12 July 2013

The joys and challenges of working across academic disciplines led four PhD students and an early career researcher to start an interdisciplinary support group.

Working across disciplines is a central ambition of Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) but there are challenges as well as advantages when you are trying to mix different academic cultures.

Which is why four PhD students and an early career researcher, whose work crosses the social/natural sciences divide, came together to create the Incredible Interdisciplinarians peer support group, as a way to help each other and their supervisors and to work with the department to embed interdisciplinarity into its thinking and processes.

The original five, who started the group 18 months ago, have grown into a 30 strong community, whose members offer support and advice to each other, as well as organising events to discuss interdisciplinary approaches to research.

Mrs Beth Brockett, one of the original five, explains how the group started up.

Crossing cultures

“It came about because LEC is actively trying to encourage interdisciplinary PhD projects, mixing up supervisors from different disciplines who wouldn’t normally work together,” Mrs Brockett said.

“That goal is very important but there are different cultures in the social and natural sciences, and also between disciplines within the natural sciences, for example and that can create problems. For instance in the natural sciences you normally have several co-authors on a research paper, including the research supervisor, whereas in social sciences that is very unusual.”

Mrs Brockett is a soil ecologist by training who worked as a community development officer before returning to academia to do her PhD. Her research uses above and below ground ecology and social theory to examine the ecological and social implications of using satellite imagery for farm environment planning.

“I have four supervisors, two from Lancaster University and two from Manchester University. That means I am trying to satisfy four very different disciplines which all work and think in different ways. The danger is that you end up with four different projects. So it has been very helpful to talk to other people facing the same issues.

“All PhD pathways are tough but the unique challenges of interdisciplinary research include integrating very different forms of enquiry within one coherent project in three years, satisfying the cultural and academic requirements of each academic discipline, and working within an academic system which prefers to separate us all into disciplines. However, I am passionate about both the topic and the approach and I have learned a lot from my peers in the Incredible Interdisciplinarians group.”

Events and workshops

“We have an email list and run internal and external events. We recently asked Dr. James Fraser, a new faculty member whose research is interdisciplinary, to talk about his work on man-made soils in Liberia to a packed audience from across the department and I recently ran a farmer-scientist knowledge-exchange workshop in Cumbria as part of my research.

“We run internal workshops where we discuss what interdisciplinarity means, look at best practice, and discuss how it is going to fit into the future of academia and how departments can support students and supervisors.”

“People arrange to have coffee within the group, and we send out queries to the group if we need help. We are all studying very different things. We have often not got anything in common in terms of the research we are doing, just in the approach we are taking.

A different approach

Despite the challenges of the interdisciplinary approach, Mrs Brockett believes it has great advantages.

“It’s not about being ‘broad and shallow’, its about a different approach to research, using whichever epistemological or methodological tools suit the research best. It’s a very interesting way of working.”

Most of the Incredible Interdisciplinarians are PhD students, along with a few early career researchers and staff members. Everyone is welcome. They are now keen to attract research masters students as well. Please contact Beth Brockett to find out more.