Looking for a place to anchor: Confusing thoughts along an interdisciplinary dissertation journey

Minna Santaoja, Raphael Treffny, Cordula Mertens, Catherine Jolibert, Katharine N. Farrell

Research output: Chapter in Book/ReportChapter


Introduction Writing a doctoral dissertation is always a challenge. There is probably no PhD candidate who has not struggled with formulating a good research question, writing a convincing research proposal, managing time and research design, coming up with a neat literature review, collecting suitable data, developing analysis and writing up results. Here, we will not go into detail about the challenge of making sense of the bits and pieces of data acquired over the years, which eventually leads to handing in a dissertation that brings a bit of something new into science. There is a multitude of books in which authors have made it their business to lend a hand to the confused minds of PhD students. This text here is about another kind of struggle, one that is growing increasingly common, as more and more PhD candidates are working on interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research projects, particularly in the context of doing science for sustainable development (Kates et al. 2001; Farrell et al. 2005; Meadowcroft et al. 2005). The first part is written in the present tense, in the form of a sort of ‘field report’, and is then followed by reflections, analysis and lessons learned. The ideas presented in this chapter are inspired by the experiences of nine PhD students working in an interdisciplinary European research project called GoverNat, in which we were struggling with the additional hurdles associated with creating an inter-, trans-or multidisciplinary dissertation that stays true to its own objectives while still attracting the benevolence of traditional academic institutions and peer reviewers. Our aim here is to sketch out the situations that we have encountered and to share the lessons that we have learned in the course of facing these challenges, in the hope that other students and their supervisors can benefit from our experience. At the close of this chapter we present a typology of some major challenges arising from interdisciplinary sustainability science work and, reflecting on our experiences, we make some suggestions about how they can be managed and even turned into opportunities. We begin with a short introduction to the GoverNat research network and some background on our place within it, which we provide by noting our respective points of entry into the research network. Our varied backgrounds (biologist, ecologist, geographer, engineer turned social scientist) brought us to this shared research context from very different directions, and that alone has already created a lot of creative confusion among us. This diversity of backgrounds, we think, is a challenge special to sustainability science and one that others setting sail into these waters are also likely to encounter. In the main part of this chapter we discuss the challenges and opportunities that we have encountered. In addition to discussing the challenges of interdisciplinarity, we also talk, at times, about challenges associated with conducting intercultural research. We do this for two reasons: first, because it is part of our experience, since the research field for GoverNat covers all of Europe and each of us is conducting case study research in a country that is not our own; and second, because we understand cultural diversity to be a basic characteristic of the complex international regions that are the subjects of environmental governance. At times it has been hard for us to tell whether some troubles we have encountered are caused by the interdisciplinarity of our work or by doing research in another country, so we talk about both challenges as parts of the more general challenge of conducting interdisciplinary environmental science research. We conclude our chapter with some reflections on the strategies that we have each developed to address these challenges in our PhD work, present a typology of major challenges and provide a survival guide list for other PhD students and teachers setting out to work together on similarly complex sustainability science PhD projects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBeyond Reductionism
Subtitle of host publicationA Passion for Interdisciplinarity
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781136281716
ISBN (Print)9780415470148
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • General Business, Management and Accounting


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