Interdisciplinary research: Part One – Starting with changes
This post is part of a series on the topic of interdisciplinary research. Each member of the current blogging team is involved in some form of interdisciplinary research, and we’ll be sharing our individual experiences of this every Wednesday from the beginning of March to the beginning of April – so stay tuned!
I started out on my PhD eager to draw from what I had learnt from both my law and psychology degrees. Interdisciplinary research does seem to be becoming more popular and sought after, and this may be reflected by the fact that all my blogging colleagues are involved in interdisciplinary study too. I’ve also been told that the interdisciplinary nature of my PhD proposal was an important part of the decision to fund my project. There are undoubtedly many benefits and opportunities of interdisciplinary research, as this previous post highlights. However, from my experience, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with its own challenges. The particular challenge that I’m focusing on for my contribution to this series is how I dealt with the large changes I had to make to my original research proposal due to the fact that I was dealing with two, quite different, disciplines.
My initial research proposal focused on moral cognition studies in psychology and how this could apply to legal decision and judgment-making. Today, it’s fair to say that my overall research plan has changed greatly. I’ve found myself going back to the basics of both disciplines and considering the relationship between law and psychology in much more detail. This has involved spending a lot of my first year researching topics such as the methodologies of both disciplines, critical approaches to both law and psychology, the way that law and psychology have interacted with other disciplines, any historical interactions between the two disciplines that exist, and any challenges that have been made to these interactions.
These questions seemed unrelated to the substantive research questions I came prepared to research when I started my PhD, and this at times made me feel particularly out of depth. There’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re dealing with the literature from two different disciplines! I was also attempting to answer questions that I had not given much thought to before, such as what the relationship should be between psychology’s empirical and law’s more normative approach. I felt like there was a lot of initial manoeuvring to be done between the two disciplines before I could even get started on answering substantive questions, and that I was getting further and further away from my original research ideas.
Image credit to Nick Abrams on Unsplash
Whilst this initially made me a little anxious since I felt like I was not moving forward, I now realise that these questions were important for me to answer. It took me a year to get to the stage of structuring my chapters and beginning to write them. However, the research I undertook in my first year has featured prominently in the way I’ve ended up structuring my PhD and forming my research questions. My original ideas are potentially something I may want to follow up with in future study, but my new structure and research questions definitely reflect a deeper knowledge of the interactions between law and psychology. Taking my research back to the basics of both disciplines has meant that I have now learnt many things that will be applicable for any future interdisciplinary work I undertake. With the background context and reading, I’ve also found that actually beginning to write my chapters has become a relatively easy task!
Of course, although interdisciplinary research can often involve more challenges from each discipline in terms of methodology in particular, making changes to research plans to address potential challenges isn’t particular to interdisciplinary research. Modification to the topic, method, structure etc., of a research project is probably a common experience for many PGRs. For me, the changes I made to my original research proposal are not something I regret, and instead are something that I view as a vast improvement. This is both in terms of the research questions I’ve identified now, as well as in terms of the opportunity it’s given me to develop my knowledge and understanding of important topics that I hadn’t thought would be relevant before.
So, one of the most important lessons from my own journey that I'd like to share is to definitely not feel discouraged if it seems like you’re spending a lot of time re-working your research proposal and engaging in wider reading. In most cases the changes you’re making are actually improvements, and your background reading is actually contributing to your understanding and ability to propose novel and well-grounded research!
Feature image credit to R/DV/RS from flickr commons