Later that day they will present their project outline to the Expert Board. The board will offer their criticism and suggest reshaping or even giving up on the research idea altogether or, perhaps, reconfiguring the team. The next day the same process will be repeated.
At the end of the four-day Project Design Session or PDS, some project teams will be hired as ‘clusters’ by the School of Advanced Studies at the University of Tyumen in Russia. A unique experiment in the academic hiring practice, PDS attracts researchers from the world’s leading universities who are eager to challenge themselves through a new form of multidisciplinary research.
A portal to multidisciplinarity
The School of Advanced Studies or SAS opened in 2017 as a liberal arts and sciences honours college and research centre at the University of Tyumen – an anomaly in the Russian higher education landscape.
From its inception, it offered the promise of multidisciplinarity ‘for real’. “It comes from a common dissatisfaction with the state of humanities and social sciences in the world,” says Dr Andrey Shcherbenok, SAS founder and director.
This includes research funding being linked to narrow specialisms, a desire to offer something ‘unique’ in the race for students and the intrinsic tribal tendencies of disciplines, which seek to isolate themselves and hire like-minded people to join their departments.
It is a trend that has resulted in the humanities and social sciences becoming too particularised and fragmented. “Even sociologists from different fields may not understand each other, let alone researchers from other disciplines,” says Shcherbenok.
At SAS, multidisciplinarity involves emphasising the relevance of each contributing discipline for a research project. This is seen as the approach needed to address today’s global challenges. It stands against the currently prevalent practice of multidisciplinarity in social sciences and humanities where researchers do individual research in their respective disciplines in the same building and maybe publish an edited volume with a broad umbrella topic as a result.
Today, SAS employs 21 permanent faculty who received their PhDs from leading universities in the United States, Europe and Canada. They are grouped into five multidisciplinary research teams hired as ‘clusters’ during the Multidisciplinary Research PDS. In March 2019, the PDS took place for the third time since its inception.
Not the usual cluster hiring
Traditionally, the term ‘cluster hiring’ in academia has referred to hiring new faculty wholesale, either for a single disciplinary unit or across multiple units under a multidisciplinary research topic. However, in the latter case interdisciplinary cooperation is more often than not hindered by departmental barriers. SAS wanted the teams to be not only multidisciplinary, but also to operate in a flat structure free from pre-existing organisational silos.
PDS emerged to serve the School of Advanced Studies’ specific model: teams are formed on site during the session via the process of group discussions facilitated by moderators. The moderators are specifically trained in a problem-based approach to project design. At the plenary sessions, the teams defend their project ideas before the external Expert Board and get feedback to factor into the next iteration of their project.
The plenary session is broadcast live on the SAS website and shared on Facebook and viewers – generally SAS faculty, students and administrators, but also experts from other universities – get to vote for the teams and project ideas they like best.
The participants also give individual teaching demonstrations. The final hiring decision is made by the board and is based on the project idea, the contributions of the participants and their ability to work in teams, feedback from students and the school’s strategy.
Through participants’ eyes
“Why haven’t others done this before?” asks the Expert Board about the novelty of one research project. “Because they’ve never hung out like this together as we now do,” was a spontaneous answer. Indeed, by simply bringing researchers from different fields into one room, PDS gives birth to projects that “otherwise may not find a home”, as Adam Szymanski, a post-doc from Canada’s McGill University and one of the candidates, puts it.
The rebirth of multidisciplinarity at SAS attracts those looking to go beyond the boundaries of their disciplines. At some point researchers in the humanities get to the point where they need to validate their findings empirically. Meanwhile neurobiologists or computer scientists seek the framework the humanities or social sciences provide to give their research a wider relevance.
The popular notion of multidisciplinarity can be seen in everything from research centres’ names to scientific publications, but the PDS format makes scholars cross traditional disciplinary boundaries in an unusually powerful way.
At times candidates find the format uncomfortable. After all, most have never encountered anything like PDS before. “People are asked to organise themselves into unconventional interdisciplinary configurations where they are forced to try to find a common language. I don't know of anywhere else organising research in this way,” says Joel Parthemore, a philosopher from the University of Skövde in Sweden. Some even call it a ‘social experiment’ that breaks through the fabric of their daily academic lives.
Furthermore, the communication style of the Expert Board is intentionally tougher and, perhaps, harsher than most are used to in order to make the process more efficient and escape academia’s tendency to soften the blow, which often means that the force of any critical evaluation is lost. As a rule, only those eager to take risks end up coming to PDS, getting insight about the format from the videos of the sessions from previous years.
By 2021, SAS plans to employ 45 full-time faculty and host between seven and eight projects. Meanwhile, existing projects are already showing results.
For instance, the “Material Relations: Nature, subjectivity and love” research group is imagining new frameworks for ethical and sustainable engagement with non-human entities shaping a new interface between philosophy, political theory, anthropology, performance studies and religious history.
Of course, the Project Design Session format has its pitfalls. One of them is a certain degree of randomness. “A talented researcher may simply not find the right team and the right project with just 25 people and four days,” says Shcherbenok. Besides, the team formed during the session may fall apart because of a candidate not accepting the offer. These are among the reasons behind the format’s constant evolution. Last year the option of mixing up hired teams or even hiring researchers to join already existing teams was added.
Forcing scholars to find a common research problem with a bunch of strangers in four days might be deemed ‘artificial’. There are also doubts about whether multidisciplinary projects can function long-term without breaking into disciplinary silos.
These ifs and buts notwithstanding, PDS is a disruptive innovation in academic hiring practice. And as a move towards multidisciplinarity, it is as bold as it gets.