Teamwork Tips: How to Succeed at Interdisciplinary Work

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Interdisciplinary work involves coordinating researchers and scholars across disciplines and even stakeholders outside the university. Once you’ve decided to engage in this research, how can you help your team succeed?

Plan Ahead

Even if you’ve done interdisciplinary work before, each project offers unique challenges. Planning ahead minimizes conflict and misunderstanding down the road, while ensuring everyone involved will find value in the project.

“Early on, find out what makes this project interesting and valuable to each team member based on their career stage and expertise,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator on climate tipping points, one of four interdisciplinary projects from Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other initiatives were big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, and flood risk mitigation.

“What do they hope to get out of it? Make sure that component gets re-engaged throughout the project. That way there’s a benefit for everyone. People may find it challenging to stay engaged in a process that at times doesn’t call for their expertise.”

This preemptive planning can also be important in regard to data collection, especially for publication-focused researchers.

“Interdisciplinary team members have different goals, so take the time to define what outlets are most important and how they relate to each member’s work,” says Dr. Brett Crawford, co-investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points project. 

“It’s important to target each of those outlets and knowing them early on guides how you generate and analyze data, using different portions for specific publications.”

Prepare to Adapt

Translating ideas and methods across disciplines, or literally translating across languages and cultures, is often a crucial step in interdisciplinary work. 

“People approach research from different backgrounds or languages, so it was important to understand what we mean when we say X,” says Dr. Milkoreit. “Coming to the right terminology to understand each other and agree on what to do could be difficult, but that’s an ongoing challenge of interdisciplinary work.”

“Initially, we didn’t have a common language. Even our disciplinary idioms were different,” says Dr. Dan Kelly, co-investigator on PPRI’s big data ethics project. “But as we’ve had more meetings and done more work together, we’ve come to a convergence.”

To overcome these obstacles, be clear when communicating with team members. Don’t assume jargon or acronyms are universal. Be explicit with expectations and thoughtful with new ideas.

Trust and Respect the Team

Ultimately, it’s vital to go into the project with an open mind.

Learning to admit what you don’t know can be a leap, but embracing the unknown is a key part of interdisciplinary work. The goal is not to impose your discipline’s standards on the team, but to allow different ideas and methods to inform and enhance the project.

“I learned each discipline has different standards of how to measure research success,” says Dr. Chris Clifton, principal investigator for PPRI’s big data ethics project. “Sometimes I’ve had to sit back and say, ‘I don’t understand what we’re going to learn from this, but I trust you.’ I just have to trust my team members’ expertise. It’s a great opportunity to learn not just about the project but about things that go well beyond that.”

Bottom Line

According to Dr. David Johnson, principal investigator for PPRI’s flood risk mitigation project and co-investigator for climate tipping points:

 “Don’t get discouraged at the beginning. There’s always a learning curve, especially if you’re working with people from disciplines you don’t overlap with. You have to allow yourself to be uncomfortable and do the work of figuring it out and forging a common language. How you see the problems or even which problems are worth thinking about can be a stumbling block, but push through the initial difficulties and it’s completely worth it.”

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