Introducing interdisciplinary postgraduate degrees? Seven meta-considerations

Community member post by Dena Fam, Scott Kelly, Tania Leimbach, Lesley Hitchens and Michelle Callen

Dena Fam (biography)

What is required to plan, introduce and standardize interdisciplinary learning in higher education?

In a two-year process at the University of Technology Sydney we identified seven meta-considerations (Fam et al., 2018). These are based on a literature review of best practice of interdisciplinary programs internationally, as well as widespread consultation and engagement across the university. Each meta-consideration is illustrated by a word cloud and a key quotation from our consultations.

1: Create an interdisciplinary community and culture

There was a perceived need to develop and foster supportive and mutually beneficial relationships among students, and between students and academic staff, as well as to build dynamic and healthy working relationships among the academic areas involved. These relationships were perceived as necessary for maintaining a life-long connection with students, as well as the need for embedded structures to support an interdisciplinary culture and community.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

2: Interactively engage with industry and external stakeholders

Engaging industry and external stakeholders with interdisciplinary programs was perceived as necessary to produce 21st century employment-ready graduates, ensuring the development of integrated skillsets, both broad-based and specialised to meet industry needs. Creating a “cradle-to-cradle” relationship with industry is required, where industry partners are involved from inception through to completion of the interdisciplinary programs as evaluators of programs and student projects. This approach was also perceived as a way of ensuring students gained authentic learning experiences.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

3: Understand external market dynamics

Clearly understanding ‘external market dynamics’, especially the impact of competitors on the market (ie., other university and industry offerings), and the demand for new educational programs in current and future markets, has the potential to ensure that interdisciplinary programs are sustainable. With a declining post-graduate market, identifying relevant industry skills and market demand before investing in new programs is key. In addition, clarifying the scope, purpose and added value of interdisciplinary programs to a disciplinary degree was perceived as critical.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

4: Operationalise and overcome transition tensions early

Existing university structures tend to reinforce disciplinary boundaries potentially creating tensions when transitioning to new interdisciplinary programs. There was a perceived need for start-up funding for interdisciplinary programs and distribution of funds across academic areas. Significant operational issues are staffing these new programs, best deploying existing teaching capacity and building capacity in academics unfamiliar with interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

5: Plan for successful governance

Interviewees suggested that successful governance of interdisciplinary programs required appropriate structures in their design, implementation and evaluation that should ideally be developed in collaboration with academic areas across the university. Accreditation of programs with industry buy-in to ensure relevance and longevity, as well as funding structures that ensure financial viability need to be considered across areas in regard to how the interdisciplinary program adds value to the existing suite of disciplinary programs offered by the university. An effective university structure would ideally include a committee to ensure that interdisciplinary programs proposed had inter-area collaboration and input and investment for a senior position at the university to oversee the transition to interdisciplinary programs.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

6: Design courses for innovation and flexibility

Flexibility in options, teaching methods and subject selection has the potential to cater to a diverse range of needs of both domestic and international students and is increasingly seen as a preferred approach to teaching and learning. Flexibility is required for optimising course structures to benefit both student outcomes and the ultimate success of interdisciplinary programs. Flexibility in this context relates to offering a range of options to students through a mix of online, intensive, and evening courses, as well as industry programs. This will require staff to teach via a range of approaches including blended learning, online, face-to-face and experiential and flipped learning as well as offering students core, compulsory and common subjects.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

7: Ensure quality, rigour and relevance

Academic quality and rigour in any program are paramount for its success and long-term relevance. The process of how academic quality and rigor is evaluated and ensured in interdisciplinary degrees was an emerging theme in the analysis. A key consideration was aligning programs to industry standards that are assessable and meet quality criteria, and that have a clear storyline and purpose for why they are of value. There was a perceived value in offering external audit and evaluation processes to ensure that the integrity of the interdisciplinary program meets both university and industry standards.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

What considerations have others identified in setting up interdisciplinary programs? Do these meta-considerations resonate with you? What is missing from our list?

To find out more:
Fam, D. M., Leimbach, T., Kelly, S., Hitchens, L. and Callen, M. (2018, forthcoming). Meta-considerations for Planning, Introducing and Standardising Interdisciplinary Learning in Higher Degree Institutions. In, D. M. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs (eds.), Transdisciplinary theory, practice and education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer: Basel, Switzerland. (Online):

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: Scott Kelly PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He also holds research affiliations with the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies and the Energy Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge, UK and was elected as a Junior Research Fellow of Darwin College, University of Cambridge, UK. Scott has a passion for using computational methods and data analytics for modelling complex real-world problems, including energy systems, economics, catastrophe modelling, climate change policy and sustainable development.


Biography: Tania Leimbach PhD currently works as a consultant and strategist at the Sydney-based social enterprise, Old Ways, New developing projects that sit at the intersection of Indigenous cultural knowledge systems and technological innovation. She lectures within the School of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, and within the Masters program at the University of New South Wales Art + Design, both in Australia. In recent research she has examined art/science partnerships and the potential for transdisciplinary learning embedded in new forms of collaborative practice.


Biography: Lesley Hitchens is a professor of law and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Her main research area is media and communications regulation, with a particular focus on the relationship between media policy and regulation, and, more recently, the impact of new media on traditional regulatory approaches. Her research also has a comparative focus, concentrating on Australia, the UK (and European Union) and the USA.


Biography: Michelle Callen has a diverse communications background and has a strategy and communications role within the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Being the first in her family to benefit from a university education instilled a belief in the transformative power of education and the importance of a quality, accessible and equitable higher education system. She is interested in identifying and tackling institutional barriers to enabling cross-, inter- and trans-disciplinary learning, research and collaboration.

The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

Community member post by Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

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

Community member post by Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

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.

Jane Palmer (biography)


Dena Fam (biography)


Tanzi Smith (biography)


Jenny Kent (biography)


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Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

Community member post by Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.


Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below. Continue reading

Designing for impact in transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Cynthia Mitchell, Dena Fam and Dana Cordell

Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

Starting with richly articulated pictures of where we would like to be at some defined point in the future has powerful consequences for any human endeavour. How can we use such “Outcome Spaces” to guide the conception, design, implementation, and evaluation of transdisciplinary research?

Our Outcome Spaces Framework (Mitchell et al., 2017) considers three essential impacts:

(1) improving the situation,
(2) generating relevant stocks and flows of knowledge, and
(3) mutual and transformational learning by the researcher/s and involved participants. Continue reading

Supporting academics’ learning to design, teach and research transdisciplinary programs in higher education: What’s the state of play?

Community members post by Tanja Golja and Dena Fam

Tanja Golja’s biography
Dena Fam (biography)

In their 2013 report on the significance of transdisciplinary approaches to advance scientific discovery and address formidable societal challenges (PDF 700KB), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) put out a call to “expand education paradigms to model transdisciplinary approaches” (p. xiii). Ought we be considering whether transdisciplinary approaches might reconfigure education paradigms, and if so, why? Continue reading