Introduction to interdisciplinary research: The importance of getting your feet wet.

Everybody talks about the need for interdisciplinarity in research – but what does it mean and where do I start? Check out our article for some insights and tips on interdisciplinarity.

By Arielle Deutsch

As a developmental psychologist who has recently jumped into behavioral-genetic waters as a postdoctoral fellow, there have been many more times where I feel I have taken a clumsy belly-flop compared to a graceful head-first dive. However, I knew the risks when I started this journey and I continue to strive towards my goal to integrate my graduate work in developmental psychology with my current research in behavior genetics. There were two main motivations for this move towards interdisciplinary work.  First, I am ever-pursuing the “big-picture model”; I am interested in the contexts and mechanisms that motivate behavioral change from “genes to geography” and I am fascinated by the dynamic tango between our genes, our phenotypes, and our environments across the life course. My other reason was much more practical: many areas of science, including psychological science, are moving towards more interdisciplinary models of research. For example, at NIH, there is a large emphasis on transdisciplinary and trans-NIH program research through the NIH Common Fund. This program funds research that cuts across multiple NIH institutes or centers. Following this trend, many individual NIH centers have started emphasizing interdisciplinary and multi-method research. Many NIH institutes have Intramural Divisions that focus on multidisciplinary approaches to specific areas (for example, NIAAA’s Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research, or NICHD’s Division of Intramural Population and Health Research). NSF has also started to promote interdisciplinary research (see the NSF Strategic Plan for 2014-2018). Research institutions and universities tend to “go where the money goes.” In other words, they focus on (e.g., organize their departments around, base their hiring practices on) fundable research trends, areas, and methodologies. Thus, for the new generation of scientists, it is all the more important to be able to engage in interdisciplinary research, in order to not only prove to potential employers that you are fundable, but actually secure that funding.

Despite the initial belly flop, my venture into interdisciplinary work has been exciting and rewarding.  In my own work, I collaborate with clinical psychologists, quantitative psychologists, behavioral genetics and molecular genetics researchers. I bring something unique to the table; my developmental psychology background is a welcome contribution, and my collaborators have told me that my perspective is insightful and refreshing. In return, there are many aspects to this research (e.g., measurement issues, methodological and conceptual approaches) I never would have thought of if I had not been working with people from other disciplines. This input has allowed me to think more critically and more globally about my own research questions, and as a result, my own studies have become (in my opinion) more meaningful.This is not to say that interdisciplinary work is easy. Building these working relationships takes time; even within one discipline (e.g., psychology), individual programs have their own languages, ideas about research, and common practices. Expanding this scope to include disciplines in other fields, such as public health, medicine, biology, or sociology can increase this difficulty. There may be times when you have conversations with your colleagues in which you later realize that, far from being on the same page, you were all talking about different things or had different ideas in mind. This can make progress on projects slow down as well, or sometimes, even stop projects from completing. You may often butt heads. This can be especially daunting as an emerging scholar working with more senior researchers; even if you feel things should be done one way, you may feel you have to defer to your more established colleagues.

All of this may seem like a bit of a hassle; traditionally, scholars were required to cultivate a small area of expertise, and they could make a comfortable career out of continuously carving that tiny niche. Now, people are emphasizing cutting across multiple programs such as developmental psychopathology, sociocognitive studies, and developmental cognitive neuroscience. The extra training, potential lack of mentorship for how to manage multiple disciplines (especially if you have a mentor who is not familiar with interdisciplinary research) and constant miscommunication it takes to manage an interdisciplinary program of research can be frustrating at times. But it’s important to keep some things in mind.First, the degree to which you are truly “multi-disciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” can vary; you don’t have to be well versed in everything, but as long as you can have meaningful working relationships with people of different disciplinary backgrounds, you can do substantial work. In other words, find a Run-DMC to compliment your Aerosmith. You do good enough work on your own, but collaborating with people from different disciplines can turn your research into something much more remarkable.

Second, there are large benefits to this kind of research, for both the individual scholar as well as the various fields of science. In future posts, I plan to go into more detail regarding the pitfalls and benefits of interdisciplinary work, as well as potential ways to receive training in interdisciplinary research or start an interdisciplinary program of research of your own.

As for now, I’ll simply say that, unlike other science “trends”  that may be fundable one minute and dismissed the next, interdisciplinary research appears to be the next step in many areas of science as a whole, and therefore, seems to be a “trend” that is here to stay. Scientists have started to realize the need for multiple perspectives on certain issues, as well as the joining of different systems (for example, behavior and biology) in order to formulate more comprehensive pictures of scientific phenomena. Getting early training (in graduate school or as a postdoctoral scholar) in how to conduct interdisciplinary research (which itself is indeed a skill!) can be therefore be extremely beneficial as paradigms of how to conduct research continue to change.

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Also, check your own school for interdisciplinary centers focusing around topics you are interested in!