Fostering interdisciplinary learning in large-scale doctoral programmes

Corina Sas highlights key insights for design and delivery of large-scale doctoral training programmes that foster supportive and cooperative interdisciplinary learning environments

Corina Sas's avatar
Lancaster University
29 Oct 2021
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Advice on fostering interdisciplinary learning in large scale doctoral programmes

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The landscape of doctoral education is shifting as we see an increasing number of large-scale programmes aimed at supporting larger cohorts of graduates, at both UK and European level.

In contrast to traditional PhD programmes – which are mostly disciplinary, run at departmental level for students with limited shared interests who often experience financial challenges – such larger-scale doctoral programmes are predominantly interdisciplinary, developed at cross-departmental, institutional or even international level, involving large cohorts of more generously funded PhD students who share the research objectives of their programme.

The distinct qualities of such programmes raise challenges regarding increased expectations for research excellence, genuine interdisciplinary research and cooperative rather than competitive learning. Distilled from my experience of leading such large-scale programme, here are 10 key insights to inform interdisciplinary doctoral supervision and learning:

1. Be bold in aiming for two goals of interdisciplinarity: incremental augmentation of scientific knowledge and solving problems outside academia. Aim to achieve them both for richer learning experiences and development of students’ transferable skills.

2. Think big to ensure the wider scope of interdisciplinarity by boldly bringing in conceptually closed disciplines such as engineering and physics as well as conceptually distant ones such as computer science and clinical psychology. Aim to integrate the key disciplines needed to address the goal of your interdisciplinarity doctoral programme, even if they are distant. While such “wide interdisciplinarity” requires additional support work, it also provides more stimulating and creative learning environments. For instance, we successfully engaged three disciplines seldom integrated: human-computer interaction, biomedical engineering and clinical psychology for the AffecTech Innovative Training Network, as they were all key for the design and development of innovative personalised technologies for affective health.

3. Ensure the highest possible interaction and integration among the involved disciplines at both theoretical and methodological level. This should go beyond PhD students’ mere exposure to the separate disciplines and take different forms such as interdisciplinary learning teams, especially when focused on problem-based learning.

4. Provide interdisciplinary doctoral supervision. PhD supervision lies at the core of doctoral education, and a co-supervision model is increasingly common. However, PhD projects addressing interdisciplinary topics require interdisciplinary supervisory expertise. While this can sometimes be provided by a sole academic, often two or three academics are needed to ensure it.

5. Engage disciplines and supervisors who champion interdisciplinarity. Since interdisciplinary research expertise is challenging to acquire, supervisory support remains predominantly discipline-based. If possible, aim to include supervisors who have already worked at disciplinary boundaries. There are also disciplines that are particularly open to interdisciplinary research, so identifying those for the interdisciplinary needs of your PhD programme is a strong advantage. For instance, human-computer interaction is highly interdisciplinary, drawing from psychology, especially cognitive sciences, computer science, design and even arts and humanities as technologies increasingly permeate our everyday lives. 

6. Celebrate the relevant disciplines. It is important to instil the values and attitudes needed for interdisciplinary doctoral education in the PhD students. Aim for learning and teaching methods where tolerance and respect for all contributing disciplinary perspectives is key, such as participatory research.

7. Support the writing of interdisciplinary collaborative research papers. Writing papers is an important assessment method in doctoral education, but interdisciplinary ones raise particular challenges. Encourage doctoral students to collaborate on themes that can feed into each of their individual PhD projects. This has the advantage of supporting a culture of cooperative rather than competitive learning in doctoral programmes. Another challenge is that most reputable conferences and journals still work within disciplinary boundaries. Guide students’ academic writing both within their main discipline, usually the one for which the PhD degree will be awarded, but also at disciplinary boundaries. The latter is particularly challenging but represents excellent opportunity for learning transferable skills.

8. Create space for reflection and critical thinking. The value of reflection and critical thinking in doctoral education cannot be overemphasised. Support it explicitly through bespoke teaching modules, and implicitly in supervision sessions and through feedback on students’ academic writing.

9. Ensure support for supervisors. Interdisciplinary doctoral supervision is taxing as supervisors need to be willing to step out of the comfort of their own discipline. Aim to provide bespoke support through regular supervisory workshops where their concerns can be voiced and additional guidance or support can be provided as needed.

10. Build resilience and support well-being. Finally, doctoral programmes are often transformative journeys, and, therefore, even more difficult when performed in an interdisciplinary context. Aim to provide additional support structures such as coaching and mentoring sessions, and personal development plans, so that students’ needs for learning additional skills can be met. This further supports their career aspirations whether in academic or industry settings. Together, such structures will help strengthen students’ resilience, confidence and well-being.

Doctoral education is enormously challenging and rewarding, and in interdisciplinary form even more so. These guidelines are aimed at academics involved in the design and delivery of doctoral training programmes who wish to foster interdisciplinary learning environments that are highly supportive, creative, tolerant and cooperative.

Corina Sas is professor in human-computer interaction and digital health, assistant dean for research enhancement at Lancaster University, and has led a UK doctoral training centre and two European Innovative Training Networks.

She has been shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here with the winners due to be announced at a ceremony on 25th November.


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