Teamwork Tips: When Not to Do Interdisciplinary Work

Interdisciplinary work opens doors to complex research and innovative solutions. However, not every problem calls for it, and not every researcher will benefit from it. So how do you know if interdisciplinarity is right for you?

How Big is Your Team?

For interdisciplinary work to succeed, small teams may be the best option for fostering creative problem solving and sharing methodologies. Otherwise, communication between team members may become unwieldy, detracting from the overall team’s efficiency.

“With a project like this, we had no idea where it was going, so a small team made it easier,” says Dr. Chris Clifton. Dr. Clifton was the principal investigator for big data ethics, one of four interdisciplinary projects from the Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other three initiatives were agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation.

“If you want to do something, you share with the entire team. Dealing with a half-dozen faculty, students, and post-docs, you can share everything. You can’t do that with a team of 20 or no one would have time to do anything but read emails. A small team is a good move for an exploratory project.”

Bottom Line: interdisciplinary work functions well with a small, organized team, offering each member a unique opportunity and close-knit connections. It can also work in larger teams, but the process is complex and requires more thoughtful effort. For large-scale projects, consider exploring team science training such as the course offered by Northwestern University.

Where Are You in Your Career?

Interdisciplinary work has tremendous benefits but requires more time and effort than many traditional research projects.

“It’s a great opportunity and I would encourage colleagues to consider it,” says Dr. Tom Hertel, principal investigator for PPRI’s agricultural sustainability project. “However, you need to be at the right point in your career and have the right mindset. Not everyone is cut out for it. Not everyone will benefit from it.”

If you’re seeking a promotion or trying to maximize publications, interdisciplinary work’s extended timeline may not fit your needs.

“It was great having a long time to accomplish the project, but that means a significant time until producing a publication, which is a challenge for someone getting ready to go for a promotion,” says Dr. Brett Crawford, co-investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points project. 

“In the short-term, it pushed me to focus on disciplinary work because I’m pursuing promotion. However, I plan to engage in more interdisciplinary projects after I hopefully have a successful promotion and have time to participate in those collaborations. I see value in them, but the pragmatic side of me can see the speed issues.”

Bottom Line: When seeking promotions, traditional academic work may be more fruitful. However, once you’re further in your career, consider devoting time to crossing disciplinary lines to enhance your own work and the work of others. If you’re called to do interdisciplinary work pre-promotion, make a plan with the department head to see what a successful promotion that includes engagement looks like. Work with your team to see if early publications are possible in the project, and if those types of papers will be valued by the department as part of your promotion packet.

For Students, What Path Are You Looking For?

Faculty aren’t the only ones who benefit from interdisciplinary work. Students gain experience in research directly impacting their communities, building relationships with stakeholders outside the university before they’ve graduated. But students need to be mindful of keeping their options open, and faculty need to ensure their research assistants’ experience will help them moving forward.

“Students often aim toward a particular career path, but it would be great to see new ideas incorporating multiple disciplines. I’d like to have more students involved in cross-disciplinary research,” says Dr. Clifton. 

“However, it’s difficult because it’s not just a change for the student or Purdue but requires a change in the outside world and how they perceive things. Otherwise, you’ll find it difficult to get hired because you don’t meet narrow, old-style expectations. You have to be careful with it.”

Bottom Line: students can gain valuable real-world experience, but both students and faculty need to be sure it represents a logical path to future career options. 

Is Interdisciplinary Work Worth It?

As global challenges proliferate, interdisciplinarity offers innovative solutions. But, like any tool, it must be used prudently to be effective.

“Not every project requires interdisciplinarity, so only do it if it’s necessary. However, for projects that tackle real world problems, it may be advisable,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points project. 

Bottom Line, according to Dr. Milkoreit: “If you stay engaged and work together, you can create something with an impact far beyond a traditional disciplinary research project.”

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