this direction. For instance, the INGRoup conference hosts a “Hackmanathon” each year that encourages scholars from multiple disciplines to work together to solve a specific problem. The 2019 Hackmanathon theme was to find “new ways to mitigate, reduce, and eliminate (in some cases) violence against first responder teams,” a societal-level problem that will require integrating perspectives from multiple disciplines to solve.

Cons

Let’s also be real about the downsides and challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration and/or attending interdisciplinary conference, particularly as a graduate student or early stage assistant professor on the research tenure track.

1. It Takes Extra Time, Effort, and Mental Capacity

The first major challenge of interdisciplinarity is logistic. It just takes longer and requires more mental capacity to learn more things! There is no “formula” for writing interdisciplinary papers or conducting interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research may challenge you to become more flexible and adaptive, to tolerate more ambiguity, and to admit your limitations. All of that is hard. It could be a “waste” of your time to attend a bunch of conferences or conference sessions that you do not find interesting or relevant; you even may find yourself spending the entire session working on other projects on your laptop. As a grad student and/or early stage academic, you’re still trying to learn about your own field, so getting involved in interdisciplinary research can be distracting, and you may not be able to contribute much because you do not yet have deep disciplinary expertise.

2. Interdisciplinary Collaborations Are High Risk With the Potential for High Reward

There is also increased risk involved in forging collaborations with scholars from other disciplines. Although the potential for high reward is there (e.g., in the form of grant funding, high impact publications, solving important problems) collaborating with people from other disciplines can be challenging. People who have spent years or decades learning the norms and ideas that are central to their discipline (i.e., all of us) will have to reconsider these “truths,” and this can be a scary and uncomfortable thing to do. Even if you believe you are able to think outside your disciplinary boundaries, your collaborators might not be, and working with people who are not willing to reconsider their own preconceptions may result in frustration for you both. If you do decide to pursue an interdisciplinary collaboration, you and your teammates will have to develop a common understanding of your phenomenon of interest and a shared language for describing the problem space, which will require “give and take” from you both. There are also logistical challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration: even on the same campus, researchers from different disciplines are located in different buildings, so working together will require more forethought and planning.

Things to Think About

So, once we covered the pros and cons of interdisciplinarity as a junior academic, we thought, “How do we decided when it’s worth it?” If you are thinking about exploring other disciplinary perspectives, a good place to start is attending a conference that is outside of your specific area. However, there are thousands of those each year and only so many hours in the day. Here’s a quick guide to making the “right” decision (with the understanding that the “right” decision will not be the same for everyone).

Should I Attend This Conference?

The first step is deciding whether or not attending a particular interdisciplinary conference is right for you. Think about whether the conference you’re interested in will provide you will the opportunity to “bring something back” to advance your own research projects. If so, it may be worth it to attend. For example, this year’s INGRoup conference is offering a workshop on system dynamics modeling, led by two computer scientists with extensive experience using this approach. Hayley is planning to attend this and will then be able to bring back a valuable skill to share with our lab.

You should also consider whether the topic of the conference excites you. The conference in Berlin that I (Dorothy) attended recently had a unifying theme (i.e., female leadership) that was interesting to me intellectually, and I was excited to learn about how other researchers’ perspectives on this topic could be useful for shaping my own research questions. Working within the confines of a single discipline can sometimes be draining, as you can get caught up in the mundane aspects of academic life. Seeing others describe their research and its implications for society can be inspiring and can help remind you of why you decided to become an academic in the first place.

In addition to thinking about what you’re going to get out of the conference, you should also consider what you have to contribute to an interdisciplinary conversation about a given topic. As a junior academic, you may not yet have developed the deep disciplinary knowledge necessary to contribute to a more macro-level conversation about a research area, and you may not get as much out of listening to such a discussion either. If that is the case, you may still decide you want to attend, but you should go into the experience with the understanding that you may not be at a stage where you can thoughtfully integrate perspectives from other disciplines into your own research.

Finally, you should consider whether you have already attended other interdisciplinary conferences recently. Although learning about interdisciplinary perspectives can be useful for all of the reasons we outlined above, attending too many interdisciplinary conferences may not really help you advance your research. No one person can do “everything,” and trying to integrate too many perspectives into your research can be overwhelming and may ultimately hinder your ability to accomplish your research goals.

What to Do if I Decide to Attend?

Once you’ve decided that attending an interdisciplinary conference is for you, think about how to make the most of the experience. Go into the conference with a purpose by creating a “game plan” for who you would like to meet, which sessions you would like to attend, and what skills/methods/theories you would like to gain more knowledge about while you’re there. Read through the program and highlight all the sessions and workshops you’d like to attend, being strategic with your time. Capitalize on the opportunity to network with researchers from different disciplines by attending conference-organized networking events.

If you are presenting your own research at an interdisciplinary conference, be aware that researchers from different fields may not be familiar with industrial-organizational Psychology, and you may need to explain the norms and aims of industrial-organizational Psychology to a greater extent than you do at SIOP. You should also consider how you are representing your research: you may need to explain your theoretical framework, your methods, and your statistical approach in more depth, but you may also decide to present a more macro-level representation of your research that is understandable to the general public. In the end, you want your work to be accessible and understandable to researchers who know nothing about psychology, while promoting the utility and importance of your research.

While at the conference, you may be approached by others who are interested in collaborating with you on a project. Although these opportunities can be exciting, not all of them will serve you and your career well in the long run. For one thing, you should consider whether the aims of the project are really advancing research questions that are personally interesting and relevant to your work. For example, if a potential collaborator just wants you to run analyses using a statistical approach that you’re familiar with—but for a project that is totally irrelevant to your content areas of interest—you probably won’t get much out of being part of that project, and in the end it won’t be truly “interdisciplinary” anyway. Rather, you should look for opportunities to integrate theories and perspectives from both of your disciplines to address research questions that are important to you both. Additionally, if you’re working with others who are from fields very different from psychology (e.g., physics, literature, etc.), you should consider to what extent you will need to “translate” your methods and theories to that other discipline. This may end up being much more work than you had anticipated. Early in your discussions, you should also try to assess whether your potential collaborators are enthusiastic about learning more about industrial-organizational psychology and are willing to “meet you halfway” in terms of integrating your disciplines. If you are doing most of the translational work—and if your project ends up being published in another discipline—you may not get much out of the experience in the end.

Again, pursuing interdisciplinary research and conference opportunities is a high risk and challenging endeavor, but after revisiting the “pros” listed above, Hayley and I realized that it is worth it to us (and hope it is to you too!) 

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