Interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are increasingly perceived to be at the frontier of science. But as Adina Payton and Mary Lou Zoback point out in Recruiters ('Crossing boundaries, hitting barriers' Nature 445, 950; 2007), it is not clear how the scientific community can gain from their evolution.

Despite a shift towards an interdisciplinary research culture, we are yet to grapple with how to support a growing number of interdisciplinary researchers. As interdisciplinary postgraduate research students, we face this reality head-on.

We have found it difficult to synthesize the separate perspectives of two or more disciplines into a meaningful middle ground. Unless the scientific community identifies strategies for supporting interdisciplinary researchers to negotiate this middle ground, little progress can be made. Here we suggest two useful approaches.

First, interdisciplinary researchers are expected to develop a different skill set from that of their single-discipline colleagues. In this 'interlocker' role, they engage in a shared conversation between disciplines and work through the tensions this creates. This is more than simply negotiating the different languages and ways of working — it is about appreciating a breadth of knowledge in theory, approach and discourse.

Unfortunately, few systems accommodate this type of researcher — as is sadly demonstrated by emerging frameworks designed to assess research quality in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia. Interdisciplinary committees are needed to assess research proposals, to review grant applications and to examine theses. This would be more effective than the current practice of putting interdisciplinary researchers in assessment 'silos' where they are unrealistically measured against, and by, people in a single discipline.

A second challenge is the disjunct between, on one hand, rhetoric encouraging inter-disciplinary research and, on the other, the lack of institutional structure and support for it. Although we are encouraged to work in interdisciplinary environments and to join interdisciplinary research clusters, we face numerous administrative hurdles. Cross-enrolment of interdisciplinary students is seldom acknowledged, and adequate resources and structures — such as guidance on writing for interdisciplinary audiences, or longer candidatures for postgraduate students — are rarely provided to support the interdisciplinary researcher.

It would be simple for institutional leaders to ask current interdisciplinary researchers about the challenges they face and to document these issues. These leaders could then address the issues by formalizing the interdisciplinary researcher role and reducing demands to satisfy the needs of multiple disciplines. Supportive environments must be created if we are committed to achieving interdisciplinary research goals.