Student Notebook

Psychologists Without Borders: A Graduate Student Perspective on Interdisciplinary Research

Psychology is emerging as a hub in a new intellectual world without borders (Cacioppo, 2007). This development is exciting on many counts, as it promises innovative cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplines to tackle complex human and natural problems. A strong culture of teamwork is also increasingly permeating science, and, with psychology as a hub science, psychologists are in a solid position to be key players in this interdisciplinary enterprise. Graduate students are greatly affected by this changing academic landscape. Here, I present some of the challenges, opportunities, and strategies of interdisciplinary research from the point of view of a graduate student with some experience in crossing borders and fences in order to understand the brain and behavior.

Challenges – Personal and Beyond

Of the many challenges in trying to establish myself, not only in a foreign land, but also in an interdisciplinary position, two related ones stand out. First, I needed to convince peers and faculty members that my research was relevant to both departments (psychology and biology). This was doubly hard since I had to convince two different audiences with totally different backgrounds,  different vocabularies, and quite contrasting notions of what good knowledge is. Such a challenge is amplified for a student, who may not be seen as an expert in any one particular field, much less two. I still sometimes encounter audiences critical of my attempts to use molecular biology for psychological research. Sometimes they are driven by skepticism of what I actually know about biology, but most of the time, they still believe that psychology is a social science not readily amenable to anything molecular.

This inherent skepticism helps drives another challenge of interdisciplinary research: how to garner support and funding. Although my biology student peers knew my work through years of collaboration, I was never an official biology student.  Thus, I still needed to earn organizational and administrative acceptance from the biology department. Moreover, although my home department (psychology), especially the departmental head, gave strong administrative and moral support to my broad interests, finding funding was difficult. The social sciences faculty to which the psychology department belonged did not have the means to support biological research requiring animal access and large amounts of consumables. Eventually, I found a generous and dedicated supervisor in biology that paid for my research using other grants.

My  experiences mainly occurred outside North America, but they seem to be common to students here in the United States as well. According to one study, graduate students were more likely than  postdoctoral fellows or faculty members to report negative effects due to carrying out interdisciplinary research (Rhoten & Parker, 2004). Graduate students in explicitly interdisciplinary programs (such as the National Science Foundation’s [NSF] Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) also feel that interdisciplinary epistemologies can cause students to be “intellectually disoriented” and suffer “exhilarated exhaustion” (Graybill et al., 2006, p. 760). Students bemoan the lack of successful and tenured role models in interdisciplinary research, which prevents these students from being fully committed to an interdisciplinary enterprise (Rhoten & Parker, 2004).

Overall, I believe that having such amorphous academic citizenship may impact students and beginning researchers more adversely than it would senior faculty members who want to do interdisciplinary research. These less experienced researchers may misinterpret a lack of acceptance and support as a reflection of their own ability to complete such research and not see the real reasons — interdisciplinary research simply doesn’t conform to people’s expectations. This can have the pernicious effect of driving such students out of research completely. Furthermore, in fields and universities that still have traditional boundaries, an interdisciplinary researcher might be at a disadvantage when compared to others who fit the more traditional mold.

Opportunities & Strategies

Despite these real challenges, being part of an interdisciplinary effort can be extremely rewarding. I have conquered biological techniques that have the power to address questions about causes of behavior, published papers outside of mainstream psychology journals that reach out to a broader audience, and been mentored by dedicated teachers from both biology and psychology. “The widening of [my] horizon,” a value of interdisciplinary education that was already recognized by psychologist Josef Brozek more than half a century ago (Brozek & Keys, 1944, p. 508), is, of course, the most satisfying and humbling reward.

For students who may be interested in pursuing interdisciplinary research and education, here are some ways that you can get involved. Numerous interdisciplinary training programs and research centers exist, usually set up around a major problem or question (e.g., neuroeconomics, gerontology, neuroscience, behavioral genomics, etc.). For undergraduate students thinking of graduate school, consider applying to these. For graduate students already in traditional PhD programs, apply for summer grants to affiliate yourself with another department or institute to learn new techniques and to collaborate with others. One way to identify potential collaborators would be to do a literature search for a particular problem (e.g., emotion, perception, etc.) and then read up on papers published in non-psychology journals, even obscure ones! By identifying faculty members already engaged in interdisciplinary research, you may be able to maximize your chances of being trained more broadly and of collaborating beyond psychology. For those in the United States, the NSF now has fellowships and research proposals for the interdisciplinary track, so take full advantage of that option. Advanced graduate students looking for research positions that not only tolerate but also reward interdisciplinary research can refer to the National Academies reports listed below on programs and universities with a strong interdisciplinary emphasis.

The trend toward interdisciplinary research to solve many complex human and natural problems is encouraging, and there should be further discourse on the unique challenges facing graduate students in such a context. From my own experience, being a curious researcher without borders, though challenging, can be a rewarding adventure.

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