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title. What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

date. 4.16.2018

author. Stephanie Tong (

Interdisciplinary research seems to be a very hot topic these days. You can thank large federal agencies for that; today’s RFPs and program announcements all contain words like “interdisciplinary team” or “transdisciplinary approaches required”. But what does it mean? How do you implement such a strategy? Below, I offer five ideas:


1.) ApproachWhat kind of approach do you want to take? There are a lot of buzzwords out there… multi-, inter-, trans-disciplinary. They all sound so nice, but when you stop and think about it, they do actually mean different things.

  • Multi/Cross: Researchers work sequentially from their own perspective with a goal of eventually combining results to solve a common problem

  • Inter: Researchers work jointly to address a common problem; some integration occurs, but contributions remain anchored in own disciplines

  • Trans: Researchers work jointly to develop and use a shared conceptual framework that synthesizes and extends discipline-specific theories and methods to create new approaches

To truly be more than just multi-/cross-disciplinary, you have to have an in-depth knowledge of another field (and let’s face it, ain’t nobody got time for that). But the truth is, the approach you take should be dictated not by time, but by whether or not the problem you want to solve or question you want to answer necessitates multiple areas and perspectives.


2.) ConsiderationsConsider that there are multiple ways to be multi/inter/trans disciplinary. What I mean here is to consider multiple areas of your research: Most scholars (myself included) started by considering that interdisciplinarity involved theory. Sure, your theorizing can be multifaceted, but so can your methodology, and even your conceptualization of the problem.


3.) Development: How do I develop a team? The most frequent question I receive from others is “So, how did you start out? How did you get people to collaborate with you?” Step 1 = ask. You can’t get an answer if you don’t ask. Send an email; request a phone call, or a face-to-face meeting if you’re nearby (but don’t be stalkerish). And in your request, you need to communicate a few things:

  • Lead off with a coherent, organized idea. It needn’t be 100% polished (because then, why would you need any help?!) but there should be a clear direction that demonstrates your thinking and theorizing. You should describe it in a way that outsiders (e.g., those not in your home discipline) can understand.

  • Describe roles—how much do you expect from this collaborator(s)? Give them an approximate description of what and how you want them to help. This allows them to gauge whether or not they can realistically commit to your project/team. Are there other people already on the team? describe them and their roles and how you see it all fitting together. Discuss potential similarities, or contrasts—and how these might help/hinder your project.

  • Offer brief logistics: time frame—what’s your short-term and long-term game plan for this project? research site(s)—where? and who is in charge of overseeing data collection and facilities management?

  • And after the request, be prepared for rejection: The myth is that academics and researchers don't know how to say “no” to new projects. But more often than not, they will. This is especially true if you are trying to build a relationship with a researcher whom you don’t know (as a junior faculty member from the UniversityofNeverHeardofIt, a lot of my cold-call email requests go unanswered). But there were some great people who were very gracious and encouraging, even as they rejected my requests for meet-ups or collaborations on new projects.  I remember them and valued their response because even though they were uber-famous researchers, they kept it classy. 


               Also, this...


               If Daniel Kahneman prioritizes timely email replies and nice rejections, so can the rest of us. #researchgoals


4.) Execution: One of the best advantages about working on an interdisciplinary team is that you get to see different ways of working. Together with your collaborators, you get to develop a shared vocabulary and an integrated methodology. One of the benefits for me (as a new principal investigator) was being allowed to see how other experienced investigators direct their lab, manage their students, oversee ongoing projects, budgets and grant reports. I took away tips and tricks about administration and new ideas and methods that invigorated my research agenda. And my students got a chance to work with other faculty members, which was a nice change of pace for them as well.


5.) Breakups: That researcher’s just not that into you. If you do start collaborating with others, remember that it’s not always smooth sailing. Teams may disintegrate; egos get crushed; conflicts will arise. It's not frequent, but it does happen. Research partners (like romantic ones) sometimes fall out of love and collaborations. And that’s normal. Consider how you might handle these kinds of issues so that you don’t burn any bridges. It’s not something you have to dwell on, but just as you have carefully planned team dynamics, roles, and authorship on projects, consider what may happen if the collaboration falls through.


Note: This post was modified from a recent colloquium given at the Wayne State University Institute for Gerontology in September 2017. For more details on that presentation, please visit their website

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