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Smoothing the Rough Waters of Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Courtesy of Helen Doyle.

What are the major challenges faced by interdisciplinary environmental students? How can we address them? This year, we helped to organize a workshop series called Navigating Interdisciplinary Waters. Our dynamic fellow crewmembers on this voyage (bear with us; we had a lot of cheesy fun with the nautical metaphors) were Professors Nicole Ardoin (Education), Lisa Curran (Anthropology), Eric Lambin (Environmental Earth System Science), and Len Ortolano (Civil and Environmental Engineering), and tireless E-IPER staff Helen Doyle and Danielle Nelson.

Following a poll of the E-IPER PhD students about the challenges of interdisciplinary research, we focused our attention on three overarching issues that most students pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD are likely to face: finding and preparing for a job as interdisciplinary scholars; managing an interdisciplinary committee; and balancing basic research, engaged scholarship, and advocacy.

Lisa Curran and Nicole Ardoin led the first workshop, The Interdisciplinary Job Market. In this workshop, we considered the various career options for interdisciplinary scholars, looked at a large selection of job postings, and discussed the pros and cons of different career options. Students appreciated learning about job search tips, and hearing these two experienced professors’ rich experiences and reflections.

We facilitated the workshop Managing an Interdisciplinary Committee - not because we are experts, but because, like most interdisciplinary students, we have thought extensively about this issue as we progress through our own PhDs. Our experiences allow us to empathize with our peers’ needs and to create activities to help them through the rough waters of interdisciplinary scholarship. Important to note is how much we got out of the process of preparing for the workshop -- identifying our own needs, talking to colleagues about theirs, and then designing different activities and toolkits that would help students (including us) manage our committees more effectively.

The last workshop, Basic Research, Engaged Scholarship, and Advocacy: Do They All Fit in the Context of PhD Dissertation Studies?, to be led by Eric Lambin on May 6, will center around the conundrum of working on issues that we care passionately about within a scholarly academic framework. The workshop aims to clarify the differences between scholarship and advocacy and help students find their place along the “research to action” continuum. It will feature an interactive conversation, structured around various worksheets we’ve designed, with three post-doctoral scholars currently at Stanford, all of whom have extensive experience working on issues they care about both inside and outside of academia.

As 3rd and 4th year PhD students, we have learned a tremendous amount by helping to organize this somewhat motley crew of workshops. We can only hope that our fellow students, and the faculty and staff as well, have had as enriching an experience as we have. A large part of the benefit of these workshops, and of the interdisciplinary scholarly pursuit in general, comes from the camaraderie of working through these often-challenging issues with our crew members. These workshops have helped us to remember a critical tenet of interdisciplinary scholarship: we’re all on this voyage together.

Submitted by Rachael Garrett and Rachelle Gould

The Navigating Interdisciplinary Waters project is supported by the Vice Provost for Graduate Education’s Strengthening the Core (SCORE) program. Condensed versions of the workshops will be presented at the annual conference of the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences in Vermont in June.