The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science

L. Jamila Haider, Jonas Hentati-Sundberg, Matteo Giusti, Julie Goodness, Maike Hamann, Vanessa A. Masterson, Megan Meacham, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina, Caroline Schill, Hanna Sinare

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


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 interdisciplinary 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-204
Number of pages14
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Our profound thanks go to the Stockholm Resilience Centre for facilitating a creative and a safe space in which the PhD cohort could explore these ideas. A special thank you to Carl Folke for pushing us to be even more self-reflective of what this process meant for our group, the research centre and us as individuals. Anna Emmelin supported us tirelessly with developing our thoughts around this issue. Johanna Yletyinen made the drawing for Fig. . Thank you to Maria Magolna Beky Winnerstam for expertly guiding us through forum theater and for your performances. We thank all the session participants at the Resilience 2014 conference, and the panelists who provided insightful solutions. As current or former PhD students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the authors’ work was supported by a core grant from Mistra, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research. LJH was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 283950 SES-LINK. We are grateful to Azote for the design of Fig. , supported by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Anonymous reviewers provided invaluable feedback and reflections for which we are extremely grateful.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, The Author(s).


  • Education
  • Epistemological agility
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Methodological groundedness
  • Sustainability science
  • Undisciplinary

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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