Feb 26, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

In a recent Nature article, academic program director Gundula Bosch, PhD., calls for training the current generation of PhD students “to be thinkers not just specialists.” One of the best ways to go about facilitating this shift, according to experts? Interdisciplinary studies.

Consider the experiences of  pathogen bioinformatics researchers Jennifer Gardy and Fiona Brinkman, who spoke to the benefits of interdisciplinary research in a Science Magazine piece, “Without the cooperation of researchers in several different fields, many of today's important discoveries wouldn't have been possible. Where would the Human Genome Project be without the help of the computer scientists and bioinformaticians whose programs have helped to organize and annotate all that information? Scientists are getting together, talking, and sharing ideas and the results are fascinating.”

Certainly, a compelling case is made for embracing an interdisciplinary approach. Which begs the question: Is your PhD interdisciplinary, and if not, how can you broaden your outlook? Read on for a roundup of four ways to make your PhD interdisciplinary.

1. Create your own interdisciplinary degree.

Think you have to specialize in one particular subject to do a PhD? Think again? Today’s interdisciplinary majors allow students to customize a degree program in areas for which no formal degree program is offered.

Proposes a recent article published in the academic journal PLOS Computational Biology, “Many of today’s pressing research challenges require a multifaceted approach that combines several historically distinct disciplines. As a result, there has been a surge in funding for interdisciplinary PhD programmes. Some examples include the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship (NRT) (succeeds the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship [IGERT]; the European Research Council’s Innovative Training Network (ITN); and, in the United Kingdom, strong growth in interdisciplinary doctoral programmes across all research councils, led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and their Centres of Doctoral Training (CDTs), with the strong support of UK universities and industrial partners.”

2. Think broad, not narrow.

PhDs are often thought of in terms of their “niche:” Researchers choose an area of research, and drill down on it as exhaustively as possible. However, the opposite approach can also lead to unexpected and exciting discoveries.

Explains PhD Life, “It’s tempting, as a PhD student, to concentrate exclusively on the importance of your research to your immediate subject area, where your topic and methodology are understood. Yet this “niche thinking” is increasingly difficult to sustain. Funding bodies are now looking to reward broad impact, and even specialist publishers encourage work that will reach the widest possible audience….A specialism does not need to be a niche. Even the most obscure medieval poetry poses religious and philosophical questions that resonate in contemporary global politics. High-end astrophysics can lend itself to economic and psychological interrogation. In thinking critically about your own work, cross-disciplinary issues will inevitably crop up.”

This is incredibly fertile ground -- particularly when you factor in current events. As the world changes, your research -- as well as the related research of others -- may be implicated in different things. Rather than limiting yourself to the known, look for the unknown instead.  

3. Adopt an interdisciplinary methodology.

“Theoretical frameworks offer great potential for crossing disciplinary boundaries. A school of thought such as feminism, for example, can inform on political, literary, sociological, scientific, economic and cultural fields. Exploring these links can deepen your understanding of your topic. Quantitative research methods are also often applicable to various fields. How might your surveys, focus groups and case studies help you connect to a broader range of disciplines?” continues PhD Life.

For example, a PhD in sociology or linguistics is likely to involve statistics. Partnering with a statistician can help you further exploit your data toward deeper insights. A PhD in biochemistry, meanwhile, may take an exhilarating turn when you look at it through the lens of ethics.

4. Be ready to learn...and teach.

Interdisciplinary research can at times feel like throwing yourself into the deep end without knowing how to swim. Teaching yourself to, at least, tread water can help you stay afloat. Proposes New Scientist, “If you decide that interdisciplinary research is for you, moving into a new discipline and culture will present other challenges, too. You will certainly have to familiarize yourself with the new terms and vocabulary of the subject you are moving into.”  

At the same time, you must be prepared to work alongside people who may not “speak your language,” either. Identifying everyone’s capabilities while maintaining a “big picture” perspective about the scope of the work and why it’s necessary can help bridge these gaps.

“We believe that researchers who are educated more broadly will do science more thoughtfully, with the result that other scientists, and society at large, will be able to rely on this work for a better, more rational world,” concludes Bosch.  If you’re ready to enrich your own research by with some outside-the-box interdisciplinary research, these four tips can help you get started.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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