Graduate Students Want to Solve ‘Wicked Problems.’ Are Universities Delivering?

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Climate change. Social inequality. Civil liability. The biggest worries of our time are “evil problems” – complex challenges that lack clear disciplinary boundaries and that require unique, interdisciplinary perspectives to both hit and treat meaningfully.

Resolving them may require training young researchers to be “evil students,” to use a phrase from Paul Hanstedt, director of the Washington & Lee University’s teaching and learning center. Master’s education – with its specialization, close access to faculty members and opportunities for deep learning – should help with this type of interdisciplinary education. However, it usually does not. Instead, more often than not, graduate education provides depth almost to the systematic exclusion of breadth; develop isolated and disconnected experts rather than those who can meaningfully connect with others and their expertise towards achieving common goals.

The first step in reconciling these tensions is to anchor some of these statements in data from the student side of the equation. Will graduate students themselves pursue interdisciplinary goals and become “evil”?

They certainly do!

Over the past two years, the College Impact Laboratory at Ohio State University has been researching in-depth Ph.D. students across all disciplines – the people who become the next generation of researchers, researchers and leaders. When last year’s students (n = 98) were asked if they had expected their PhD. program to give them meaningful opportunities to work across disciplines, 84.8 percent agree or strongly agree. This year (n = 120) the trend has intensified, with 85.9 percent agreeing and strongly agreeing.

Those who have deliberately signed up for an interdisciplinary PhD. programs have found them transformative. For example, a student enrolled in an interdisciplinary program focusing on decarbonizing energy systems said that encountering other disciplinary perspectives “affected [them] pretty hard ”and made them reconsider [their] attitude to a few ideas. Another student expressed that interdisciplinary work “changed my thought pattern … to a multifaceted point of view” that helped them synthesize between bodies of knowledge and see other facets of the problems they were working on. Interdisciplinary education exposes students to many different perspectives, which previous studies suggest can lead to more innovative solutions and more powerful cognitive development.

Despite these benefits, academic structures continue to block interdisciplinary research in favor of traditional interdisciplinary perspectives. Compared to traditional research, interdisciplinary research regularly receives less funding and is published in lower-ranked academic journals.

In addition, researchers performing interdisciplinary work have no guarantee that their home departments fully understand or value their collaboration. In the highly competitive world of academic research, it can help others compete for you or get your colleagues to deny you tenure. It is therefore no wonder that many unpaid academics consider interdisciplinary collaborations to be dangerous to their careers.

Nevertheless, in an era of increasing specialization, future experts seem to be thirsty for broader perspectives. So what can universities do to provide interdisciplinary experiences in hopes of helping develop “evil students”?

One possible solution is to build a PhD. programs that are interdisciplinary from scratch, e.g. those sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program. Such programs, when deliberately designed, can offer the benefits of being exposed to traditional disciplines while attracting and leveraging students’ interdisciplinary interests.

Another possibility is for universities to create programs that offer education and funding to academics who want to create organic interdisciplinary partnerships to tackle unmet needs in their field. These may include opportunities for students to work on interdisciplinary teams, while at the same time gaining skills to apply for funding and present ideas to internal and external stakeholders. A third option is to add interdisciplinary opportunities to normal PhD. courses that would enable natural scientists to engage deeply in the social and behavioral sciences or humanities, and vice versa.

At a direct level, we wonder: What if every student in our test – including the approximately 86 percent who want such experiences – were to take a single course focusing on leveraging their expert perspectives to solve a societal, environmental, or technological challenge? Whatever the approach, it is urgent that our universities find a way to graduate researchers with interdisciplinary skills and views.

We do not know what future challenges we face, but we know that one day they will arrive. When they do, we need trained experts who are able to see multiple sides of the problem and who can effectively communicate solutions across stories, cultures, identities and – crucially – disciplines.

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