Interdisciplinarity, explained

The Amsterdam Young Academy (AYA) is an initiative of the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universtiteit where talented young scientists from different disciplines meet to develop views on science, scientific policy and how to build bridges between science and society. Among other themes, the work of the AYA is committed to interdisciplinarity. As the Network Institute is the hub for interdisciplinary research on the Digital Society, AYA’s insights on interdisciplinarity are useful for our members and anyone interested in interdisciplinary research.

Here we tell you the key takeaways of their Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines !

Goal: When is interdisciplinarity necessary or of added value?

Interdisciplinarity has become a ubiquitous academic buzzword. Research institutes proudly advertise their ‘interdisciplinary orientation’; grant applications routinely mention the ‘cross-disciplinary’ scope of the proposed research. Given this often unquestioned enthusiasm, one should ask a basic set of questions: Why is interdisciplinary research to be welcomed? Which research objects or problems require an interdisciplinary approach? Which of these might best be addressed via the in-depth expertise of one discipline? However, as disciplines are hardly ever a single unified ‘thing’, these questions may themselves be oversimplifying the current situation at universities and research institutes.

Find out more in their article.


Person: Is there an ‘interdisciplinary attitude’?

Researchers might regard interdisciplinarity as a goal in itself, and most of them might not deliberately sought out an interdisciplinary career. “End up seeing oneself as interdisciplinary, but without realizing it. Just across the career, it happened, like without designing the profile to be interdisciplinary, but ended up enjoying this kind of research” or “the topic in question just catches your interest and one starts researching it. Only in a second instance one realizes that it doing multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research in the field of Digital Humanities, where researchers with various skills and knowledge met. It was never intentionally interdisciplinary”.

Does this resonate with you? Read more about what the interviewees explained here.

Community: How do interdisciplinary communities and collaborators succeed?

Community and collaboration are major aspects of interdisciplinary work. In an interdisciplinary team, the composition of its members’ disciplinary backgrounds determines both the types of question that can and will be addressed in a particular collaboration as well as the methodology used to answer such questions. It is important here to take into account that one’s interdisciplinary identity may be just as important as one’s disciplinary background in the creation of successful interdisciplinary teams. Simply gathering researchers from different fields does not guarantee that concepts and ideas will be adequately translated. Instead, identity and the personality characteristics relevant to interdisciplinarity may be more likely indications of interdisciplinary success.

In this article, the importance of selecting team members based on their willingness to be vulnerable regarding (the limits of) their knowledge is explained.

Education: How and why should we train students and researchers in interdisciplinary ways?

Interdisciplinary work is not only about research: it now enjoys an increasingly prominent role in education and teaching. Integrating interdisciplinary aspects into teaching – or even offering a fully interdisciplinary programme – has the potential to bring several benefits to students. But it also brings with a set of challenges.

Discover which are these advantages, challenges and best practices here.

System: What is the influence of funding, publishing and promotion?

All academics are embedded within an academic landscape: The system, that is, our place of learning that encompasses the procurement of funding as well as publishing and evaluation. The academic landscape affects whether scholars’ interdisciplinary approach hinders or advanced their careers. Unfortunately, there exist concerns that the current academic landscape prompts most researchers to shy away from interdisciplinary research. “Teaching, funding, and evaluation are all monodisciplinary, while our big problems are interdisciplinary, and that’s the biggest problem that needs to be solved”.

In this article, AYA highlights the sense of belonging, shared resources, shared students, funding, publishing, and recognition and rewards of the system that affect interdisciplinary research.

Tips & Tricks

To end with, there is nothing more useful than a listicle of tips and tricks:

  1. Merge the general and the particular: what are the specifics of your work, and how does it generalise?
  2. Do not shy away from signaling that you do not know a particular term or that you cannot follow other academics’ reasoning.
  3. Identify target journals to publish in beforehand to figure out what assumptions need to be spelled out for which audiences.
  4. Actively find and surround yourself with individuals and communities from different fields.
  5. Attend conferences on different specializations.
  6. Teach a course that falls outside your own specialization.
  7. As a student, proactively ask your supervisors for meetings, for input, etc.
  8. Particularly for PhD advisors to students working on an interdisciplinary project: agree on the sequence of who gives feedback first and who builds on that feedback, and how.
  9. Particularly for students: have courage and feel that it is safe to act as an ‘educator’ for those advisors on the team who are not experts.
  10. When it comes to writing interdisciplinary grants, argue for the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach, indicate concretely how the interdisciplinary project will develop, explain the concepts and be strategic about the keywords chosen for the project when submitting the proposal.