Four dimensions of an interdisciplinary doctoral ecosystem

How do we create doctoral ecosystems that foster an interdisciplinary identity in researchers, whatever their home discipline or department? While the case for interdisciplinarity is well-rehearsed in theory, developing a way for it to inform researcher development at the doctoral level is not an easy feat. Here, I outline four conceptual dimensions across which an interdisciplinary intervention can be initiated based on the experience in my own institution, the Business School at Middlesex University.

Such an attempt at conceptualisation is necessary because not much attention has been given, in the vast literature on interdisciplinarity in higher education, to the processes of creating interdisciplinary culture and identity within traditional universities structured in a disciplinary way. Usually organised in academic and administrative siloes, universities confront multiple sources of resistance, as well as opportunities, when trying to set up interdisciplinary initiatives, walking a fine line between disrupting and continuing to receive institutional support.

Our Business School boasts three doctoral programmes – a PhD, a DBA, a DProf (Transdisciplinary) – that are articulated below. The presence of three different programmes brings to the research community a diverse ensemble of nearly 200 students who come from varying cultural, demographics, and professional backgrounds. This is a pool of individuals who research in different disciplines and professional sectors, and, in the case of the DProf, across them. In this context, the strategy has been to avoid pushing for large structural changes in the design and delivery of the programmes, but rather to introduce interdisciplinarity in what can be described as an ‘interstitial way’ (Lindvig, Lyall and Meagher 2019) – that is with incremental activities such as workshops, events, learning resources and in some cases co-supervision, that fosters interdisciplinarity without clearly labelling it as such. In fact, students themselves are resistant to the label of interdisciplinary, as it is not easy to make the connection with their own goals in the programme.

Looking back at the transformations of these programmes in the past five years at Middlesex University, I can distil four dimensions in which interdisciplinarity has incrementally been introduced in the School’s (and the University’s) doctoral ecosystem. I outline some of the ‘interstitial’ initiatives – activities introduced at department level or school-level training and development programmes – run in the School across different programmes and how they map to the dimensions below.

1. Relationality: Fostering interdisciplinary encounters and dialogue between individuals with different disciplinary formations, both among faculty members and among doctoral students and practitioner-researchers.

This is about people. This idea recalls the principle of relational sociology (Donati, 2010), which posits that the social world is a network of interactions and ties, of numerous types and on various scales, between actors who are themselves formed in those interactions. For instance, we know from the literature how interdisciplinarity often springs from serendipitous encounters, so an idea underlying the practice in our institution is to move from casual encounters to actively promoting diverse student/staff groups as a springboard for interdisciplinarity activities. An example of this are Communities of Practice fora and research clusters that are cross-departmental and cross-discipline. Also, students meet at an annual research conference, at a doctoral away day and in a cross-faculty ‘kickstarting series’ where they mix and match in panels or classes irrespective of their discipline.

2. Situatedness: the creation of interpersonal and communal intellectual contexts conducive to interdisciplinary exchange.

This is about space. Learning occurs in interaction and in situ (Lattuca, 2002). Without a space where different people can come together there is no seed for interdisciplinarity. The disciplinary structure of universities has created a certain topography, where knowledge on campus is distributed in compartments, or rather departmental and school buildings where faculty members and students mix only among their own. This has often been replicated in the shift to online learning. Thus, this principle requires the selection of physical spaces and the design of virtual spaces where everybody feels invited without feeling they are entering a disciplinary citadel. An example of how we do this is the conscious selection of seminar and workshop venues that are intended to be inclusive, not located in any single department, but in a ‘neutral’ part of the campus. In the virtual spaces, this translates in the creation of sessions co-hosted by academics from different disciplines, exposing students to different discourses and styles.

3. Contamination: the engagement with the texts and tools drawn from several disciplines.

Here, I am referring to a mixture of approaches, theories, vocabulary, methods, and methodologies that start to intermingle together when doctoral students are exposed to them. Examples are when management students get exposed to autoethnography; when they start to approach their writing with the framework of a creative writer; when an international business scholar meets action research. Our DProf (Transdisciplinary) is based on this pedagogical premise, but this principle can be applied, in an interstitial way, also to PhDs. For instance, there are examples of sessions on creative approaches to writing, social justice or from the media that would not often figure in such programmes but that push participants beyond the boundaries of their discipline. In terms of researcher development, these methods and theories are integrated in a creative way within a research design that otherwise would have remained within the canon of the discipline.

4. Transformation: the appropriation of new intellectual tools is a transformative action.

This involves the act of synthesising different disciplinary knowledge to produce original, creative ideas and futures. This part occurs in the actual research work and outcomes of the students. While not all the doctoral research conducted in our Business School is transformative in this way or can be deemed interdisciplinary, some research does achieve this.

Usually, neither students nor staff join doctoral programmes from a position of interdisciplinarity, so transforming monodisciplinary doctoral ecosystems requires a work of learning interdisciplinarity. This learning in my view occurs through initiatives that foster the four dimensions of relationality, situatedness, contamination and transformation that I have outlined above. An incremental strategy to such learning is sometimes the most viable one within the structure of current academia.

Table 1: Comparative table of doctoral programmes in the Business School, Middlesex University

Table 2: Examples of interdisciplinary sessions in doctoral programmes

four dimensions of an interdisciplinary doctoral ecosystem

See more articles from Vol.17 Issue 2 – Towards healthy doctoral systems.

Donati, P. (2010). Relational sociology: A new paradigm for the social sciences. Oxford: Routledge.

Lattuca, L. (2002). Learning interdisciplinarity. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(6), pp.711-739.

Lindvig, K., C. Lyall, and L.R. Meagher (2019). Creating interdisciplinary education within monodisciplinary structures: the art of managing interstitiality. Studies in Higher Education, 44(2), pp.347-360.

Manathunga, C., P. Lant and G. Mellick (2006). Imagining an interdisciplinary doctoral pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), pp.365-379.

Ryan, S. and R. Neumann (2013). Interdisciplinarity in an era of new public management: A case study of graduate business schools. Studies in Higher Education, 38(2), pp.192-206.

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