Focus on Junior Scholars’ Interdisciplinary Efforts

Our Society provides support for early-career researchers and students in particular, in their efforts to engage in interdisciplinary research. With early-career/junior researcher, we mean scholars below the “Title of Docent” level as defined in the Finnish scholarly system. On this page, we explain what is meant by “Title of Docent” in the Finnish academic context, why we believe early-career researchers and students deserve more support in their interdisciplinary efforts, and how FINTERDIS aims to provide such support.

Vulnerable Position of Junior Scholars Engaging in Interdisciplinarity: General View

Interdisciplinarity has become a central aim in research policy, degree education programs, and in expectations of funding organizations. In practice, however, interdisciplinary research faces many challenges: departments and units tend to form tribes and territories which fight each other for power and funding, rather than committing to collaboration. In their article “Facilitating Interdisciplinary Scholars” (Oxford Handbook on Interdisciplinarity, 2017) Stephanie Pfirman and Paula Martin observe that early-career scholars and students with interdisciplinary interests are in especially vulnerable positions in terms of their career prospects in the current academic structures. As expressed by Finnish philosopher Jan von Plato (2011), “multidisciplinarity is a risk for the young scholar.” Junior researchers with interdisciplinary interests tend to become marginalized, not being taken seriously in any particular field, while the new connections they see between different approaches are often overlooked by established faculty as well; similar struggles take place when trying to publish interdisciplinary work. In their article “Doctoral Student and Early Career Academic Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity,” Dooling, Graybill and Shandas (2017) state that “the experiences of doctoral students and junior faculty are rarely recognized by proponents for and administers responsible for interdisciplinary training and research programs.”

Definition of “Junior Scholar” in the Finnish Academic Context

The Finnish academic system makes a basic distinction between “Post-doctoral researchers,” which usually refers to scholars who have defended their doctoral dissertation within the past five years, and more advanced scholars, known here as having the “Title of Docent.” To gain the “Title of Docent” degree, a scholar must demonstrate good teaching skills and have academic publications corresponding to at least two doctoral dissertations in scope and difficulty. We define “Junior scholars” or “Early-career researchers” as those researchers who have still not gained their Title of Docent degree.

Struggles of Junior Scholars in the Finnish Academic Context

Finnish universities already offer a generous variety of established programs and units with an interdisciplinary outlook such as gender studies, environmental studies, and development studies. However, a student or a junior scholar who wants to combine relatively distant fields – say, comparative religion and medicine – is likely to encounter difficulties, at least if there are no pre-existing connections between these fields and faculties. Supervision and support of interdisciplinary projects implies that the mentors – those at the advanced level – must be willing to look beyond their comfort zones, engage with new perspectives, and meet new people in order to understand the junior scholar’s idea in a holistic way. As Jan von Plato (2011) also notes, junior scholars often have a very hard time convincing their supervisors of the new connections they see between different approaches.  

Besides demanding courage and open-mindedness, reaching beyond one’s own department/area of research requires time and resources. Many advanced scholars do not have a chance to properly focus on teaching and supervision, even if they would want to, given our universities’ increasing emphasis on research and publications, while undermining the value of teaching and development of pedagogical skills. Recently, Finnish universities have been subjects to severe financial cuts, resulting in even less resources devoted to teaching and supervision. Given the circumstances, supervisors often feel obliged to urge their younger colleagues and students to pursue the fastest and familiar path. 

What Can FINTERDIS Do About This?

The circumstances described above underline the need for peer support for junior scholars and students so that they would not feel alone in their interdisciplinary efforts. Thus, FINTERDIS will promote the creation of peer-support groups and forums where junior scholars and students can get to know each other, discuss their interdisciplinary work, and gain feedback and support from each other. We also promote peer-support groups and forums for more advanced scholars, enabling them to exchange thoughts in regard to interdisciplinary teaching and supervision, share good practices, and think of ways in that innovative teaching and interdisciplinary supervision could be facilitated in the future. 

FINTERDIS will also launch an extensive survey and conduct group and individual interviews among junior scholars and supervisors engaging in interdisciplinarity and working in the Finnish academic context, to gain comprehensive understanding of the limits and possibilities they are facing in their work. We then aim to share our findings with Finnish university administrators, education policy makers, and advanced scholars, so that the views of junior scholars would be better taken into consideration in the future and in the planning and implementation of interdisciplinary programs. While FINTERDIS is an autonomous registered society, we aim to collaborate with as many Finnish higher education institutions as possible in order to enable an impact at national level and on various fields of study.

FINTERDIS also promotes the internationalization of Finnish scholars. By familiarizing ourselves with interdisciplinary practices around the world, we are able to introduce best practices to the Finnish context without having to reinvent the wheel. FINTERDIS also promotes Finnish education and interdisciplinary practices abroad. We collaborate closely with the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) and other organizations and travel to their meetings and conferences together, enabling networking between our members with different backgrounds. 

References Cited in this Section:

Dooling, Sarah, Jessica Graybill & Vivek Shandas 2017: Doctoral student and early career academic perspectives on interdisciplinarity. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, 2nd edition.

Pfirman, Stephanie & Paula Martin 2017: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Scholars. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity.

von Plato, Jan 2011: Lahjakkaat ajattelijat vaarassa. Yliopisto-lehti 9/2011