Troubled by Interdisciplinarity?

CREDIT: Len Rubenstein, Broad Institute

Do program managers and senior faculty tell you “that idea is not really in my bailiwick, and I’m not sure where else to send you”? Do you spend more time choosing a publication venue than writing your paper? Are you asked to be on committees and panels to provide a “fresh perspective” -- and then told you spend too much time on service? Is your e-mail full of correspondence about how to handle overhead, subawards, and subcontracts on collaborative proposals?

If any of these descriptions apply to you, you may be suffering from the pain and inconvenience of interdisciplinarity, one of the fastest-growing problems among researchers today. It’s not a problem that goes away on its own. Rather, it festers if it's not addressed, diminishing creativity and productivity.

You need to plan for a portfolio that withstands the scrutiny of discipline-oriented review committees while also allowing you to pursue interdisciplinary interests.

Despite the pain and inconvenience, increasing numbers of scientists are pursuing interdisciplinary career paths, and a growing proportion of research funding opportunities from federal granting agencies is interdisciplinary. In May 2011, 30% to 40% of all requests for proposals from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health explicitly required an interdisciplinary approach.

CREDIT: Barnard College
Stephanie Pfirman

Interdisciplinarity can be wonderfully rich and rewarding, but there are dangers attendant to choosing this non-traditional route. Interdisciplinary scholars go "out on a limb” and “often must fight for identity, recognition, roles, legitimacy, and standing." This takes a personal -- as well as a professional -- toll: While the status of their peers grows with accomplishments within the disciplinary community, interdisciplinary scholars have to “live without the comfort of expertise" and often without the comfort of community. Scholars report that they no longer fit in as well after they leave their disciplinary base.

This connection between research direction and community fit is supported by the 2003 Faculty Worklife Survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute. The belief that their colleagues did not perceive their research to be “mainstream” left people feeling more negative about colleagues' valuation of their research, their respect in the workplace, departmental decision-making, informal departmental interactions, and overall isolation and “fit.”

The messages from a number of recent publications can be distilled to this: Interdisciplinary research doesn’t fit into traditional academic structures. Therefore, if you choose this route, the onus is on you to take additional steps to become aware of the pitfalls and prepare yourself to succeed in this arena.

What kinds of steps are we talking about? Our recommendations include building skills for interdisciplinary collaboration, extending your mentorship team, bolstering your interdisciplinary CV for disciplinary review, and preparing for the complications of writing and submitting interdisciplinary grant proposals.

Recommendations for interdisciplinary scholars

Prepare yourself for new ways of working, thinking, and interacting.

• Specialize within your interdisciplinary research area. Avoid the tendency of many interdisciplinary scholars to branch out too quickly and in too many directions, which can diffuse your impact.

• Focus on your disciplinary strength and skills. It may sound counterintuitive, but in many situations your value as an interdisciplinary colleague is directly proportional to your skills in your own discipline. Keep up with the latest literature and theoretical developments in your disciplinary field so that you will be prepared to apply new knowledge and skills in diverse areas.

• Build core competencies that sustain interdisciplinary research by taking courses or learning on your own. For example, you could take courses that use the case study method to enhance interdisciplinary skills or include practice reviewing interdisciplinary papers and proposals.

• Attend seminars and workshops in other disciplines. Participating in research seminars outside your own department is a great way to expand your thinking, add a new batch of colleagues to your network, and develop expertise in new research areas.

• Seek new mentorship. The old model of one scholar, one mentor is fast becoming a distant memory. Find a mentor or two from beyond your field to help broaden your mindset and approaches.

When preparing manuscripts and grant applications, enhance your credibility as a successful researcher whose work crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries.

• Include a cover letter with your paper or proposal that highlights its interdisciplinary nature and suggests reviewers with complementary expertise so that all of your research aims receive appropriate review.

• Frame research aims to satisfy the needs of both disciplinary-leaning reviewers and interdisciplinary-eager granting agencies. Incorporating conceptual models and grounding your ideas within the disciplines establishes common ground with diverse reviewers.

• Involve respected colleagues with expertise in the techniques you plan to use.

• Try to have at least one publication in each field in which you propose to work. If the work requires an area you haven't published in, get a letter of support from a well-known investigator in that field offering assistance.

• Start early on budget preparation for collaborative proposals. Most interdisciplinary endeavors are collaborative -- and collaborative grant activities have financial implications, with potential revenue losses to departments due to diversion of overhead costs to other units. It may sound like a minor issue, but the most aggravating problem identified in the 2004 report of the National Academies Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (CFIR) was the logistics of interdisciplinary research: budget control, institutional cost recovery, space, unit reporting, and award agreements. More than 40% of scholars and provosts picked one of these as the top impediment to interdisciplinary projects. A recent study found that faculty and administrators at universities with overhead-sharing policies reported satisfaction with their policies, and most felt that they indeed helped to foster interdisciplinary science.

• Use the Kulage study to support budget negotiations. Your colleagues and administrators may be resistant at first to innovations like overhead sharing, so showing them evidence of the effectiveness of overhead sharing may help you close the deal and reach an agreement that recognizes and rewards the contributions of the interdisciplinary collaborators involved in your proposal.

CREDIT: Columbia University
Melissa Begg

It’s never too early to start thinking about tenure and promotion. You need to plan for a portfolio that withstands the scrutiny of discipline-oriented review committees while also allowing you to pursue interdisciplinary interests. You can take steps to prepare yourself for rigorous evaluation by disciplinary and interdisciplinary reviewers.

• Annotate your CV to explain your contributions to collaborative publications and grants. While this task may seem onerous, if you don’t do it, people have to guess, and they often guess wrong. Increasingly, journals require people to clarify their roles in publications, and some institutions now require that CVs articulate not only specific roles but also the percentage of effort devoted to various activities. Use such policies to your advantage.

• Ground your research statement. As with proposals, incorporating conceptual models and explaining connections to key disciplinary theories and approaches helps to contextualize your work for reviewers with diverse backgrounds.

• Seek a spectrum of reviewers. If asked to suggest reviewers to evaluate your work and advise your tenure or promotion review panel, be sure to include experts from multiple departments or from outside of the institution. Choose experts who can address the particular research areas you work in. For example, you might propose one letter writer who could attest to your disciplinary strength. Another might emphasize how another field is using your research. This could broaden the perspective of the review panel and permit consideration of less traditional CVs.

If you're on the job market, look for institutions and departments that really value interdisciplinarity. In 2004, more than 10% of scholars identified “strategic plans” as the top impediment to interdisciplinary research. Seven years later, some institutions are finally tackling this: Take a look at the case studies of Ohio University and Macalester College in the National Council for Science and the Environment report. Fostering interdisciplinarity is a strategic decision at the institutional level, but integration of interdisciplinarity into departmental missions is key. Check to see if these pieces are in place at the institution you're thinking of working for. You can use the NIH template for interdisciplinary offer letters as a mental checklist as you discuss expectations with the chair of the search. You don’t want to come across as too demanding, but having this model letter in mind will help you think of questions to ask about the position.

When push comes to shove, department chairs and supervisors often look askance at activities they perceive to be “extra-departmental.” As noted in a 2011 article in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences,

There is a significant and growing need for interdisciplinary … scholars to develop, teach, and apply successful problem-solving approaches and to educate the next generation of scholars and professionals. Yet such professionals often work in departments where most of their colleagues are disciplinarians and the reward and incentive system is based on disciplines or is at best multidisciplinary. They need diverse strategies and support to overcome the many difficulties that they face day to day in research, teaching, and administration, as well as over the course of their careers.

Increasingly, institutions are addressing what is perhaps the single most vexing problem identified by the 2004 CFIR report: promotion criteria, which 15% of provosts and faculty members identified as the top impediment. Some institutions have turned to using the Boyer criteria of discovery, integration, application, and teaching, rather than focusing mainly on discovery (often with passing reference to teaching). Beyond these traditional criteria, Boyer's "integration" criterion, in particular, is important in the evaluation of interdisciplinary research. "Application" can also be important. These are all positive signs that smoother sailing may be ahead.

Interdisciplinary research is laudable and undeniably enriching. But until academia's reward system catches up to its desire for interdisciplinary collaboration, researchers -- especially early-career investigators -- must take additional steps to prepare for and protect themselves from choppy waters ahead.


Boyer E.L. (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Jossey-Bass, New York

Clark, S.G., M.M. Steen-Adams, S. Pfirman, R.L. Wallace (2011) Professional Development of Interdisciplinary Environmental Scholars, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

Collins, J.P. (2002). May you live in interesting times: Using multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary programs to cope with change in the life sciences. BioScience 52:75-83.

Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (2004). Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine.

Heemskerk, M., K. Wilson, and M. Pavao-Zuckerman. 2003. Conceptual models as tools for communication across disciplines. Conservation Ecology 7(3): 8. [online]

Kulage, K.M., E.L. Larson, and M.D. Begg (2011). Sharing facilities and administrative cost recovery to facilitate interdisciplinary research. Academic Medicine 86: 394-401.

Larson, E.L., T.F. Landers, and M.D. Begg (2011) Building Interdisciplinary Research Models: A Didactic Course to Prepare Interdisciplinary Scholars and Faculty. Clinical and Translational Science (4)1: 38–41.

Lattuca, L.R. (2001). Creating interdisciplinarity: interdisciplinary research and teaching among college and university faculty. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Pfirman, S. and P. Martin (2010). Fostering Interdisciplinary Scholars. Chapter in Oxford Handbook on Interdisciplinarity, Editors: R. Frodeman, J. Thompson Klein, and C. Mitcham, Oxford University Press, 624 pp.

Pfirman, S.; Martin, P.; Danielson, A.; Goodman, R.M.; Steen-Adams, M.; Waggett, C.; Mutter, J.; Rikakis, T.; Fletcher, M.; Berry, L.; Hornbach, D.; Hempel, M.; Morehouse, B.; Southard, R. (2011). Interdisciplinary Hiring and Career Development: Guidance for Individuals and Institutions. National Council for Science and the Environment.

Porter, A.L., Cohen, A.S., Roessner, J.D., and Perreault, M. (2007) Measuring Researcher Interdisciplinarity, Scientometrics, 72(1): 117-147

WISELI (2003) Study of Faculty Worklife at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers