skip to Main Content

Supporting Inter- and Transdisciplinary Academic Careers

The topic of interdisciplinary careers prompted some lively discussion at last week’s ITD 2019 conference in Gothenburg.

SHAPE-ID was represented by Bianca Vienni Baptista, Christian Pohl and myself. Between us we made multiple contributions to the conference as presenters, discussants and session chairs, introducing an international audience of 250 researchers, research funders and policy makers from bodies such as the OECD to the aims of the SHAPE-ID project.

What became clear in various workshops and discussion panels is that we still have a long way to go before inter- and trans-disciplinary (ITD) careers become “normalised” within our institutions and it was evident that early career ITD researchers, in particular, are still facing significant career disadvantages.

The institutional governance of ITD is an under-researched topic in Europe (and especially the UK) perhaps in contrast to the US where notable examples such as Klein’s Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures have led the way in mapping out steps that university leadership and management must take to enable such careers.

A shared European knowledge base in the field of ITD governance is starting to develop with SHAPE-ID partners contributing to an emerging body of work around the institutionalisation of ITD.  Recent examples include Guimarães, Pohl et al.’s (2019) empirical study of the motivations, attitudes, skills, and behaviours of ITD researchers and Vienni Baptista and Rojas-Castro (2019) who use a neo-institutionalist approach to shed light on the obstacles that ITD faces within university policies and practices.

My own book, Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers, highlights many of the misalignments that persist between the rhetoric of ITD research policy and the reality of academic researchers’ working lives.  Based on a series of career history interviews with academic staff in British universities whose doctoral studies were funded by explicitly interdisciplinary studentships, the book explores the experiences of colleagues who have “always been interdisciplinary”. And yet, when I compared these accounts with the views of university research leaders whom I also interviewed (at the level of Pro-Vice Chancellor/Vice Rector), what emerged was a very uneven pattern of institutionalisation and an awful lot of mixed messages. 

These mismatches were nowhere more evident than on the question of when to become an interdisciplinary researcher.  Not one of the interdisciplinarians whom I interviewed expressed regret in following this career path from the outset (although many reflected on the difficulties of pursuing such a career within academia and the precarity and uncertainty that it entailed).

In contrast, research leaders were more often wedded to the notion of “disciplinary excellence” and a more sequential approach where academics specialise first in a discipline and then, once firmly established in that discipline, branch out to embrace other disciplinary approaches.  As Guimarães, Pohl et al. (2019) emphasise, the academic environment is simply not prepared and adapted for such ITD personalities. Such colleagues are avowedly not failed discipline specialists.  Indeed, the approach of “T-shaped training” (disciplinary depth first and then ITD), which is still advocated by too many university leaders, ignores the specialist metaskills offered by ITD researchers.  It also fails to recognise Kuhn’s (1970) key insight that it is the younger members of a scientific community who are more likely to abandon an old paradigm and adopt a new one.

Above all, research funders and those who employ ITD researchers (and educators) have a responsibility to ensure that they are not encouraging staff to embrace inter- and trans-disciplinary modes of working through their research funding initiatives and institutional strategies without also providing the underpinning infrastructures that will support career trajectories all the way from doctoral researcher to postdoc and onwards to established academic careers. Tempting anyone into an interdisciplinary career without providing an adequate safety net is, at best, ironic, if not hypocritical and possibly even unethical. In fact, Leahey et al. (2017) question the wisdom of continuing to invest in such research if we do not become more attuned to the potential negative career implications for individuals. 

In her closing plenary for ITD 2019, Flavia Schlegel, the International Science Council’s Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy, described how our universities are attempting to tackle 21st century global challenges using 19th century organisational structures.  If we are serious about optimising the contributions that current and future generations of ITD researchers make to knowledge and society, then we must provide them with the institutional tools to support, reward and recognise such careers. 

by Professor Catherine Lyall

Catherine Lyall is Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and leads the University of Edinburgh’s work on SHAPE-ID. During September and October 2019, Catherine Lyall’s book Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers is available at a reduced price from Palgrave Pivot using the discount code PM19TWENTY3.

Back To Top