Advancing the Success of Interdisciplinary Tenure-Track Faculty

Professor speaks to his class in language lab, CAS
Professor Scott Hartley, wearing protective glasses, talks with students in the lab, CAS


This document provides suggestions for probationary tenure-track faculty interested in pursuing interdisciplinary work and for administrators (department chairs, program directors, deans) working with faculty who are pursuing interdisciplinary teaching and research. It provides suggestions for better ensuring the professional success and retention of interdisciplinary faculty. It includes ideas for faculty who were originally hired to do interdisciplinary work as well as faculty who might have developed an interest in interdisciplinary work after being hired.

Since 1997, three ad hoc committees have been developed which offered specific and similar recommendations on advancing an interdisciplinary culture at Miami University: the 1997 “Ways to Encourage Interdisciplinary Teaching”; the 2006 “Report of the First in 2009 Coordinating Council Sub-Committee on Interdisciplinarity at Miami University”; and the 2011 Interdisciplinary Enhancement Committee Report. Each report identified the barriers to interdisciplinary work, the landscape of interdisciplinary activity at Miami at the time, perspectives from various stakeholders around campus, and key recommendations for how to enhance and encourage interdisciplinarity. The cornerstone of the 2006 report was a campus-wide survey that gathered data about barriers to interdisciplinary teaching and research. An open meeting for Miami faculty and administrators, which was held in November 2013 and sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Advisory Council, also yielded similar recommendations on fostering an interdisciplinary teaching and research environment at Miami.

Findings from the November 2013 meeting and the previous committee reports as well as best practices gleaned from the professional literature have shaped the recommendations and ideas embedded in this document.

Interdisciplinary Studies Today

Colleges and universities are experiencing a marked increase in interdisciplinary research and education. As one researcher noted, for the past ten years, “interdisciplinary programs have multiplied at a dizzying pace” (Nowacek, 2009, 493), with “over half of current general education reforms includ[ing] interdisciplinary programs or courses” (494). Likewise, the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Science Foundation, and the Institute of Medicine have extolled the benefits of interdisciplinary research and taken steps to promote its expansion (National Academies Press, 2004; see also Similarly, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council have also recently developed and prioritized prominent interdisciplinary initiatives. [1]

[1] NEH examples include: the symposium on digital humanities and biomedicine []; the “Enduring Questions” project [], as well as the language preservation project []. ACLS examples include: digital innovations fellowships []; a China Studies Program []; and collaborative research fellowships []. See also

Understanding the Benefits and Challenges of Interdisciplinary Faculty

As summarized below, faculty who engage actively in interdisciplinary teaching, scholarship, and service opportunities provide significant benefits and challenges for the University. Interdisciplinary faculty may work within interdisciplinary programs or centers or they may be members of disciplinary departments.



  • May have a thematic focus which can be appealing to students and faculty
  • Team-teaching can promote faculty development, teaching excellence, and collaborations
  • Often involves experiential learning (e.g., field experiences, service learning, collaborative learning)


  • No or few textbooks
  • Lack of sample syllabi or longstanding models to follow
  • No clear body of knowledge to cover
  • Team-teaching, due to its collaborative nature and the need for the instructors to learn new disciplines, can be more time-consuming
  • Students and parents may not immediately perceive value
  • Assessment methods may be unique



  • May be unique or ground-breaking
  • May encourage a more holistic or comprehensive approach to learning
  • Can appeal to major funding agencies
  • Often involves collaborations across departments, divisions, or institutions
  • Often involves social issues


  • In certain fields & inter-disciplines:
    • Lack of recognition by established scholars
    • Lack of sustained funding opportunities
    • Lack of familiarity with reputable journals and publication outlets
    • Lack of peer reviewers and mentors
    • Career trajectory less clear
    • Can wrongly be considered less rigorous
    • Not as many honors as in disciplinary fields
  • May take extended start-up time
  • Requires time to cultivate and maintain



  • Fosters community connections
  • Builds bridges between disciplines, departments, divisions
  • Enables faculty to become known on campus


  • Multiple and competing demands and priorities
  • Jointly appointed faculty serve two or more academic departments or programs; each department may not recognize the service demands required from the other

Promotion & Tenure


  • Broadens network for reviewers and for the department and University


  • Procedures & criteria may be biased toward disciplines
  • Reviewers may assume disciplinary norms or standards

Robert Clark, Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, writes, It is clear that research and teaching “at the boundaries of traditional . . . disciplines [are] yielding tremendous gains. . . The simple act of brainstorming in a group of faculty having different backgrounds is tremendously exciting and stimulating. Such groups diminish the fear associated with suggesting ideas that are outside the accepted ‘dogma’ of a particular researcher’s discipline. There is less risk of being criticized by colleagues that understand when you approach the problem with a different background and perspective. As a result, this kind of brainstorming among colleagues from different disciplines can stimulate creativity, sometimes leading to radically unique ideas or approaches.[2]

Although supporting interdisciplinary research and teaching comes with challenges-- including ensuring administrative flexibility and support, seed funding, and constant exposure to faculty in other disciplines to expand the vocabulary, which can vary greatly from discipline to discipline—it is worth the effort.

[2] See:

Considerations for Interdisciplinary Faculty

The scholarship and/or teaching of interdisciplinary faculty may not fit with established norms, criteria, resources, and rewards. Interdisciplinary faculty members approach their research and teaching in different ways, and each approach has somewhat different implications.

Considerations Related to Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary faculty can work on interdisciplinary questions individually, bringing together information from different fields, or they can work in teams. Their projects frequently cross departments, and often involve applied problems with unusual stakeholders, outside of the academy.

Interdisciplinary work comes in a variety of forms (Rhoten and Pfirman, 2007):

  1. Cross-fertilization –adapting and using ideas, approaches and information from different fields and/or disciplines.
  2. Team-collaboration—collaborating in teams or networks that span different fields and/or disciplines.
  3. Field-creation--creating new spheres of inquiry that sit at the intersection or edges of multiple fields and/or disciplines.
  4. Problem-orientation—addressing problems that engage multiple stakeholders and missions outside of academe, for example that serve society.

Collaborative interdisciplinary research can sometimes involve higher networking costs. Colleagues often have different priorities, and it takes time to learn how to cross disciplinary language barriers. Time and energy are also required for identifying potential partners, maintaining contact with them, and writing and then revising multi-authored documents. If the collaborators are not at the same institution, support for travel can be vital. Seeing collaborators at meetings and/or visiting them in their home institutions are excellent ways to maintain connections and build recognition. Travel support for interdisciplinary scholars to attend meetings of a number of disciplinary groups is also helpful. As collaborative interdisciplinary projects evolve, junior scholars need to make clear their unique contributions.

Interdisciplinary research projects may take a long time to get established and produce results, in part because of the networking required to bridge cultures and communities, but also because finding funding for interdisciplinary research can sometimes be a challenge. Interdisciplinary research, particularly humanities and social science-oriented research that cuts across divergent disciplines and fields, may sometimes be difficult to publish in recognized journals. In some cognate areas, there are fewer journals that specialize in broadly interdisciplinary research and among the ones that do, impact factors may vary.

An excellent way to highlight the significance of the faculty member’s interdisciplinary research, as well as to build research recognition, is for junior scholars to have the opportunity to invite speakers who are doing related work to campus. This helps other faculty, researchers, and students learn how the junior faculty member’s work fits into the larger field. If junior scholars host or co-host speakers, these guest visits will also provide mentoring opportunities for them. Another option for junior scholars to gain visibility is to host a special session at a professional meeting and become involved in professional societies. Encouraging junior scholars to apply for seed grant funding for interdisciplinary work can help them learn how to interact across disciplinary boundaries and articulate the value of proposed interdisciplinary work convincingly.

Considerations Related to Interdisciplinary Teaching

Interdisciplinary teaching entails the use and integration of methods, concepts, and analytical frameworks from more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic. The hallmarks of interdisciplinary education are integration of knowledge and guiding principles from multiple disciplines to systematically form a more complete, and hopefully coherent, understanding of the issue under examination.

Interdisciplinary teaching activities may need additional support and development, particularly when the faculty member is involved in developing new courses that span multiple disciplines—often without a standard textbook or readily available teaching resources—or when the faculty member is piloting new experimental teaching approaches.

Although there is no single preferred pedagogy or teaching approach for interdisciplinary courses, most interdisciplinary faculty are learning new fields of knowledge and advancing active forms of learning such as service learning, team-teaching, inquiry-based education, learning communities, or collaborative learning, which may take time, experience, and professional development to master.

Because of the nature of interdisciplinary teaching, teaching portfolios can be a dynamic and performance-based way for interdisciplinary faculty to demonstrate the product of their teaching efforts (e.g., Goldstein, 2006; DeZure, 2010) to their colleagues. Moreover, because the learning outcomes for interdisciplinary courses can differ from those disciplinary courses, assessment measures may be different from traditional measures and may require significant time to develop.

The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) can provide assistance on developing teaching portfolios and assessment.

Considerations Related to Service of Interdisciplinary Faculty

Interdisciplinary faculty members may have a joint academic appointment, serve as an affiliate in a program or department, or be heavily involved in a center, institute, or major interdisciplinary initiative outside of their home department. As a result, the nature and extent of service (to the department, program, division, University, profession, community) may be more expansive and different from the service record of a faculty member who works within the confines of a single discipline, department, or division.

It is important to recognize that because interdisciplinary programs, centers, and institutes have few (if any) core faculty assigned to them, they largely rely on the contributions of faculty whose lines exist in other departments or divisions. Consequently, the service the faculty members offer these units may at times be substantial.

Mentoring Tenure-Track Faculty

It is essential to provide adequate mentoring to all junior faculty, but especially to those whose research, service, and/or teaching areas cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. In particular, junior faculty and their chairs or directors should identify clear goals for what is expected. For example, they should not be surprised to learn, in their fifth year, that the department does not recognize some publication venues or certain forms of teaching or service as valuable for promotion or tenure.

If a faculty member is heavily involved in a center or institute, it is especially important to provide advice about how to balance work on large team projects and in centers with work that establishes a strong individual reputation and is more focused on the home department or division.

For tenure-track faculty, having a mentor who has conducted interdisciplinary research can also be very useful. Mentors may be able to provide guidance in navigating funding and securing publications.

In some cases, it may be necessary to provide two (or more) mentors to ensure coverage of the different areas in which the faculty member works. When establishing a mentoring relationship, it should be clear to all whether or not the mentor has a role in evaluating the junior person. Mentoring should include liaising with the home department or program (and where needed with upper-level administration) to assure that the strategies described above are implemented appropriately. Moreover, chairs or directors as well as faculty may wish to consult senior interdisciplinary faculty or the Interdisciplinary Advisory Council for additional guidance on best practice.

Coordinating the Evaluation Process for Tenure-Track Faculty

Whether an interdisciplinary faculty member holds an appointment within a single department or program or holds a joint appointment, challenges may arise in the promotion and tenure evaluation within the department or division. The single greatest difficulty is that faculty members may judge other faculty according to the norms and criteria of their own discipline, and departments or divisions may believe that their approaches to research or teaching are the best ones.

Even when faculty members conducting the evaluation within a given department or division adopt an open-minded stance, it may be challenging for them to calibrate the metrics for impact and academic success within another discipline. For example, when evaluating tenure-track faculty, faculty in some disciplines value conference papers highly while faculty in other disciplines do not. In addition to the need to evaluate the types of research products—books, journal papers, conference papers, artifacts, and so on—it is also critical to understand the quality of each product. Which conferences are important? Which awards carry the greatest prestige? Which people are the luminaries whose review letters should be taken most seriously, and which are known to be hypercritical? Which comments in a review letter are most relevant, and which omissions are significant? Finally, if a faculty member is publishing in multiple areas, it is likely that some of the referees will only have knowledge of a portion of the member’s work.

When evaluating teaching, questions may arise such as: What is the appropriate grade point average for particular types of courses/fields/disciplines? What teaching approaches are considered innovative or appropriate? What sort of qualitative comments on course evaluations should be heeded or ignored? How much credit should be given to a faculty member who has team-taught or team-designed a course?

To address these concerns, the following recommendations are offered:

  • If possible, involve people from relevant disciplines or interdisciplinary fields in the annual merit review and third-year review of the interdisciplinary faculty member.
  • Similarly, in the evaluation of scholarship in the tenure-track faculty member’s promotion and tenure dossier, involve a faculty member with expertise in the other discipline(s) or interdisciplinary fields relevant to the faculty member’s interests. If the unit selects an ad hoc promotion and tenure committee for each candidate, then an interdisciplinary faculty member external to the department or program could be member of the committee. Be sure that the outside member plays a role in recommending the referees who will write letters evaluating the candidate. Also task that member with helping to make sure that the promotion and tenure committee itself, as well any faculty who will vote on the tenure case, understand the values and norms of the other participating discipline or the other interdisciplinary field. It may be helpful to write down metrics for judging academic success.
  • Educate the promotion and tenure committee(s) on the standards of scholarship and research methodologies in the relevant disciplines or interdisciplinary fields. Familiarize committee members with ways of evaluating scholarship outside of one’s discipline.
  • In requesting letters of recommendation, consider including wording that specifically asks the letter-writer to evaluate the candidate on the basis of his or her own area of expertise, while recognizing that the candidate has conducted interdisciplinary research.
  • Anticipate that the dossier and process may take longer to prepare and evaluate than purely disciplinary cases, and plan accordingly. It may take more time to develop the dossier, select the promotion and tenure or evaluation committee, select the letter-writers, and evaluate the dossier.

Dossier Preparation

One of the most important factors to keep in mind in preparing materials is clarification of the significance of the individual’s work. Because the dossier will be read by many people who do not have expertise in the teaching or research area(s) of the candidate, the candidate will need to present a narrative that explains his or her development as an interdisciplinary faculty member (Austin, 2003). For example, because many reviewers of interdisciplinary faculty will not be familiar with all the journals, the dossier could be annotated with information on journal standing, and reasons for selecting that particular journal as the publication venue. Because interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching are often collaborative, the role and specific contributions of the individual in the research or team-taught course should be noted. Synthesis papers, often an important product of interdisciplinary scholars, should be clearly distinguished from reviews, as reviews may be discounted by evaluators as not being original contributions.

Some interdisciplinary faculty members have complex career trajectories enabling them to bring a wealth of experience to their position. It may be useful to separate career experience into two or more categories so that the time periods when research and publication were possible are clear and scholarly contributions other than peer-reviewed publications are evident.

The research, teaching, and service statement written by the candidate, and the chair’s letter, should also be written for a more general audience than may be the case for disciplinary scholars. The candidate’s statement is an opportunity to demonstrate an overarching plan or theme, including the candidate’s collaboration strategy.

As noted earlier, teaching portfolios can be an effective way for interdisciplinary faculty to demonstrate the product of their teaching efforts to the public or to their disciplinary colleagues. Interdisciplinary student learning outcomes and assessment of student learning outcomes communicate to the students, internal colleagues, and external partners the value and purpose of the interdisciplinary teaching and learning program (e.g., Culligan and Peña-Mora, 2010).

If the external reviewers are asked to address specific criteria, the CV and candidate statements should be structured so that information and explanations are easy to locate and understand.

Evaluation Criteria

In disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts, advancement of an individual faculty member should be dependent on demonstrating originality and independence of creative thought, having identifiable service contributions, multiple measures of teaching effectiveness, and collegiality.

Typical questions asked during interim and tenure reviews are:

  • Does the candidate have scholarly quality of mind?
  • Has the candidate made an important intellectual contribution? If so, does the community recognize the candidate for it?
  • Is the candidate an effective teacher?
  • Is the candidate engaged in and contributing to the academic community?
  • Is the candidate on a trajectory indicating that (s)he will make significant contributions in the future?
  • Is it likely that the candidate will be able to support her/his research in the future through grant support?

The evidence used to assess success differs from one discipline or department to another. However, some common factors do exist. These criteria typically include multiple measures of teaching effectiveness (including strong teaching evaluations), number of publications (e.g., peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, books, reports); the number of these on which the person is first author; the impact factor of the journals in which the papers are published; citations and awards received; the grants on which the person is a primary investigator or co-investigator; the relative prestige of the sources of funding; and the significance of the candidate’s service to the department/program, division, university, and profession.

In interdisciplinary cases, faculty colleagues and administrators often raise an additional set of questions:

  • Why were the letter writers chosen from a different set of institutions than our usual set of peers?
  • Why are the letter writers unfamiliar with some aspects of the candidate’s scholarship?
  • What is the significance of this area of scholarship?
  • What is the standing of these journals?
  • What was the candidate’s contribution to multi-authored publications?
  • Why did the reviewers not know everyone on the comparison list? Why is the candidate not on the top of the comparison list?
  • Is the level of grant support and professional recognition consistent with other interdisciplinary scholars at a similar career stage? (Pfirman et al., 2005b)

For example, interdisciplinary papers often focus less on innovation in disciplinary theory and methods and more on cross-disciplinary approaches and findings. The challenge is to be sure, in the review process, that evaluation of these very different types of publications is conducted according to appropriate criteria. Such criteria might include production of new interdisciplinary knowledge, development of new technologies or cross-disciplinary methods, or successful translation of technical or specialized knowledge for societal use.

Disciplinary colleagues accustomed to higher productivity, citation rates, and journal standing may need an explanation of the time it takes to develop a contribution in a new field, and the difficulty of review and publication when research spans multiple disciplines. This is not to excuse sparse productivity or poor quality work, but rather to shift the emphasis of the review towards intellectual achievement and leadership, rather than traditional metrics that may emphasize the number of publications. That said, indexes can be used in innovative ways to demonstrate interdisciplinary impact: as one example, reviewers can look at the number of subject categories (e.g. Porter et al., 2007) represented by journals with papers that cited the research.

As the candidate moves forward in his or her career, up to and beyond tenure, similar evaluation criteria should ideally continue to be used in subsequent reviews.

Review Committees and External Reviewers

There may be cases where it is desirable to keep the composition of the review teams, in terms of departments, disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, and even individuals, as similar as possible along the candidate’s career trajectory, in order to provide continuity in application of criteria. In most cases, it is best if the promotion and tenure process for tenure-track faculty involves review committees composed of faculty who have expertise in the faculty member’s fields and disciplines. Possibilities include: a joint committee from more than one department or a committee from one department with letters from the chair/director of others where the candidate has an affiliation. If the review involves several departments, it is important to state from the outset what each unit’s decision-making role will be -- whether it will be independent and equal or whether one will have a subordinate, perhaps a consulting, role.

Promotion and tenure committees should be made up, to the degree possible, of individuals in similar positions or with considerable experience in working with and reviewing people in similar roles. Where a sufficient pool of such individuals does not exist, the committee should include more than one person with a similar title and set of job responsibilities, even though the actual scholarly focus may be in an unrelated area as they will be familiar with the challenges of working in an interdisciplinary field.

It is often also helpful to bring in an external reviewer (letter-writer) who is familiar with the state of the interdisciplinary field and the candidate’s scholarship at the time of tenure review. Outside reviewers are also increasingly used for interim reviews. It is often challenging to identify reviewers who have sufficient background to fairly assess contributions generated through interdisciplinary scholarship. In selecting external reviewers for emerging interdisciplinary fields, it is important to have both interdisciplinary scholars who work on closely related problems, as well as eminent disciplinary scholars who are aware of this area of research and are able to comment on its significance. The position announcement used when recruiting the interdisciplinary faculty member could also be included in the letter that goes out to external evaluators soliciting an evaluation.

In addition, the external reviewers should be specifically asked to comment on interdisciplinary contributions and impact. This will serve as a reminder to reviewers of the differences and challenges of reviewing an interdisciplinary as compared to a disciplinary candidate. Because some interdisciplinary scholarship includes community and stakeholder interaction, reviews may also be solicited from individuals outside of the academy.


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Created by the Interdisciplinary Advisory Council - Fall 2014: Carolyn Haynes, (Office of Provost), Bob Applebaum (SOC/GTY), Michael Bailey-Van Kuren (MME), H. Louise Davis (BIS, AMS), Peg Faimon (ART), Tim Greenlee (MKT), Katie Johnson (ENG), Kate Kuvalanka (FSW), Chris Myers (BIO), Glenn Platt (IMS), Jen Waller (Libraries)

Note: These suggestions are designed to complement existing Miami University policies and information. None of the suggestions in this document supersede University policies and procedures.