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Risks and Rewards of an Interdisciplinary Research Path

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Science  17 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5704, pp. 2046
DOI: 10.1126/science.1103628

Interdisciplinarity has become synonymous with all things progressive about research and education, not because of some simple philosophic belief in heterogeneity but because of the scientific complexity of problems currently under study (1). In many fields, it is argued, the easy work is finished as scholars are confronted with questions that defy easy categorization in or solution by traditional disciplinary frameworks. In response, myriad interdisciplinary programs have arisen, from federal-level initiatives such as the National Institutes of Health Roadmap and the National Science Foundation Integrated Graduate Education and Training program to campus-based endeavors like the University of Illinois Beckman Institute and the Stanford University Bio-X Program.

The rise of interdisciplinarity has also spawned a vast literature on how interdisciplinary research and training should be organized, how scientists and students will behave, and how activities of such programs could be facilitated (26). There have been, however, fewer studies that seek to understand empirically the links between institutional initiatives, individual attributes, and professional implications (7, 8).

Between January 2002 and June 2003, we conducted surveys and interviews to analyze the interdisciplinary activities of researchers in five university-based programs funded under the NSF Environmental Research and Education portfolio (9). Entry into these programs was by application, invitation, and/or appointment.

We expected that because younger scientists are likely to have had more interdisciplinary exposure and less intellectual commitment to a particular field, they would be more predisposed toward these programs than their senior colleagues. At the same time, because senior faculty have accumulated greater professional freedom and more social resources, we thought that they would be more likely than their junior counterparts not only to affiliate with but also to collaborate in these programs.

Graduate students and full professors were indeed overrepresented in these programs as compared with other tenure-track researchers (see the table below) (10). However, apart from principal investigators who dominated large shares of interdisciplinary activity, graduate students demonstrated higher rates of interdisciplinarity than professors. Whereas 61 of 99 (62%) graduate students reported at least one interdisciplinary collaboration, only 72 of 147 professors (49%) claimed the same (11, 12).

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But, graduate students were also most likely to associate professional costs with interdisciplinarity. About 16% reported “negative” career effects of the program's “interdisciplinary” design (see the table). In describing real or perceived effects, graduate students indicated long-term costs. One described his position as “non-traditional, highly beneficial, but completely risky in the long run.” Another explained: “For those of us who begin interdisciplinary, we get to design a [personal] renaissance to meet the needs of real-world problems. This renaissance, however, comes at a price—it may take us longer to establish ourselves in our careers.” Several pointed to the greater prevalence of interdisciplinary role models among staff without tenure versus those with tenure.

When asked why they were willing to take these professional risks, graduate students frequently mentioned societal benefits. One student said “I have become very aware of the horrible inefficiency of the scientific enterprise in turning knowledge into useful products … so I came to branch out from what I was doing, to do something bigger and better, more intellectually interesting, and more practically important.” Another commented: “I am sorta' on the fringe of science—but I am dealing with the core problems of society.”

Our study supports the claim that “[b]right young scientists will gravitate toward the rich scientific opportunities at disciplinary boundaries” (13). It also suggests, however, that many still feel the tension between the scientific promise of the interdisciplinary path and the academic prospect of the tenure track.

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