On the other hand, it can be a good career move to
demonstrate early on that you’re a flexible thinker and a team
player. “I’d argue that if opportunities come your way, then
it is a good time — particularly if your mentor is also doing
[interdisciplinary research],” says Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD,
associate executive director of APAGS. “You can get a feel for it,
develop contacts in other fields, and set yourself up” for a career
in team science.
Fowler suggests taking an honest look at your reasons
for pursuing interdisciplinary research. “Ask yourself those
important questions about what you’re doing and why, and
have those conversations openly with your committee,” he says.
What are the logistics?
Before taking on a dissertation topic that spans disciplines,
consider how it will work at your institution. Will you need
office space in two buildings? Will you be appointed in two
departments, with two co-advisors? If so, what are the degree
requirements in each department? They may have different
processes and even different paperwork, so pay attention to the
details. Ask strategic questions about how your idea will play
out on your campus.
Is it now or never?
If it doesn’t feel like the right time to step out of psychology’s
silo, don’t worry. You’ll have other opportunities to
broaden your exposure to other fields. For instance, you
might consider a postdoctoral research position in another
discipline or another type of psychology department,
Or you may just dip a toe in now without taking a plunge.
“For a person starting out, it’s great to get involved in a
small way,” says Spring. That may mean participating in an
interdisciplinary project as a team member rather than a team
I’m ready to get started. Now what?
Do a little legwork. Before you go knocking on doors all over
campus, take classes in other departments. Read journals
outside your discipline. “See what’s been done in other fields to
make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel, and so that when
you do approach someone, you have a grounding,” suggests
Troxel. “You’re representing your field, and you want to be a
How do I reach out?
If your advisor is involved in interdisciplinary work, that’s the
obvious place to ask for introductions. Still, says Stokols, “you
may have to be a little assertive” in reaching out to potential
For Troxel, that hasn’t been as scary as it might sound. “I
was a bit surprised. I didn’t expect people to be so welcoming
to someone from an outside field,” she says. “Do some research,
send an email to someone who might be a good contact for you.
The worst that can happen is they say no.”
What’s the secret to good collaboration?
Communication is key, says Spring. Unsurprisingly, different
disciplines have their own jargon. But they also have their
own cultures, methodologies and even different conventions
for publishing in academic journals. Don’t be afraid to ask
questions and say you don’t understand. And don’t expect
everything to be settled in one or two meetings. “It takes
dialogue over a long time,” she says.
What pitfalls should I look out for?
As a graduate student, it’s important to keep your eyes on the
prize. While it’s valuable to gain skills in team science, make
sure you devote enough time to mastering your own discipline.
Similarly, you’ll have to balance your interdisciplinary efforts
with opportunities to let yourself shine. Junior scholars still
need to prove themselves, Stokols says, and that might be harder
to do if you’re one of a dozen authors on every paper you’ve
published. He thinks of interdisciplinary research as a kind of
“scholarship 2.0.” And when it comes to gaining those skills, he
says, “it’s really a balancing act.”
So, is it worth it?
“The direction that science is heading, teamwork is going to
be more common and more valued. Having the capacity to
work across teams — those assets are going to be needed to be
effective in the future of scholarship,” Stokols says.
Adds El-Ghoroury: “It’s not simple, but there are some
really big rewards.” n
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.
• Explore interdisciplinary science through
interactive modules at www.teamscience.net.
• The National Academies Press: Facilitating
Interdisciplinary Research: www.nap.edu/
• The National Cancer Institute Team Science
• The National Research Council’s Science
of Team Science Committee: http://sites.
• Science of Team Science Annual Conferences: