Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

By Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

1. Jane Palmer (biography)
2. Dena Fam (biography)
3. Tanzi Smith (biography)
4. Jenny Kent (biography)

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

3. Make clear the quality criteria against which you expect the work to be judged

The examiners’ critiques sometimes reflected a lack of clarity on the part of the candidate, but also a range of particular discipline-based interests in ‘data’ and the interpretation of source material. As most examiners in the foreseeable future are likely to be discipline based, transdisciplinary theses are likely to continue to raise issues about fair assessment.

It is therefore important for transdisciplinary doctoral candidates that a discussion take place between them and their supervisors about the appointment and briefing of examiners. It may be helpful for the candidate to specify for examiners, and also journal editors and reviewers, which quality criteria they are aiming to satisfy. This will also assist the candidate in identifying any potential weaknesses in their research writing, and in responding to examiners’ comments.

4. Transdisciplinary research is transformative. Communicate this to your examiner

Where examiners were clear that the thesis had made an important contribution to knowledge, apparent ‘flaws’ in data presentation or analysis became less important. The power of transdisciplinary research to afford the examiner such insights, through synthesizing data from a range of sources and interpreting the data through theoretical frameworks from diverse disciplines, needs to be evident and celebrated in the thesis writing. In addition, given the importance of reflexivity and openness in enabling transdisciplinary research, it will be useful if the research writing also enables an examiner to accompany the candidate on their research journey.


We would be interested in hearing from readers about the strategies described above: What has your experience been of transdisciplinary thesis examination as a candidate, supervisor or examiner? Do our lessons resonate? Do you have additional tips to share? Do you think these strategies could be deployed in other contexts, eg., interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary team research, mixed methodologies research?

To find out more:
Palmer, J., Fam, D., Smith T. and Kent, J. (2018). Where’s the data? Using data convincingly in transdisciplinary doctoral research. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13: 9-29. Online (DOI):

Biography: Jane Palmer PhD is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Resilient Regions, University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her interest in the power of transdisciplinary problem-solving emerged during her work as an architect coordinating technical consultants to meet diverse climatic conditions and cultural requirements in northern Australia. Her doctoral research was based on ethnographic fieldwork in post-conflict, post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia, and she has since been appointed to research fellowships at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and the University of Southern Queensland to undertake ethnographic projects in regional and remote Australia. Her research interests include the use of storytelling methods as a way of conducting transdisciplinary research into the processes of trauma, grief, resilience and adaptation.

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.

Biography: Tanzi Smith PhD is a current Director of the Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management in Queensland, Australia and special projects officer at the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee. Her research interests include community engagement, natural resource management policy and practice and the application of systems approaches to achieve sustainable outcomes for people and the environment. She holds an Honorary Associate position in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recipient of the Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop Fellowship.

Biography: Jennifer Kent PhD is a Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia, as well as a sessional academic there in environmental management, environmental communication and sustainability. Her research interests span the areas of sustainability transitions, grassroots social innovations and deliberative democracy. In particular she is interested in understanding how grassroots collective voluntary action that addresses the wicked challenge of climate change and continued fossil fuel extraction can contribute to better climate change governance. Her PhD research is published in ‘Community Action and Climate Change’, Routledge, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data”

  1. Thank you for this valuable contribution! At the TdLab at ETH Zurich, we are at the beginnings of creating a PhD mentoring framework. We are collecting advice and resources from our PhD students in an open letter that we will be circulated amongst each new cohort. We hope that the tacit knowledge of thriving and surviving a transdisciplinary PhD can be built up and that we can learn something new from each experience. This post is so helpful in thinking about what it is about the transdisciplinary PhD experience that is different from what is normally expected from candidates at this point in their careers.

    • Dear BinBIn
      The idea of collecting and sharing experiences from each new PhD cohort is a wonderful idea and I look forward to hearing more about this. Im keen to do the same when I get back to Sydney for our own PhD program at the Institute for Sustainable Futures…it might even be interesting to share findings from two geographical and culturally distinct programs!

      Thank for sharing your experiences of your PhD program and prompting me to think about how we might improve ours


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