Reflections on an interdisciplinary Ph.D.
Dr Casandra Grundstrom
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
The demand for intersectoral and interdisciplinary research to tackle emerging phenomena is increasingly garnering attention and awareness. Major funding instruments from the European Research Council support research programmes such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) in order to address the societal need to educate and empower “T-shaped” experts in academia and business, primarily through leveraging Innovative Training Networks (ITN). One such ITN supported me through my Ph.D. and gave me the opportunity to become an early-stage researcher in Europe’s first connected health training programme. CHESS (or Connected Health Early-Stage Researcher Support System) emphasized disciplinary expertise from traditional training, intersecting with a wide number of ecosystems such as business, health science, information technology, and social science.
My ‘T’ was foundationally shaped through a technological business-oriented lens, but when I started my Ph.D. journey at the University of Oulu, I quickly realized that my subject of study – health data – could not be isolated to the concepts ‘health’, ‘IT’ or ‘business’ in a vacuum. Rather, it encompassed all of these things and more; a realization that made clear my inability to study these complicated phenomena and address critical questions of Connected Health without embracing an interdisciplinary research approach. CHESS, in turn, provided me with the network, support, and opportunities to grant me access to the spheres that constituted my research context – the private insurance sector, forums for European data policy, and clinical care pathways. While being granted access to these spaces is a prerequisite for being able to do research, navigating them in a productive manner remains the responsibility of the researcher, driven by their curiosity, and realized through the rigour of their work.
For anyone considering a Ph.D. with an intersectoral or interdisciplinary setting, I offer you four precepts synthesized from a reflection of my own Ph.D. process. Hopefully they will help you make the most of your time in the Chameleons Project.
The first precept regards the certainty that you are going to be pushed outside of your comfort zone during your Ph.D. studies, and the importance of embracing the unknown. Risk employing a methodology you might not have otherwise been able to, or study in an unfamiliar setting. Some of the most insightful results that carried my Ph.D. forward arose from acting in a fresh environment with access to different experts and the ecosystems they inhabited.
The second precept regards the importance of developing communication skills. It is critical that you develop your own practices as for how to communicate with other actors in a cross-disciplinary research field. This is done by taking the opportunity to present your research at meetings, conferences, webinars, and employing mediums such as posters and blogs. As the old adage goes: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough yourself. Being able to match the level of your dissemination to specific audiences with varying degrees of technical and academic understanding is essential for effectively conveying your research to others. This skill also translates to writing grants and funding applications down the road, a career-critical process which will not always be examined by experts from your own field of expertise.
The third precept concerns research pragmatism. Do what you need to do to get the job done, and don´t get stuck in a notion of perfection. It is very unlikely for the Ph.D. output to be the crowning achievement of an academic career. At the same time, you should not overlook or exclude what others have to offer to your journey. Every person knows at least one thing that you don’t. The other side of that coin is that you similarly will have something unique to offer to the discourse, which is part of the beauty of participating in interdisciplinary research.
The fourth and final precept can be summarized in the following way: network. In my experience the networking you do at your workplace, research sites, and during conferences and training are just as important, if not more so, than the ability to sit down for weeks at a time to churn out articles. Having contacts that complement gaps in your own expertise and that you enjoy working with will increase your chances to participate in creating quality publications down the line, both in the context of your immediate Ph.D. process but also in your continued academic career. Most lasting and valuable academic connections are forged during dinners, gathering for breakfasts, travelling together, planning events, or working on articles together.
In summary; take risks, learn how to communicate, don´t worry about perfection, and build your network. I hope that my reflections on the Ph.D. process can help you navigate the uncertain waters of interdisciplinary research!