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The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science

Haider, L. J., J. Hentati-Sundberg, M. Giusti, J. Goodness, M. Hamann, V.A. Masterson, M. Meacham, A. Merrie, D. Ospina, C. Schill, and H. Sinare (2017). Sustainability Science. First online. doi:10.1007/s11625-017-0445-1.


The establishment of interdisciplinary Master’s and PhD programs in sustainability science is opening up an exciting arena filled with opportunities for early-career scholars to address pressing sustainability challenges. However, embarking upon an interdisciplinary endeavor as an early-career scholar poses a unique set of challenges: to develop an individual scientific identity and a strong and specific methodological skill-set, while at the same time gaining the ability to understand and communicate between different epistemologies. Here, we explore the challenges and opportunities that emerge from a new kind of inter- disciplinary journey, which we describe as ‘undisciplinary.’ Undisciplinary describes (1) the space or condition of early-career researchers with early interdisciplinary backgrounds, (2) the process of the journey, and (3) the orientation which aids scholars to address the complex nature of today’s sustainability challenges. The undisciplinary journey is an iterative and reflexive process of balancing methodological groundedness and epistemological agility to engage in rigorous sustainability science. The paper draws upon insights from a collective journey of broad discussion, reflection, and learning, including a survey on educational backgrounds of different generations of sustainability scholars, participatory forum theater, and a panel discussion at the Resilience 2014 conference (Montpellier, France). Based on the results from this diversity of methods, we suggest that there is now a new and distinct generation of sustainability scholars that start their careers with interdisciplinary training, as opposed to only engaging in interdisciplinary research once strong disciplinary foundations have been built. We further identify methodological groundedness and epistemological agility as guiding competencies to become capable sustainability scientists and discuss the implications of an undisciplinary journey in the current institutional context of universities and research centers. In this paper, we propose a simple framework to help early-career sustainability scholars and well-established scientists successfully navigate what can sometimes be an uncomfortable space in education and research, with the ultimate aim of producing and engaging in rigorous and impactful sustainability science.

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Keywords: Interdisciplinary, Education, Sustainability science, Undisciplinary, Methodological groundedness, Epistemological agility

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