Learning to do interdisciplinary research (Helen Young)

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The Australian Research Council supports interdisciplinary research, which it describes as:

"research that traverses or transcends disciplinary boundaries and which synthesise or integrate methods and knowledge from multiple disciplinary domains."

But, given that most PhDs are completed in one discipline, how do researchers learn to cross those borders?

And why would they?

The short answer is that we live in a complex world and no discipline can find all the answers to the challenges it reveals.

Working epistemologically and methodologically in only one discipline is necessarily limiting because so are disciplines.

Limits aren't inherently bad, but they are, well, limits.

Research can sometimes feel like a jigsaw puzzle and, sometimes, half the pieces are under the couch or in another box.

For me, the move outside my home discipline in my research was the result of moving outside it in my teaching and research support work. I did a PhD in English, then had casual teaching roles in communications theory and cultural studies for five years at the same time as doing casual research-assistant work in the sciences and social sciences (mostly nursing and education for the record, my 'transferable skills' story is another post).

At that time, I was developing a new project exploring representations of race and difference in fantasy literature to apply for postdoc funding. The first time I submitted it to the ARC (2010) the project wasn't interdisciplinary - I just wanted to research what was going on in texts. I got positive reports but no funding. The next year (the first time the DECRA scheme existed), I combined the knowledge I'd built through my teaching and social sciences methodologies that I'd learned through my research support roles to come up with an approach that was much more complex and interdisciplinary.

The project - which did get funded - explored industry practices, digital technology, and fan reception alongside video-games, tv and film alongside fiction, and theorised how all these things interact to shape the ways that race and ethnicity are represented in popular culture (yes, my book is in the library, why do you ask?). I was able to do a much bigger and better project where the research reflected and came to grips with some of the complexities of the real world in ways that I would not have been able to if I'd worked in just my home discipline

In practice, many interdisciplinary projects are conducted by a group of researchers (or teams if the projects are large) who have expertise in different fields. You don't have to become an expert in a whole new discipline to do it (and I don't claim to be), but you do need to know enough to understand approaches and methods. Here are some essentials for good interdisciplinary research whether you are working solo or with others:
  • Have an open mind to moving out of your comfort zone: other disciplines will do things differently so remember that different isn't wrong and your familiar ways aren't necessarily better.
  • Be prepared to learn: even if you are working with experts from other disciplines, you'll all need to understand (even if you can't replicate) how your collaborators think and what they do to be able to bring everything together.
  • Don't be interdisciplinary just for the sake of it: it's great to explore possibilities but not all challenges need the extra time end energy that working across disciplines can involve.
  • Keep your communication lines open: even if you're the sole chief investigator, like I was, learning from others in all the disciplines you're engaging with is essential.
La Trobe supports interdisciplinary research actively: the Research Focus Areas are specifically intended to address complex challenges through interdisciplinary work.

If you're not a member of one (or more) already you can find the details here.

The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, is a great place to start if you want to really think through this kind of research and includes a useful chapter specifically for ECRs, is available through the library (LTU log in needed).


Helen Young has worked in research in the humanities, social sciences, and biomedical sciences. She is currently part of the Research Education and Development Team at La Trobe, and also runs a small research consultancy https://writingresearchanalysis.com.

She has previously held a Discovery Early Career Research Award at the University of Sydney (2012-2015).

Her research interests include race and whiteness, popular culture, and historiography.