How to approach an inter-disciplinary thesis

Are you doing interdisciplinary research? I did. It was hard. Universities are often very well set up for individual disciplines, but if you don’t fit firmly into one of these, you can easily find yourself marginalised. How should you go about doing interdisciplinary research so that you don’t ‘go down over interdisciplinary waters’ so to speak?

This post is by Varuneswara Reddy Panyam, a Master of Science Student in the mechanical engineering department at Texas A&M University. He loves to play tennis, write and bike in his free time. Varuneswara received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Shiv Nadar University in 2016. He did research on refrigeration systems in New Delhi for a year before moving to Texas for grad school. His MS research is focused on bio-inspired design of power grid networks. Find out more about Varuneswara on his personal website: https://www.varuneswara.com/

Interdisciplinary research utilizes techniques from two or more disciplines to come up with solutions to problems. Increasing number of universities worldwide are recruiting professors who can lead interdisciplinary research projects. While there are many benefits that entail doing interdisciplinary research, there are some downsides to it as well. My masters research was highly interdisciplinary involving the application of network analysis principles from ecology and mechanical engineering to electrical power grid networks in a quest to improve their robustness and resilience. I had to overcome several obstacles and issues that are inevitable in interdisciplinary efforts. In this article, I present some of the important issues and possible solutions to avoid/overcome them and get the best out of your opportunity.

Find suitable collaborators

Finding the right people to work with is crucial. If you are fortunate enough to have joined an already functional interdisciplinary team, then you can escape this major initial roadblock. But if you are aiming to start a new interdisciplinary project for your Ph.D. thesis, then you may find this first step time consuming and difficult. I spent almost a semester after starting my Ph.D. trying to find collaborators. I met about 7-8 professors, had multiple email exchanges and meetings with two of them before I finally started work with one professor and her research group. Patience is very important in this phase as convincing a faculty from a discipline other than yours is very difficult. Do your homework, learn about the professor’s current projects and find a way to convince them of your proposed idea’s novelty and feasibility. Don’t pin all your hopes on a single preferred faculty as they might not be equally interested in your idea. If you get a thumbs down from a faculty of your choice, shrug it off and move on. Such rejections will become commonplace in future as you go on to do bigger things. This whole experience initiating contact and brainstorming with multiple faculty members, although exhausting, gives you an unparalleled advantage as your ability to form and lead teams will be extremely valued by any employer.

Communicate often

Frequent communication with every member of the team is very important to successfully carry an interdisciplinary research project forward. Professors heading interdisciplinary projects often have other important projects and unless you remind them of your progress, expectations, important meetings, paper deadlines etc., there is a good chance that you will fall behind. Take the opportunity you have to organize meetings as this is good practice for you to take leadership roles in your future workplace.

Do not give up on any opportunity you get to present your work to different types of audience. Because impact of your research work can be amplified by better communicating the results to the researchers in different fields. You never know who might find your work interesting and useful as your work pertains to different disciplines. Further, talking to people with different backgrounds and expertise levels is a good way of improving your own speaking and presenting skills.

Take ownership of your work

Since a lot of researchers get involved in interdisciplinary projects, oftentimes your contribution can get obscured. It is thus very important to take ownership of your work right from the start. Talk to your advisor and collaborators and tell them about your ideas and what you expect your contribution to be toward the project. Be clear about the order of authors on conference and journal papers. However, be open to changes in the order should things go in a different direction. Bringing up author order might sound awkward at first, but it is very important to ensure that your work gets the deserved recognition.

Keep creating new energy and perspectives

Multi-disciplinary research is as mentally taxing as it is rewarding. Ph.D. students tend to be perfectionists and go on wild-goose chases, which can be even worse when doing interdisciplinary research as we may not be an expert in other disciplines we are studying. This constant need to be on your toes lead to burnouts and stagnation. Since you have access to people from different backgrounds, seek out their help and advice. Talking to people sometimes gives you a fresh direction during times of stagnation. Don’t stop doing the things you enjoy. Watching movies and writing my own movie ideas used to be my favorite past time during my undergrad. Whenever I get stuck these days, I watch my favorite movies and unwind to find a new perspective.

Pursue research ideas and grant writing

The ultimate goal of training Ph.D. students is to make them independent researchers. A significant part of being an independent researcher is to write successful grant proposals. Students in interdisciplinary teams may sometimes not gain enough depth in any of the relevant disciplines, resulting in poor disciplinary knowledge and proposal writing experience. Students in interdisciplinary teams should therefore proactively spend time reading a lot of literature in the disciplines they are involved with and seek opportunities to write grants for others. This practice could go a long way in writing excellent grant proposals as you transition from being a Ph.D. student into full time researcher.

Despite the drawbacks and hard work it requires, interdisciplinary research offers the opportunity to acquire a very broad skill set. It will force you to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. Moreover, the impact of interdisciplinary research projects tends to be very high. A lot of experiences you gain doing interdisciplinary research are good practice for future career, be it in academia or otherwise. I think that perhaps universities can do their part by starting separate entities to help students and faculty with the various obstacles they face during the course of interdisciplinary research projects.

Thanks Varuneswara! I agree that universities could do more to make interdisciplinary research easier. What do you think? Have you faced any barriers working across and between disciplines? What advice do you have to offer others facing this challenge?

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8 thoughts on “How to approach an inter-disciplinary thesis

  1. Lynne Kelly says:

    Thank you for such an interesting and increasingly important post. I did an interdisciplinary PhD, and reflecting on this post, I did not put in enough effort to get supervision from other relevant faculties. At the first hurdle, I gave up and went it alone. I had a good supervisor, but she couldn’t get help either and had to take the risk of supervising a thesis, much of which was out of her field. It all ended up fine.

    My main issues were isolation and self-doubt – which almost destroyed me. I couldn’t easily confirm my ideas and had to reach far and wide to get answers from academics all over the world on details I needed. I found that scary. Until examination, I wasn’t sure that there wasn’t a massive elephant in the room.

    I am a mature age writer, so wasn’t heading for an academic post. Had I been, your advice here would have been even more important. I don’t think that I am employable in a university because I simply don’t fit anywhere.

  2. Frank Carver says:

    Finding academics to work with in just one semester? I don’t think you know how lucky you are!

    I am now two years in to a part-time interdisciplinary PhD and have still not found anyone who is working in anything even remotely related to my field. My supervisor helps with understanding the academic process, but his research is a long way from mine. Everyone I speak to says some variant of “that’s really interesting and important, but I can’t think of anyone who could help.”

    I would love to read something about the real process of finding collaborators when you have exhausted your home institution.

  3. Varuneswara Reddy says:

    Yeah Frank, I was indeed lucky to have found someone to help me after just one semester. But again I spent most of my first semester writing ad responding to emails.

    I also contacted people outside my university, but it is difficult to establish a solid research relationship unless you know them from before. One thing to do would be to try to directly reach out to people whose papers you find very relevant to what you want to do. Sometimes academics tend to be very helpful to even strangers who are deeply interested in their work.

    • Lynne Kelly says:

      “I also contacted people outside my university, but it is difficult to establish a solid research relationship unless you know them from before.”

      I didn’t know them before, but I found that I had to prove credentials in the contact email. I had to make it clear that I had read their work, at the very least, and ask a specific question, not a general “will you help?”,

      The one who proved to be incredibly helpful replied to my first email with a question:” are you also aware of the work of …?” I then replied immediately, to indicate that I had not taken days to look it up. I replied that I had and was fascinated to read the study by … which confirmed the aforementioned work. That was it. I had proven that I had done the work first and would not be wasting his time. From then on, I was fed the most invaluable papers and answers. Even more important, I felt that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t talking rubbish.

  4. virtualkayleen says:

    Publication and authorship can be a big problem. In my PhD (done part-time while working full-time as an academic) I was working across two disciplines – Law and Information Systems, which have a diametrically opposed authorship attribution. I was also working in a third Faculty (Business), which had an authorship attribution model that fell somewhere in between, but because I was working as an academic, I had to publish during my PhD. The Faculty in which I was enrolled only allowed sole authorship, my IS supervisor was a Visiting and made his money as a consultant – he didn’t even getting paid to supervise me, so not surprisingly (and justifiably in my opinion) he was expecting co-authorship attribution for a paper that was an IS paper not a law paper and therefore should be following the conventions of his discipline, not the Law discipline. And my own HoS had his own opinion on what was ethical… Complete mess and difficult to resolve. That being said, I used my negotiating skills and came up with a solution that everyone was happy with. However, I’m (very) mature age and have been in senior industry positions before so had some skillz up my sleeve – if I’d been a younger and less experienced student, it would have been just unbelievable…

  5. Anna says:

    Going through this right now and suffering as a result, but it’s so hard when outside of academia connected thinking is the norm. Sadly there’s a serious silo mentality in universities. I’m pushing ahead but it’s tough…

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