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These notes were developed by the Energy Geographies Research Group as part of a webinar in the RGS-IBG Research Groups Professional Development and Mentoring Series, which took place on 24 June 2023. They draw on discussion in the webinar and comments from multiple colleagues.

Interdisciplinarity is often presented as something that academics should aspire to in the jobs we apply for, the articles we publish, and the grants we pursue. This is because emergent phenomena are never solely or inherently spatial/psychological/social/human/chemical/physical/etc., and in dividing our analysis of events into discrete disciplinary approaches and bodies of literature, we inevitably reduce the complexity of emergent phenomena and our understandings of them. 

Yet, interdisciplinarity is not one thing. How you imagine it, and how someone else interprets it, will likely differ significantly in practice. Therefore, it is worthwhile thinking very carefully about what the objectives of working across disciplines should be, what the benefits of this mode of working are, and how, precisely, it might work in practice. It is essential to be able to communicate your answers to these questions clearly and show in no uncertain terms the value of interdisciplinary practice.

Truly interdisciplinary research takes a lot of time and effort. It requires careful reflection, discussion, and negotiation. You need to work out interdisciplinary vocabularies, create systems and spaces for communication, and you need to have a clear understanding of your overall aims, and the value of individual contributions. Interdisciplinarity is not something that should be taken lightly, or simply nodded towards in a tokenistic way.

The following is a list of advice on how to navigate interdisciplinarity from colleagues across human geography, developed through their experiences of interdisciplinary working. It was curated during an RGS-IBG mentoring and professional development workshop in June 2023. 

 

Navigating Interdisciplinarity in Job Applications

Some roles will explicitly call for interdisciplinary expertise. For others, where you have interdisciplinary expertise and/or interests, you may want to foreground this in your application even where it is not explicitly called for.

 

Know yourself

  • One approach can be to develop skills in a small number of (sub-)disciplinary areas (e.g. three, like a tripod). This way, you can lean more heavily on different legs for different job vacancies. For example, if you work on political ecology, energy transitions, and development geographies, you have three broad areas that you can apply for jobs in, and tell a coherent narrative about your career trajectory around.
  • There is more to working interdisciplinarily than being able to work with others. What specific skills and expertise do you have? What would these qualities add to the position? How would they make you the best possible candidate?
  • What are you genuinely interested in? Passion is important, and if you know from the beginning that you don’t want to work on specific topics or in specific fields, then it is worth thinking hard about why you are applying for that position.
  • A useful exercise can be to reflect on where you want to be in your research in 3-, 5-, and 10-years’ time. If you can articulate clearly how the position you are applying for fits into and helps build up to your intended future trajectory, then people will be more convinced that you are invested in the role.
  • Be kind to yourself! Applying for jobs is hard. It is time consuming and emotionally exhausting. You often must mentally inhabit the role and imagine yourself relocating to a new place, and a new team. A certain resilience and assertiveness are often needed, especially if you are trying to project an image of yourself within an interdisciplinary role that requires a knowledge of different areas of expertise. Your health is the most important thing though, so be kind to yourself! Most people, especially those at early stages in their careers, often apply for scores of jobs before they get a position… 

 

Know the position

  • This is key. The more information you can acquire about a role, the team, the project partners, the department, the faculty, and the wider university, the better. You need to try to tailor yourself to the interests of each of these groups, showing clearly how you fit.
  • Know the job criteria, and how you can speak to them. You want to make sure it’s a good match on the majority of these, particularly for essential criteria. If you think you might fit some but not all the criteria, you can speak to the person who is listed as a contact point for the role for advice, as it can still be worthwhile applying.
  • Read everything you can find online, including about the organisation/team/colleagues you would be working with. Think carefully about how you might speak to their different disciplinary interests. In specifically interdisciplinary roles, it will be important to show how you can fit into and build upon research in different areas.
  • Contact the hiring panel. Often, a member of the panel will be listed as a contact point for asking questions. Make use of this – it may give you an edge, or help you decide that it is not worth applying for that position.
  • There are big differences between positions on research projects and positions within a department or faculty. For a project, your overall goal is to show how your skills will fit the needs of the project and how you will enable the project objectives to be achieved. A good knowledge of the research problem and any benefits of interdisciplinarity (if it is a requirement or encouraged) is useful. For a department or faculty position, your goal is to show how well you fit or complement the existing staff base, but also to show how you will expand the expertise of the department or faculty. It is also useful to reflect on the wider university’s objectives and strategy when applying for these positions. 

 

Present Yourself Carefully

  • An interest in interdisciplinarity alone is not enough to be successful. You need to show how your specific skills and experience working in and across different fields will contribute in precise ways to the objectives or the project/department/faculty you would be joining. How will an interdisciplinary approach result in better outcomes and knowledge production? What is the value-added that you bring?
  • Present an accurate and coherent picture of yourself that exists beyond the page. Present your interests, intended publications, targeted grants, etc. in as much detail as possible, as part of a coherent career trajectory. That means listing the titles of those articles, their target journals, your planned submission dates, and so on. Also provide a sense how the position you are applying for fits your current interests/objectives, and where you want to be in 5 years’ time,  providing a strong idea of how this position will help you to get there.
  • Tailor your application. What you present will rarely be a complete picture of yourself. Every job application (including cover letters, CVs, interviews, presentations, etc.) should be tailored to the specific role that you are applying for, and to the mission and priorities of the institution. It should only include material that is directly relevant to that position, and that will support the coherent narrative that you are the best person for the job. Think about how you label yourself, what skills you have that are relevant to the position, what the priorities are of the hiring committee, and potentially what the project or department lacks, showing how you might fill this void. Draw on the points above about knowing yourself and knowing the role for which you are applying.
  • Update your profile online. The hiring committees will often look you up online, too. Think carefully about how you present yourself publicly, beyond the job application itself.

 

Navigating Interdisciplinarity in Grant Proposals

  • Interdisciplinarity means different things to different people. Take time to think about what you think interdisciplinarity should mean in relation to the project; make sure that everyone involved in the project has a shared understanding of interdisciplinarity; and communicate clearly in the proposal how this interdisciplinarity will be operationalised. This latter point is important because the panel members evaluating the proposal will also think about interdisciplinarity in different ways and may not be experts in any particular disciplinary area.
  • High-quality interdisciplinary grant proposals take time to develop. You need to develop working relationships with people from across disciplines, develop a strong rationale for each element of the project (and an overall justification for the project that integrates these approaches), show the potential benefits of these elements, and develop a shared vocabulary for different skills, terms, and approaches used across the team. This time investment is worth it and can result in other outputs later down the line, but it is important to recognise up-front, and decide whether you want to commit to it.
  • Writing interdisciplinary proposals takes emotional labour. You need to reframe and think through your work from different perspectives repeatedly.
  • Interdisciplinarity takes work during the project. The team should have a commitment to interdisciplinary interactions. The approach of the principal investigator, their ability to understand the value of work conducted from different disciplinary approaches, and their ability to integrate this work is also critical to the running of a truly interdisciplinary research project. Evidencing this ability in the proposal is important, if interdisciplinarity is a key feature of the project.
  • Try to keep in minds the ends as well as the means. What is the purpose of interdisciplinarity? What benefits/new forms of knowledge will be realised through working in this way? Think about impact here. Make sure this is explicit in the proposal. Getting the overarching narrative of a project and its significance right is key.
  • Try to be clear on the limitations of other approaches. For instance, many projects that poorly implement interdisciplinarity tend to tack social scientific research on at the end, rather than integrate these approaches from the beginning, in the design stages.
  • Finding a good group of people to work with is important. It means that, if the bid is successful, then you have a good set of colleagues who can work well together. And if the bid is not successful, then you still have a team that can come together to write papers and further bids.
  • Seed funding pots and small grants can be important resources to help you to develop interdisciplinary research and larger grant proposals. Often, interdisciplinary research is issues based, and more experimental small grant funding can help you to iron out challenges around working across disciplines before you apply for the larger grants. They are often also less time intensive to apply for and provide evidence to a funder you can work as a team. 

 

Navigating Interdisciplinarity in Publishing

  • Before you begin writing think about the reason you are trying to speak across disciplinary boundaries (and which disciplinary boundaries you are crossing).
  • Be clear about the audience for specific articles, and who will be reading what, where. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Is the best approach to submit a single article to an interdisciplinary journal, or would you be better off repackaging some of those arguments and submitting different articles to different subject-specific journals? Knowing who you are trying to speak to and why is important and will guide you on how.
  • Think carefully about what good interdisciplinary practice consists of. How do you facilitate communication/conversation across topics, and end up with a coherent output? Organising workshops, careful editorial steers, and so on may help with encouraging contributors to make interdisciplinary connections that exceed simply different approaches sitting alongside one another.
  • Don’t be scared to be creative! How might alternative formats, non-traditional manuscript arrangements, or online resources be integrated into your outputs to enable new ways of reading across disciplinary divides?
  • As always, doing interdisciplinarity properly takes time. If you are working with co-authors, or contributors to a book or special issue, then you need to allow time and space for debating and negotiating across disciplines. This can be challenging but is often productive.
  • If you are looking to use your publication record to apply for interdisciplinary jobs,  publish in interdisciplinary journals. Hiring panels will look at your publication record!
  • The response you receive to interdisciplinarity may depend heavily on the reviewer. Trying to clearly communicate the value of an interdisciplinary approach is often useful.
  • Interdisciplinary outputs can often be challenging to write from a word count perspective. Try to practice briefly summarising your approach to integrating disciplines, and what specific disciplinary approaches contribute to your output. Being able to write succinctly is an important skill.
  • Think carefully about the terms and vocabularies that you use. Your readers may not be as well versed in the terms you are familiar with. If in doubt, get someone from outside your discipline to proof-read your work.