The service implications of interdisciplinarity

I am what academics like me like to call an “interdisciplinary researcher”. This basically means that rather than investigate questions within the traditional boundaries of established knowledge, I reach across boundaries, creating bridges between disparate areas of work. For example, the research questions I try to answer generally span computer science, psychology, design, education, engineering, and organizational science. I use theories from all of these, I build upon the knowledge from all of these, and occasionally I even contribute back to these areas of knowledge.

There are some wonderful things about interdisciplinary work, and some difficult things. The wonderful things mostly stem from being able to usefully apply knowledge to the world, synthesizing ideas from multiple disciplines to the problems of today. This is possible because I don’t have the duty to a discipline to deepen its understanding. Instead, my charge is to invent technologies, policies, methods and processes that embody the best ideas from more basic research. In a way, interdisciplinary research is necessary for those basic research discoveries to ever make it into the world. This is highly rewarding because I get to focus on everyday problems, learn a ton about many different fields of research, and can easily show people in my life how my work is relevant to theirs.

Where interdisciplinary work gets difficult is in the nitty gritty of academic life. Because I know a little bit about a lot of things, I get asked to participate on a lot of committees. I get invitations to software engineering committees, computing education committees, and HCI committees, since they all touch on aspects of people’s interactions with code. I get invited to curriculum committees more often because my work seems more directly applicable to what we teach (because it is). People from industry contact me more often because they can see how my work informs their work, more so than the basic research.

And of course, my time isn’t infinite, so I have to pick and choose which of these bridges to make. I find myself with some difficult choices: should I create a link to industry, or bridge two fields of academia? Should I invest in disseminating a discovery through a startup, an academic conference talk, or YouTube video? Or should I just focus on my research, slowly transforming my fuzzy interdisciplinary research area into something more disciplinary, with all of its strengths and weaknesses?

Someone probably does research on these research policy questions. Maybe they can help!

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