NSF to fund research on ‘boundary spanning’ in Ph.D. studies

Diversification is good for one’s stock portfolio, but is it a good idea for doctoral studies? A five-year, $2.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help researchers from three institutions seek the answer.

Kevin Kniffin, assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is principal investigator on a team that will examine the career outcomes of interdisciplinary graduate students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the environments in which they train, and how those environments relate to career outcomes.

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin

The project, “Training to Find Gaps, Not Fall Through the Cracks: Research and Guidance for Policy Makers, Interdisciplinary Graduate Students, and Their Institutions,” is co-led by researchers at The Ohio State University and Indiana University. The project itself is interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of organizational behavior, economics and information science.

“A premise of the research is that problems, challenges, opportunities and needs in the world change faster than academic disciplines tend to change,” Kniffin said. “And it’s important to understand – and, where feasible, help improve – the experience of individual researchers who engage the call to conduct boundary-spanning interdisciplinary research.”

Plenty of research has been done, Kniffin said, to study publications that are interdisciplinary and, more generally, on boundary-spanning as an activity within different types of institutions. But there has been substantially less attention paid to the people who are doing the boundary spanning, he said.

The investigators will use, and expand, an emerging infrastructure of data and measures to analyze individual career paths in the transition from graduate training to the workforce, in the context of supply-and-demand factors that exist throughout a researcher’s career.

Over the course of the grant, the investigators will:

  • study the characteristics, team structure, and networks of interdisciplinary researchers compared to monodisciplinary researchers;
  • develop a range of novel measures of early-career outcomes to study how outcomes relate to the training environments of single-disciplinarians and interdisciplinarians; and
  • study how outcomes vary across disciplines and by market demand.

The project will enable early-career researchers in STEM fields to be better informed about the career outcomes associated with interdisciplinary research, and provide actionable information to improve the training environments for these researchers.

The research will also acknowledge the effects that the global pandemic has had on Ph.D. career paths, Kniffin said.

“COVID-19’s impact on the world has vividly and concretely shown the interconnectedness of topics and problems studied across the full array of research fields,” he said, “and in turn validates the value that boundary spanners can provide by navigating the silos in which fields traditionally operate.”

The researchers will use academic research-related data from a variety of sources including the UMETRICS platform, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Innovation and Science.

The project is supported by the NSF’s Education and Human Resources Core Research program, which funds fundamental research focused on STEM learning and learning environments; broadening participation in STEM fields; and STEM workforce development.

The new project will build on work done through a grant awarded in 2018, including a 2020 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that higher-paying fields, such as business and engineering, are more likely to penalize boundary spanners – in the near-term, at least, right after earning the Ph.D. – than lower-paying fields like life sciences, math and humanities.

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