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I've started researching in an interdisciplinary PhD with almost complete independence.

The problem is my background (computational engineering) is way different from the main theme of my current project (brain research). Naturally, after I started, I tried to read as broadly as possible and not necessarily stick to my interest. Yet, the field is vast. The more I read, the more I feel like I'm merely discovering distant areas without being able to bridge them together.

It's not that I expect to understand things right away, but eight months have passed since I started, and yet, I feel I haven't learned much. More accurately, I often feel lost among some random papers.

How do you, the interdisciplinary researchers, manage to handle vivid thoughts like the following after reading papers outside of your comfortable field?

  • "Cool, but I don't know how it could possibly help later on", or
  • "I don't feel this really added anything to my knowledge"

Maybe important: Since my supervisors are engineers like me, I cannot get the correct question to work on from them -- I have tried, but it didn't work. Instead, I have recently started to connect to researchers in other institutes we collaborate with. They are more into the topic, and I hope it gives a bit of direction to the research.

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    It seems to be hard to be "interdisciplinary" if you are only getting advice from one discipline. Can you expand your range of contacts?
    – Buffy
    Jul 12 at 19:28
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    Computational Neuroscience is a huge field with many people in it. Jul 12 at 21:37
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I'd echo Buffy's comment: it doesn't sound like you're being interdisciplinary, except for having some aspiration towards it.

I am myself a neuroscientist, and tend towards the computational side of things. I came from the biology side, but frequently interact with people coming from the engineering/CS side of things. Those people coming from an engineering/CS background can contribute to knowledge of how brains work, but they need either to fully immerse themselves in learning the biology side from the ground up, or they need to be guided by people who do have the expertise in that area already.

I'd strongly suggest expanding on the collaborations. You need to interact with people who have a background more different from your own to develop an interdisciplinary project.

"Cool, but I don't know how it could possibly help later on" and "I don't feel this really added anything to my knowledge" are normal feelings to have when reading papers. I don't think that's particularly special for interdisciplinary work. You just have to decide what you read deeper into, and what organization strategy works best for you to get back to things you've read in the past when you recognize a need for it some day.

I'd also advise that you aren't in a particularly novel interdisciplinary zone. Lots of people have published on the intersection between the fields you are interested in, so don't try to bridge them on your own. The bridges are already there, you'll just be contributing to some aspect of what's out there.

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  • I think this answer and the comments under my question are very reasonable. Reading these also clarified that what bothered me wasn't really the hardship of connecting the dots but rather the professional isolation - amplified by the pandemic. Although expanding collaboration doesn't happen overnight, I'd mark this as the answer as it truly highlights the main reason behind my feeling.
    – arash
    Jul 15 at 7:31

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