From the Science Student Council
Interdisciplinary research collaborations
By Joshua C. Palmer
As psychological scientists, we are often trained in a variety of research methods, theories and content areas that can be applied in multiple contexts. Our comprehensive training allows us to contribute to and advance knowledge across disciplines. The purpose of this article is to discuss the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations and provide tips for pursuing research collaborations.
Benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations
New theories and perspectives
One of the greatest benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations is that they allow researchers to view problems from a new perspective. Perhaps you and your colleagues can be the first to introduce the latest construct or theory from social psychology to a criminal justice or sports context. Sometimes these collaborations can create new lines of inquiry and streams of research.
Funding exclusively for interdisciplinary research
Some funding agencies have set aside awards or grants specifically for interdisciplinary research. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has grant funding that is earmarked for teams that integrate perspectives from two or more disciplines. Additionally, the American Psychological Association offers its Prize for Interdisciplinary Team Research, given biennially (the next competition will be held in 2018).
Networking is a huge component of the graduate student experience. Participating in interdisciplinary collaboration provides an opportunity to expand your network and attend new conferences. For example, I had no technical knowledge of engineering but had the opportunity to join a lab of engineers, quantitative methodologists and industrial-organization psychology graduate students examining the practices of engineering leadership development programs. Our lab was able to combine a mix of survey methods with knowledge of leadership development practices to design a project to collect data from an international sample of leadership development program directors. At the conclusion of the project, I was also able to attend an engineering conference to present our findings.
You just might stumble upon your “calling”
Even though you are a graduate student in psychology, you are not tied to seeking a traditional academic career in a psychology department. Interdisciplinary collaborations can open doors for academic careers in other disciplines (e.g., business, criminal justice, education, law, public health) or nonacademic positions (e.g., consulting, health professions, program evaluation). Interdisciplinary collaborations provide a great opportunity to see if you truly know what you want to do “when you grow up.”
Identify research synergies
Speak with your advisor
It is always a good idea to speak with your advisor about your interest in starting an interdisciplinary collaboration early in the process. First, depending on your relationship and assistantship, you may need to request permission to work on external projects. Second, advisors may be able to introduce you to people in their networks (or give you tips on successful collaborations they have had in the past).
Tips for finding people at your university who are outside of your network
One of the best ways to find potential colleagues from other disciplines is to identify which departments on campus engage in related research. For example, if you are a community psychologist who looks at delinquency, you may want to see if your school has a criminal justice department. If your university lists research interests or vitas online, scroll through the department faculty listings to see if you can find a faculty member with similar interests.
Finding people at other universities
If you are looking to locate faculty at other universities, you may want to conduct a literature search on relevant keywords. Likewise, academic social networking platforms such as ResearchGate and Google Scholar may be helpful resources.
Preparation for first contact
Read their vita
Make sure you have a broad understanding of your potential collaborators’ research program. I would recommend identifying and reading a few of their papers before the meeting. This can show you have done your “homework” and you will have something to discuss if there is an awkward silence.
Come up with at least one research idea
From my experience, faculty members respond more favorably when you approach them with a specific research idea. Obviously, this idea does not need to be flawless but it should be advanced enough to demonastrate how your research interests complement theirs.
Be selective about whom you contact
There are two main reasons why I would recommend contacting only one person at a time. First, if you send emails to multiple faculty members, you may find that several of them are interested in working with you on unique (i.e., unrelated) projects. Thus, you may find yourself overextended or in the unfortunate position of having to back out of some projects. Second, faculty often have tight social networks. You do not want to be remembered as the thirsty graduate student who contacted every member in the department.
Remember to be respectful of the differences between your disciplines
Each discipline has its norms. When conversing with potential collaborators, you will likely have some disagreements based on theory, research methods, or writing styles. It is important to acknowledge these differences and discuss them in a respectful manner.
Interdisciplinary collaborations have provided and will continue to provide findings that change the way we look at problems. As psychological scientists, it is essential that we work with colleagues from other disciplines and learn to embrace our commonalities and engage in a civil dialogue based on empiricism and scientific theory.
About the author
Joshua Palmer is the former industrial/organizational representative to the APA Science Student Council. He is a second-year doctoral student at Florida State University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.
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