In total, 26 individuals of the eligible 35 responded, with at least 3 respondents per team (74% response rate). Self-identified demographics and disciplines of respondents are provided in Table 2. The following subsections reflect four emergent themes derived from content analysis, and we present an integration of qualitative and quantitative within these: (1) integration, disciplinary specialization, and shared purpose; (2) communication and teamwork; (3) personality, interpersonal skills, and conflict management; and (4) perceived costs and benefits.
Integration, disciplinary specialization, and shared purpose
For some GP team members, it was challenging to balance disciplinary concepts and methods and find common ground (Table 3). Despite this initial challenge, teams identified specific mechanisms and conditions that aided this necessary objective for effective cross-disciplinary research. For example, a team overcame disciplinary jargon by employing an overarching framework as a “boundary object” to better define disciplinary language and facilitate discussions (S1). Interestingly, the use of boundary objects or concepts is becoming a more common aspect of IDR and TS, but references to its use in graduate contexts is limited (McGreavy et al. 2013; Mattor et al. 2014; Pittman et al. 2016). For another team, shared knowledge of the system being investigated helped establish common ground (S2). Other teams used more traditional methods like delegating disciplinary specific work to subgroups or sub-projects (S3, S4), but not all viewed this as positive (S5).
Others identified lack of methodological integration or expertise as a significant challenge (Table 3, S6). For some teams, this manifested as research activities becoming specialized due to member’s methodological or computational expertise (e.g., coding, programming) (S7). This challenge is also identified by past assessments (e.g., Ryser et al. 2009; Pennington 2016). Participants also viewed meaningful integration of concepts and data as a challenge, but the underlying reasons varied (Table 3, S8, S9). For some, the challenge was related to differences in theoretical perspectives while others attributed this challenge to the use of different methods or analytical frameworks.
Despite these challenges, respondents reported increased comfort with IDR and TS from pre- to post-participation (pre M = 3.62, SD = 1.02; post M = 4.73, SD = 0.45; t(25) = 5.51, p < .001, d = 1.41). For instance, participants stated: “I think I’m much more open minded and able to see limitations of disciplinary thought much more easily” (S10a); “working across disciplines exposes some of the siloed thinking that goes on within each of our own fields” (S10b). This suggests the research structures and process implemented by the GP were by and large successful at facilitating teams’ ability to find common ground or meaningful points of integration. Increases in disciplinary and methodological specialization will continue to create challenges for integrating and developing shared purpose in IDR and TS (National Research Council 2005; Lindenfeld et al. 2012). Yet, successful collaboration relies on finding common ground and meaningful integration. Figure 2 demonstrates this tenet as, in general, teams self-reporting high team integration report high team success. This is further demonstrated by a significant positive correlation observed between team success and integration (r = 0.58, p < 0.01).
Integration of diverse and specialized knowledge for a shared purpose is fundamental to IDR and TS (Stokols et al. 2008). As such, interdisciplinary doctoral training must develop frameworks that support collaborative activities and disciplinary interaction to increase capacity for integrating concepts and methods and learning from other disciplines (Frodeman et al. 2017). Ultimately, building awareness of other scientific perspectives to create a shared purpose better enables students to participate in future interdisciplinary team research projects (Goring et al. 2014). Graduate students also identified issues pertaining to methods, analytical frameworks, and data analyses as barriers to integration and shared purpose. Team members with certain skills were perceived as excluding others from participating in analyses and decision-making (S7, S9). The manifestation of this issue in graduate teams is interesting considering sophisticated statistical analyses and big-data approaches are becoming more common in cross-disciplinary synthesis (Hampton et al. 2017). The implications of this perceived barrier and related issues, such as interactions between theory-based methods and data-driven analyses, is an important issue to address for the future of S-E science.
Communication and teamwork
Participants described the not only the important role of communication, but also the tension between managing communication and project momentum and workflow (Table 4). Respondents indicated several themes that facilitated effective communication: listening, respecting and incorporating diverse viewpoints, learning from other team members, and informal socialization. These contributed to a shared understanding of research activities, team goals, and individual responsibilities. Effective communication helped build clearly defined roles, trust, and effective working relationships among team members. Subsequently, this enabled teams to work through challenges and coordinate, collaboratively and iteratively, towards the completion of project tasks. In-person meetings were referenced as crucial elements of facilitating communication, social integration, and teamwork, which aligns with SESYNC’s broader framework for collaboration (S17–S19). Teams that focused on continual and scheduled types of communication (either in-person or web-based) identified these regular interactions as fundamental to their success. Respondents acknowledged the value of these firsthand exchanges and the importance of them in developing communication skills, adjusting communication strategies and managing project momentum (S20, S21).
Communication is a central part to any team effort (McGreavy et al. 2015; Thompson 2009). Effective communication enables information exchange and development of relationships among team members but is rarely the focus of graduate education and training (Read et al. 2016). While several past assessments note the importance of communication, others situate communication as the central and focal element of interdisciplinary research and practice (Lindenfeld et al. 2012; McGreavy et al. 2013). Our assessment reinforces the paramount importance of communication and development of communication skills and strategies in facilitating collaboration (i.e., Stokols et al. 2008). Interdisciplinary doctoral training programs can meet this need by providing explicit communication training and support for teams. Communication is highlighted in many proposed doctoral training best practices and teamwork principles (Nancarrow et al. 2013).
Our results were similar to other assessments, which suggest that the settings, structures, and processes that support and facilitate effective communication can be as, if not more, important to the success of projects as expertise, technical skills, organization, or leadership (Bennett et al. 2018). As with most TS projects, GP team leaders served as the nexus for communication and teamwork and the GP program director met with team leaders before and after each on-site team meeting to discuss communication and teamwork challenges and potential strategies to move the project forward. These conversations were intended to heighten awareness of potential communication gaps and to develop plans to improve teamwork, if needed. The structure and process of these scheduled and regular meetings ensured that the team leaders would continuously communicate with SESYNC and discuss among themselves the status of the project and team dynamics. SESYNC also provided team leaders with feedback on meeting agendas to ensure the effective use of time, that meeting objectives were clearly articulated, and the meeting structure and activities were designed to achieve project objectives.
From our assessment, data suggest that the support offered to team leaders by SESYNC transferred to the teams, as many of the principles and activities present are mentioned by respondents. For example, respondents stated, “...it is important that these goals and expectations are discussed regularly” (S12), “we had regularly scheduled deadlines and phone calls and I think what has made the group successful is the open and good communication and understanding.” (S14), “support provided by SESYNC during meetings made a big difference; having logistics taken care of allowed us to get the most out of meeting time by focusing on the work and getting to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere.” (S17), and “structured and planned group discussion...are [all] very useful.” (S22). Collectively, our findings provide evidence that strategies like those offered by SESYNC and developed by GP teams, which facilitate or focus on interpersonal communication and communication tools and techniques and create a supportive communication environment, contribute to successful IDR and TS.
Personality, interpersonal skills, and conflict management
Interpersonal dynamics related to personality are a common and ubiquitous challenge of IDR and TS (Bennett et al. 2018; Molleman 2005). In general, team members who perceived others as having positive personality traits cited this as a strength and a reason for a success. For example, openness was often referenced as contributing positively to team progress and success: “openness and interest by all team members to work across boundaries” (S26), “all of us were very open to hearing each other’s ideas and willing to learn from and about other disciplines” (S28), and “Any challenges our team faced we overcame by being completely open and honest” (S29). This theme was also reflected in teams’ ability to manage conflict (S32–S35).
Results from the TIPI corroborate these findings as moderate to high ratings of extraversion (4.73, SD = 1.87), agreeableness (M = 5.12, SD = 1.12), conscientiousness (M = 5.96, SD = 0.95), emotional stability (M = 5.12, SD = 1.30), and openness (M = 4.77, SD = 0.76) were reported across participants and within teams (Fig. 3). Openness was significantly correlated with extraversion (r = 0.48) and conscientiousness (r = 0.46), which are further evidenced in the qualitative data as contributing to a team’s ability to manage and overcome challenges (Table 5, S26–S31). Teams with members sharing similar personality traits rated the overall success of their project higher compared with teams with more disparate personality traits (Figs. 2 and 3). For example, team 1 ranked lowest in terms of integration and success (Fig. 2) and contained the most diverse personality traits (round shape versus star shaped in Fig. 3).
In terms of personality traits, assessments of later-career collaborations find that team performance, conflict resolution, and decision-making are affected by dominant personalities, egocentrism, and associated power dynamics (National Research Council 2015; Mattor et al. 2014). However, GP participants did not mention these negative factors. For example, two respondents noted, “we didn’t end up having any abrasive personalities and everybody pulled their weight” (S27) and “lack of ego and willingness to cooperate were extremely helpful in making our team successful” (S28). That is, in general, teams reported amiable interactions and positive progress towards conflict resolution. The contrast between later-career and GP experiences is an important finding. At the graduate stage, overt power dynamics and egoism seem to be less of an issue or challenge. It is possible to infer that by providing training and experience with IDR/TS at the graduate career stage, positive team dynamics, relationship building, and conflict resolution skills could be ingrained and persist to later-career collaborations. That is, by training graduate students at a formative time in their career, it is possible that, apart from enabling IDR/TS capacity-building, programs like the SESYNC GP limit the potential for negative dimensions of personality traits to stagnate or impair collaborative S-E research.
Perceived costs and benefits
Respondents viewed the benefit/cost ratio of GP participation favorably. When asked if they would pursue future interdisciplinary research based on their experience with the GP, most respondents indicated they were very likely to do so (M = 4.71, SD = 0.72; 1, very unlikely, 5, very likely). We interpret this as respondents’ perceiving that the costs of interdisciplinary research are justified given the benefits received or that will be received. The most common perceived cost was the amount of work and time required for the project while having other graduate program demands (reported by 38% of respondents). Content analysis revealed two other primary costs (or barriers): disconnect from dissertation research and strained relationship with graduate advisor (Table 6). Importantly, respondents perceived these costs as interrelated (S36).
In terms of past assessments, these costs are unique to the graduate student experience (Morse et al. 2007; Read and Garcia 2015). Content analysis further revealed three primary benefits associated with the GP experience: developing relationships with other early-career researchers, being exposed to and gaining appreciation for different disciplines, and increased confidence and comfort moving across and integrating with disciplines. Participants also referenced benefits such as networking (S40), expanded epistemology (S41), and increased exposure to other disciplines (S42). These results help to explain the increased comfort with interdisciplinary research that participants expressed from pre- to post-GP.
Surprisingly, respondents did not commonly mention research outcomes (conference presentation, publications, job talks, technical reports, etc.) as a benefit of the GP, although teams developed several tangible research outcomes (Online Resource 2) (Keck et al. 2017). Often, the success of academic research is gauged by production of peer-reviewed manuscripts, with IDR/TS groups tending to produce fewer publications initially but more in the long-term (Hall et al. 2012). Respondents may not have recognized the potential of their project to yield scholarly publications, were not yet focused on these outcomes, or simply felt they were secondary or resulting from more primary benefits offered by IDR/TS. Nevertheless, each team reported various research outcomes stemming from their GP project, which aligns with SESYNC’s goal of facilitating successful collaborations and research outcomes (Table 7).
Many of the costs and benefits reported here align with those identified by other assessments, which also describe benefits associated with training, salary, satisfaction, publications, knowledge for policy, and future funding potential (Goring et al. 2014). Potential costs include losses of credit and academic freedom, lower publication impact, and time. As with our results, time was the major cost identified, with networking or relationships with other early-career researchers cited as a major benefit. GP respondents, being graduate students, identified additional costs, such as the disconnect from dissertation research and advisor-advisee relationship, and benefits associated with increased confidence, comfort, and appreciation for IDR/TS. These added costs and benefits enrich our previous understanding of the graduate experience with IDR/TS and provide additional considerations for the design of doctoral training programs. They also provide relevant information for early-career researchers who are interested in engaging with IDR/TS research.