10 tips for next generation interdisciplinary research

By Rachel Kelly

Author - Rachel Kelly
Rachel Kelly (biography)

Can we develop a shared understanding on how to engage in an interdisciplinary setting that will be useful in addressing current and future grand challenges?

Advice provided by interdisciplinary experts from 25 countries, across all continents, and with over 240 years cumulative experience (Kelly, et al., 2019) is combined here into succinct guidance that aims to empower researchers wishing to engage in interdisciplinary endeavors. The ten tips are also summarized in the figure below (focused on socio-ecological researchers).

  1. Develop an area of expertise – A core grounding shapes your research identity and will guide your ability to contribute and engage in interdisciplinary collaborations.
  2. Learn new languages – Strive to express your research in ways that are clear and understandable to others outside of your discipline or expertise.
  3. Be open-minded – Consciously be open to learning and new ways of doing things, particularly to engage in collaborations that include knowledges that are new to you.
  4. Be patient – Establishing and conducting interdisciplinary research takes time, and lots of it! Allocate time in the research process for iterative stages of learning, communicating and shared reflection.
  5. Embrace complexity – Interdisciplinary research is integrative and brings people together to combine their collective expertise. Collaborations should include input from all members of the research team. Always remember that every researcher can make a valid contribution.
  6. Collaborate widely – Ditch your ego in interdisciplinary research; collaborative approaches demand the ability to work and get along with others.
  7. Push your boundaries – Make attempts, big and small, to get beyond your comfort zone. Expose yourself to new perspectives, opinions and novel ideas.
  8. Consider if you will engage in interdisciplinary research – Interdisciplinary careers are not necessary, or necessarily appealing, to everyone, and disciplinary research will continue to play an important role. Consider what’s the best approach for you and your career goals.

The next two tips focus at the leadership and research culture levels.

  1. Foster interdisciplinary culture – Give others freedom to work and think across disciplinary borders. In particular, research leaders can provide and foster space for interdisciplinary projects to be discussed and developed.
  2. Champion interdisciplinary researchers – Great interdisciplinary research deserves recognition akin to single-disciplinary research. Research leaders and institutions can create opportunities (and reduce barriers) by recognising excellent interdisciplinary research.
Infographic; rachel kelly; 10 Tips for Next Generation Interdisciplinary Research
Graphic by Stacey McCormack at McCorkStudios.com; copyright: Rachel Kelley and colleagues

Reader, have you any other tips you’d like to share? What has worked best for you when collaborating in interdisciplinary research?

To find out more:
Kelly, R., Mackay, M., Nash, K. L., Cvitanovic, C., Allison, E. H., Armitage, D., Bonn, A., Cooke, S. J., Frusher, S., Fulton, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Lopes, P. F. M., Milner-Gulland, E. J., Peck, M. A.. Pecl, G. T., Stephenson, R. L. and Werner, F. (2019). Ten tips for developing interdisciplinary socio-ecological researchers. Socio-Ecological Practice Research, 1, 2: 149–161 (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s42532-019-00018-2

Biography: Rachel Kelly is a researcher at the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania, Australia, working to improve public engagement with the ocean and marine science. Her research focuses on the human dimensions of marine conservation, and includes inter- and trans- disciplinary concepts including social licence, ocean literacy, marine citizenship and citizen science.

5 thoughts on “10 tips for next generation interdisciplinary research”

  1. Great range of suggestions! Let me add, if I may, number eleven. Although many people shy away from “theory” because theories seem so often seem overly esoteric (even within one’s own discipline) and downright confusing (when the come from another discipline) we’ve found a clear and direct approach to synthesizing theoretical perspectives. Basically, that involves creating a causal knowledge map of each theory from each discipline or stakeholder group; then, integrating the maps to create a more useful, more actionable map to support planning. For example: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/K-03-2018-0136/full/html

    • Thanks Steve for sharing! Interesting approach and yes, hopefully one that can be used to map strengths and overlaps that can contribute to more successful collaborations.

  2. James,

    Great to see that our research can be applied across sectors and approaches – glad to see its uptake in HTI.

    Best regards,

  3. Rachel,
    Thank you for your clear, concise and informative article on this otherwise complex topic. This reply is primarily to let you know that I’ve shared your article on LinkedIn with the following text, which “borrows” your detail on interdisciplinary science to clarify the Humaneering Technology Initiative’s transdisciplinary project.

    “The Humaneering Technology Initiative (HTI) is a transdisciplinary research and development effort (transdisciplinary is roughly equivalent to interdisciplinary plus additional non-disciplinary knowledge). This article briefly shares many of the issues that distinguish interdisciplinary (and transdisciplinary) science from disciplinary science, with the latter more commonly discussed in public media. They are different based on the breadth of science disciplines considered. Neither is better necessarily, as both play an important role in the overall scientific enterprise.

    Transdisciplinary research and development are essential for “grand challenges” like HTI’s work to create a universal technology for optimizing applications of “living” human nature (e.g., work, learning, well-being), similar to how engineering is our universal technology for optimizing with “non-living” physical nature.

    The fact that HTI chose “human work” as it’s initial area of focus should not limit your imagination for the many potential ways humaneering can eventually contribute to our lives and the lives of our children and their children.”

    Thanks again for your helpful work.


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