Interdisciplinarity in PhD research
Dr Louise Brennan
Trinity College Dublin
In the first week of my PhD, I joined a meeting at the university where I listened to a physiotherapist and a computer scientist discuss how they worked together to develop a machine-learning algorithm for detecting abnormal gait in older adults. This type of collaboration was novel and exciting for me, and that memory really sticks out as my introduction to the world of interdisciplinary research.
In the most simple terms, interdisciplinarity can be defined as "involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines." To apply the concept to PhD research, I'd like to expand on this definition: from my experience, interdisciplinarity involves integrating approaches with researchers of other disciplines and learning from diverse and complementary fields of study; it allows the researcher to develop collaboration skills, enhance empathy and creativity, and explore new ways of thinking and analysing information.
It wasn't long until I realised the extent to which interdisciplinarity would feature throughout my PhD in digital health for cancer rehabilitation. The field of digital health is, in fact, a fundamentally interdisciplinary one, combining digital technology and healthcare. My research involved developing a digital rehabilitation support system for breast cancer, and this relied upon close collaborations between myself and my colleagues, across the fields of physiotherapy, computer science and software development.
I was fortunate to be part of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Innovative Training Network CATCH ITN, which had interdisciplinarity at its core. We were eight PhD researchers, from seven different disciplines, working across academia, industry and clinical settings. There was no room to get comfortable or complacent - we were constantly learning, moving, sharing knowledge, and embedding ourselves in diverse settings with new colleagues. In my experience, this kind of interdisciplinary PhD programme helps develop a cohort of adaptable, creative researchers with the skills to solve problems not just in the lab but in real-world contexts.
Interdisciplinarity improves our research in both quality and impact; it's a perfect example of the phrase 'our whole is greater than the sum of our parts'. Additionally, interdisciplinarity allows one to explore not just how different professions overlap, but also to understand differences in values and methods. Areas for potential conflict can be identified, and researchers can grow their collaboration and leadership skills to navigate these different dynamics.
On a global scale, interdisciplinarity is the key to addressing the big problems facing humanity: for example, the climate change crisis is being tackled through collaborations between natural scientists, engineers, and social scientists. While your own research or work may not go so far as to solve global warming, its impact will certainly be enhanced by interdisciplinary working, and, furthermore, you will enhance the work of those you collaborate with.