In the face of the climate crisis, is the academy preparing graduate students to engage in the interdisciplinary work needed to create a sustainable future? In 2021, the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS) at the Georgia Institute of Technology convened a group of 7 doctoral students from 7 different disciplines: history, economics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, city planning, and architecture. The intent of this program was for students to work on self-directed interdisciplinary projects around sustainability. This article describes our experiences as doctoral students in the interdisciplinary BBISS program. As a result of our participation, we have come to see our research through new disciplinary lenses, which enables us to better understand the impacts of our work from a broader systems perspective. Here, we discuss the challenges of interdisciplinarity in academia and highlight the value we see in strengthening interdisciplinarity in graduate education and research. We believe graduate students can become more effective, collaborative problem-solvers, and be better prepared to lead future sustainability projects when given opportunities to integrate interdisciplinary work into their existing program demands. Graduate education should encourage future scholars to broaden their horizons beyond the boundaries of their disciplines, provide opportunities for students to enhance their capabilities as collaborators and team members, and enable students to meaningfully engage with others in traditionally dissimilar fields to better tackle the increasingly complex sustainability problems we face. Our own experiences in the open-ended, interdisciplinary, multisemester BBISS program are evidence of the value of such programs, and we offer some additional suggestions for how individual programs, schools, colleges, and universities might modify doctoral program requirements to better support interdisciplinary work in graduate education.
In the face of the climate crisis, we are seeing unprecedented investment in creating a sustainable future; however, as doctoral students we wonder, “are we truly prepared to lead the way towards this sustainable future?” Since the term “sustainability,” or rather “sustainable development,” was first defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission (1987) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the escalating complexity of the climate crisis has necessitated a more nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to both sustainability and the education and training necessary to pursue a sustainable future. In the Fall of 2021, the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS) convened a group of 7 doctoral students from different schools within 4 different colleges at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In line with the BBISS mission “to create knowledge and technologies that will improve environmental, social, and economic outcomes” (BBISS Mission), the 2-year BBISS Graduate Fellowship for Sustainability Research Program aimed to train us in leadership and team science and provide opportunities to work on self-directed, interdisciplinary projects. This program’s structure was particularly unique, given the freedom we had to guide our own objectives and initiatives. During this 2-year period, we have had a chance to learn about sustainability research happening across vastly different fields, work through design thinking exercises, hold symposia, and write papers together. Additionally, the focus on team science and leadership enabled us to develop professional networks and enhance our interpersonal skills. We met and learned from academics doing cutting-edge sustainability research, spoke to leaders across the university, and gained insights to work better as a team.
Interdisciplinarity, a central component of the BBISS fellowship program, has been a primary objective for institutions such as the National Science Foundation (2008) and the National Academy of Sciences (2004) for over 2 decades and for good reason (MacLeod, 2018). “Lone geniuses” are less likely to produce breakthrough innovations, and, historically, past scientific solutions to environmental problems did not consider broad, systemic impacts (Singh and Fleming, 2010). York and Clark (2010) highlight the need to embrace the promise of scientific progress to address environmental crises while simultaneously embedding that progress within its sociopolitical context to acknowledge the harm that has been perpetrated under blind technological optimism. The authors further suggest that a broad historical perspective is important for addressing environmental problems, since the causes are usually political-economic in nature and have been entrenched over the last several centuries. Attempts to solve one problem can generate new problems, especially under specific shifts in the capitalist system and its technical regimes (York and Clark, 2010). Thus, if we fail to engage with people who have different perspectives and skill sets, we may end up creating more problems than we solve.
The BBISS experience has been eye-opening for all who participated. Having the opportunity to work closely with students in other disciplines with a focus on sustainability has made it clear just how limited typical graduate education, particularly thesis-based and doctoral education, can be. Research programs often prioritize individual contributions and push students into disciplinary silos where each student has a narrow focus, and cross-disciplinary interactions are unlikely to occur. We understand the structure of these programs has developed for a reason—it enables doctoral students to build the important domain expertise necessary to succeed in their fields and think deeply about problems specifically related to their areas of expertise (Bernery et al., 2022). However, the lack of collaboration with other fields hinders students’ capacity to develop the kind of integrative knowledge and skills that are vital to understanding how diverse fields interlock and work together to solve complex, real-world problems in sustainability (Norström et al., 2020). This issue is not typically addressed in coursework, and PhD programs usually do not provide sufficient opportunities to collaborate with people outside of a student’s field or subspecialities (National Academy of Engineering, 1995). Furthermore, PhD students also face challenges in engaging with interdisciplinary research due to the existing barriers such as time constraints, competing academic priorities, and common stressors such as low pay and mental health concerns (Nature, 2022).
The status quo hyperfocus on our own disciplines and associated methodologies can be especially challenging when students are interested in addressing “wicked problems” (Ritter and Webber, 1973) involving complex adaptive systems (Meadows and Wright, 2008), which are essentially most issues of sustainability. As stated by Annan-Diab and Moliniari (2017) regarding the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, “The breadth and interconnectedness of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make it evident that professionals from different disciplines and sectors must work together to deliver the goals” (p. 81). Despite calls for greater interdisciplinary collaboration to achieve SDGs, doctoral education generally remains siloed and individualized.
Universities should not only be training the next generation of scholars but also educating innovative and engaged problem-solvers who can help tackle complex, systems-level challenges. To prepare for that role, students need to be able to envision their work beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries and develop the social and emotional skills necessary to collaborate effectively with others. Although legitimate barriers in time and funding exist that may hamper graduate students’ ability to pursue interdisciplinary work, we believe the goals and structure of graduate education can be adapted to better prepare future interdisciplinary leaders in sustainability. In this article, we detail our experiences in the BBISS program and articulate some of the challenges and opportunities we see in research-based graduate education for enhancing students’ capacity to collaborate on interdisciplinary sustainability projects.
Who we are
The 2021 BBISS Graduate Fellows come from 7 different disciplines: history, economics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, city planning, and architecture. This diversity of disciplines is both a strength and a challenge for our small team. Our research interests are extremely varied, but all touch on sustainability.
The first half of our graduate fellows are from the liberal arts and design fields. Marjorie Hall, the historian, studies how growing concerns and knowledge about environmental risk shaped the development and management of advanced chemical technologies during the 20th century, with the hope of understanding how better to avoid unintended consequences in the future. Ioanna Maria Spyrou, from the School of Economics, studies the impact of natural shocks on food insecurity and educational outcomes among children and analyzes the viability of sustainable agricultural practices to alleviate these challenges. Meaghan McSorley, in city planning, studies how planners can be agents of change by promoting healthy civic cultures and working with communities toward just, sustainable and thriving futures for all. Yilun Zha from the School of Architecture investigates how sustainable urban food environments can be integrated into urban planning and design with a vision for better health outcomes.
We also have 3 members from science and engineering. Our chemical engineer, Udita Ringania, is developing a fast and energy-efficient method for drying cellulose nanomaterials using ultrasound, thereby replacing heat-based methods (Ringania et al., 2022). Bettina Arkhurst is a mechanical engineer working on bridging the gaps between the design of renewable energy technology and energy justice to better serve vulnerable communities. Biologist Katherine Duchesneau studies the microbial communities of peatlands, natural systems that serve as large carbon sinks, and whose role and reaction to climate change is still not fully understood.
Despite the vast differences in our training, research approaches, and fields of study, we have enjoyed identifying the distinct ways that our interests overlap. We all came into the BBISS program because we are interested in collaborating across disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of solutions to real-world problems, and given the number of applicants to the BBISS program each year (an estimate of 40–60 PhD students per year1), it would seem we are not alone in our motivation to pursue interdisciplinary, sustainability-focused work. These common interests included climate change—understanding it and combating it in a variety of ways—as well as sustainable food systems. Many of us also seek to address equity and justice; as we develop policies and technologies, we recognize the critical necessity of integrating consideration of how benefits and burdens are distributed across society into our work.
Through our experience, we have come to realize that what is often labeled as “interdisciplinarity” in our respective fields typically involves collaborations between 2 or 3 closely related disciplines, such as chemical and process engineers or planners and architects (Boden et al., 2011). However, the extent of diversity within an interdisciplinary group depends on the specific context. For instance, the biologist in our group is involved in an interdisciplinary project funded by the Department of Energy. This project brings together bioinformaticians, microbiologists, and biogeochemists, each focusing on different aspects of related scientific questions. Nevertheless, tackling truly complex problems necessitates collaboration that goes beyond scientific inquiries and includes stakeholders, community organizations, and local governments.
Such interdisciplinary collaborations, which involve fields with greater organizational and conceptual separation, can pose significant challenges within the traditional academic framework, particularly for graduate students and early career researchers. These challenges are mainly due to academia’s emphasis on domain-specific specialization for career advancement and recognition (Houser et al., 2021). However, it is important to recognize that genuine collaboration that transcends disciplinary boundaries has immense potential for addressing the most challenging issues. In our biologist’s example, the diversity of disciplines is dependent on who frames the broader research questions. In the case of this Department of Energy grant, interdisciplinary work is defined as matching microbiology and biogeochemistry. These researchers are focused on different aspects of similar questions, and their specialties are closely related. However, in the greater pursuit of sustainability, interdisciplinary work should involve players from a wider range of disciplines to consider applications and questions that involve the well-being of people, the environment, and their economic, sociopolitical, and technological contexts.
The challenges of interdisciplinarity in academia
True interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult and easier to celebrate than to execute. We recognize that efforts have been made in the United States to facilitate interdisciplinary research. As the National Science Foundation’s flagship interdisciplinary training program, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship has provided funding for approximately 6,500 graduate students since 1998 (National Science Foundation, n.d.). However, this level of support still falls short of preparing researchers to participate in the development of solutions to large and complex problems. Interdisciplinary research has consistently been of lower priority and resulted in less successful funding acquisition (Bromham et al., 2016). As a result, interdisciplinary studies are more difficult to pursue. At Georgia Tech, student dissertations identified as interdisciplinary account for only 4.12% of all dissertations in SMARTech, Georgia Tech’s official publication database (2022). When our team first began the process of writing an article together, we went through a structured design thinking process to try and identify a good topic. Yet, an empirical research project that could be performed by 7 busy graduate students from entirely different schools proved elusive. We found ourselves simultaneously battling demands on our time due to our dissertation work, coursework, and teaching requirements, while also engaging in interdisciplinary projects outside of our primary responsibilities that are construed by some as supplemental or optional. Through this collaboration, we have experienced firsthand some of the challenges of pursuing interdisciplinary work in academia, which we expound upon below.
Time constraints and competing priorities
In our effort to form trusting professional relationships and interdisciplinary projects at BBISS, we consistently found that time—our own capacity to focus on these tasks given other pressing demands—was a central challenge to our success. Like many in academia, heavy workloads make it difficult for us to strike a balance between competing priorities. Interests in interdisciplinary studies tend to give way to required coursework, teaching, and primary research duties. Bennett et al. (2018) emphasize the critical role that time availability plays in team development and dynamics. Even with the support of BBISS, finding the time to pursue projects that fall outside the purview of our individual dissertations, class instruction, and lab work still posed a significant challenge.
Our experience is not unique, neither at Georgia Tech nor as PhD students. A 2019 survey (Woolston, 2022b) of more than 6,000 PhD students reveals that long hours in the laboratory and other demands have taken a toll on PhD students’ well-being and mental health; 76% of respondents work 41+ hours per week and 20% are working 60+ hours. It is not surprising that graduate students, with such time constraints, often will not pursue interdisciplinary opportunities if there are not clear benefits, incentives, and existing structures for doing so.
Methodological and conceptual barriers among disciplines
Methodological, theoretical, and conceptual barriers can also inhibit interdisciplinary collaboration. The disciplinary focus we have is not just an artifact of institutional structures, but “is an essential aspect of science that enables researchers to solve complex problems in a cognitively manageable way” (MacLeod, 2018, p. 697). This strategy for approaching problems becomes more entrenched over time, and breaking out of our disciplinary siloes becomes more difficult. Differences in methodologies, research priorities, terminology, and other cultural, disciplinary, or institutional norms form barriers that are perceived to make interdisciplinary work more difficult. Lélé and Norgaard (2005) have argued that participants in interdisciplinary research projects must overcome various biases and prejudices that accompany disciplinary training and need to be willing to work with new models and taxonomies used by others. To promote interdisciplinary research, solutions at the individual and team levels must be complemented by strategies including major institution-level changes in curricula, incentives, evaluation criteria, and accountability. When it comes to interdisciplinary teams, members may also have dissimilar criteria for performance evaluation (Anbar, 1986) and authorship practices (King et al., 1997; Moore, 1989). Further complicating interdisciplinary collaborations are potential disciplinary hierarchies, in which certain areas such as the social sciences and qualitative research work are not prioritized in the same manner as STEM or quantitative research. Sovacool et al. (2015) refer to this phenomenon as “disciplinary chauvinism.” Even within our interdisciplinary fellowship program, we have witnessed a disparity in funding for students due to their home departments with the largest resulting pay gap being US$8,760, annually. To facilitate students’ transition to real-world interdisciplinary work and build an understanding of the importance of dissimilar fields, nurturing respect for other fields and opportunities to interact with them should be directly included in graduate education.
Team building and leadership development needs
Team building is an essential component of interdisciplinary collaborations and requires trust in members’ abilities and expertise, which is often difficult to evaluate in interdisciplinary research (Sigma, 1998). If teams are to be successful, agile, and interdependent, they must have adequate time to build trust, navigate conflict, and network within and beyond the team. Even experienced team-builders often fail to allot time for this in their project plans. Bennett et al. (2018) developed a Team Science Field Guide on behalf of the National Cancer Institute that describes the tools and skills needed to effectively conduct research in teams. Of the 10 key takeaways, 8 of them touch directly on interpersonal or relational capabilities. Members of interdisciplinary teams often lack training and good communication skills (Cooley, 1994), which are essential for team building especially when members represent different fields. Team members also need to be willing to compromise and cooperate (Groark and McCall, 1996; McGuire, 1999). These skills are difficult to teach, but they are even more difficult to develop as a faculty member because of entrenched habits and even more limited time.
As PhD students, we rarely have opportunities to work with peers from dissimilar disciplines on projects that extend beyond a single semester or that are open-ended enough for these kinds of issues to emerge. In fact, the BBISS program has been the only opportunity for some of us, especially those in STEM, to develop or even consider the importance of these skills for our academic success. This firsthand experience has ultimately made us aware of the importance of access to similar team and leadership development opportunities in graduate education more broadly.
Structural and administrative barriers
Doctoral programs typically focus on developing knowledge and problem-solving skills within the confines of specific disciplines. After the initial coursework, graduate study often becomes increasingly solitary. For many students under the traditional doctoral training model, nearly all their time is spent reading the literature of their area of study, doing work in the lab, the field, or in their offices, writing, and analyzing data. Work is mostly done individually but, at times, opportunities for some collaboration within the lab group or with other pertinent research groups arise. This training model was built to develop a deep, yet narrow skill set; thus, academia makes very specific demands on graduate students and, later, on young professors. These demands often restrict interdisciplinary activity. The stakes can be high; as an assistant professor, the failure of a collaboration to produce traditional research outputs would not only mean that there would be no publication added to your CV but, more seriously, would also be viewed as a waste of your time and resources by the existing system. Demanding time constraints, need for publishable outputs, and the rigid reward structures of academia leave young scholars, especially those who are on the tenure track to full professor positions in universities, with a much higher cost of failure (Houser, 2021).
We firmly believe that the university has a role to play in devising solutions to current technological and policy dilemmas. This may not be a common sentiment, with some concern that combining advocacy and science may lead to biases (Nielsen, 2001). However, the university, through its structure and climate, is preparing future generations of leaders and thus has a duty to provide them with the tools necessary to navigate the complex interface between science and advocacy, whether they remain in academia or move into the public, nonprofit, or private sectors (Milkoreit et al., 2015).
Academics face poor job security, low pay, excessive work hours, discrimination, and severe imbalances of power (Keashly and Neuman, 2010; Fleming, 2022)—all of which serve to drive future leaders away from academia and into the private sector (Woolston, 2022a). Additionally, the reality is that there are simply fewer academic jobs available in the first place, and those jobs that do exist are often short-term, contract-based adjunct positions. Thus, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the next generation of scholars, particularly beyond the graduate level (Woolston, 2022b). This challenge of recruiting, retaining, and training future leaders in sustainability research arose several times during our discussions. Of the 7 of us, only 1 remains committed to a career within academia. This outcome is not surprising—less than half of graduate student respondents told Nature they hoped to continue working in academia (Woolston, 2022c). Further, as they exit academia, many graduate students feel they are unprepared for employment in other sectors (Woolston, 2022c). Interdisciplinary work can address this gap by preparing students for nonacademic careers by helping them develop social and emotional skills for conflict management and working across disciplinary boundaries, among others.
The case for interdisciplinarity in graduate education
We believe that the university has an important role to play in our current transitions—building a more sustainable and equitable future requires significant work by people not primarily driven by profit or political motives. By improving opportunities for interdisciplinary work, the university is better positioned to attract and train future leaders in sustainability.
Graduate education is a particularly opportune time to learn about and explore interdisciplinary work, techniques, and collaborations. Along with the specialized knowledge and expertise graduate education provides, it also serves as a unique time to build a skill set that better enables students to succeed in tackling complex, real-world sustainability challenges. By integrating feedback from students regarding the type of training they would like to pursue, such as offering internships and leadership training (Woolston, 2022c), and highlighting the increased prospects offered by graduate training, the university would be better positioned to attract and train future leaders in sustainability. What follows is a series of specific arguments and suggestions for supporting interdisciplinarity at the graduate level.
Opportunities to incorporate interdisciplinary work into theses and dissertations
While we have gained much from our experience in BBISS—an interdisciplinary research center not attached to any one school or department—we have come to believe that changing graduate (and especially PhD) program requirements are an essential pathway to integrating interdisciplinarity into doctoral education (following Lélé and Norgaard, 2005). There are additional opportunities for groups of departments, schools, or colleges to come together to support interdisciplinarity in graduate education as well. A mix of modified requirements and integrated opportunities will support students of varying motivation levels to engage in more interdisciplinary work early in their careers.
Early exposure to interdisciplinarity by integrating it within the work already expected of graduate students is a means of ensuring interdisciplinary training aligns with the priorities of students and academic institutions and overcoming some time and administrative challenges. For graduate students pursuing research, most of their time is dedicated to completing a thesis or dissertation. Thesis projects open a pathway for students to both develop autonomy and incorporate interdisciplinary work, which unlocks a new set of skills students can foster. A graduate student’s thesis or dissertation project can act as a unique opportunity for them to meaningfully engage in interdisciplinary work and collaborations while simultaneously meeting necessary graduation milestones, especially if advisors and committees explicitly encourage this path. For some master’s programs, a collaborative capstone project could serve as a supplement or replacement for a thesis. A capstone project, or a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project could replace one paper, or journal article, in a 3-paper doctoral dissertation. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that by graduation, graduate students have a better sense of what it means to tackle the large, complex issues we are facing in sustainability and feel better equipped to do so.
Failure has lower stakes
The pursuit of interdisciplinary projects is often high stakes and failure may bring about serious consequences for early-career professionals and academics. For example, the failure of a collaboration to produce publishable results can harm an early career faculty member’s chance of receiving tenure, so the risk involved in participating in collaborative research is very high for them. While young tenure-track professors are often considered most vulnerable to failure, even tenured professors can struggle to get traction in doing research in the face of ever-growing advising and service demands. On the contrary, graduate school can represent a kind of fail-safe playground for students interested in interdisciplinarity. As graduate students, we can make some of these mistakes without them ultimately preventing us from moving forward in our program or engendering long-term consequences for our job prospects.
The short-term nature of a graduate degree, as opposed to the long-term commitment of a faculty position, allows graduate students to fully explore their research interest without worrying too much about the timely delivery of any academic output. In addition, graduate students usually have more time to reflect on their failure and learn from these experiences. Thus, we believe that graduate school is the best place for students to start exploring interdisciplinary work in sustainability. The earlier they can engage with other disciplines, the better it can prepare these future researchers and minimize the undesirable impacts of failure.
In our experience with BBISS, we ultimately chose not to develop an empirical research project that incorporated all 7 of our research areas because of many of the challenges we note here. Yet, we were able to develop this article instead as a means of analyzing the difficulties we faced. We also organized a symposium where we presented the contents of this article alongside our individual research projects. Collaborations and connections—among two or three of us at a time—have also emerged because of the time we invested in trying to find commonalities within the entire group.
While universities may not be in a position to stand up a program like BBISS, there are smaller scale methods of creating opportunities for this kind of collaboration. For example, offering short-term funding to small teams of graduate students (e.g., funding a semester or a year of their studies) to develop an interdisciplinary project that the students can reasonably execute in the given timeframe is one option. BBISS offers mini-grants for this purpose, but replacing students’ research or teaching assistantship responsibilities by funding their tuition would be a better method of creating room for interdisciplinary work (and failure) in graduate education.
Practice and training across disciplinary boundaries
Graduate school provides valuable opportunities for explicit training in collaborative work. Eagan et al. (2002) found that a single interdisciplinary graduate course that mixed culture, business, and environmental sciences was helpful in giving the students the perspective and vocabulary to talk across disciplines, cultures, and industries. We believe, however, that these opportunities should be longer than just a single class. Students need a chance to practice these skills and put them to work. Part of what has made BBISS such a powerful experience for our group is that we have had sustained engagement with one another for over a year. While setting up a firm foundation and common vocabulary in team science concepts is a key first step, our team has flourished with greater flexibility to choose what we work toward.
Students should have the opportunity to lead a collaboration—run the meetings, choose the readings, develop project plans, navigate team dynamics, and ultimately take responsibility for choosing the products or projects. In our collaboration, we have had the time and flexibility to develop our own project ideas and build trusting relationships through which we can practice key team skills. There are many frameworks that universities can use to support formal training in these skills and embed them into programs and curricula. For example, the 6 principles for responsible management education (purpose, values, method, research, partnerships, and dialogue) provide a framework for educational institutions to embed sustainable development and ethics into the curriculum, within and across disciplines (Annan-Diab and Molinari, 2017). This framework promotes interdisciplinarity through team activities, real-life projects, and opportunities for students to make choices regarding project execution (Annan-Diab and Molinari, 2017, p. 78). Such experiences both inside and outside of the classroom enable graduate students to integrate interdisciplinary work into their education and expose students to a range of subjects, methodologies, and perspectives for solving the myriad sustainability crises we face today.
In addition to the short-term project grants described in the previous section, another method of promoting this kind of student-led collaboration would be to ask graduate students to coteach a course or codevelop a workshop on a sustainability topic for undergraduates. Codeveloping content in this way requires the collaborators to develop a shared vocabulary and value set and to agree on what the most essential topics or components are. This could be a program requirement—to do this once with at least 2 other graduate students in order to receive your PhD—or it could be an optional opportunity to fulfill a teaching requirement.
Skills in leadership, conflict mediation, and emotional regulation
Graduate school can act as a safe space for students to participate in open-ended, student-directed sustainability projects that expose them to the unique responsibilities and skill set needed to work on interdisciplinary teams. In the BBISS program, we had formal leadership and teamwork training from a series of guest speakers. This training included an overview of various leadership styles and methodologies as well as the CliftonStrengths assessment to help us think consciously and intentionally about how our team could utilize each person’s strengths and create effective collaborations. Interdisciplinary projects offer graduate students professional development opportunities that enable them to develop leadership skills, navigate conflicts, and work with people from other fields, who have other priorities, communication styles, and different worldviews. Furthermore, students can reflect on lessons learned and the skill set they are building to help them navigate future career pathways. Additionally, the mentorship already embedded in research-based graduate education also serves as a major asset. Team dynamics knowledge and experience are also essential for interdisciplinary leadership development and students can learn from professors, administrators, and other researchers who are leaders in interdisciplinary sustainability work.
While we believe that regular engagement beyond a single semester is essential for building the necessary social and emotional skills needed for effective interdisciplinary collaborations, a small-scale method of integrating similar skills development into doctoral education could be an interdisciplinary seminar that is a required course for PhD students. Just like mandatory research ethics training, training in conflict management and working in teams could be required across the university and can serve as an opportunity to make connections to graduate students in diverse departments.
Over the next 10 years, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act will invest approximately US$369 billion in energy security and climate change programs and in communities at the frontlines of climate and environmental justice. As we embark on the disruptive period of a clean energy transition, it is important that all parts of our system are understood and explored, so we do not leave a legacy of unintended consequences for future generations to address. Integrating interdisciplinary collaboration into doctoral education is one way of ensuring future leaders in sustainability have the tools, expertise, and capabilities to better understand and combat these unintended consequences.
We believe that our own experience in BBISS with an open-ended, interdisciplinary, multisemester program is evidence of the value of such programs, but we have also tried to offer suggestions for other opportunities to promote interdisciplinarity in graduate education at various scales. Even with barriers to pursuing interdisciplinary work in academia, graduate school is an opportune time for integrating interdisciplinarity into sustainability-focused projects and research. We have drawn together arguments for how research-based graduate programs provide opportunities to support students in becoming collaborative, interdisciplinary scholars and problem-solvers. Program requirements need to be adjusted—whether at the level of individual programs, schools, colleges, or the whole university—and interdisciplinary work needs to be integrated as a method of fulfilling program requirements to ensure that students can make time for the very real work of building teams across disciplinary boundaries.
Given the challenges we will endure in building a sustainable society in the face of a changing climate, preparing future scholars to work in teams to solve complex or “wicked” problems ought to be an essential goal of doctoral education. Sustainability has a far wider reach than the narrow focus most of us have for our graduate research. Finally, universities should also encourage graduate students to broaden their horizons beyond not only their own labs but also the boundaries of their disciplines, the confines of the academy, and the limitations engendered by national and cultural barriers.
The authors would like to thank Jacqueline Mohalley Snedeker for her helpful feedback on this manuscript. They would also like to thank their advisors Dr. Steve Usselman, Dr. Nisha Botchwey, Dr. Katherine Fu, Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, Dr. Shatakshee Dhongde, Dr. Joel Kostka, and Dr. Saad Bhamla for their continued support.
This work was funded by Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Michael Chang is a founding editor of Elementa and continues to serve as an associate editor in the Sustainability Transitions knowledge domain. He was not involved in the review process of this article.
Contributed to conception and design: MH, MM, BA, UR, IMS, YZ, KD.
Contributed to acquisition of data: YZ.
Contributed to analysis and interpretation of data: YZ.
Drafted and/or revised the article: MM, BA, MH, IMS, YZ, KD, UR.
Approved the submitted version for publication: MH, MM, BA, UR, IMS, YZ, KD, MC.
There are 37 PhD programs in 29 schools at Georgia Tech. Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS) allows only 1 student per school or department be nominated, so ultimately only about 15–20 students are evaluated by BBISS for program inclusion. As most schools will submit their nominations, interests in this program within each school may vary. The 40–60 students estimate is based on feedback from the nominating schools after each evaluation cycle.
How to cite this article: McSorley, M, Arkhurst, BK, Hall, M, Zha, Y, Spyrou, IM, Duchesneau, K, Ringania, U, Chang, M. 2023. For graduate students to become leaders in sustainability, we must transcend disciplinary boundaries. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 11(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2023.00012
Domain Editor-in-Chief: Alastair Iles, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Knowledge Domain: Sustainability Transitions