All together now: how to write an interdisciplinary research proposal

Advice on drafting successful research proposals to secure support and funding for interdisciplinary projects, from three academics with experience developing research partnerships and collaborations



Trinity College Dublin,
20 Jan 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • Additional Links
  • More on this topic
Advice on drafting effective proposals for interdisciplinary research projects

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

You may also like

We can make research more ethical without compromising its quality
Randomised control trials are crucial for good science, but we can also improve their ethics

Policymakers increasingly recognise that no single area of expertise is enough to address the world’s most complex crises. More innovative approaches are needed in tackling challenges ranging from climate change and pandemics to the threat of artificial intelligence – approaches that take in the arts and humanities as well as science and technology.

Enter interdisciplinarity, or research drawing on two or more disciplines. It’s a term sometimes opportunistically applied to any project involving multiple subjects, but what it requires is the actual integration of knowledge from these fields – not just a few researchers working independently around a common interest.

Academic collaboration is rarely simple, and moving beyond disciplinary boundaries can throw up even more quandaries. How might political scientists work effectively with artists, say, or epidemiologists with historians? Will differences in training and methodology always be surmountable? Should one discipline take the lead over another?

Then there are the obstacles that come with transdisciplinarity, which incorporates both academic and societal partners. Working with civic organisations can involve having to negotiate very different expectations and communication styles, or even simply different levels of availability.

One of the most common dilemmas is how to go about preparing such research proposals.

Team members will understand what their own disciplines can contribute to the project, but how to make the case for a truly collaborative approach?

That’s one of the questions addressed by a major European Union-funded project championing interdisciplinarity. SHAPE-ID provides tailored guidance for stakeholders interested in pursuing such partnerships, with a range of multimedia resources designed to guide you through the process. The following guidance comes from the project’s new online toolkit.

Ten tips for preparing interdisciplinary research proposals:

  • Remember that your proposal will be read by a range of people, not just those within your research area: don’t assume knowledge of your discipline – describe (concisely) why your research is important, innovative and impactful.
  • Don’t just describe your proposal as interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. Explain why an inter- or transdisciplinary approach is necessary to achieve the intended research outcomes.
  • Inter- and transdisciplinary proposals may be evaluated by those with expertise in collaborative research rather than your discipline. Write clearly for a general reader – use the minimum of technical language and abbreviations and define specialist terms when they are first used.
  • Collaboration and integration take many forms and work to achieve. Outline what kind(s) of collaboration or integration you envisage (theoretical, methodological, etc) and the specific ways in which you hope to achieve this.
  • Explain the methods that you plan to use and, if they are novel, give examples where they have been successfully used in other fields.
  • Bear in mind the extra costs associated with inter- or transdisciplinary research, such as additional network building, and budget for them accordingly.
  • If the research involves new collaborations, assume that these relationships will take time to develop and provide opportunities, both formal and informal, for this to happen, especially at the start of the project.
  • If the research includes different types of stakeholders, describe what they bring to the research, what and when they are expected to contribute, and how they will benefit from taking part.
  • Plan for a range of outputs to be produced across the lifetime of the project – this protects against failure and satisfies the needs of different collaborators. Academic publications are usually of little importance to societal partners who will often need more focused outputs – a programme of activities or a new tool to pilot – to justify their continued involvement in the project.
  • Criteria for authorship vary considerably across disciplines. Describe how authorships for project outputs will be allocated – or a process for agreeing on this early in the project – otherwise this can become a major problem.

Reflective questions to ask when planning an interdisciplinary research collaboration:

  • Does everyone know who all the partners are and what they will bring to the project? Have all partners been able to contribute to the design of this project? Do the research questions frame the topic in ways that are engaging and fruitful for all partners? Has a shared understanding of the project’s aims and purpose been explicitly stated and agreed upon?
  • Is the research design predefined in the project proposal or to be negotiated among the group? Will there be opportunities for partners to learn about each other’s research methods and perspectives on the topic? How will you avoid making assumptions about partners’ approaches to the topic?
  • How will you ensure that no one group or perspective dominates the research process? Are there mechanisms in place to enable the ongoing exchange of ideas and opinions across disciplines and sectors? Will there be regular meetings that all project partners are expected to attend? Will all partners have the opportunity to provide feedback on project development and outputs? What happens if they cannot reach consensus?

It can be a tricky process, but the potential rewards of such collaborations are great. Getting these first steps right is crucial in paving the way to a successful outcome.

Catherine Healy recently completed an Irish Research Council-funded PhD at the Department of History at Trinity College Dublin. Catherine Lyall and Isabel Fletcher of the University of Edinburgh are partners of SHAPE-ID, a project that brings together scholars from across Europe to examine interdisciplinary practices.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered directly to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.

SHAPE-ID has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programmeunder grant agreement number 822705. The above guidance is just one example of the many multimedia resources available through the project’s online toolkit, which covers questions such as how to engage with collaborators from other disciplines, and how to support and assess these projects.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site