The benefits of investing in interdisciplinarity
By engaging in activities and networking outside your field of expertise, you can gain new insights and skills.
There is a lot to be said for attending conferences and lectures within your field. But how many times have you migrated across the country, or even just across your campus, to partake in a professional affair that is beyond the borders of your discipline?
Few people in any profession do that. After all, we have only so many hours in the day, and we have to attend conferences within our field. Plus, not many physics advisers or bosses proactively suggest that we go to a marketing meeting, a biology bash, or another event seemingly unrelated to our area of expertise.
But what if you could gain exposure to a new field and justify it to your team? That should be your mission: finding and leveraging interdisciplinary opportunities with the objective of enhancing your value and that of your enterprise. Such opportunities exist; you just need to know where to look.
Engaging in activities and networking outside your field can bring benefits that make you a better leader. Interdisciplinary experiences could expose you to different languages, cultures, sets of problems, and ways of seeing and seeking solutions. All those opportunities might offer inspiration that could lead to major personal or collaborative milestones.
Attending a conference or other event outside your discipline affords you the opportunity to sharpen your communication skills. If you are a string theorist who always attends string theory meetings, then you probably aren’t used to articulating the kernel of your work to nonexperts. You might not have had to define string theory in a professional setting in years. But let’s say you attend a larger physics meeting, a lecture in cancer biology at your institution, or a science café in your city. Suddenly you have to take a high-level approach to explaining what exactly you do and why it is important, relevant, and impactful. That’s a skill you will need throughout your career. By interacting with professionals in other fields and industries, you refine your communication abilities, which will benefit you and your team.
Another benefit of exploring a different field is being exposed to new vocabulary and perspectives, which can impact the way you think about issues in your own line of work. Consider the many words in other languages that cannot be translated exactly into English. At a recent conference, a mathematician fluent in both English and French explained to me that thinking about problems in French gives him a different mind-set and viewpoint that lead to novel solutions.
Similarly, a physicist participating in a major experiment at a particle accelerator may benefit from learning about how an anthropologist manages work at a field site. Hearing a marketing manager describe a product launch may help a scientist prepare a grant proposal. By attending conferences, networking, or even reading publications produced by leaders in other fields, you start to see the universe differently as you gain access to new terminology and perspectives.
Of course, due to time and money constraints, chances are you won’t be on a plane every week hitting the conference circuit. But there are easier and cheaper ways to get exposure to disciplines outside your sphere of knowledge. Consider these options:
- Attend on-campus colloquia and talks by visiting scholars in departments besides your own. Go to lectures about engineering, accounting, media arts, architecture, and humanities.
- Set up a Google alert for conferences in your region. If you're a student or postdoc, reach out to the conference manager and say you’ll volunteer in exchange for free entry or a reduced registration fee.
- Join social media groups where you have a chance to interact with and hear from people outside your field. Go to Meetups that focus on business, social sciences, and the arts.
- Read magazines and other publications to learn the language and concepts of other fields. By reading an article about an astronomy research project, for example, I learned about a new data method that could be applied to science communication. An article in a fashion magazine offered great guidance about the importance of storytelling for professional speakers.
As a frequent speaker at a variety of conferences, I am constantly learning about topics way out of my field and comfort zone. Over the past year and a half, I have participated in meetings dedicated to ecology, astronomy, biophysics, chemical engineering, materials science, chemistry, quantum information science, mathematics, and computer science. Studying how leaders forge ahead in diverse fields has given me inspiration and confidence in my own arena and has helped me improve my own skills and abilities. Moreover, I’ve diversified my networks, which is an absolute requirement for career expansion and innovation.
The bottom line is that you should make it a habit to step out of your comfort zone and interact with experts outside your field. When you invest in being more interdisciplinary in your way of thinking and exploring the world, you’ll find new ways to make a difference. Which, of course, you will.
Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds, which was named by Physics Today as one of the top five books of 2015. She can be reached through her website, alainalevine.com, or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.