Interdisciplinary research: Professor Jenny Phillimore

Hello once again dear ECRAG members to a special edition of the blog!

This time we were fortunate enough to have the wonderful Jenny Phillimore discussing superdiversity, IRiS (institute of research in to superdiversity) and the nitty-gritty details of inter-disciplinary research. So today, we’ll go through the talk in some detail.

In true ECRAG style we started the session with our informal question “what is your favourite way to relax?”. Our members were delighted to reminisce about cosy-ing up on their sofas with loved ones, all snug in a blanket watching good TV! Including The Big Bang Theory or the X-Factor. Some of our lucky members get to answer the bigger questions of life with their 4-5 year olds, teenagers or get away from the world with a good book and music. One of our members likes to indulge in “Adult Lemsip” whilst playing online Scrabble. Now you have some ideas for your next cosy day/night in.

So let’s get down to business!


Jenny warmed up the talk by outlining her research in to superdiversity, and how IRiS supports interdisciplinary research. In an age of austerity, research councils are putting together funds from different areas and look for research proposals that reflect their different interests.

Starting with the definition of interdisciplinary research, Jenny pointed out how important it was to acknowledge the difference between multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary work. The later focuses on combining 2 or more disciplines in to 1 activity in order to produce something new and cross boundaries, multi-disciplinary on the other hand is where different areas contribute towards an idea but do not cross boundaries.

One of Jenny’s areas of research is migrant health and she used her research as an example of interdisciplinary research. Instead of having segmented units of research a holistic approach is required to investigate the complexities and diverse demands of this topic. Although, it is an aim of some research councils to have a contribution from interdisciplinary research we must acknowledge the negatives of this type of work. Researchers can find themselves isolated from their field of work as they constantly contrast and compare different streams of literature. You can become very applied rather than theory development with the added struggle of trying to get published in the bigger publications.


But fear not! Where there is fear of publishing there is still the opportunity to achieve dissemination and of course to peak the interest of research councils.

Jenny discussed the NORFACE project that she is developing across Europe with several of her colleagues, where there was only a 7% success rate! It was important to build synergy between the different collaborators and manage ideas in to one successful research proposal. Here is a step-by-step break down of the process:

1) Idea development: it’s important to email potential collaborators and get the word of mouth going, but be clear with your rationale and decide in advance what approach you would like to take within your existing network. Select people who have a genuine interest and enthusiasm whilst truly understanding the idea.

2) Start a proposal: raise the standard of your work by sending drafts to trusted colleagues for comments, literature recommendations and suggestions. Incorporate ideas you like as the proposal evolves and this can take up to 3-4 iterations.

Wait to be shortlisted….

3) Next round: the workload increases! Volunteer for a 2 day workshop where all colleagues can meet (international or local) and have an allotted time to have blue sky ideas then narrow down to a refined series of tasks. An open discussion is vital for progress!

4) Allocate people jobs: get ideas across different disciplines and series of questions then answer them! The real challenge is to merge several disciplines in to a few thousand words. This will be a collaborative effort and where everyone is required to be critically honest to point out what doesn’t work, make sense or fit together

5) Select referees: you will need 2 selected referees to contact and 1 person who will not review the proposal. You can build an international advisory board simply based on your existing networks.

6) Review/rebuttal collaboratively: what needs to be added and will benefit in the long run. Each discipline can add a method or specialism which can be built in to training projects. Publishing and dissemination pathways also need to be discussed such as publishing in 20 different publications as a result of the multiple analytical lenses.

Rather than working in a parallel sequential order it can be useful to apply an approach where the same work is carried out at the same time across different countries. All the analysis occurs together rather than one stage at a time. A high risk strategy dependent on the slowest worker to keep up with the timetable.

Some of our keen ECRAG-er’s asked some very interesting questions, the summary of which is:

  • Leadership skills are important in making decisions on a project when breaking it down between 2 people.
  • Find opportunities to work with diverse research networks such as the DRDN (doctoral researcher’s diversity network) a branch of IRiS for PhD students.

The session was very informative and interactive enough for members to enjoy a healthy discussion on interdisciplinary research.

If you would like to join IRiS or DRDN then please contact:

Ann Boldstridge: a.boldstrige@bham.ac.uk

Ricky Joseph: r.joseph@bham.ac.uk

Further information for IRiS can be found at: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/superdiversity-institute/index.aspx

Farina Kokab: fxk660@bham.ac.uk


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