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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

Some opinions about cross-departmental collaboration

Matt Jamieson, Methods

Some opinions about cross-departmental collaboration

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla. © 2013. © CC0 License via Unsplash.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla. © 2013. © CC0 License via Unsplash.

By Matt Jamieson

At last month’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing student led conference (IHAWC), Professor Lawrence Moore talked about multi-disciplinary collaboration.  As a cross-discipline PhD student with supervisors in computing science and psychology, I could relate to the themes of the talk, e.g. the advantages of broadening the scope of your research and adapting to working in different academic cultures.  I’ll try to add to these with a few observations of my own.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration is in vogue right now for many research funding organisations and it is a criteria upon which funding can be won and lost.  In my PhD, I’m lucky to work in two excellent departments which include researchers investigating a myriad of subjects, from neuropsychology to human-computer interaction. There are amazing academics in these departments doing cutting edge research and collaborating with various different disciplines.  They share many similarities in terms of critical and creative thinking, peer review and scientific rigour. However, in my opinion, there are a few important differences between departments which can 1) prevent collaborations or 2) bring about challenges for a cross-departmental researcher:

  1. Competing priorities:  Academic careers are intrinsically linked to funding applications.  The fact that cross-discipline research is a big tick on a funding application is therefore a great way to effect change in academic culture.  However every department has their own methods of sourcing funding and departments can understandably become insular in the way they fund their research, leading to different priorities.  For example, computing science may get funding from technology companies which are motivated by commercial outcomes and innovative design ideas.  Health and wellbeing researchers tend to receive funding from government and charity organisations which are interested in the tangible impact that research will have on people’s lives.  Differing priorities such as this can discourage collaboration, as they may not bring about the sought after outcomes of either funder.  In my case, the collaboration for my PhD did occur between these departments due to an MRC grant for which multi-disciplinary research was encouraged.
  2. Variation in expectations across departments:  I am finding that what is expected of a PhD student differs between computing science and health and wellbeing.  In computing science, technology becomes dated quickly and so papers are published rapidly and presented at annual conferences while everything is still state of the art.  Psychology is much slower – it takes time to recruit participants who are classed as vulnerable adults due to the important ethical safeguards which are in place – papers are published over one or two years and tend to stay relevant for longer.  This all means that a PhD in computing science tends to be completed faster and with more publications than in health and wellbeing.  Other differences include computing science having more structured deadlines (around conferences) and smaller sample sizes with far less recruitment time.  Doing a PhD between departments can therefore cause a conflict of expectations from supervisors and students alike.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration is not new and is hugely important for scientific progress, as breakthroughs are made when different perspectives are used to approach the same problem.  Science should be about using knowledge to figure out what we don’t know and then investigating that ignorance.  If collaborators’ areas of expertise are more diverse, then more knowledge is brought to the table.  Cross-discipline collaborations should be meaningful, add value to the project and provide synergy and I think it’s important that ‘multi-disciplinary collaboration’ doesn’t just become an empty buzz phrase, which can help bring in funding.  It should be a part of the culture within institutions, encouraging everyone to think outside of their traditional research fox-holes.

My experience of working between my two departments may not be the same as other disciplinary collaborations.  My hope is to generate debate about multi-disciplinary research.  So let me know what you think – whether you have had similar or completely different experiences, it’s good to collaborate!

 

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell

    Thanks, Matt.

    I absolutely get your second point. Recently a grant assessor wrote that a PhD student attached to a cross-disciplinary study would be at a disadvantage because their publications would be spread across the two disciplines. That is clearly crazy talk, but in the mind of that academic there was an expectation of narrow disciplinary focus. Mind you, that was a single instance. It isn’t something I see every day.

    I’m not so sure that I understand your first point. Could you talk about that some more, please. In my experience funding expectations come from the project as written. I understand that some groups can get used to looking in the same places for funding, but I’m not sure if that is what you are saying here.

    Reply
    • Matt Jamieson

      Hi Jonathan thanks for the comment.
      In my experience it’s been a great advantage to be writing papers for two disciplines in terms of gaining research and writing experience. It remains to be seen whether or not that will be an issue for my PhD assessors but I hope not!

      I guess what I mean in the first point is that what motivates researchers can be different between departments and that funding bodies need to encourage cross department collaborations for them to happen more often, like the MRC did for mine. I probably put it in quite a negative way!
      Matt

      Reply

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