David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Career Lingo: “Participate in Multidisciplinary …”

Full vitae danger zone

Image by Alexander Svensson, Creative Commons

You can tell you’ve been in a profession a long time when the bold new idea of the moment sounds familiar. Lately, it is impossible to read a strategic plan or a vision statement in higher education and not hear about “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” collaboration. I have used those words myself, for nigh on 20 years. Yet the fact that we keep needing to restate the importance of cross-disciplinary cooperation suggests how difficult it actually is to achieve in practice.

Hence my concern when I see junior faculty being evaluated on this front — without adequate planning, leadership, and resources by senior faculty and administrators. True collaboration only works if everyone is engaged and supportive beyond paying lip service to buzzwords. So when a job ad includes an expectation that a candidate will “participate” or “conduct” work across disciplines, it becomes both an opportunity and a danger zone.

This series on academic-hiring lingo has often dealt with terms, phrases, and keywords that have multiple meanings, depending on the local context. The same holds true here: Whether a job ad puts “multi,” “inter,” or “cross” in front of “disciplinary,” the concept is certainly open to many different variations.

So it’s important to gather intel on what exactly the hiring department wants you to do. Here are some species of cross-disciplinary positions and what they could mean — good and bad — for your career.

  • An interdisciplinary topic, but a traditional department. In this type of position, you are housed within a regular department but you might do research and teach on a particular topic in collaboration with people from other disciplines. One of my first hires as an administrator was an assistant professor of science communication whose funding came under a universitywide cluster focused on water issues. When we hired her, she was already conducting research on communication issues related to water. By inclination, she was interested in collaborating — as most emerging scholars are — with people outside of her discipline. In this case, the multidisciplinary expectations for the position were logical, natural, and reasonably easy to achieve. As department chair, I was able to set the bar in her hiring letter to a level that I thought was achievable — as in, "do work in this area; try to collaborate with other scholars in the cluster, especially on major grant-funded projects."
  • An interdisciplinary team. This is one step up from the expectation that you find paths of collaboration on your own with researchers from other departments. In this scenario you are physically and intellectually "joining the team" of a major interdisciplinary research project that is either new or already under way. Here is where the professional risks begin to rise. You need to ask some key questions: Is your place in the project defined, with set metrics of progress and accomplishment? Are the outcomes of the project clearly related to promotion-and-tenure standards in your home department? During the campus interview, try to determine if senior professors who are supposed to be part of the team have actually bought into the project and value it for promotion and tenure.
  • A multidisciplinary center for research, teaching, or service. In this type of job, you might be part of a campus center, institute, or lab that crosses disciplines. It may be allied with several departments but not officially housed in any of them. You might even get a title at the center — like assistant director or research fellow — in addition to your tenure-line residence in a home department. Again, it is crucial to establish how much of your work and your time you will be expected to devote to this center — in terms of workload, outcomes, and even how many hours a week. See to it that those expectations are verified in your appointment letter or contract. A further question: Is the interdisciplinary work part of your research or is it part of your service obligations?
  • A joint appointment. The most intense multidisciplinary commitment is when you are physically situated in more than one department — including, critically, the tenure lines. Certainly, there is a long tradition of scholars having “courtesy” appointments in a second department, where you have zero official obligations but may have unofficial connections. I teach political communication, for example, and while my faculty position has always been entirely in a communications department, at one institution where I taught I also held a courtesy appointment in political science. That allowed me to sit on doctoral committees in political science as either an internal or external member of the faculty. However, if the position is a 50/50 split between, say, biology and chemistry or history and sociology, then the caveats multiply. You want to make sure that your obligations, duties, and promotion-and-tenure expectations are enumerated at length. How much of your teaching, research, and service — specifically — must you allocate to each department? Then there is the major question of P&T. The voting senior faculty of one department may not value, or even comprehend, what is esteemed by the other.

Throughout my career, I like to think I have practiced multidisciplinary collaboration as well as preached it. But I have seen grand plans and schemes for it fail, time and time again. Unfortunately, novice scholars either get caught in the mutual sniping between departments, or are starved of support by one hostile camp or another.

Taking a multidisciplinary position should be a heady and alluring prospect. But make sure to get all the details in writing and confirmed by all the participating partners beforehand.


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