Ten lessons from a transdisciplinary PhD program in sustainable development

By Marianne Penker

Marianne Penker (biography)

Should a doctoral student specialise in transdisciplinary sustainable development research? What are the opportunities and challenges associated with undertaking a program that requires research integration and implementation?

At the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna in Austria, teams of PhD-students and academic supervisors collaborated with representatives from regions, cities, public authorities, businesses or civil society to solve pressing and often wicked sustainability problems. We learnt the following ten lessons.

1. The time required for knowledge integration and implementation goes beyond a disciplinary thesis. More than half of the PhD students needed more than the planned three years.

2. Looking at their post-PhD careers, the extra effort paid off in communicative, integrative and implementation competencies, which prove to be very beneficial inside and outside of research. Graduates have found employment in interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and translational research programmes, as well as sustainability processes implemented by public authorities, companies or non-government organisations.

3. Each project involved core scientists (the PhD student, along with the main and co-supervisors), scientific consultants, professional practice experts, and strategic and local case actors (for definitions see Enengel et al., 2012). Early involvement of the different groups is essential for finding common objectives and priorities.

4. The PhD training in real life (and sometimes quite messy) contexts is characterised by ambiguous, missing and contradictory knowledge, conflicting interests, and diverging epistemologies. It is crucial to define clear rules and roles for collaboration and to communicate the scope and purpose of the research integration and implementation, which might change along the different phases of the PhD project.

5. The thesis is much more ambitious than simple puzzle solving, where procedures and standards are clearly defined right from the start. In an open interaction process, these PhD students co-defined the problem and the methodological approach with stakeholders who did not necessarily share the same standards of what constitutes a “good” thesis or a relevant societal problem to be addressed.

6. Misunderstandings originating from different paradigms or quality criteria are insightful when discussed between supervisors and stakeholders in front of, and together with, students. The responsibility for integration processes must not be imposed on the individual PhD student but should be shouldered by the whole project team.

7. Research integration and implementation skills, which are often classified as soft skills in traditional research, are core skills for these students, who collaborate with heterogeneous groups of stakeholders. Early and hands-on courses are as important as ex-post reflection of research integration and implementation experiences, eg., in publications on research integration and implementation theories and methods.

8. “Low hanging fruit”, such as a common workshop or a presentation of preliminary results, are important in the short and medium term and help to attract and motivate the different scientific and stakeholder groups for long-term collaboration.

9. Each PhD project used different consultation and knowledge co-production methods to integrate partners in different phases of the projects (for more details see Enengel et al., 2012). There clearly is no blueprint for sustainable development PhD projects; it needs project-specific and context-sensitive research integration and implementation strategies.

10. Being part of a cohort of sustainable development PhD students not only fosters social learning processes but also helps to build strong researcher identities and personalities. Our graduates have pushed the boundaries of their comfort zone beyond the sphere of a single academic discipline.

Does this resonate with your experience in running PhD programs on sustainable development or other wicked problems?

For more information:
See the website for the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (Universitaet fuer Bodenkultur, Wien; BOKU) Doctoral School Sustainable Development: http://dokne.boku.ac.at/

Enengel, B., Muhar, A., Penker, M., Freyer, B., Drlik, S., Ritter, F. (2012). Co-production of knowledge in transdisciplinary doctoral theses on landscape development – an analysis of actor roles and knowledge types in different research phases. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105, 1-2: 106-117.

Biography: Marianne Penker is Associate Professor for Regional Development at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (Universitaet fuer Bodenkultur, Wien). With Andreas Muhar, she co-headed the Doctoral School Sustainable Development. Her research is generally organized in inter- and transdisciplinary research groups, and often supported by methods of knowledge integration and implementation.

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