Once, graduate students who spent too much time
in other departments drew quizzical looks and pointed
questions from their advisors and peers, says Daniel Stokols,
PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine,
who explores the intersection of behavior, health and the
environment. While working on his dissertation in the 1970s,
Stokols says he sometimes felt “a bit deviant” for taking elective
courses and minors outside of psychology. That’s changing.
“Nowadays, interdisciplinary training is becoming much
more highlighted — and heralded,” he says.
Part of the reason is practical. “Thanks to an explosion
of knowledge and information, it’s impossible to draw the
boundaries around psychology and say, ‘I’ve mastered the field.’
Any individual scholar is going to have blind spots,” Stokols says.
“People team up to help compensate for each other’s blind spots.”
Is interdisciplinary science a good fit?
Yet interdisciplinary science isn’t just about filling knowledge
gaps. Whether it’s politics or the environment or human health,
society’s most pressing problems require complex solutions,
says psychologist Bonnie J. Spring, PhD, who directs the Center
for Behavior and Health at Northwestern University. “Many
of the hard problems really can’t be solved within a single
Major funding agencies seem to agree. Both the National
Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health
strongly encourage “team science” that pulls from a variety of
fields, notes Howard Kurtzman, PhD, APA’s acting executive
director for science. “They’re not looking to fund psychology
or sociology or biology as much as they want to address certain
topics and questions.”
But is interdisciplinary research the right path for you? And
if so, when and how should you get started? Here are some
questions to ask yourself before you take the leap.
Just because interdisciplinary research is hot doesn’t mean it’s
for everyone. Consider your research interests. Some questions
naturally span diverse fields and would be best addressed by an
interdisciplinary approach. But plenty of important research
questions fit squarely within a discrete pocket of psychology.
“Not all research problems require a broad interdisciplinary
approach,” says Stokols. “Some students want to drill down
within a particular discipline and make their contributions that
way — and if so, I encourage them to do that.”
Is grad school the right time?
It depends on many factors, say experts, including your skills
Having the capacity to work
and interests, your advisor’s enthusiasm for the idea and the
culture at your institution. On one hand, you don’t want to
spread yourself too thin. “Graduate school is, by definition, an
opportunity for someone to develop large amounts of knowledge
and expertise within a certain field,” cautions Garth Fowler, PhD,
associate executive director at the APA’s office of graduate and
postgraduate education and training. “If you don’t do it right,
you might be seen as the jack of all trades but master of none.”
“The direction that science is
heading, teamwork is going to be
more common and more valued.
across teams — those assets are
going to be needed to be effective
in the future of scholarship.”
Daniel Stokols, PhD
University of California, Irvine