Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - 1:50 PM

COS 38-2: Navigating an interdisciplinary PhD project: Strategies for merging diverse disciplines with ecology

Annette M. Meredith, University of Maryland

Background/Question/Methods: Countless ecologists acknowledge that ecosystem services protection is best served through integrated research projects that address ecological, economic and sociocultural factors that influence human-environment interactions.  For this reason, a recent surge in interdisciplinary graduate programs has created a niche for doctoral students whose goal is to integrate theory and methods from multiple disciplines to assemble a research project that can tackle complex cross-disciplinary questions.  As more PhD projects strive to combine ecology with disciplines outside of traditional biological fields, such as economics, policy, anthropology, and sociology, among others, there is a growing need to help students navigate through the uncharted territory of this non-traditional approach.  There are strategies that can help the student and mentor develop and deliver a successfully integrated product.  Using my research project, an interdisciplinary approach for assigning value to native bees in sustainable agriculture, I report on the opportunities and challenges for student and advisor in constructing a rewarding PhD experience.  Successful conservation of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes requires interdisciplinary approaches yet few studies address ecological, economic, and cultural questions simultaneously in agricultural settings.  Results/Conclusions: Interdisciplinary in nature, my research incorporated methods from ecology, environmental science, economics, and anthropology.  The combination of knowledge from several disciplines takes on an emergent characteristic that becomes greater than knowledge from each discipline.  Pollinator scientists alone cannot protect bees on farms.  Policy-makers cannot design conservation strategies in a vacuum.  Economists cannot assign monetary value of bees without information about pollination efficiencies.  Farmers cannot implement pollinator-friendly management practices without access to informational and financial resources. I could not adequately address native bee conservation in such a complex web of institutional, political and economic nuances as has agriculture, without supplementing ecological research with methods from other fields.  Conservation of native bees in agriculture cannot take place in the absence of requisite cultural, institutional, and socioeconomic entryways, even if scientists understood all there is to know about native bee ecology and pollination biology.  Whether the endeavor be termed interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, integrative, etc., executing research that incorporates theory and methods from multiple disciplines is a challenge.  I provide specific guidelines for navigating successfully around potential pitfalls that could otherwise prolong the dissertation process.  I offer strategies that address managing topic complexities at different scales, determining depth of inquiry within each discipline, balancing advisor/committee expectations, developing the format of an interdisciplinary document and issues related to institutional supports and obstacles to dissertation completion.