Rebecca Rutstein and the Ocean Memory Project, "Blue Dreams" (2023), still from the 2 minute and 40 second digital video.

Navigating Interdisciplinary Careers

In “Finding the ‘I’ in Interdisciplinarity” (Issues, Spring 2023), Annie Y. Patrick raises important challenges for both interdisciplinary research—an oft-cited, rarely achieved aim in contemporary scholarship—and qualitative research more broadly. Many norms of traditional inquiry implicitly encourage the separation of the researcher from the research, a condition that Patrick compellingly argues against. The received wisdom is that researchers should leave their backgrounds, traditional or otherwise, “at the door.” This is a necessary critique of bracketing—where researchers consider what assumptions they bring to a research endeavor and then set them aside for the purposes of conducting and analyzing the phenomenon—and its implications.

As an interdisciplinary researcher myself, I know from experience that explicitly sharing points of commonality and difference within diverse teams is essential for the conduct of fulfilling research. After all, researchers are people first. What I find especially powerful in Patrick’s essay is the insistence on the human element of social science research for both the researcher and the researched. As she writes, “they were not simply informants or categories of data, but actual humans.” Why might Patrick be intimidated by the engineering faculty at Virginia Tech? She has seen patients and their families at their absolute lowest and quickly earned their trust and care. The faculty are only human, too.

Explicitly sharing points of commonality and difference within diverse teams is essential for the conduct of fulfilling research. After all, researchers are people first.

Similarly, I see her work explaining the real-life challenges of the student experience to faculty as reminding them that students are human, too, and have a whole host of embodied needs and experiences outside of classroom performance. Implicitly, Patrick calls the academy to task for treating humans with impersonal language such as “informants” and encourages researchers to claim our backgrounds that inform our research, and hopefully informs our groundwork as well.

I find Patrick’s call to action through groundwork to be a useful corrective. “When I saw something going wrong,” she writes, “my every professional instinct was to intervene.” As researchers, if we see something truly wrong and harmful taking place, shouldn’t we intervene? Her essay also reminded me of the gendered professions of both engineering and nursing. Despite being historically associated with men and women respectively, the emphasis on weed-out culture in both areas and how that interacts with gender could be something to further consider in the future. For these and other reasons, I appreciate this powerful and thought-provoking essay and its lessons very much.

Incoming Assistant Professor, Higher Education Studies & Leadership

Baylor University

Annie Y. Patrick makes astute observations about the challenges of interdisciplinary research. She describes “feeling out of place” and having to come to grips with unfamiliar jargon and disciplinary assumptions. These are experiences that will no doubt resonate with many researchers who work in interdisciplinary contexts. She also takes the brave step of sharing a mindset shift she went through during her PhD—one that went from viewing expertise as being about depth in a single domain and eschewing “non-scholarly” experience, to drawing on the full complement of her work and life experiences.

Patrick encourages researchers “to embrace their whole selves” in pursuit of interdisciplinarity. This kind of mindset is not commonly discussed as a critical ingredient for interdisciplinarity, but it should be. Embracing one’s whole self involves recognizing the importance of experiences beyond academia, as well as the multiple hats many of us wear—as colleagues, family members, and members of our broader communities. For interdisciplinary collaborations to really work, members of the team need to be valued for what each brings to the table. Taking time to appreciate the richness of our own experiences hopefully opens us up to appreciate those of others too. And indeed, to find shared ground beyond our academic silos. Caring for the individuals in an interdisciplinary collaboration—not just the subject matter—is an important ingredient for interdisciplinary success, as are good doses of curiosity and humility.

For interdisciplinary collaborations to really work, members of the team need to be valued for what each brings to the table.

Patrick’s account offers us tangible and positive examples of what interdisciplinarity can bring to a project. But from her description it’s clear that challenges still remain to achieving the interdisciplinary integration called for by the National Academies. For instance, it seems as if the interventions she developed at Virginia Tech were “extras” to the project she was part of, rather than central to the work of revolutionizing engineering education. Patrick emphasized the support and good will she received from more senior scholars, having demonstrated her work ethic and commitment to the project over four years. This kind of support is not always forthcoming. Junior scholars are often the ones who end up doing the risky work of interdisciplinarity. And they must typically do this in addition to achieving the milestones and depth seen as necessary to be experts in their own disciplinary domain.

Interdisciplinary interventions of the kinds Patrick describes—a podcast, career panels, and white papers—aren’t necessarily valued as highly as a peer-reviewed publication in a high-profile journal. Yet in practice these are likely more effective ways of bringing diverse communities together around shared concerns. For interdisciplinary research to become more embedded in academia, we need stronger support and reward systems for junior scholars embarking on this important but time-intensive and risky work.

Associate Professor

School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

Arizona State University

“I was surprised to discover that becoming an effective interdisciplinary researcher also required that I embrace the value of what I call inner interdisciplinarity—my own unconventional background—and what it could bring to the team,” Annie Y. Patrick writes. Her personal reflection on the labor of academia—the conversations, the comprehensibility-making—foregrounds infrastructures for engagement by academics in our professional practice that may exceed our disciplinary training.

Those of us who study knowledge in general—and the convergence of science, technology, and society (STS) in particular—often write about people who hold a single disciplinary identity, be they electrical engineers, geophysicists, or something else entirely. Through the kinds of training scholars such as Patrick and myself have experienced, we also become “disciplined” and develop certain shared ways to be in the world. These ways of being often diverge significantly from those cultivated by the engineers and scientists we study, making contrasts particularly evident when we examine their technoscientific work or seek to enter collaborations with them. But as Patrick reminds us, we may not be trained in only a single discipline. The ways of being we’ve been trained into are not simply lost when we undertake thinking and acting in new ways. Or if that happens to some people, it certainly doesn’t happen to all.

The ways of being we’ve been trained into are not simply lost when we undertake thinking and acting in new ways.

I’ve never switched disciplines—at least not to the extent that Patrick has. I consistently pursued training in cultural anthropology since I discovered it existed, during my second year of college many decades back, then while concentrating on STS, and then more. For me, this experience was one of alignment, though my expertise and practice has developed through slow, iterative, contradictory personal and professional experiences. I lay them out in my 2023 book, ¡Alerta!, which examines a controversial technology developed in Mexico City to mitigate earthquake risk and, through that, considers how engineers and other experts are theorizing life with threatening environments. There, I make the case that these experiences have accumulated to make my life and scholarship possible in ways that are methodologically important to grapple with.

Patrick reflects on her efforts to apply insights, using her frustration to highlight her disciplinarities. As she does so, she highlights an important puzzle: What is an application? What counts as a viable answer to the perennial question so what? What can we conceive as meaningful implementation, and who might we see as fellow travelers in these efforts? We must understand that this, too, might be trained into us by our disciplines and schools of thought.

Patrick documents a pathway that led, eventually, to what she terms her “groundwork.” There are so very many others, though, with radically different ways of understanding that puzzle and figuring out what kinds of activities could flourish in their resolutions. I think the “making and doing” movement in STS is most exciting when it opens a space for many conceptions of conceiving of action and gives us the tools to understand their different logics, from radical to institutional. As such, it can also be a space for exploring how we might choose to articulate our disciplinary backgrounds and commitments—for imagining and reimagining STS and scholarly life too.

Assistant Professor, Department of Engineering, Design, and Society

Associate Director, Humanitarian Engineering and Science

Colorado School of Mines

Cite this Article

“Navigating Interdisciplinary Careers.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 4 (Summer 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Summer 2023