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

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Climate change. Social inequality. Civic responsibility. The major concerns of our time are “wicked problems”—complex challenges that lack clear disciplinary boundaries and that require unique, transdisciplinary perspectives to both meaningfully frame and address.

Solving them may require training young scholars to be “wicked students,” to use a phrase from Paul Hanstedt, director of the Washington & Lee University teaching and learning center. Graduate education—with its specialization, close access to faculty members, and opportunities for deep learning—ought to help with this kind of interdisciplinary training. However, it usually doesn’t. Instead, more often than not, graduate education provides depth almost to the systematic exclusion of breadth; developing isolated and disconnected experts rather than those who can meaningfully connect with others and their expertise toward achieving common goals.

The first step in reconciling these tensions is to anchor some of these claims in data from the student side of the equation. Do graduate students themselves want to pursue interdisciplinary aims and become “wicked”?

They sure do!

Over the past two years, the College Impact Laboratory at The Ohio State University has surveyed incoming Ph.D. students across all disciplines—the people who will become the next generation of researchers, scientists, and leaders. When last year’s students (n=98) were asked if they expected their Ph.D. program to provide them with meaningful opportunities to work across disciplines, 84.8 percent agreed or strongly agreed. This year (n=120) the trend has intensified, with 85.9 percent agreeing and strongly agreeing.

Those who have enrolled in intentionally interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs have found them transformative. For example, one student enrolled in an interdisciplinary program centered on decarbonizing energy systems told us that encountering other disciplinary perspectives “hit [them] fairly hard” and made them “reconsider [their] position on a few ideas.” Another student expressed that interdisciplinary work “changed my thinking pattern … to a multi-field view” that helped them synthesize between bodies of knowledge and see other facets of the problems they worked on. Indeed, interdisciplinary training exposes students to many diverse perspectives, which previous studies suggest may lead to more innovative solutions and more powerful cognitive development.

Despite these benefits, academic structures continue to put up roadblocks to interdisciplinary research in favor of traditional uni-disciplinary perspectives. Compared to traditional research, interdisciplinary research regularly receives less funding and gets published in lower-ranked academic journals.

Additionally, scholars who do interdisciplinary work have no guarantee that their home departments will fully understand or value their collaborations. In the highly competitive world of academic research, that might help others outcompete you, or cause your colleagues to deny you tenure. It’s no wonder, then, that many untenured academics view interdisciplinary collaborations as dangerous for their careers.

Nonetheless, in an era of increasing specialization, future experts appear thirsty for broader perspectives. So what can universities do to provide interdisciplinary experiences in the hopes of helping developing “wicked students”?

One potential solution is to build Ph.D. programs that are interdisciplinary from the ground up, such as those sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program. Such programs, when intentionally designed, can offer the benefits of exposure to traditional disciplines while also attracting and capitalizing upon students’ interdisciplinary interests.

Another option is for universities to create programs that offer training and funding for academics who want to create organic interdisciplinary partnerships to tackle unmet needs in their field. These can include opportunities for students to work on transdisciplinary teams while gaining skills applying for funding and pitching ideas to internal and external stakeholders. A third option is to add interdisciplinary options to normal Ph.D. coursework that would allow natural scientists to engage deeply with the social and behavioral sciences or humanities, and vice versa.

At a direct level, we wonder: What if every student in our sample—including the roughly 86 percent who want such experiences—were required to take a single course focused on leveraging their expert perspectives to address a community, environmental, or technological challenge? No matter 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 face us, but we do know that one day they will arrive. When they do, we need to have trained experts who are capable of seeing multiple sides of the problem and who can communicate solutions effectively across histories, cultures, identities, and—crucially—disciplines.