Promoting Interdisciplinarity at SRA

By Lindsay Till Hoyt, on behalf of the SRA Interdisciplinary Committee

Interdisciplinarity is weaved into the mission of the Society for Research on Adolescence, which seeks to “promote high-quality research that considers the biological, psychological, and sociocultural aspects of development in context.” Working across disciplines is critical to advance research on adolescent development, but many people do not know how to start. 

In February 2021, the SRA Interdisciplinary Committee organized a webinar on “Interdisciplinarity and the Advancement of Research on Adolescents” to discuss the benefits, challenges, and nuances of working at the intersection of multiple fields. The discussion was moderated by Rob Crosnoe (UT Austin), and our expert panelists included: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (University of Southern California), Aerika Brittian Loyd (University of California, Riverside), Darlene Kertes (University of Florida), and Andrew Fuligni (University of California, LA). This blog reviews some of the key take-aways from that conversation here and introduces a new award for interdisciplinary work among SRA members. (You can watch the full, hour-long webinar on YouTube.)

How do you define interdisciplinarity?

The panel explained that the key to interdisciplinary work is bringing different theoretical perspectives, methods, and levels of analysis together to answer the same question. (Defining the exact question can be a challenge, but it is vital to clearly identify the specific problem that needs to be addressed.)  You are trying to pull the best from multiple fields to transcend what is possible from one discipline. Sometimes this means stepping back and giving up some granularity. It always means thinking creatively.  

What are the ways to be Interdisciplinary? 

Interdisciplinary Scholar: Opportunities and Challenges

An interdisciplinary scholar is someone who is trained in multiple fields, typically by attending an interdisciplinary graduate program, getting a dual degree (e.g., MPH and PhD), or completing additional training in a different field after graduate school (e.g., postdoctoral fellowship). Some nay-sayers contend that this could lead to someone becoming “a jack of all trades but master of none.” Other challenges may occur in the job search, as most jobs in adolescent development (especially in academia) are posted in a specific field, or going up for tenure (since you need to identify external reviewers in your discipline). However, there is growing appreciation for interdisciplinary training - including funding mechanisms (e.g., RWJF Interdisciplinary Research Leaders) and specific postdoctoral fellowships (e.g., BIRCWH, Interdisciplinary Research Training in Child and Adolescent Primary Care) that encourage scholars to get out of their silos. Further, for the work that you want to do, you might not have another option. As some of our panelists explained, while interdisciplinarity is not appropriate for all research questions, for some areas of research it is the only way to make progress. Indeed, the scholars on this panel are all great examples of how to initiate and sustain an interdisciplinary career.

Interdisciplinary Team: Opportunities and Challenges

Another way to do interdisciplinary research is to join an interdisciplinary team. This is increasingly common, and often required, in the field of adolescent development. For example, if you apply for an NIH grant, reviewers are evaluating your team and often looking specifically at how PIs and Co-PIs bring different conceptual, methodological, and analytical traditions together to answer complex problems. The panel offered lots of great tips and insights about interdisciplinary team science approaches, including:

  • You have to be multidisciplinary (i.e., have some basic knowledge from multiple disciplines) before you can be interdisciplinary. You can start to learn more about other fields (e.g., attending conferences, reading and publishing in diverse journals). This helps scholars from different disciplines converse with each other (e.g.. avoid discipline-specific specific jargon).

  • Practice humility. You should expect to be challenged - from the way you label or operationalize a construct to your methods - so it’s important to have an open mind and be ready to learn and grow.

  • Interdisciplinary teams can look good on paper but fail in practice. You need to engage your colleagues as true partners and not “window dressings.” This means bringing partners on board from the beginning of the project and prioritizing equity. You need to value what everyone brings to the table.

  • If you have a great partnership or team started, hold on to it! From personality/ temperament to expertise to commitment, there are a lot of moving parts that can make or break a team. So if you found this magic combination, find ways to continue collaborating.  

Interdisciplinarity in Context

Structural racism and threats to democracy threaten positive youth development. Interdisciplinary work is vital to shed light on the ways in which political and social discourse affect youth, by bringing critical race theory, political science, demography, sociology etc. with developmental science. In particular, panelists encourage SRA members to think about how macro-level factors intersect with the developmental needs of youth and to seek out like-minded scholars in other fields interested in these developmental questions. And just as it’s necessary to “import” knowledge from other fields, developmental scientists have important knowledge worth “exporting” that could help change the policies, laws, and other structures that lead to racial/ethnic (and other systemic) inequalities.

Relatedly, the webinar concluded with an important conversation about how to bridge the gap between research and policy/practice. Indeed, interdisciplinarity does not just mean a collaboration or training that spans two or more academic disciplines, but also encourages scholars to branch out beyond traditional academic spaces. Start by practicing talking about your research to your grandmother, neighbors, and people in the communities in which you conduct your research. Listen to their questions and be responsive. Let these conversations challenge and motivate you. In particular, community organizations, practitioners, and policy makers are interested in protective factors that promote positive youth development. What are points of intervention for individuals, families, communities, and society? They want to know what works.

Interdisciplinary Award

SRA’s Interdisciplinary Committee decided that it’s time to start recognizing the amazing interdisciplinary work done by scholars and teams to study adolescent development. Are you an interdisciplinary scholar or part of an interdisciplinary team that is doing important work to advance research in adolescent development? Please consider applying for our inaugural SRA Interdisciplinary Research Award. You can find more information here: SRA 2022 Awardee Nominations.

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