Interdisciplinarity is hard


Since the end of September I’ve been busy with CASA’s new MRes course, teaching, organizing, planning like a good lecturer does. The MRes, in keeping with the research themes of CASA, is a highly interdisciplinary affair – drawing upon techniques and approaches from Geographical Information Systems, Mathematics and Computer Visualization. Our students seem to be tackling this with aplomb (well, I would say that), but it’s certainly quite a challenge. Reflecting on this, I realized (as commented by fellow physicist Matty Hoban some time ago) that most of my postgraduate life I’ve been involved in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects; so interdisciplinarity is somewhat the default state for me.

While I tend to tell people that my doctorate was in physics (because it was!), it was based in a Materials department and included elements of synthetic chemistry as well as materials characterization , more traditional solid state physics and Quantum Computing . My first postdoc was in medical laser physics – obviously combining optics and clinical work, but perhaps more unusually, a great deal of classification statistics . As a “social physicist” I now find myself combining substantive areas of social science research with areas that have arisen to be more naturally multi- or inter-disciplinary. I’ve outlined these to point out that I’m familiar with the feeling of barely suppressed terror that comes with each leap into the unknown; that, to date, I’ve almost exclusively worked in fields where I’ve been playing catch-up with intellects greater than my own, trying to figure out where my contributions lie. To me, that is one of the great strengths of this work – to collaborate with and learn from others, and to find new outlets for and new insights on the skills and techniques one already possesses. Professor Sir Alan Wilson, one of the greater intellects guiding me in my latest leap, highlights “interdisciplinarity” as a key ingredient for Knowledge Power – and yet the narrative remains that universities remain siloed in their own departments. Is this a satisfactory state of affairs? Should teaching be carried out by discipline and research project by a recipe of the required skills? The advantage of our MRes is that it is research-based, and so our students can expect to learn the skills they need to carry out a CASA-like, interdisciplinary research project. UCL’s BASc hints at a similar portfolio scholarship. But how far back should we go? When does interdisciplinarity imply superficiality? Should we be teaching project-based learning in schools and neglecting traditional subject divides altogether?

My experience (and I don’t claim to be a notable interdisciplinarian, just to have experience of it) is that interdiscplinarity leaves one with the constant feeling that other people know more about any aspect of one’s accumulated knowledge. From an academic perspective, this gives one an enforced Socratic humility which people don’t always possess by disposition; the feeling that I know nothing certainly drives me to improve, to learn more, and contribute wherever I can.

4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity is hard

  1. Heh, heh, welcome to my world! 🙂

    There is also the basic problem that, outside of specialised research labs that don’t really have to answer to anyone, a number of departments that claim to want “interdisciplinary faculty” tend nonetheless to hire staff who fit neatly within the traditional domain.

    This trend also emerges in the tendency for true cross-departmental collaborations to fizzle when the people involved in the initial bid/proposal move on to greener pastures — without the motivation to ‘think outside of the box’, many of us seem to revert to traditional stereotypes of other researchers or simply can’t be bothered to make the effort to engage.

    I’m sure that there are some good reasons why this happens sometimes, but I’m equally certain that in a good number of cases there is simply a ‘least effort’ effect in which it is hard work to properly evaluate or integrate someone whose expertise are wildly different from your own and who you can’t mentally pigeonhole as a ‘type x’ faculty when going through the CVs or figuring out who can help you with your research.

    • You are *definitely* more interdisciplinary than me! Until I learn graphic design (properly). Which will be never, sadly.

      From what you’re saying it sounds like the research corrollary of a more general problem; that of education being a weird proxy for potential economic productivity – it’s much harder to interview people than preselect on degree, GPA or university…

  2. Pingback: Choose Paranoia – in praise of Imposter Syndrome | Sociable Physics

  3. This is a brilliantly-written summary of exactly how I’ve felt for the last 8 months:
    e.g. Today’s reading matter: growth economics, complexity theory and now system dynamics. I’m a tiny fish in a hundred massive ponds.

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