Some thoughts from a PhD student on interdisciplinary working, by Jonathan Gordon

News | Posted on Friday 30 June 2023

In LCAB last month we were joined by Professor Harriet Ritvo an Arthur J Connel Professor of history at MIT. In a series of group discussions and seminars, we chatted about what biodiversity can do for the arts (a subversion of the common ‘what can the arts do for the sciences?’ question), ‘compensating for loss’ (in terms of extinctions) and how to break down interdisciplinary boundaries.

This final discussion on the topic of interdisciplinary boundaries involved LCAB colleagues whose expertise and perspectives spanned the full range of traditional disciplines: the arts and humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and a mathematician.

A poll at the beginning of the discussion attempted to gauge whether those present identified as ‘interdisciplinary researchers’, or not. Responses varied, with some definitely “yes”, others staunchly “no”, and some who were unsure.  A couple of folk held opposite, but complimentary, views: one reflected that although they believed in their core that they worked in an interdisciplinary way, they couldn’t identify how.

The other felt that although they worked on interdisciplinary questions, they unreservedly pledged their allegiances to the discipline from which they received their doctoral training.

These discussions got me thinking about my own research at the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity (LCAB) and where I fit along the disciplinary versus interdisciplinary spectrum.

I work with large sets of fossil and climate data to investigate how biodiversity has changed over the course of recent human history, using methods stolen from the environmental sciences, biology, maths and computer science – sounds pretty interdisciplinary.

Following our discussion with Professor Ritvo, a colleague and I were chatting about our jumbled up, less-than-usual research careers to date and they recommended to me a great paper by Haider et al (2018), “The undisciplinary journey: early career perspectives in sustainability science”, which offered me a new perspective. These authors suggest that in the past, researchers tended to specialise in a subject area first and then move onto working on interdisciplinary questions, or to use interdisciplinary methods.

However, with the advent of explicitly interdisciplinary research centres (such as LCAB) and doctoral training programmes, many people now miss the traditional first step (specialisation) and start their research careers in an interdisciplinary way, which Haider and co. dub ‘undisciplinary’ research.

This mode of research sounds like it characterises my research mode better than ‘interdisciplinary’, and I believe it has some real advantages. I am free to move in and out of fields and steal the most useful bits from any/all of them to help answer my research questions.

I also have the opportunity to work with a hugely diverse range of people (from archaeologists to mathematicians), which is exciting and has led to some great ongoing collaborations! Yet it doesn’t come without challenges.

The somewhat inevitable consequence of being spread more thinly across a greater body of scientific work is that sometimes I feel that I lack a ‘core’ set of skills and, coupled with this, communicating with folks from different disciplines, each with their own languages, can be hard.

Despite these challenges, I really enjoy the undisciplinary mode of research and I hope that having a broad set of skills and knowledge bases, and the ability to communicate issues to diverse audiences, will equip me to tackle some of the wicked problems that don’t respect disciplinary boundaries moving forwards.

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