In “The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.” Matt Might effectively uses the picture book approach to illustrate what a Ph.D. really is. It is basically a tiny dot or advance set in the enormous body of knowledge, typically from the perspective and approach of a researcher from one academic subfield. This is the same thing for any research article. Increasingly, however, is the idea that combining the approaches of more than one discipline might be important for true research innovation and the advancement of knowledge, primarily because no single way of approaching research questions is likely to yield a full or complete understanding of any given topic.
This is why what has been come to largely be known as interdisciplinary research has been discussed as important. All academics know we are just experts in a tiny slice of the world, and so, getting together to combine our slices seems quite logical. The challenge, however, is that the way academic departments are set up and the corresponding incentive structure combine to make it very challenging for truly interdisciplinary scholars to thrive and carve out careers for themselves.
Catherine Lyall has been doing a great deal of work to tell the stories of interdisciplinary researchers themselves and also encourage and pave the way for truly interdisciplinary scholars to be able to have careers and flourish. Interdisciplinary research journeys: Practical strategies for capturing creativity, co-authored with Ann Bruce, Joyce Tait, and Laura Meagher notes:
“Interdisciplinarity’ has become a rallying cry among funders and leaders of research. Yet, while the creative potential of interdisciplinary research is great, it poses many challenges. If you don’t have disciplinary boundaries, how do you decide what to include or leave out? And what are the parameters for evaluating the research?”
Being an interdisciplinary academic: How institutions shape university careers tells the stories of many scholars who have sought to become interdisciplinary academics and the challenges and successes that that encountered on their journeys. Catherine is currently working on a “toolkit” to provide some web-based guidance as part of the SHAPE-ID project which is aimed to shape interdisciplinary research practices in Europe. You can watch an interview on this project with her conducted by Emily Woolen here.
Catherine explains how she became an interdisciplinary academic:
Catherine discusses why someone should pursue interdisciplinarity and what they might need to consider:
Here she discusses interdisciplinary academic careers and her book Being an interdisciplinary academic. In this clip she discusses the evaluation of interdisciplinary research and how it might be improved.
Changing academic research culture and incentive structures is challenging, but hopefully this work might eventually lead to more scholars choosing to truly take an interdisciplinary perspective on their work and create new knowledge about the world by combining and integrating multiple disciplinary perspectives with colleagues in other academic areas. Many of the challenges, both academic and practical, that we are likely to face in the coming years will likely depend upon it.