Making interdisciplinary research work

Network News Spring 2010, Vol. 23 No. 1

The LTER network provides a unique opportunity to facilitate synthetic research across sites. Indeed, linking social and ecological systems through interdisciplinary collaborative research is essential for addressing contemporary research questions. Yet, many graduate students find this kind of research extremely challenging.. This "collaboration conundrum" was the focus of a 2009 LTER ASM working group meeting, from which we present three pertinent benefits and barriers for graduate students, along with recommendations for addressing the outlined challenges. 


Cross-site collaborative research advances students’ knowledge of theory and research methods, which can inform their research questions.  Collaboration also allows students to develop the necessary expertise to work collectively  --  a skill that is highly valued and will be critical as they advance in their careers.  However, students may have difficulty identifying collaborators, especially amongst fellow students.  Additionally, students working within a limited time frame find it difficult to establish meaningful collaborations. Lastly, students may be challenged by dissimilar language and theoretical approaches used by different disciplines.


Increased connectivity across sites and disciplines may broaden a graduate student’s existing paradigms and help create and synthesize new ones.  Unfortunately, this connectivity may be undermined by institutional and educational constraints ranging from disparate training across disciplines to logistical issues, such as cross-listing courses. While the structure of many graduate degree programs lean toward specialization, successful integration of interdisciplinary research requires a working knowledge of many subjects beyond one’s chosen field. 


Graduate students engaged in cross-site interdisciplinary research are well positioned to generate new insights by drawing on colleagues' perspectives and juxtaposing multiple long-term datasets from disparate biomes.  Comparing systems with different biophysical characteristics, histories, cultures, and other drivers can lead to interesting questions and a broader, synthetic understanding of the social and ecological functioning of ecosystems.  However, such research can be hindered by difficulties in obtaining data -- often collected and analyzed through disparate methods from multiple sites.  The problem becomes increasingly complicated when combining social and ecological data, perhaps easily integrated at one research site but not meaningfully transferable across many sites. 

Drawing on the experiences of working group members, we offer three recommendations to graduate students and one general recommendation to facilitate cross-site interdisciplinary research among graduate students. First, make collaborative interdisciplinary research part of your dissertation as early as possible and select a program and advisor who is supportive of this type of research. Second, select committee members who will foster collaborations and facilitate interdisciplinary training. Third, commit to learning the language of the different disciplines in your collaboration to enable effective communication with your collaborators. Finally, it is essential that LTER provides graduate students with more opportunities for training in interdisciplinary theory and methods, and increases funding for graduate students to engage in collaborative research.   

We hope that our acknowledgment of the benefits and barriers to cross-site socio-ecological research will act as a catalyst to encourage conversations between undergraduate and graduate students, advisors, and institutions about strengthening these important partnerships.

By Sydne Record (HFR), Kirsten Schwarz (BES), Elizabeth M. Cook (CAP), and Greg Losada (FCE)


Our working group collaborators, who were instrumental in sharing their ideas and experiences, included:

  • O. Bartlett
  • F.S. Chapin III
  • M. Chen
  • L. Cray
  • G. Koch
  • R. Garvoille
  • S. Geiger
  • R. Hale
  • A. Hamilton
  • D. Iwaniec
  • Y. Marusenko
  • J. McConaghie
  • J. Munyon
  • D. Nidzgorski
  • O. Pisani
  • C. Rebenack
  • M. Romolini
  • M. Smith
  • B. Warner