The Many Headaches of Interdisciplinary Training

Academia in some countries (primarily Western Global North countries with lengthy histories of disciplinary academic departments) are now begging for more interdisciplinary staff. The reasons are fairly obvious: Relatively few staff are actually trained in interdisciplinary techniques, many staff are stubborn and refuse to learn about another field, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches are needed to solve many problems, and so on. Why am I writing about this?

My main formal academic training is in mathematics and psychology. These are two fields that most consider to be far apart. While I argue otherwise, the main point is that to bridge these 2 disciplines, you pretty much have to do this in an interdisciplinary way since most psychologists do not regularly talk with mathematicians and vice versa.

Going into a little bit more detail, most universities separate disciplines into colleges and departments. Mathematics and psychology are usually in outright different colleges (categorization generally broader than departments). If they are in the same college, they are grouped under arts and sciences. If not, mathematics is almost always in the science college and psychology is grouped either under arts, social sciences, behavioral sciences, or something similar. Even if they are in the same college, they are usually either separate buildings or on separate floors. This level of division highly encourages disciplinary thinking as it makes it harder for those not in the discipline to interact.

When my psychology courses started off with an ice breaker, they usually asked about major. Most said psychology, sociology, anthropology, or similar. There were a few that gave different answers, some said English, a couple said computer science, and I alone said mathematics. The CS folks quickly explained that their interests lied within human computer interaction after students gave them funny looks. I attempted to explain that my interests was understanding statistics both from a psychological aspect as well as a mathematical aspect, but that did not get the looks to go away. Several expressed that they simply don’t see any similarities in the 2 fields.

The first barrier is the lack of cohesion between different fields. When you are studying 2 fields that are quite different, there are no courses that resolve the tension you feel or give cohesion. Similar fields (like computer science and mathematics) do have these courses, but something like chemistry and Spanish typically doesn’t have these courses, despite there being more overlap than folks expect (like chemists in quite a few different countries posting results in Spanish, not to mention that you could go into food science and do an intersectional take of chemistry and culture for example).

The second is a much higher barrier for graduate studies for interdisciplinary studies. I will link to Berkeley as an example [1]. To quote Berkeley’s website: “Berkeley offers doctoral students the opportunity to create an interdisciplinary major of their own design. You must have successfully completed at least two semesters of graduate study in a doctoral program at Berkeley. You will need five faculty from multiple departments to support your proposal, and will need to show that the project you propose cannot be completed in any existing doctoral program. Completing a doctorate in an existing departmental, school, or group program is to your advantage because access to space, financial support, and continuing supervision are much more difficult for interdisciplinary students. The proposal you write will be judged against existing programs where you might complete the research you outline.”

So first at Berkeley, you have to get into an disciplinary department. You cannot start out just by applying to the interdisciplinary program. Second, you have to stick to at least 2 semesters of being in the disciplinary department. Third, you need to get 5 faculty members, compare this to having just 1 support you for a disciplinary department. Fourth, you need to prove that it can’t be done with one discipline alone and they warn you about reduced resources along with pretty much telling you to stay disciplinary if possible.

They are not an outlier with this wording and requirements, though they are on the stricter side that offers this sort of program. You are told to start out disciplinary and then become interdisciplinary, but this is a seriously problematic paradigm. We wouldn’t tell mathematicians to start out being physicists before becoming mathematicians. We wouldn’t tell psychologists to start out with sociology before becoming psychologists (though I think this type of training would be good). Why are we telling folks to start out solely in 1 field before becoming interdisciplinary?

I guess my question is why are we treating interdisciplinary as an add on rather than its own cool thing? Treating things like an add on shows your priority. For example, those treating accessibility as an add on shows that they don’t prioritize accessibility and instead prioritize other things, like getting the site to work for abled folks. In a similar sort of fashion, treating this as an add on and making it much more difficult to be interdisciplinary shows that you value disciplinary thinking over interdisciplinary thinking.

So, there’s barriers at the bachelor’s level all the way to the doctoral level. In addition to lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of training, you also have to deal with conflicting departments. I almost double majored in psychology and mathematics, but I didn’t do the double major because I got into graduate school for quantitative psychology. If I had elected to do the double major in psychology, I would have had to fight the psychology department on being able to take some courses because I didn’t ever take basic algebra in college.

I took abstract algebra, calculus, multivariate calculus, real analysis, linear algebra, and some other math courses. Clearly, I can handle basic algebra that asks about lines and polynomials, but I would have had to ask for an exemption because I never actually took the course. Basic algebra wouldn’t even count for my mathematics degree even as a free elective, making it a complete waste of time to take for my math degree. So, I would have had to face administrative barriers as a result despite clearly having the knowledge. If I had gone this route, I could have tested out of it and paid $300 for the credit, but why would I do that when I had at least a few math courses that had the knowledge as a prerequisite? That’s not to mention class conflicts, especially with courses only offered every year or every other year, though thankfully I was pretty much done with math, so I wouldn’t have to worry about that.

At the doctoral level, you will be working with your advisor for the most part. While you do have more freedom, remember that unless you deliberately went the much harder route of interdisciplinary studies that you are located in a department. You might not even have floor access to other departments. This is not to mention that most conferences that you will go to are of a disciplinary nature. Seminars from other departments might conflict with your schedule, just things like that. That’s not to mention that an interdisciplinary focus might hurt your academic chances if the fields are not closely related. This could be because of different citations, different methodology, and other things academics can disagree on all day.

At the postdoctoral level, there are significantly fewer barriers to interdisciplinary research. However, the education to get there is a minimum of 8 years of further education that was mostly disciplinary based unless you went for the harder interdisciplinary route. That will be difficult to unlearn and you have to get yourself up to speed in a different field. Additionally, your support in the new field you are learning is reduced and you are mostly on your own unless you build a really good support network.

At pre-tenure, you can be penalized for interdisciplinary research if your department doesn’t feel if it’s not aligned with the department. Additionally, research takes time and any time that is on interdisciplinary research could technically be devoted to disciplinary research. While one would ideally take a position where your department does not penalize you for such, in most fields, you cannot be picky with where you end up. I do not know how this operates in places where there is no tenure (like the United Kingdom), so I don’t know if this part applies to them.

So, there’s really only 2 sweet academic spots for interdisciplinary research: Postdoctoral level and after tenure or senior level professor. That’s a long time to get there. You would have to have drive enough for all of those years in disciplinary training and fighting your way through just to be interdisciplinary. For me personally, the fight is worth it and I love working across multiple different fields. I do not like having to pick just one thing, especially since I have demonstrated being able to handle both at an advanced level. But, how is making folks fight at multiple different stages and placing additional barriers suppose to encourage more interdisciplinary work? If you really want to help, start by knocking down barriers at the doctoral level. This is the stage where folks are being trained mostly how to do research. The easier you make this stage for interdisciplinary research, the more interdisciplinary researchers you’ll have.

The 2nd thing I would do is make it easier for students with high drive to organize reading courses that incorporate interdisciplinary work. Since it will be nigh impossible to cover all the different ways one can be interdisciplinary, the 2nd best thing is let students with the drive have some sort of semi-structure where they can do those things, maybe do research for it, and get credit. 3rd thing would be to not penalize students that want to do interdisciplinary studies at the bachelor’s level. It is strange that some admission folks do penalize prospective graduate interdisciplinary students with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. Like that’s penalizing someone who applied for a graduate degree in mathematics because they have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics degree. It’s nonsensical. Fourth, interdisciplinary studies at the bachelor’s level needs a serious redo instead of it being treated as a “undecided” major. Lastly, I would actually make a dedicated hub where those interested in interdisciplinary work can come together. Some places have it, some don’t. I found that those who had a place like that and that it wasn’t seriously underfunded that people really appreciated the space.

Anyways, I enjoy interdisciplinary work. My main focus is going to be on mathematics, statistics, and psychology, though I do hope to eventually branch out to some other areas, like history of science. That will have to wait until after the PhD though.


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