Interdisciplinary Doctoral Supervision

By Dr. Douglas Halliday, Durham University

Doctoral study has historically been organised and structured around fairly rigid disciplinary structures and paradigms3 9. Many doctoral supervisors and candidates hold the view that doctoral researchers must be firmly embedded in their discipline to acquire all the skills and attributes exhibited by well-established and credible experts in their discipline. The aspiration of many doctoral candidates is to emulate these experts.

Notwithstanding this well preserved and robust disciplinary framework, many universities are seeking to grow interdisciplinary doctoral programmes. A report commissioned by HEFCE in 20151 found that interdisciplinary research activity continues to grow in the UK in line with a global trend. RCUK is placing an increasing emphasis on multidisciplinary research projects to solve specific challenges that our society faces; these are often framed as “grand societal challenges”. More recently, in September 20162, two reports identifying barriers and incentives for interdisciplinary research were published by HEFCE. This highlights the growing need to create new approaches to forming interdisciplinary research cultures.

Despite this growth in interdisciplinary research, the majority of doctoral programmes in the UK and elsewhere remain firmly discipline based. There is a growing recognition of the need to develop interdisciplinary doctoral programmes that expose researchers to a range of research methodologies and concepts early in their formation as researchers. Research literature on interdisciplinary doctoral programmes highlights a number of issues specific to interdisciplinary PhD programmes including: researcher identity, research socialisation process, supervision, risk of failure, language and communication, and what success in an interdisciplinary research PhD looks like5 6 7 8.

My experience as a Director of an Interdisciplinary Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Energy over the last 7 years, which has admitted 62 doctoral students, is that there is considerable benefit in exposing doctoral candidates to approaches, methods and views espoused by those from different disciplines. One of the key barriers candidates face in such an environment is being able to communicate with researchers from different backgrounds and begin to appreciate different perspectives. It takes times to develop this skill. The Energy CDT provides such an environment. Not all students will have access to such an interdisciplinary training environment. How then can a doctoral supervisor facilitate this aspect of a candidate’s development?

As a doctoral supervisor, I actively encourage doctoral candidates to develop interdisciplinary communication skills. This begins with doctoral researchers recognising that other disciplines have something of value to say about their work; it also requires a respect for other disciplines. How does a supervisor promote (or dismiss) this? What is the language of interdisciplinarity? How does someone communicate key research ideas and methods to those with a different vocabulary and perspective? Possible answers to these questions suggest that the language of interdisciplinarity is the language of simplicity. This is in contrast to the expectation that doctoral researchers develop an advanced discourse akin to well-established researchers in their field. A doctoral candidate should then be encouraged to develop both the language and discourse of an expert in the discipline and, importantly, also the skill of explaining their research as simply as possible.

It is widely recognised that supervisors and supervisory teams have more impact on the intellectual, professional and personal development of doctoral candidates than other influences. As a supervisor how can you facilitate this development? Do you seek to develop a new generation of researchers equipped to face the challenges of a world where such challenges are not always organised according to longstanding academic paradigms and world views.


Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below:

  1. Do you agree that developing interdisciplinary skills in doctoral researchers is important?
  2. What can you do as a supervisor to enable doctoral candidates to develop interdisciplinary communication skills and perspectives?
  3. If you do not feel able to do this where might you find support for this?
  4. Do you actively encourage your doctoral candidates to explore their research field from different disciplinary perspectives?
  5. What do your doctoral candidates learn from you as they observe your interactions with those from other disciplines?
  6. What is the correct balance for doctoral researchers with regards to breadth (interdisciplinarity) and depth (subject specialisation)?
  7. Are there any things that you as a supervisor can learn from your own candidates’ experiences?


A number of Short Guides on interdisciplinary research are available from the Institute for the Study of Science Technology and Innovation (ISSTI) at the University of Edinburgh.


  1. (HEFCE: 2015)
  2. (HEFCE: 2016),110229,en.html
  3. Becher, T., & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories: intellectual enquiry and the cultures of disciplines (2nd ed.). Buckingham, England: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
  4. Boden, D., M. Borrego, and L.K. Newswander, Student socialization in interdisciplinary doctoral education. Higher Education, 2011. 62(6): p. 741-755
  5. Golde, C., & Walker, G. (Eds.) (2006) Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards for the discipline. San Francisco: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  6. Holley, K. (2009). Student experiences in PhD programs: How to do interdisciplinarity at doctoral level. Association for Integrative Studies Newsletter, Vol 31 No. 3 1-4.
  7. Manathunga, C., P. Lant, and G. Mellick, Imagining an interdisciplinary doctoral pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 2006. 11(3): p. 365-379.
  8. Peseta, T., C. Manathunga, and A. Jones, What Kind of Interdisciplinary Space Is Academic Development? Book Series: International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, 2010. 5: p. 97-11
  9. Trowler, P., M. Saunders and V. Bamber (2014). Tribes and Territories in the 21st Century: Rethinking the significance of disciplines in higher education. London, Routledge.

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