Theory and Methods for Inter-and Transdisciplinary PhD Research

Global problems are complex. Studying them requires unfolding this complexity to understand their origins, causes, and investigate possible solutions. It involves using multiple approaches, delving into various fields of science and frames of reference in the process. For this reason it can be challenging and unstructured. The key is using the appropriate  methodology to guide you through the process. In this course you will learn key skills and have the opportunity to put them into practice within the design and implementation of inter-and transdisciplinary research.

Course level
 PhD candidates
Session 1 and Session 2
5 January to 19 January 2019
Co-ordinating lecturersDr B.J. Regeer
Guest lecturers
Prof. J.E.W.Broerse, Prof. J.F.G. Bunders and D.Lynch, M.Sc.
Form(s) of instructionInteractive seminars and workgroups
Form(s) of assessmentCase study and short reflection paper
ECTS6 credits
Contact hours60 contact hours 
Tuition fee

€1100 - International students and staff

€800 - VU students and staff

The course is intended for PhD candidates interested in conducting interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research as part of their PhD and being able explore its societal relevance. If you have doubts about your eligibility for the course, please let us know.
Contemporary societal issues, such as those related to health care or sustainable development, are often very complex. They can be rooted in deep organizational, political and social issues that involve many different actors, all with their own perspectives. For this reason, contemporary societal problems are often called “wicked” or “persistent” problems. This implies that multiple approaches, fields of science and frames of reference are integrated to build specific, practical, experiential and scientific knowledge about the problem in conjunction with those directly confronted by the problem.

Transdisciplinary research is distinct from mono-, multi- and interdisciplinary research in that it integrates knowledge from different scientific actors with the experiential knowledge of societal actors (e.g. patients, health professionals, NGOs, government, industry, and international organizations), jointly involving scientists and societal actors in defining problems and identifying and implementing interventions through mutual learning and co-creation.

This new approach to research comes with certain challenges – namely, transdisciplinary researchers must integrate various different knowledge cultures, incorporate actors needs and feedback, all while ensuring a safe and open venue for mutual learning and co-creation.

In this course, you will learn key skills and have the opportunity to put them into practice within the design and implementation of inter- and transdisciplinary research. You will acquire a grounded understanding of epistemological cultures and how knowledge value systems can challenge mutual learning. You will be working with other PhD candidates in a case study format to redesign a mono- or multidisciplinary research project and transform it into an inter- or transdisciplinary research project. This will give you practical exposure to stakeholder analysis, critical stakeholder feedback, and stakeholder communication skills. In addition, you will also develop your own “external brain” by delving deeper into four learning questions about inter- and transdisciplinary research that are relevant to your own PhD.

The aim of this course is to support PhD candidates wishing to adopt an inter- or transdisciplinary research approach during their PhD project aimed at increasing the societal relevance of their research.

A growing number of academic fields are recognizing the importance of defining complex societal problems through the eyes of all the actors involved. An interdisciplinary research approach that aims for integrated knowledge generation is essential for tackling the multifaceted, persistent and wicked problems we currently face. Moreover, the increased focus on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) means that PhD students are frequently required to conduct inter- or transdisciplinary research. And though some candidates will be familiar with the approach, most will not possess the skills needed to design and implement it. A graduate winter school is an ideal setting for delving into this new research approach and its underlying theoretical groundings. The variety of backgrounds of individuals taking part in the course will in itself be instrumental in the learning process.

This is a two-week course which has three parts. The first involves preparatory reading before the actual start. Part two, includes interactive lectures, workshops and group work on a case study. And the third part comprises several (part-time) weeks of distance learning – studying the literature and consolidating what has been learned and reflecting on personalized learning questions relevant to individual candidates’ research proposal.

The course is organized by the Athena Institute.

At the end of the course, you will have in-depth knowledge of and insights into:

•    Different theories and methodologies related to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research;
•    The strengths and limitations of these types of research, per se and compared to other research methodologies;
•    Evaluation of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research (using quality criteria).

You will also be able to:
•    Independently select and combine research methods and techniques for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research;
•    Design an inter- or transdisciplinary research plan.

An online reader with all relevant literature necessary for this course will be made available prior to the start of the course.


Barbara Regeer

I have a disciplinary background in physics and philosophy (BSc [Hons]), and Science Dynamics (MSc) and a PhD (cum laude) in knowledge co-creation in co-innovation.  With my research, I hope to contribute to transformations to a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive society, in which personal values are connected to collective objectives.  I have initiated and I also lead research projects on emerging innovative strategies for sustainable development in the fields of mental health, youth care, and agriculture, with a specific focus on the facilitation and evaluation of multi-stakeholder processes, knowledge co-creation, mutual learning and scaling-up innovations. I have developed a pioneering research methodology (Reflexive Monitoring in Action) and methods ( Dynamic Learning Agenda) and (co)authored four books on approaches to knowledge co-creation with practical guidelines for practitioners. Currently, I am involved in  the National evaluation of Dutch Nature policy (2014-2027) with a particular focus on enhancing learning between multiple stakeholders. I also coordinate part of the FIT4FOOD2030 project on aligning the European R&I system to the transformation needed for a future-proof food system. And I supervise multiple PhD candidates on mental health system innovation, particularly in India and East Africa.


Jacqueline Broerse

My disciplinary background is in biomedical sciences (MSc, cum laude 1988), science, technology and society studies and global health. In 1998, I obtained my PhD degree on the development of an interactive approach to including small-scale farmers in research agenda setting processes on biotechnology. In my research I want to understand how science can better contribute to solving societal problems in an equitable and responsible way. My research projects are focused on (1) methodology development for responsible research and innovation and, in particular, facilitating public engagement in science (e.g. neurosciences and synthetic biology); (2) patient participation in research, care and policy; and (3) health and food system innovation processes (in Europe and in low- and middle-income countries). I currently coordinate two large EU-funded projects: the Erasmus Mundus Joint Degree Program on Transdisciplinary Solutions to Global Health Challenges (since 2012), and the FIT4FOOD2030 project on improving R&I so as to contribute to more sustainable, resilient, responsible, competitive and inclusive European food systems (since 2017).


Joske Bunders

I studied chemistry and physics at the University of Amsterdam. I did my PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on participative strategies for science-based innovations with a specific focus on biotechnology and small-scale farmers in developing countries. My specific field of interest is the linking of knowledge and expertise of end users (e.g. small-scale farmers or patients) with developments in modern science and (inter) national policy. In particular, I conduct research on methodology development to stimulate and facilitate interactive and transdisciplinary problem-solving processes in which various stakeholders engage in a deliberative mutual search and learning process. Since 2013, I have been director of the Indian PhD program of the Athena Institute with field labs in Mumbai, Pune and Chennai. The field labs support the field research of the PhD students. Many of these PhD projects are in the field of mental health.