Building an Interdisciplinary Research Team

Sile O’Modhrain

School of Music, Theatre and Dance, University of Michigan.


Universities, Grant-awarding bodies and industry increasingly emphasize the value of Interdisciplinary Research and strive to build infrastructure for establishing interdisciplinary research teams.  However, the assumption that simply bringing together a group of talented and skilled researchers who are enthusiastic about a given project is sufficient to deliver innovative research is somewhat naive and can often result in an experience which is disappointing for both the members of the team and the project’s stakeholders.  Drawing on almost 20 years of both working within and directing interdisciplinary research teams in the fields of haptic interaction and digital musical instrument design, the author suggests that, by giving some thought to the balance and distribution of skills and interests of team members at the point of recruitment, and by gaining a better understanding of the process of development that must take place within the team during the lifetime of a research project, the quality of the interdisciplinary research experience can be greatly improved both for individual team members and for the wider community of stakeholders in the project.


For the past 20 years or so, both academia and industry have placed much emphasis on the importance of interdisciplinary research, research that draws upon a broad range of skills and interests in the service of a common goal.  Whether through the mechanism of collaborative projects in the classroom, through collaborative grants, or through the hiring and resourcing policies of academic and industrial laboratories, such teams are now a mainstay of todays research landscape [1, 2, 3?].

There is a growing body of literature that discusses the value of interdisciplinary research from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders including research institutions [Dodson et al, 2010], funding bodies [National Science Foundation 2012, National Academies 2005].  This is paralleled by a body of work on team building for interdisciplinary projects much of which emphasizes the need to manage the expectations of the many stakeholders that might be involved including academic and industrial partners and, of course, the researchers themselves [Dodson et al, 2010, Lyall et al, 2011].  This paper does not seek to add to their findings, but rather to discuss, from a very practical perspective, some measures that can be considered when building and managing an interdisciplinary research team from the point of hiring team members, through to the point of advising researchers on their next career steps.  The suggestions here stem from the author’s own experience in being part of and directing interdisciplinary teams which have combined the skills of artists, scientists and engineers to build prototypes of human-computer interface devices (HIDS) for haptic and tactile interaction, mobile interaction and for digital musical instruments..

Hiring Researchers for an Interdisciplinary Team

Given that the output from any team will depend on the skills of its individual members, how should one go about the process of picking researchers for an interdisciplinary team?  The most obvious answer to this question is to pick people with the skills that you need in order to accomplish the goals of the project.  And certainly doing so should ensure a successful outcome.  But is this enough?  The answer is that it depends on the nature of the work involved.  Where the goal of the project is highly specified, such as staging an opera, there will be a set of very clearly defined skills that are required and very clearly defined roles for each team member.  However, where the goal for a team is more open, i.e. for research  that is  at a more exploratory stage, the skills required may be much less obvious and the roles of individual team members as yet unspecified.  While both cases represent teams engaged in interdisciplinary work, and while both may involve research, it is worth considering the kinds of team members that might be appropriate in each case.  For the opera, research might focus on historical accuracy for costumes, sets, musical performance, and so on.  For the most part, this work would be done by a few key team members and used to shape the overall production.  Skills are specific to individuals and are reflected in their roles in the overall production team.

In the second case, however, skills and roles are much more fluid.  At the outset of a research project certain core skills may be required but these will need to be augmented by additional skills as the nature of the project emerges.  For example, in designing an interface device, it is often possible to implement functions both in software and in hardware.  At some point, a decision will be made as to which rout will be taken and additional expertise may be required to support this decision.

The question then becomes, how can you hire team members who have sufficient skill to create initial working prototypes but sufficiently broad interests and experience to identify novel approaches to solving problems.  The solution proposed here is to look for team members who have deep skill in one area that is central to achieving a projects goal, but a breadth of knowledge and experience that will mesh with the knowledge and experience of other team members.  So, for example, one might start out with a list of skills such as mechanical engineering, computer programming, electrical engineering, physical artifact design, etc. but one might also look for interest or experience in a creative activity such as music, film making, painting, invention, etc. that demonstrates that a researcher engages in some form of generative activity in a domain beyond their main area of focus.  In the author’s experience, those researchers who fail to thrive in interdisciplinary teams are highly likely to be those who start out with few interests beyond their primary research domain and little experience in generative activity of any kind.  It should be noted that the opposite is also true, that those from backgrounds in Art or Music and who demonstrate some evidence of having engaged in, say, mechanical design or programming, are also likely to be more successful when participating in interdisciplinary projects.  And yet, people from backgrounds in the Arts and Humanities are rarely sought out for interdisciplinary work because research leaders have historically undervalued the contribution they can make.  Highlighting the skills that students with backgrounds in the arts can bring to a project, Keith Sawyer and Elizabeth Long Lingow identify the following::

“Predisposition to take risks

.. Individual and collective creativity

.. Working with emergent ideas in groups

.. Capacities of resilience

.. Ability to “push” thinking

.. Ability to support playful cultures when responding to challenges

.. Creating fluidity/interventions in routinized/rigid organizations

.. Build a practice of cultivated ambiguity

.. Transfer skills between disciplines (artistic and non-artistic)

.. Broad knowledge

.. Listens

.. Revises

.. Persuasive speaking skills

.. Has some research capacity

.. Ability to build / manage

.. Networking capacity

.. Trusts in engaged imagination

.. Willingness to fail

.. Decision-making that is an action

.. Ability to disregard dominant point of view”

(Sawyer and Long Lingo, in Reid et al 2011, PP21-22.)

The lack of appreciation, on the part of team leaders, for the value of skills and interests beyond those specified for a given position (job, Ph.D. hire, and so on) means that teams will continue to hire those like themselves leaving little opportunity for their culture to evolve toward a more interdisciplinary environment.  Because students know this, they are less likely to take the risk of investing time in work of an interdisciplinary nature which they perceive as being less value to them in obtaining a strong qualification.  And thus the seed is sewn for a lesser appreciation of interdisciplinary work and is reflected in the hiring strategies of this next generation of research leaders.

Proposed Solutions

To encourage interdisciplinary team work at every stage of a researcher’s development from undergraduate class projects through graduate and industry research.

To educate team leaders so that they can appreciate the value of team members who can move easily between different modes of working, E.g. from creative practice to procedural methods.

In this way, it may be possible to break the cycle that currently holds back the evolution of a truly interdisciplinary research culture.

Developing an Interdisciplinary Team

There are many ways in which interdisciplinary research teams are formed.  In some cases, a lead researcher is tasked with hiring new team members or with selecting members from other parts of an organization to participate in a project.  At other times, teams are formed in the process of proposal writing.  In both cases, the immediate challenges are the same – to develop a shared understanding of the goals of a project and of  the path that will be taken to achieve these goals.  As anyone who has participated in interdisciplinary research will attest, this is often the most frustrating and time-consuming phase of the project.  It is the stage where participants must establish mutual trust so that they can be freed to step outside their disciplinary carapaces and to open themselves up to the possibility that there are multiple ways of solving a problem and that other disciplinary approaches might even be more appropriate in some situations.  For researchers who have invested many years of their lives (and often much of their money) in acquiring their skills and knowledge, this is a very painful process.

So what can research leaders, and indeed individual team members, do to manage this phase of team development?  In the authors experience, three things need to happen during this time:

1)       The development of a shared language – team members need to agree, quite literally, on the words that describe key terms and concepts that relate to the work they must complete.  More importantly, they must agree on the definitions of terms and the phrasing of concepts so that everyone has a shared understanding and a means of communicating clearly with other team members.  While this may seem trivial, it is incredibly important.  It takes time for such shared understanding to emerge, but, in the authors experience,  it is time well spent (see also Lyall et al, 2011, Chapter 4.).

2)      The development of shared goals – Again, this seems trivial, but it is worth spending time making sure that all team members clearly agree on what must be achieved within the project.  This is also the time to agree on which methodologies will be applied to address different sub-goals or sub-tasks as there may exist within the team different disciplinary methodologies that could be applied to a given task.  It may be the case that, for open-ended projects, multiple methodologies could be explored and their results compared or combined.

3)      The establishment of mutual trust – It is no secret that interdisciplinary projects stand or fall on the basis of how much individual team members trust their collaborators to be respectful and to pull their weight.  Since not all team members are equal (either by virtue of their position in an organization or their stage of career), this can be a difficult process to navigate.  The important thing, in the author’s experience, is that a team leader should find ways to create an environment that is open and respectful, so that researchers who are less secure can develop confidence in their own abilities and can recognize that they are valued members of the group.

Proposed Solution(s)

To provide a forum where constructive critique within an interdisciplinary team is encouraged so that other approaches and methods for problem solving can be evaluated and adopted where appropriate.

To focus, particularly at the start of a project, on the development of a shared language that will facilitate communication of ideas between team members from different disciplinary backgrounds.

To allow sufficient time for these processes to unfold.

Advising Interdisciplinary Researchers

Though we rarely discuss it, the worry that many of us who introduce young researchers to interdisciplinary environments have is that they will be perceived, by their peers and by potential employers, as having had a training that is somewhat weaker or less rigorous than others who have not strayed beyond the boundaries of their subject.  In short, are we setting these individuals up for failure by potentially causing them to be marginalized even within their own fields?  This concern persists despite the current drive for interdisciplinary research and is fuelled by a continued perception that working outside your discipline suggests that you have failed to be successful within it.  And yet, the most successful interdisciplinary research attracts the very best researchers because they are the individuals who are most capable of taking knowledge from their domain and applying it to problems outside their field.

So what steps can be taken to address this perception?  On the one hand, there is a need to work with individual researchers in order to develop a strategy that addresses questions such as how and where to publish, how to write a resume and which jobs to apply for.  For those going into academia, it is not too early to discuss how they will approach tenure and whether they should consider single or joint departmental appointments.  Lyle et al (2011) suggest posing the following questions:

“1. Where do you want to make your contribution? (Publish within one or across several

fields; create new interdisciplinary fields; lead in the development of creative

solutions to a critical problem?)

2. What support and training do you need in order to achieve this?”

(Lyle et al, 2011, Chapter 5)

In parallel, there is a need to work toward changing the perceptions of those inside disciplinary silos.  For publishing, it is often ones research piers that need to be challenged to recognize the value of alternative approaches to a problem.  In a way, they need to go through a process that is similar to that engaged in by an interdisciplinary group at the outset of a project.  The challenge is that, unless they are willing to be open to what they find on the page before them, this may never happen and the value of an interdisciplinary contribution may thus be overlooked.

With respect to career path (jobs, tenure, and so on), the challenge for the researcher is in presenting what might seem like a disparate body of work so that it reflects a clear developmental path.  Here, senior faculty should be encouraged to help by ensuring that they go into faculty search and promotion committees for interdisciplinary researchers informed about recent developments in their own fields that have benefited from knowledge from another discipline.  There are many examples of outstanding work in most fields of this kind and often the obstacles facing young interdisciplinary researchers are purely those in the minds of their evaluators.  Let us not forget that Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science were once interdisciplinary projects on the edges of Mathematics and Engineering.

By making funding available for senior faculty to become involved in interdisciplinary projects, and by encouraging interdisciplinary work in the class room, institutions can also do their part in changing attitudes and smoothing the career path for those who have set out on an interdisciplinary career path [University of Michigan 2012, Iowa State University 2011].

Proposed Solution(s)

Academic leaders, such as universities – to provide substantive funding that encourages faculty and research students to work across disciplinary boundaries to achieve real and tangible results.

Tenure boards – to recognize that successful interdisciplinary collaborations (and their associated publications) represent evidence of a researcher’s ability to abstract their own skills and apply them to solve problems within a completely different resume that illustrates participation in interdisciplinary work is a strength and not a weakness as it again illustrates an ability to abstract skills from one domain and apply them within another.

Piers – to recognize that colleagues who participate in interdisciplinary work can contribute new and valuable findings that only become possible because of the challenges of applying knowledge to solve problems in another domain.

Summary of Suggested Actions

1: Hiring

Suggested action – Look for deep skills in an area of expertise that is required, but broad interests that reflect the nature of the work to be carried out.

2: Developing an interdisciplinary team

Suggested action: Develop an appreciation for multiple perspectives and multiple approaches to problem solving within a team. Provide a forum where constructive critique within an interdisciplinary team is encouraged so that other approaches and methods for problem solving can be evaluated and adopted where appropriate.  Focus, particularly at the start of a project, on the development of a shared language that will facilitate communication of ideas between team members from different disciplines.

To allow time for these processes to evolve.

3) Advising Interdisciplinary Researchers

Suggestion – To evolve, with each team member, a path or plan for their development as an interdisciplinary researcher.  Discuss with researchers the challenges involved with pursuing interdisciplinary work so that they can make informed choices about how and where to publish and how to approach applying for jobs and gaining tenure.

To encourage senior faculty members who are involved in hiring and promotion committees for interdisciplinary researchers to be informed about work that represents best practice of integrating knowledge from other disciplines.


Iowa State University [2012] Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research research Initiative092512.pdf

University of Michigan (2012) MCubed,

National Academies,  2005″Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research.”

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine,

National Academy Press  Washington

NSF [2012] Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Science Research (IBSS …

National Science Foundation, 2012

M.V. Dodson et al.  [2010] “Perspectives on the formation of an interdisciplinary research team”.  Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 391


C. Lyall, A. Bruce, J. Tait and L.  Meagher [2011] “Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity”. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011

T. Reid,  [2012] “Art-Making and the Arts in Research Universities”.  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI