Transdisciplinary Collaboration for the PhD Student or Early Career Researcher: Preparing for High Impact Research

Dr Michael Lawless
College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University

What is transdisciplinary research?

There is growing emphasis on transdisciplinary research collaboration to generate better solutions and better research impact. Transdisciplinary research refers to collaborative research efforts undertaken by researchers and other stakeholders from different disciplines. In comparison to interdisciplinary or even multidisciplinary approaches, transdisciplinary research is an integrative, collaborative approach, often involving partnerships with individuals and groups from within and outside the academy, in which methods, concepts, and theories from within specific disciplines are integrated, synthesised, and extended [1, 2]. A transdisciplinary approach is usually multi-level (e.g., linking processes from “cells to societies”), attentive to complex causal relationships, and methodologically diverse. In transdisciplinary approaches, the emphasis is on bringing together diverse perspectives on the same research issue, uncovering complex relationships across as well as within levels, and ultimately moving beyond and transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries or hierarchies. The need for assembling and implementing diverse, collaborative teams to address complex, real-world problems has been brought into focus over the last few decades as the size and complexity of scientific problems has grown. Indeed, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example of a “messy”, multifaceted wicked problem, requiring new combinations and applications of expertise. This is because the major scientific issues to be addressed might be ill-defined, contradictory, with changing requirements and complex independencies that are often specific to the local setting.


Transdisciplinary collaboration represents a departure from the discipline-specific, or indeed interdisciplinary, paradigm that has dominated Western higher education since the late 19th Century [3]. The tradition of defining deep (and often defensive) silos, both between and within individual disciplines, can serve to separate research activity from on-the-ground practice and policy. This can introduce a significant barrier to knowledge translation, the process including the dissemination, exchange, and ethically sound application of knowledge into policy and practice. An associated barrier is that academics might be ambivalent about the growing emphasis on transdisciplinary practices. These concerns could be linked to the practical demands and unintended consequences of holding academics accountable for demonstrating the real-world impact of their research. In our longitudinal evaluation of transdisciplinary collaboration in a National Health and Medical Research Council-funded Centre of Research Excellence in Frailty and Healthy Ageing, we found that participation in transdisciplinary collaboration was influenced by many factors including prior exposure to different disciplinary theories, research methods, settings, and interpretations of evidence [4]. Preparation for successful transdisciplinary collaboration did not occur through cross-disciplinary training alone but was shaped by mentoring relationships and hands-on team experiences that provided a foundation for co-creating new multi-level, multidisciplinary working models. This was particularly true for PhD students and Early Career Researcher (ECRs) within the team who were provided with varied opportunities and support from senior team members to creatively explore linkages across disciplinary frameworks and methods.

Preparing PhDs and ECRs for transdisciplinary research

Supporting PhD students’ and ECRs’ development as transdisciplinary and translational scholars requires a structured approach with careful pedagogical, institutional, and interpersonal scaffolding [5]. This could extend not only to coursework, but also to core components of doctoral education, such as integrated cross-disciplinary research experiences, mentoring, and dialogue with peers from different disciplines or specialities. Many doctoral programs actively encourage students to take courses in other departments or seek mentorship from academics outside of their discipline. However, it is often left up to students to seek out and make sense of these experiences. In contrast, the literature on transdisciplinary development emphasises the importance of providing students with ongoing, structural supports throughout their training to develop the breadth (boundary-spanning across disciplines) and depth (deep disciplinary expertise) of expertise needed for innovation and collaborative problem solving. The following principles, taken from the transdisciplinary literature, provide useful guidance for PhDs/ECRs and supervisors or course coordinators:

  1. Begin early. Training in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary collaboration should ideally start early; there is increasing recognition that these activities should be interwoven throughout students’ training. Transdisciplinary education should be seen as a complement to, and not a replacement for, disciplinary preparation and a pre-requisite for effective collaboration.
  2. Combine different types of disciplinary training and exposure. Just as forms of disciplinary integration represent a continuum from less to more integrative, the emphasis of training could move from an initial emphasis on unidisciplinary training (providing depth of knowledge) to a growing focus on cross-disciplinary engagement and synthesis (enabling competencies for team science and translation).
  3. Include transdisciplinary content throughout coursework. Transdisciplinary education could be woven horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. This could involve introducing broad theoretical and methodological perspectives in foundational courses and then include specific transdisciplinary content in subsequent electives.
  4. Use a mix of didactic and experiential learningTransdisciplinary competencies encompass a range of conceptual, methodological, relational, and communicative skills, behaviours, and attitudes. As a result, active, experiential, and team-based learning is essential as well as structured pedagogical approaches.
  5. Provide opportunities for dialogue and reflectionA transdisciplinary collaboration is, in a sense, a learning community, providing a setting for mutual support, intellectual exchange, and scholarly identity formation. Transdisciplinary learning is facilitated when PhDs/ECRs have opportunities for dialogue with each other and more senior colleagues about bridging cross-disciplinary divides and integrating perspectives. In our research, we found that facilitation reflection on these exchanges and experiences with was critical to learning.

Although there are few one-size-fits-all approaches or off-the-shelf models available, there is much to be gained for PhDs and ECRs from a transdisciplinary education, both in terms of career progression and their maturation as an impactful and agile researcher. Coordinators of doctoral programs and ECR training might be encouraged to experiment by building on or integrating existing program elements to strengthen transdisciplinary readiness while creating more explicit connections across learning experiences. A great deal of creativity and boldness is needed to ensure that the education of the next generation of translational researchers can live up to the spirit of innovation, urgency, and adaptability that propels the very best transdisciplinary science.

12 August 2021

Dr Michael Lawless is a Research Fellow in the Caring Futures Institute, Flinders University, where he is part of the Knowledge Translation and Fundamentals of Care Team. Since 2017, Michael has also been a research officer with the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Frailty and Healthy Ageing. Michael uses an interdisciplinary approach to integrated knowledge translation, bringing together user-centred design, qualitative, and mixed methods research in older adults’ health and wellbeing. Michael is also one of the 2020 RM Gibson Research Fund recipients.


  1. Hall KL, Stokols D, Stipelman BA, Vogel AL, Feng A, Masimore B, Morgan G, Moser RP et al. (2012). Assessing the value of team science: a study comparing center-and investigator-initiated grants. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 42, 157–163.
  2. Stokols D, Hall KL, Taylor BK, Moser RP. (2008). The science of team science: overview of the field and introduction to the supplement. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35, S77–S89.
  3. Nurius PS, Kemp SP. (2014). Transdisciplinarity and translation: preparing social work doctoral students for high impact research. Research on Social Work Practice,24, 625–35.
  4. Archibald MM, Lawless M, Harvey G, Kitson A. (2018). Transdisciplinary research for impact: protocol for a realist evaluation of the relationship between transdisciplinary research collaboration and knowledge translation. BMJ Open, 8, e021775.
  5. Kemp SP, Nurius PS. (2015). Preparing emerging doctoral scholars for transdisciplinary research: a developmental approach. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35, 131–50.