This year I received a fellowship to do interdisciplinary work as part of my Ph.D. training. I'm not going to distinguish between inter/trans/multidisciplinary work. Basically I'm working with other graduate students from different departments with a common theme of sustainability. One of the main things we need to accomplish is a group project that incorporates our skills and disciplines in a cohesive way. This is remarkably more difficult than it first sounds.
This semester we've been meeting with professionals who do interdisciplinary work all the time. It has been exciting to learn about their projects and interesting to hear about the challenges. Now we're at the point in the semester when we have to come up with ideas of our own. All we have to do is propose a project, we don't actually have to do what we propose (at least not yet).
We started our discussion about this by picking a site and independently thinking of projects within our line of research that could be done there. We ended up with a list of mini-projects that lack a central question we want to answer. This became obvious at our last meeting, so now we're trying a slightly different approach by asking a question that we can work together to answer (in retrospect, this probably sounds really obvious but it isn't necessarily).
This conversation within my group has made me think about what it means to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project. Will I be working within my discipline on a small stand-alone piece of a larger question, or will I being doing something that is totally integrated with other disciplines and maybe only broadly relates to my specific sub-field? Ultimately, how do I see my role as a collaborator? Will I expand my horizons or stay squarely within my field as part of the larger whole?
Perhaps part of the difficulty for us is the artificial nature of the project. Instead of finding a problem and assembling a group of diverse people to answer a question or come up with a solution, we have the group of people and have to find a question we can answer based on who we have to work with.
You can expect more posts on this topic in the near future as the semester draws to a close and we have to come up with a proposal!