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In my opinion

Is interdisciplinarity a field or skill?

I work in an interdisciplinary way, but I find that I am still sitting on the fence.


I have a longstanding interest in interdisciplinary work, beginning with my PhD dissertation that was jointly supervised by a developmental psychologist and a physician/public health researcher. I recall at my PhD dissertation proposal meeting, one member of my committee suggested that if we couldn’t all just agree on the method and approach of my research projects, we could simply “switch” my PhD in Clinical Psychology into a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. I’ll never know if this was a suggestion, but I thank my dear adviser for saying no. A flat no.

As a clinical psychologist, I could likely never have been granted my license with a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. I might have also struggled with finding employment in a psychology department, as it might have been challenging to demonstrate that I possessed the expertise and knowledge required to teach a range of psychology courses. Thus, for these very real and pragmatic reasons, I am grateful for my adviser’s complete disagreement to the suggestion of rebranding my dissertation as a PhD in Interdisciplinary studies.

However, I did pursue an “interdisciplinary” postdoc, although the field was actually entitled “Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Health of Marginalized Populations.” I remember my interview for the postdoc position quite well, as I feared being asked to succinctly distinguish interdisciplinary and transdiciplinary. Thankfully, a quick search on Wikipedia provided a sufficiently academic response which I promptly memorized right before walking into the interview. Transdisciplinary research draws on concepts and methods from a variety of disciplines to tackle specific broader issues (e.g., social problems); interdisciplinary research involves researchers pooling together their knowledge to address the issue. I was not asked to define transdisciplinary during the interview (phew) and instead spent the next year learning about how transdisciplinary really does move beyond interdisciplinary.

Interestingly, much changed since 2007 and we are now returning to interdisciplinary.

This resurgence has spawned a debate in my head: should we confer degrees in interdisciplinary work?

The various academic plans across Ontario have a strong focus on interdisciplinary teaching and degrees, and at Ryerson University there is a growing wave of interdisciplinary work and collaboration with respect to zone learning, which is inherently interdisciplinary in its approach to issues and innovation. Zone learning involves the cross-pollination of ideas from students of varied academic backgrounds. The latest iteration of this plan on interdisciplinary studies included some very pragmatic issues: where would such faculty be housed? How would teaching loads be calculated?

For myself, I wonder about how a student would establish a professional identity without having a home discipline. In fact, a recent conversation with a faculty member reflected such a situation. She completed her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies and was supervised by diverse set of academics, something she valued. However, she did report that she struggled with her own professional identity and since graduation she has been employed in a number of different departments.

At present there are few (very few?) departments of “Interdisciplinary Studies” but there are courses, institutes, research centres, and minors in this area. Thus, it would seem in practice that interdisciplinary is more of an adjective to describe an approach, as opposed to a noun describing the field. Of course, we could be at the beginning of change and departments of Interdisciplinary Studies will begin to crop up across our postsecondary institutions. However, it will take time before they are led by graduates of Interdisciplinary Studies programs, thereby recognizing Interdisciplinary Studies as a field outright. In the interim, they would likely be led by faculty from diverse disciplinary backgrounds who possess the requisite knowledge and skills to collaborate, jointly problem solve, innovate, etc.

If we are at a crossroads, we may not know it. We might envision Interdisciplinary Studies as a skill that can, will or should burgeon into a field. How might this affect our existing research centres and zone learning spaces? Can both departments and research centres with interdisciplinary foci co-exist blissfully? I am an optimist, but even I struggle to see how two sets of different yet equally valuable approaches could find a spot on the menu of postsecondary education with a hungry market of students looking through the meal options. Is it a case where one is the formal education and the other would be the opportunity to apply such knowledge? I could be convinced, but my hunch is that best practices in education would say tie theory, practice and research together to reinforce teaching, thereby quashing the idea that models should exist separately.

I couldn’t possibly predict today where this debate is heading, only to say that it is a debate that is unfolding right before our eyes. Someone recently asked me what sort of approach I used in my research. Based on my reply, he told me how my research sounded nothing like psychology. In some weird way I was completely relieved; I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole myself into a discipline that did not have enough room to allow for the pursuit of knowledge and change for social issues. Although I never did brand my dissertation and certainly not my PhD as one in Interdisciplinary Studies, the interdisciplinary flavor runs deep in the work I continue to do to this day.

Dr. McShane is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Ryerson University.


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  1. Dennis Rovere / September 23, 2015 at 13:43

    My MA was interdisciplinary but it was strongly suggested that my Ph.D. be ‘situated’ in a specific discipline so that I can have more opportunities to lecture. As it turns out, my MA is now garnering more opportunities (based on content/subject matter) than ever before. As for the Ph.D. I will have to wait and see?

  2. sebastian / September 23, 2015 at 14:42

    Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for sharing your experience with interdisciplinarity in sciences. I did a PhD in environmental sciences which is by nature an interdisciplanary field. It is the only way to tackle environmental problems. In my research, I work with chemistry (my original field), but also with sociologists, biologists, economists, geographers, etc., mostly on climate change and climate change adaptation. The research is very exciting and always opens new perspectives. Students like to work in an interdisciplinary environment. The only – but major – drawback of interdisciplinarity is that it virtually shuts down any academic employment opportunity. Faculties and departments are looking for people from their own discipline, thus if your research is not in the same field (and interdisciplinary research never counts as the same field) than your discipline of origin, it will be hard to interest any selection committee. And unfortunately, I also found that a large number of researchers, especially in natural sciences, frown upon interdisciplinary research, especially if it involves elements of human sciences, which they still don’t recognize as proper science. Thus, a lot of work still needs to be done as well at institutional level, to create spaces for interdisciplinary research and appointments, as on the perceptions of other disciplines by university researchers.

  3. Reuben Kaufman / September 24, 2015 at 00:52

    This article, and two comments, makes me wonder whether I understand the meaning of the term “interdisciplinary studies”.

    I’m a biologist/zoologist. My research career has been in the physiology of ticks. Since 2009 I have collaborated with a professor of Mechanical Engineering on understanding the changing biomechanical properties of the cuticle (‘outer skin’) of the blood-sucking tick as it goes through its feeding cycle. I have been calling this “interdisciplinary research”, because we each bring different expertise to the project, and because neither of us would have been able to produce the research that we have published so far working independently. But neither of us says that our “expertise” is interdisciplinary studies; it’s “interdisciplinary” only by virtue of the fact that we bring different skills to the project.

    Are we wrong to call this “interdisciplinary research”?

  4. Colman Hogan / September 24, 2015 at 12:55

    Twenty years ago when I entered a Ph.D program in Comparative Literature, interdisciplinary study was a new buzz word, one, it seemed, of the academy’s responses to the funding crisis taking root following the severe cutbacks in Federal and Provincial funding to post-secondary education. You may recall that it was precisely then that tuition began to soar.
    We in Comp.Lit. were rather amused at the ‘National Literature’ departments, who on the one hand appeared to be scrambling ‘to get up to speed’ with ‘the hot new thing’ – interdisciplinarity/transdisciplinarity are foundational to the discipline of Comp.Lit. – while on the other, they continued to discriminate against Comp.Lit. grad students in course enrollments and teaching assistantships and to Comp.Lit. Ph.Ds in hiring. At my university, one national literature dept. changed the official hiring criteria for sessional appointments from ‘advanced research/publishing/teaching’ in the area of the course in question, to ‘Ph.D in our National Literature’.
    So, I would absolutely second Sebastian’s comment that a major ‘drawback of interdisciplinarity is that it virtually shuts down any academic employment opportunity. Faculties and departments are looking for people from their own discipline.’

  5. James Mars, Professor Emeritus, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University / September 24, 2015 at 16:00

    I would like to second Kelly’s concerns about trying to turn “Interdisciplinary Studies” into undergraduate or
    graduate major fields. As an urban planner I come from a professional field and academic discipline which
    inherently draws on a number of disciplines beyond urban planning, depending on the interests of the student and the requirements of her or his thesis or dissertation. For example, at Cornell, I took key
    courses in economics, statistics, engineering, and sociology in addition to city planning. My major field was from planning with minor fields of economic theory and applied probability and statistics. But I wanted
    to remain in city and regional planning in order to qualify as a professional planner (which I did in the US and in Canada) and in order to teach planning students (which I did for 38 years at Ryerson University)
    Economists and Engineers who worked in overlapping subject areas sometimes looked askance at city
    planning (“It’s not an academic field”) But planning journals are regularly cited by researchers in many fields. Being in “Interdisciplinary Studies” is no substitute, but it is a WAY of doing research and practice!