Degree In Sight

Global warming. Hunger. HIV and AIDS. Obesity.They're among the world's most pressing-and complex-problems. And according to a 2004 report on interdisciplinary research by the National Academies of Science, any meaningful attempt to address them will require the cooperation and collaboration of multiple disciplines. In fact, the National Institutes of Health's Interdisciplinary Research Working Group (IRWG) has established nine research consortia that will draw on multiple areas of expertise to address problems such as obesity, neurodegenerative disease, addiction and mental disorders. What's more, published research is already showing a trend toward more interdisciplinary teams, according to a recent survey by the National Academies' Keck Futures Initiative; single-authored studies are giving way to those by multiple authors from varied fields.

Psychologists are often at the center of such efforts, working side by side with professionals from other fields. And even those who see themselves as lone practitioners or solitary researchers will at some point find themselves working with physicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers or even economists. Here are some tips for thriving on an interdisciplinary team.

  • Start collaborating now. You don't have to wait until your internship to learn about working with people from other disciplines. Try collaborating with other professionals at your practicum site or while conducting your dissertation research, say experts.

"I can't think of a better time to try this out than when you are a student," says Susan Duma, a fourth-year clinical psychology student at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Early on, people are more likely to take you under their wings, and it's easier to try on different roles, she explains.

Students can seek out such opportunities by searching for coursework outside their departments, adds Rodney Hammond, PhD, a psychologist and director of the division of violence prevention in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Injury Prevention Center.

"If you're a grad student and there's any way to include some public health courses, experiences or training, I would encourage that early on," suggestsHammond. "I couldn't think of a better way to be interdisciplinarily prepared."

That's because many areas of public health, such as violence and injury prevention, now encompass a range of behavioral health disciplines and other fields, such as sociology, epidemiology, anthropology, criminology and economics, says Hammond. Students who would like to dip their toes into these waters should consider internships at federal agencies such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health or take advantage of rotations these agencies offer.

  • Learn the language. Every discipline has its own lingo. Learning it demonstrates your respect for the field. Get up to speed by reading journals and textbooks or by picking an expert's brain.

"One of the challenges is being able to understand the language and vocabulary of another discipline and to be able to translate it from the vocabulary one learned as a psychologist," says Hammond.

For instance, Hammond never knew he'd need toknow what a "Gini ratio" is. But after hearing the health economists on his team use the term, he realized that the concept-a measure of the disparity between the highest and lowest socioeconomic levels-was one he should learn.

Such experience is equally important to future researchers and practitioners, notes Michael Enright, PhD, a private practitioner who frequently collaborates with physicians.

"I think it's terribly important that students...become familiar with the culture and language of medicine, to be successful in any health-care milieu," he says.

  • Appreciate varied perspectives. People from different fields approach problems in different ways, so it's important to address one another's expectations of collaborations.

For instance, Trisha Miller, PhD, a postdoctoral candidate in clinical psychology who works in a school setting in Tulsa, Okla., found that some teachers were uncomfortable with her role at the school.

"They're not used to mental health care in the classroom," she explains. So Miller had to reassure them that she wasn't there to hassle them or step on their toes but to help them solve problems.

Negotiating roles isn't limited to school psychologists. Delia Olufokunbi, PhD, was a research consultant on a collaboration among the U.S. Justice Department, national foundations, child welfare systems and domestic violence organizations with the goal of stopping child violence. Her job was to collect and evaluate data from systems that worked in completely different ways, which was plenty difficult without the additional hurdle of separating project problems from individual concerns.

People sometimes view the reporting process as an opportunity to air all of their grievances, she explains.

"You have to use your qualitative interpretation skills to get at the real underlying issues," says Olufokunbi, now a researcher at George Washington University.

  • Make yourself useful. The team needs you-but it may not know it yet. So, prove your worth and be confident about what you have to offer, says Rob Swanson, PhD, a postdoc at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash. Swanson did this by making life easier for doctors.

"We spent some time talking with the docs, and they thought it was a waste of time to have us around," he says.

But then interns started lightening the primary-care doctors' caseloads by taking on any mental health issues that emerged during the standard intake evaluations. The physicians realized-and admitted to the interns-that psychologists did have something to contribute and might even make their lives easier, Swanson says.

  • Respect fellow team members. Swanson took the time to learn what other professionals were doing and as a result found a new area of research. After talking to the pulmonologists in the sleep lab about their struggles with patient compliance with the continuous positive airway pressure machines used to treat sleep apnea, Swanson developed questionnaires to assess reasons for patient noncompliance and is now working on ways to address them.

Every professional you work with has something to teach you, whether it be specialized knowledge or just an example of how not to interact with others. "There's too much alpha-male dogging in medicine as it is," says Swanson. "Come in humbly."

That's as true for research as it is for practice, says Olufokunbi, who often had to juggle data collected by multiple organizations with different methods. Understanding the culture of different organizations was key to doing her job.

"Recognize everyone's special role and their specialty area, so nobody's toes get stepped on," adds Miller. "That way people know you're working together and notagainst each other."

“Recognize everyone’s special role and their specialty area, so nobody’s toes get stepped on.”

Trisha Miller
Tulsa, Okla