Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Changes in the World of Science: The Realities of Interdisciplinary Training


Today it seems that if there is one word that needs to appear in every project proposal, paper, and institutional mission statement, then that word is "interdisciplinary." But like many other scientific buzzwords, it seems that this one is easier to say than to do.

As science has progressed over the last century, the questions it addresses have dramatically grown in complexity, making it more and more difficult to find a solution within a single discipline. Problems such as tackling poverty and hunger in developing countries, global warming, understanding the economic impact of globalization and worldwide terrorism--to mention only a few--require different approaches because basic scientific knowledge fails to provide answers. In addition, such problems span not only disciplinary, but usually regional and cultural boundaries, too. Thus, a modern scientist must be open not only to other disciplines, but also diverse research cultures from around the globe. Still, although they might add to the difficulties of the 21st century researcher, these factors may also indicate that interdisciplinarity is a fashion with staying power.

How, then, can a young scientist today prepare for the new research climate? Having had an interdisciplinary education myself, I had the opportunity to reflect first hand on the pros and cons of such training.

I got involved with interdisciplinarity in the first place because I've always had a keen interest in biology and physics, but I also can't deny some fascination for political science and law. So when, in 1994, the time came to decide which studies I would pursue, I looked for degree programmes that would allow me to study a combination of subjects. If the search was difficult, the decision was easy--there were just not many courses to choose from. I enrolled in an interdisciplinary programme in environmental sciences at the University of Lüneburg.

The concept behind the programme was to encourage students to get to grips with all aspects of environmental sciences, and there is much more to them than ecology and pollution. So I studied biology, chemistry and physics to understand the underlying science. I also followed a core curriculum in social sciences, economics and law. Indeed it is important to have an understanding of society values and psychology as they influence people's attitudes towards the environment. Then, given that the actions you may be taking to protect the environment can have a serious impact on industry, you also need to have a basic knowledge of economic principles and environmental law.

Today, when I tell other scientists that I have an interdisciplinary degree, I often find that they express some reservations about it. Some of these, as I quickly learned even within the boundaries of my small university, stem from the common lack of mutual respect among different disciplines. Clichés and prejudices prevail. The front line is most pronounced along the division between "hard" (natural) sciences and "soft" (social sciences, humanities, etc.) sciences, which put aside their own intradisciplinary differences, the better to collectively despise those on the other side of the great divide. So, when you have a foot in both camps the situation is even worse: Instead of gaining respect from both tribes, each sees you as belonging to the other. (Of course, for environmental scientists the situation is compounded by the fact that everybody else thinks you are a tree-hugger anyway.)

There is also a fundamental dilemma to interdisciplinarity that makes other scientists rather sceptical. The temptation for them to look at you as a "Jack of all trades, Master of none" is great. Without a doubt, when you train in a range of disciplines you cannot go as much in depth as a specialist would. And the training of "generalist" scientists is a major revolution in science education.

Scepticism and prejudices often manifest themselves as a belief that there is only one "right" way to do things--simply because no other way is known. As a student I witnessed an argument between two lecturers during a seminar. One of the lecturers, an engineer, questioned why lawyers write their papers with footnotes, while engineers always give formulas and other items in parentheses. This triggered a heated discussion about the scientific philosophies behind whether to write papers with or without footnotes. We students were puzzled by an argument over what seemed to be such a trivial matter. Why not just accept the traditional approaches of each others' disciplines?

House Call

A mathematician, a biologist, and a physicist are sitting in a street café watching people going in and coming out of a house on the other side of the street. First they see two people going into the house. Time passes. After a while, they notice three people coming out.

The physicist says: "The measurement wasn't accurate."

The biologist says: "They have reproduced."

The mathematician says: "If exactly one person enters the house now,

     then it will be empty again."

The next thing that the interdisciplinary scientist has to learn is how to overcome the language problem. Every scientific discipline has its own jargon, which may lead to misunderstandings, even when people are actually talking about the same thing. You usually are able to develop a sense for it by osmosis, that is, simply by being exposed to different disciplines from an early stage in your training. "Language courses" may help in some cases--several large IT companies for example offer their lateral hires a 6-week crash course in business and IT language...

On top of this the interdisciplinary scientist is also confronted by the generation gap more acutely than his or her traditionally trained peers. Most of the professors I had throughout my university time are a generation of scientists who were not "taught" interdisciplinarity. It is all very well to be open to new approaches and able to get accustomed to a fast-changing environment when you are fresh-faced yourself. But adjusting to a new paradigm such as interdisciplinarity surely must be a different matter when you are a senior professor who has been doing research in a single discipline for the past two (or more!) decades. These people first need to have the willingness to open up to the implications of an interdisciplinary approach and then implement changes in their attitude and research programmes. Making such radical changes takes time, and as a consequence young scientists often do not yet find themselves in an environment that allows them to fully explore an interdisciplinary approach.

In light of these difficulties the million-euro question for any person considering interdisciplinary training ought to be: What are the career prospects for such scientists inside and outside academia?

For sure, compared to a monodisciplinary-trained person's, the interdisciplinary scientist's horizons are broader, given that he or she has an insight into a range of scientific disciplines. On the other hand, an interdisciplinary-trained person can of course hardly compete for specialist jobs with, let's say, a molecular biologist or a historian. So the niche is at the scientific boundaries where mediating skills are needed.

Opportunities are clearly developing within academia, as judged by the increasing amount of funding interdisciplinary research fields, such as system biology in Germany, currently attract. But it is still difficult to give a picture of the job opportunities that lie outside academia. Considering Germany's public sector, individuals with a specific background are hired, mostly, by managers that have a similar background. However, job descriptions are changing. As people with insight into more than one discipline are needed to fill these new roles, one can speculate that monodisciplinarians will become less attractive to employers, since they will need more training on the job. Simultaneously employers may become more aware of what the new generation of scientists has to offer--a breadth of knowledge and skills and versatility. And as more and more interdisciplinary scientists get a foot in the door somewhere, the spirit of interdisciplinarity will slowly spread.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers