Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 99–113

Professional development of interdisciplinary environmental scholars


    • School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Institution for Social and Policy StudiesYale University
  • Michelle M. Steen-Adams
    • Department of Environmental StudiesUniversity of New England
  • Stephanie Pfirman
    • Environmental Science DepartmentBarnard College, Columbia University
  • Richard L. Wallace
    • Ursinus College

DOI: 10.1007/s13412-011-0018-z

Cite this article as:
Clark, S.G., Steen-Adams, M.M., Pfirman, S. et al. J Environ Stud Sci (2011) 1: 99. doi:10.1007/s13412-011-0018-z


The need is urgent to build capacity in the environmental community, and the interdisciplinary approach is one of the most promising avenues to accomplish this. The environmental studies and sciences program movement can ably lead this effort. Based on a workshop at the second annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) in 2010, we look at barriers to interdisciplinarity in academia, including the cultural, historical, and institutional context of disciplinary scholarship. It is within this context that interdisciplinarians must fight for identity, recognition, roles, legitimacy, and standing. Teaching, research, service, publishing, competing for funding, and meeting reappointment/promotion/tenure evaluation criteria can all pose unique difficulties for interdisciplinary scholars. We offer advice to those seeking professional interdisciplinary education, including finding the right program and advisor, developing skills, designing and completing the dissertation, and establishing a professional network. We also offer advice on securing a job—setting the stage while still in graduate school and highlighting interdisciplinary strengths in the application and interview process. We also offer advice on career advancement, such as clarifying one’s expertise and its significance, setting and fulfilling tenure-track benchmarks, adapting the career trajectory to capitalize on an interdisciplinary career, clarifying with one’s institution the criteria for advancement, and preparing the tenure portfolio. Finally, we offer an introduction to interdisciplinarity as an explicit, systematic approach in concept and framework that rests on a higher order means of organizing knowledge and action, with a focus on integration. AESS is emerging as an organization to assist professionals by assembling a supportive community of environmental educators, researchers, and problem solvers, by clarifying and promoting standards for successful interdisciplinarity in the classroom and in the field, and by offering advice and support on career issues for both up-and-coming professionals and established faculty and practitioners.


Environmental scholarsAcademic careersInterdisciplinarity


Many of us see an urgent need to build capacity within the environmental community by applying integrative approaches to our teaching, research, practice, and beyond. Building capacity requires focusing on the people who make things happen, especially college and university teachers and researchers and allied professionals. This human resource includes people who are already genuinely interdisciplinary and those tending in that direction. As noted more than 40 years ago, many people “are beginning to acknowledge the indispensable place of the integrator, mediator, and go-between … [who] perceives himself as an integrator of knowledge and action, hence a specialist …. He is a mediator between those who specialize in specific areas of knowledge and those who make commitments in public and private life” (Lasswell 1970, pp. 13–14). It is not surprising then that an interdisciplinary approach is being advanced widely today as the most practical means to aid society’s many and growing environmental problems. We in the environmental studies and sciences program movement are in a unique position to lead this effort. First, our capacity is large already and growing. Today more than a thousand programs exist at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Second, we are unified by a common interest in ameliorating environmental problems through empirical enquiry and analytic judgment (Clark et al. 2011a, b).

Despite these positive trends, however, there are challenges, and we need strategies to address them. There is widespread confusion about interdisciplinarity and essentially no recognized professional career system for interdisciplinary faculty in many colleges and universities or fields of practice. To address these problems, in this paper we clarify interdisciplinary method and offer advice on career development by (1) reviewing challenges to interdisciplinarity in teaching and research, (2) giving advice for successful careers for graduate students and new faculty, and (3) offering an introduction to the interdisciplinary approach. Addressing these subjects is imperative if the environmental program movement and community are ever to meet their potential to contribute to education, practice, and a better world. Although our paper focuses on integrative training and scholarship, we acknowledge the valuable role of more disciplinarily trained and multidisciplinarily trained professionals.


This paper emerged from a workshop on professional development held at the second annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, on June 16–20, 2010. AESS is a new organization that seeks to advance teaching, research, and outreach in environmental studies and sciences. It is a self-organizing project by diverse people, mostly professors, on the forefront of the rapidly growing environmental studies and sciences program movement. Coming from a variety of academic departments, schools, and programs, members share an interest in the integration of knowledge and action for environmental and human sustainability.

The leaders of AESS established a Professional Development Committee to “develop and recommend to the Council policies with significant potential for improving the quality and institutional status of environmental studies and sciences. These policies may include, among others, criteria and standards for tenure and promotion of faculty within environmental studies and sciences programs.” The committee recommended a series of workshops to begin to meet this charge and to help AESS clarify standards for interdisciplinary critical thinking, for problem solving-based research and education, and for professional advancement. The 2010 workshop was one in this series.

The workshop, conducted by the four authors, contributed form and substance to AESS by clarifying interdisciplinary problem-solving standards, identifying critical professional development issues, and providing guidance to professionals early in their careers regarding graduate work and thesis writing, applying for jobs in colleges and universities and interviewing, and advancing up the tenure ladder. The workshop was well attended and received positive reviews.

The workshop was predicated on:
  1. (1)

    Pervasive concern about deteriorating environments and the status of the human enterprise, wherein many people live without adequate health care, education, or voice in matters vital to their daily lives (Heinz Foundation 2005)

  2. (2)

    Growing recognition of the limits of disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and institutional approaches to address these problems as well as recognition of the promise of integrated, genuinely interdisciplinary approaches

  3. (3)

    The timely emergence of AESS, which provides a professional community to take on these issues through focused discussion and action


Our perspective on problem solving, interdisciplinarity, and careers follows from more than a century’s work by scholars such as Dewey (1922), Meade (1934), Leopold (1949), Lasswell and Kaplan (1950), Carson (1962), Lasswell (1971a, b), Schön (1983, 1987), Kegan (1983, 1994), Charon (2009), and many others. These philosophers, ecologists, social scientists, educators, and practitioners laid the foundation for much of modern thinking on these subjects. Problems, problem solving, and interdisciplinarity are complex subjects, to be sure, but understanding them is essential if we are to effectively address environmental problems.

Challenges of interdisciplinary scholars

Faculty and graduate students pursuing interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches often find themselves in departments or schools dominated by conventional disciplinary or multidisciplinary administrators and colleagues, a fact that presents career management challenges, insecurities, and personal and professional anxieties (Brunner and Willard 2003; Pfirman and Martin 2010). It is vital for interdisciplinarians to cultivate a flexible, grounded, adaptive career perspective—indeed, an interdisciplinary one—on these difficulties, to develop a contextual understanding, and to use analytical clarity to solve the problems they face in order to manage their careers.

Many authors have written about the complexity of interdisciplinary work, including Jantsch (1970), Lasswell (1975), Petrie (1976), Miller (1981), Thoma (1993), Orr (1993), Lele and Norgaard (2005), Reich and Reich (2006), MacMynowski (2007), Petts et al. (2008), and Vincent and Focht (2009), to name only a few. The interdisciplinary scholar draws from and merges many disciplines in a problem-oriented, contextual, and multimethod way, unlike the disciplinarian, whose strength comes from reliance on the precepts, standards, and methodological rigors of one or more disciplines, the knowledge areas, cultures, practices, and epistemologies of which are well established and deeply institutionalized.

The cultural, historical, and institutional context of disciplinary scholarship leaves interdisciplinary scholars without a firm footing. When questioned by administrators and disciplinarian colleagues, interdisciplinary scholars must be able to explain the intellectual foundation, methods, validity, and significance of their work. They often must fight for identity, recognition, roles, legitimacy, and standing. The challenges they face are often subtle and hidden in the social dynamics and culture of colleges and universities, but may also be starkly visible and blunt, making genuine interdisciplinary engagement with disciplinarians difficult. Schoenberger (2001), for example, described the production of disciplinary cultures that define the material practices, social relations, and epistemological commitments characteristic of a field of study. These are what makes interdisciplinism so problematic.

Frequently, there is no consensus about the value of interdisciplinary research in disciplinary programs, and it is therefore up to the interdisciplinarian to argue his or her case without the comfort of well-established standards shared with colleagues (e.g., Lattuca 2001). In addition, traditionally trained disciplinarians often regard the interdisciplinary scholar with some ambivalence. There may be appreciation for the broader, integrative perspective brought to the fore by the interdisciplinarian, yet it is often accompanied by guarded skepticism about the level of mastery of discipline-specific norms, literature, and methods.

Building a successful career path requires interdisciplinary scholars to walk a fine line, carefully and mindfully. An awareness of the extent and limits of their knowledge, disciplinary and interdisciplinary, must guide this path. Professional credibility requires scholars to contribute in realms where their training and expertise merit it, balanced by discretion to step back when the question is beyond their knowledge area (e.g., Pfirman and Martin 2010). Likewise, they need to be cognizant of real-world contexts that are often dominated by skeptical or hostile disciplinarians. In the worst case, they may have to argue their cases repeatedly, to several different disciplines, while simultaneously admitting publicly that they may not be expert in any one discipline. One successful strategy used by some interdisciplinary scholars is to maintain standing in one or more disciplines while working interdisciplinarily.

Interdisciplinary scholars often wind up out on a limb, without the support structures or reward systems that are typically in place for disciplinary scholars (Collins 2002, p. 81). We argue that individuals should not be put in the position of having to create their own career advancement processes at the same time they are attempting to navigate them (Pfirman and Martin 2010). In teaching, research, and service, interdisciplinary scholars are breaking new ground through their integrative work. But it typically requires time-consuming liaisons, communication, defenses of legitimacy, and negotiating the myriad support structures that are in place for disciplinarians, all of which are taken for granted within the disciplines.

Teachers in the disciplines, for example, have textbooks, problem sets, animations, and visualization packets readily available as well as articles, critiques, and sessions at professional societies about best practices (see Hohl and Clark 2010 on “best practices”). Course designation and credit toward majors are clear. Teaching an interdisciplinary course, however, usually involves extensive course development, co-teaching, and communication with colleagues and administrators to negotiate everything from course approval and designation to co-teaching credits, guest speakers, room location, civic engagement, and field programs. These can all be time consuming and highly problematic, and standards for successful interdisciplinary effort are typically lacking. Conventional administrators and disciplinary colleagues often do not know what to think about such efforts or how to appraise and reward them.

Concerning research, a United Kingdom study showed that multidisciplinary research (and some interdisciplinary research) most frequently occurs through ad hoc teams (53%), followed by formal research teams (29%), and lone researchers (18%, Evaluation Associates 1999). Disciplinary scholars, on the other hand, report working 40% in ad hoc teams, 20% in formal research teams, and 40% as lone researchers. Clearly, these are different modes of professional practice. Ad hoc teams typically occur outside traditional evaluation and reward structures, and they require extensive problem solving and group management skills at the same time that there is less recognition of leadership and unclear ownership of the intellectual “property” that results. Intellectual attribution for the lone disciplinary researcher is obvious.

Another difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary researchers is the amount of collaboration they have with colleagues. Lee and Bozeman (2005, p. 684) showed that disciplinary scholars typically spend about 50% of their time working with members of their own departments, 15% working alone, 10% with others in the same institution, and 25% with outside collaborators. This means that within a discipline-based department there is a tremendous amount of shared knowledge (data from Pfirman and Martin 2010). In contrast, interdisciplinary scholars often work with a broader community outside the department or departments with which they are affiliated. They may have few if any colleagues within their departments to work with, plus the problems they work on may have specialists and other scholars who reside elsewhere. Working with local colleagues builds recognition, trust, and therefore support within the home institution, but interdisciplinary scholars who work mostly outside their own departments frequently lack the same kind of recognition, trust, and support.

Interdisciplinary scholars often find it harder both to publish, especially in more competitive journals, and to compete for grant support. Disciplinary work is often privileged in academic journals and in grant proposals (Campbell 2005). Journal editors must assess whether a submission demonstrates an understanding and engagement with the field’s problems and literature and then whether it advances the field’s thinking and knowledge. But the scope and content of interdisciplinary projects often exceed the boundaries of a particular field, and authors are often forced to pare down the complexity of the argument, the findings, the literature, or supporting material in order to fit the scope, not to mention the word limits, of many journals. Moreover, the broader scope of such work can diminish the perceived fit with the scope and purpose of the journal.

Because of the typically longer time it takes to complete interdisciplinary projects, scholars may have difficulty meeting the productivity standards of evaluation criteria at many colleges and universities (e.g., Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure [RPT] measures). It takes time to develop collaboration, to build trust, to design conceptual models, and to forge integrative models and techniques (Heemskerk et al. 2003; Campbell 2005). Moreover, there is less assurance that such projects will result in publishable findings. Researchers often employ new methods, use data sources in novel ways, or build on literatures that are somewhat foreign to them. For these reasons, they may ultimately appear less productive than their disciplinary counterparts.

When they write grant proposals interdisciplinarians face difficulties first determining where to submit proposals and then obtaining funding. Special interdisciplinary programs have tremendous proposal pressure and are often offered for only one or two cycles. The training of interdisciplinary scholars and their research output emphasizes breadth of integration rather than narrow focus. This is sometimes perceived as a weakness by reviewers, who tend to look for demonstrated accomplishment in a specific research area. Administering interdisciplinary work can be even more problematic, requiring a complex dance of human and institutional dynamics and decisions about where the grant will be housed, who will get the overhead, and similar important questions.

Service work, such as participation in campus and scholarly communities, can also create problems for interdisciplinary scholars even though they are frequently sought after for their valuable bridging skills and abilities to fulfill several roles. In addition to adding disciplinary breadth, interdisciplinary scholars often have experience with real-world applications or connections with local communities through civic engagement projects that appeal to alumni, fundraisers, and public relations. While this may give them visibility and recognition, it may also put them at risk of being considered “pets” rather than “peers” unless they are selective in their participation and figure out how to ground their contributions in mainstream scholarship (Pfirman et al. 2010). Continued calls for their contributions and participation may provide them with a false sense of security and a higher than warranted sense of others’ estimation of their value as intellectuals. It may also divert their attention and energy and keep them from creating a portfolio—critical for promotion and tenure—that demonstrates the significance of their interdisciplinary scholarship.

Advice for successful careers

Despite the very real extra struggles that interdisciplinarians face, a realistic, clear-sighted awareness of the professional environment and standards of evaluation can help these scholars come to grips with the pervasive disciplinary orientation of existing evaluation and reward structures. It is critical that both individuals and institutions embarking on an interdisciplinary trajectory develop strategies for demonstrating the value and importance of interdisciplinary research advances and teaching outcomes. Positioning themselves for career success requires candid assessment of the challenges and devising ways to meet them. Individuals can draw on numerous strategies to overcome the challenges posed by organizational environments (see Harrison and Stokes 1992).

At the turn of the 21st century higher education is undergoing a rethinking of its purpose and the institutional criteria of success, emphasizing integration and application of knowledge (e.g., Boyer 1996; Bok 2006). In his landmark essay, Scholarship Reconsidered, Ernest Boyer (1990, p. 24), former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching writes, “What we urgently need today is a more inclusive notion of what it means to be a scholar. A recognition that knowledge is gained through research, through synthesis, through practice and through teaching.” He argues that institutions should perceive the constituent elements of scholarship—discovery, integration, application, and teaching—as elements of an interconnected whole. Academic positions within the environmental program movement typically already share this larger vision of problem-oriented synthesis of academic knowledge, application, and teaching.

Graduate study

The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) describes the degree’s fundamental purpose, based on a national study of targeted programs in the United States as the formation of scholars (Walker et al. 2008, p. 1). The emphasis on formation, following Carnegie’s work on professional training, especially of the clergy, denotes not only the development of specialized knowledge, but also “a larger set of obligations and commitments that are not only intellectual but moral” (p. 8). In this respect, doctoral education is a process of growth of the “personality, character, habits of heart and mind” and “the role that the given discipline is capable of and meant to play in academe and society at large” (Elkana 2006, p. 66, 80, cited in Walker et al. 2008, p. 8). That is to say, the doctoral degree aims to train the intellect and, equally important, to establish commitment to the body of worthy obligations.

In the CID vision scholarly formation is brought about by three mechanisms: scholarly integration, intellectual community, and stewardship of a discipline or knowledge area. First, scholarly integration refers to the integration of teaching and research, of the realms of basic and applied work, following Boyer (1990). Second, the doctoral student acculturates into an intellectual community that shares assumptions and beliefs about its “purpose, commitment and roles, and creat[es] … the conditions in which intellectual risk taking, creativity, and entrepreneurship are possible” (p. 11). Finally, stewardship denotes the intellectual and technical purpose to build expertise in the field and, perhaps more importantly, the moral and ethical purpose to guide its wise and principled use in the world. Just as environmental stewardship refers to the conservation of resources to ensure their availability for future generations, so too does academic stewardship call for tending a body of knowledge developed from past generations for the benefit of society in the future. In its truest sense, then, the Ph.D. should “generate and critically evaluate new knowledge; conserve most important ideas as legacy of past work; understand how new knowledge can transform the world and engage in the transformational work of communicating knowledge responsibly to others” (Walker et al. 2008, pp. 11–12). These defining characteristics of graduate education, and of doctoral education in particular, correspond closely to those of environmental scholarship, which positions professionals for success with both purpose and knowledge.

Undertaking an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program is an integrative and transformative experience for individuals (Golde and Gallagher 1999; Walker et al. 2008; Clark and Wallace 2010, pp. 196–197). It is integrative in that it cultivates the capacity to tailor methods and concepts from multiple disciplines to apply to a complex, typically real-world problem of interest, often with a theoretical dimension. Likewise, the Ph.D. program has been shown to foster intellectual transformation, such as introducing fundamental changes in the ways students approach problems.

On the other hand, we offer the candid observation that, despite decades of calls to expand interdisciplinary capacity and research, doctoral education in the United States reveals a dominant trend toward more disciplinary training and approaches (Golde and Gallagher 1999). One of the several factors contributing to this situation is the difficulty of finding advisors willing and able to supervise interdisciplinary dissertations, given the dominant disciplinary training of professors. Another challenge is mastering knowledge of more than one field in sufficient breadth and depth and reconciling conflicting methods and academic cultures, including differing norms of what constitutes valid evidence and methods. A third challenge is finding an intellectual community to support and hone graduate student ideas and research as well as the institutional capacity and cultures among faculty advisors to assist students to negotiate these issues.

Because the graduate school experience so powerfully sets the career trajectory, we recommend that prospective students be systematic in evaluating potential graduate programs in order to find a situation that fits their career goals and that they develop a careful strategy to earn admission. Applicants should consider whether prospective programs offer adequate institutional, advisory, programmatic, and financial support. Many useful resources exist to winnow the hundreds of options (e.g., see Brown University Center for Environmental Studies list of Environmental Studies Programs at Other Institutions,

Concomitant with finding an appropriate program is identifying an advisor who will likely be a good fit with the student. Applicants should seek someone with professional stature who has demonstrated employment of interdisciplinary theory, method, and framework. Finding the right advisor is as much art as science. Students should not only study professors’ web sites, research, grant support, projects, and courses to explore their interests and experience, but also visit in person to get a better sense about compatibility and other intangible concerns.

After matriculating to a program, the student should then turn attention to the goal of developing problem-solving skills with interdisciplinary methods, a foundation of knowledge, and a professional network. The primary vehicle to develop problem-solving skills is the thesis, dissertation, or other culminating project. The design of these projects matters in several respects. First, the thesis should offer the opportunity to examine a problem or answer a question that includes both applied, real-world dimensions and theory. Second, the thesis problem should be of manageable scope, rather than demonstrating expertise in multiple disciplines, as is required, for example, in a dual Ph.D. The ideal is to maintain the goal of focused, applied integration, not necessarily expertise in multiple fields, to identify the literatures from which the relevant theories, methods, and data emerge, and to develop command of these through coursework, readings, and writings. Examples include Rutherford (2003), Cromley (2002), Picard (2010), Cherney et al. (2009, 2010), Meany et al. (2010), Newsome et al. (2010), and many others.

Future career success also depends on mastering a knowledge base of sufficient breadth and depth. One strategy is to begin with the applied problem, then identify disciplines that offer a theoretical foundation to address the problem, and finally to locate points of connection among the disciplines. Another strategy is to begin more theoretically or abstractly with conceptual questions that require the bridging of multiple fields. It is advisable to limit the constituent fields to two or three, in the interest of mastering them, especially helpful later in the job market. The graduate student and committee must set boundaries around relevant knowledge areas of component disciplines, not exhaustive knowledge of a single discipline, as dictated by the dissertation’s relevant theories and questions (e.g., Heasley 2000; Steen-Adams 2005). The interdisciplinary framework helps immensely in all these tasks.

Finally, graduate school is the ideal time to begin to establish a professional network through the investment of time, trust, and appreciation of relationships. This is an important, meaningful pursuit. Graduate advisors, committee members, and professors often continue to serve as mentors and colleagues throughout one’s career. In addition to helping launch the young professional’s career, senior professionals can advise in negotiating issues toward earning tenure and becoming involved with editorial boards and in professional societies. In short, they can help to develop capacity to participate productively in the mission they both share. Likewise, the network of graduate school colleagues ramifies in mutual career support in myriad ways. Graduate school peers frequently become colleagues in professional societies, as co-authors, and as advisers of one’s own students. Moreover, in addition to the important professional linkages with a scholar’s home institution, graduate school colleagues frequently function as the national and international professional network within which knowledge and friendship are shared.

In summary, because graduate school lays the foundation to a career, we recommend that aspiring environmental scholars carefully and systematically consider several factors in order to identify the best prospective programs and graduate advisors. They should structure their graduate studies to define an academic and professional identity, cultivate recognition, and establish an institutional and academic network. They should work to develop integrative problem-solving skills, specifically a framework that can be broadly applied to problems beyond those typically examined in graduate school. It is also important to build a foundation of focused knowledge and skills in relevant disciplines that will serve as an academic anchor to the problem-solving framework. A professional network will include the advisor, who plays a central role, but also committee members and fellow students, many of whom will become colleagues and even co-authors and project partners in future years, as well as external colleagues met through joint projects and professional meetings. A large, strong network is very important for both collaboration and for recognition.

Getting a job

Securing a job enables the emergent interdisciplinary environmental professional to capitalize on the skills, knowledge, and networks developed in graduate school. There are two main parts in realizing this goal: first, to set the foundation for a successful career launch during graduate school, and second, to be successful in the job search and interview process. We offer strategies to achieve these objectives.

For scholars still in graduate school, several characteristics or skills can promote success, especially for those who aim to land a tenure-track position (Benton 2003). The first is self-discipline and continuous practice. Benton advises students to write every day if possible, the more the better. In-depth engagement is necessary in order to master both the academic material and the craft of writing and to develop a respectable publication record. As noted above, the second valuable skill is networking. Personal connections are paramount, especially with senior scholars who will advocate for the candidate, because such advocacy sometimes outweighs other considerations. Third, it is vital to maintain one’s mental health in spite of the anxiety of graduate school competition and its inherent stress. Cultivating enabling and empowering strategies is essential, including maintaining a sense of perspective, developing meaningful nonacademic avocations, and fostering friendships outside of academe. The fourth skill is to remain flexible. Once a scholar begins a job search, it is important to maintain an open mind, since the first offer may be one’s only offer. It will be the opportunity to establish an academic career. The last skill is patience. After several years in graduate school, many emerging academics conduct postdoctoral research, often with modest compensation. A post doc can offer the opportunity to establish a strong publication record quickly. They must be prepared for the time and work required and be open to the possibility of serendipitous opportunities that might arise for job offers (Benton 2003).

At the job application stage, several techniques can increase the odds of being invited for an interview (Jenkins 2009). We recommend beginning by devising a checklist of criteria by which your application will be evaluated. First, confirm that your package meets the initial screening criteria, which are sometimes assessed by human resources personnel. Make sure that the application will arrive by the stated deadline, that all required elements are submitted, and that minimum stated requirements are met. Second, consider how your application will be evaluated in comparison to fellow candidates. To move into the finalist pool, the package must contain an excellent letter of application describing how your academic and teaching experience justify a claim to this specific position (Jenkins 2009). Researching the institutional context for the position helps in writing a stronger letter. The letter, of course, should work in tandem with the curriculum vitae, with the letter making your case and the CV serving as evidence.

In interviewing, the candidate can use a number of strategies. In academic settings, for example, a campus interview typically consists of three elements: a series of short meetings with faculty, a research presentation, often including a teaching lesson, and a social event, such as a faculty dinner, where evaluation continues. In each, the candidate will be judged on his or her fit with departmental and institutional culture, the capacity to further the department’s or the program’s mission, and the capacity to earn tenure. Beyond the evidence in the application package, the review committee will consider the overall person and how well the candidate meets their needs (Land 2001). We recommend that the candidate prepare for this extensive interview in several ways. The scholarship presentation must be polished, relevant to the position and its institutional context, and noteworthy. Thus it is best to work from existing research results that the candidate knows well and to anticipate likely questions. Above all, the talk must be interesting. The first 5 minutes and the concluding statements are especially important—in that short time, the audience will form a lasting appraisal of the applicant. If the interview includes guest teaching, the committee will assess the candidate’s capacity to make the material meaningful and comprehensible to students. In meetings, the candidate must present his or her professional identity concisely and interestingly and must demonstrate relevance. The candidate should cite specific products and publications to substantiate the value of his or her work and show how the work will support the departmental community and mission. The candidate should therefore learn as much as possible about the department, college and university in advance. In terms of personal attributes, candidates should strive to project themselves as good prospective colleagues, friends, advisors, teachers, and scholars of the department. Heiberger and Vick (1999, n.p.) recommended that you “be yourself. Think of yourself as a potential colleague with much to offer as well as much to learn.”

While interview preparation is crucial for all positions, it is especially important for interdisciplinary environmental scholars who seek positions outside academia (Wagner 2000). Here preparation outranks even expertise and accomplishments in many respects. The interview often serves as the primary vehicle for the employer to assess fit with corporate culture, communication skills, style, and judgment. In particular, it is important to demonstrate a capacity to communicate with people outside the academic world both in terms of style and substance. To prepare, we recommend that applicants begin by researching the company or organization, consider potential applications of one’s graduate school training, anticipate questions and develop compelling, cogent responses, and practice articulating those responses.

Whether a job seeker aspires to a tenure-track or non-tenure-track academic position or to a job outside academia, in all cases a successful job search depends on the ability to define one’s expertise and demonstrate its social, environmental, and academic significance within the context of the position. This highlights the importance of being able to define one’s professional identity and argue for the validity and significance of interdisciplinary work. It may be particularly helpful to prepare a “sound-bite” explanation (with examples) not only of the inherent complexity of an interdisciplinary identity and work but also of their unique relevance and value to the large-scale policy issues confronting the world today.

Junior faculty

Tenure is awarded only to individuals who present a compelling case…. The application of a candidate … will consist of … a clear narrative.”—Faculty Handbook

At the next career stage, we recommend that junior faculty structure their careers investment around several goals: defining themselves, setting and fulfilling tenure-track benchmarks established by their institutions, achieving recognition for their scholarship, and adapting the career trajectory to capitalize on the promises of an interdisciplinary career and to diminish its pitfalls. The college or university context largely shapes the conditions to which the interdisciplinary environmental professional must respond.

The first step in making a tenure case is to convey a clear message of one’s expertise and its significance to the community, especially to those who will be evaluating the tenure application. Early on, it is advisable to develop two responses to queries about expertise and significance—a short, simple response appropriate for casual inquiries, laypeople, or students, and for people with whom one shares a closer community, such as departmental colleagues and prospective collaborators, a multifaceted response that includes referent literatures or studies and grounds the interdisciplinary research in terms, models, and analyses that will be familiar to those in related disciplines. In both cases illustrative examples can are useful. Of course, backing up one’s projected identity with a cumulative body of work is essential.

The overarching goal is to make a strong case for tenure, which typically occurs at the outset of the sixth year, based on a compelling story substantiated by meaningful evidence. Thus we recommend that junior faculty critically apply this criterion to every initiative, asking whether it merits the investment of time and other resources. Nearly every initiative should advance the larger argument for tenure.

We encourage tenure-track faculty to think of the tenure timeline as a process or life cycle, each stage of which must be managed by setting and realizing specific goals or benchmarks: career foundation building (years 1–2), development (years 3–4), and maturation, achievement, and dossier completion (years 5–6) (adapted from Pfirman et al. 2007; Steen-Adams 2005). The interdisciplinary environmental scholar should first ascertain the RPT criteria and then develop a multistage strategy to fulfill them, consisting of goal-setting and stage-by-stage appraisal (e.g., Pfirman et al. 2008). Major pre-tenure reviews, either in the third year or in the second and fourth years, are standard at many institutions. Just as the author of a research paper is well advised to address reviewer comments scrupulously, so is it beneficial for the tenure-track candidate to respond carefully and systematically to RPT reviewers’ comments, building a body of evidence in the tenure portfolio.

Career success also depends on understanding and navigating the landscape of the institution, which establishes the RPT criteria. For interdisciplinary faculty, a joint report on tenure policies of the three major faculty organizations highlights the increased need for clarity in standards: “Interdisciplinary scholars may require special attention. Faculty members who are affiliated with more than one department face a particular risk that the institution will not clearly define the overall standards for evaluation of their performance, or will change those standards frequently over time” (American Council on Education/American Association of University Professors/United Educators 2000 [rev 2007], p. 17).

The need for more clearly articulated standards for interdisciplinary scholars arises for several reasons (Pfirman et al. 2011). First, scholars with joint appointments may experience a lack of clarity in standards or a mid-stream change because of differing expectations from two or more departments. For example, as phrased by the University of Michigan, “there is a great danger that joint appointments will be subject to a ‘new math’ in which 0.5 + 0.5 = 2, and faculty come to feel that they have too many masters generally” (University of Michigan, Provost and Interdisciplinarity 1999). Second, RPT standards may vary from department to department, thus clouding an accurate read of the candidate’s degree of progress at important benchmarks along the tenure track, such as the third-year review. In addition to the content of the tenure portfolio, another area of potential uncertainty is finding acceptable reviewers (Campbell 2005). Could a social scientist whose work addresses conservation biology include an ecologist on her review committee, for example? Thus, we strongly recommend that the candidate and the institution clarify tenure criteria at the time the candidate is hired and occasionally thereafter, including such central points as:
  1. (1)

    Home department issues (e.g., budget, promotion and tenure committee, mentoring and advising considerations).

  2. (2)

    Research considerations (e.g., acceptable number, journal venues, and “impact” of publications).

  3. (3)

    Teaching (e.g., expected courses, credit for team teaching).

  4. (4)

    Public scholarship expectations. An instrument that can substantially enhance clarity for all parties is a memorandum of understanding, such as that presented by Pfirman et al. (2011).

At the least, position descriptions for interdisciplinary scholars should include recognition of the additional time and resources needed for research, teaching, administration, and liaison.

Pre-tenure faculty members should also bear in mind that department chairs and deans change from time to time, so that there may be different people holding those positions when it is time for tenure review. This may mean changes in expectations. Where possible, any important agreements or clarifications of expectations along the way should be obtained in writing so that the new administrators will be aware that they exist. It is also important that these agreements/clarifications be provided to external reviewers at the time of tenure review. As well, potential external reviewers should be identified early on and kept up to date. Professional and academic societies like AESS can help with publications, advice, and networks of supporters.

The college or university also establishes the culture in which the junior faculty member conducts research, exchanges ideas, garners financial support, and gains encouragement and recognition (Brunner and Willard 2003). Culture influences a number of normative considerations (see Harrison and Stokes 1992), including what constitutes meaningful work, the preferred (and acceptable) modes of conducting research and carrying out teaching, and even the preferred style of interacting, whether to achieve objectives for the academic community or for personal career objectives. Over and above the standards specified in the faculty handbook, it is important to understand “what counts” and to be sensitive to institutional culture (Adso 2002). The candidate who fulfills RPT criteria may not gain an affirmative vote at all institutional levels because of insensitivity to less tangible, yet powerful internal cultural forces, such as politics, power issues, and disciplinary hubris.

Concern about the criteria for promotion, in fact, is seen as the greatest impediment to implementing interdisciplinary research, especially in departments that are largely disciplinary, followed by budget and indirect cost recovery (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research 2004). However, some institutions are recognizing the need for scholars who facilitate and integrate, for example, through application of Boyer’s (1990) criteria—discovery, integration, application, and teaching—for promotion and tenure (e.g., Nelson Institute 2006,

Existing evaluation and reward structures at most colleges and universities are based on the disciplinary, departmental model where scholars are hired, conduct research, and teach within the same culture as the one in which they were taught. Such scholars give presentations at professional societies within their discipline where they meet eminent scholars within their discipline, and they publish and review manuscripts, write and review grants, again all within their discipline. Consensus emerges about what constitutes cutting edge research and what standards apply to professional behavior and practices. For an idea to have impact, it has to be recognized as advancing understanding of theory in the discipline. A “good problem” in the disciplines is about advancing theory. As noted by Csikszentmihalyi (1996, pp. 27–28), “The second component of creativity is the field, which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. It is their job to decide whether a new idea or product should be included in the domain.” These disciplinary “gatekeepers” can make or break a career.

Finally, the presentation and style of the tenure portfolio carry significant weight. One senior reviewer noted that, “yes, the substance of a tenure packet is more important than its presentation. But, as in many other aspects of life and labor, packaging and design are not inconsequential factors. The best thing you can do for your tenure packet is to make it as impressive in clarity and organization as in content” (Perlmutter 2009). In this, as in all considerations of tenure and promotion, knowing the expectations of your institution is essential. A thoughtful conceptual model can be helpful in communicating the role and significance of interdisciplinary scholarship within the framework of the problem, as well as illustrating connections with relevant disciplinary work (Heemskerk et al. 2003).


Whether or not the position is tenure track, the goal in teaching should be excellence. We encourage faculty members to consider planning and preparation, classroom delivery, and grading and feedback, all of which should support the overarching goals of developing in students a knowledge base along with the academic skills of asking informed questions, gathering information, and critically assessing validity and relevance, reasoning (including moral and ethical reasoning), expression and argument, and intellectual creativity.

Prospective teachers should apprise themselves of exactly how they will be evaluated soon after taking a position. Such measures typically take the form of classroom observation by senior colleagues, examination of teaching materials, including syllabi, assignments, as well as student products and student evaluations. In combination with the portfolio teaching statement, these instruments are intended to give a composite picture of the teacher. One should pay special attention to the student evaluation questions and think critically about how one’s teaching may influence these data. Several issues may surface in student evaluations. Teaching may be perceived by students as less accessible because of the complexity of the material, which is more challenging for professors to master and deliver. Students in interdisciplinary classes often have a wide range of backgrounds and preparation. To overcome this problem, students can be grouped in ways that require them to teach others. Environmental problems are constantly in flux, requiring time-consuming frequent updates and changes in methodology to address them. Many successful professors enlist students in this updating process.

Interdisciplinary environmental teaching is often most effective when the teacher uses problems as the pedagogical focus. This approach sets the teacher up to engage students, demonstrate real-world significance, and provide an entrée into more abstract or theoretical aspects of the field. It also forces the teacher to negotiate teaching pitfalls specific to interdisciplinary scholarship (Ward 1991). Teaching should be geared towards engendering skills, knowledge, and capacity so that students can make a difference in their own careers.

New faculty members should bear in mind that they are developing a portfolio and should thus build into their teaching plans and syllabi opportunities to develop their portfolios. We encourage teachers to articulate a focused, concise statement of their teaching philosophy and corresponding practices early in their new jobs and to update this statement regularly, based on ongoing readings and dialogues. This statement should serve as the compass by which they develop and deliver their courses and interact with students. Specific, carefully designed units or projects that engage students and fellow professors in rewarding experiences can be added to the portfolio. It may also be helpful to engage senior colleagues in the process of designing these teaching units and then to add their evaluative comments to the portfolio.


In most institutions, research productivity is a primary evaluation criterion that heavily influences career success. Here we address two facets of scholarship, the research development process, often involving collaborative endeavors in a team setting, and research publication.

The growing body of interdisciplinary environmental scholarship demonstrates the social and environmental utility of this work, yet the factors we have described above show the added difficulties of actually doing such work. Thus, we recommend that junior scholars recognize the potentially high costs of doing this important work in relation to the RPT criteria at their institutions and regularly assess whether their careers are on track, and we recommend that they design a strategy to navigate any barriers.

The strongest case for tenure for interdisciplinary environmental scholars can be made when their scholarship is grounded by key theoretical frameworks or by models that are operant in various disciplines and when the integrative research product is “greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., the individual disciplines)” (Turner and Carpenter 1999, p. 276). Interdisciplinary research should be focused and small enough in scope to be representative, but large enough in scope to be highly relevant. In publishing interdisciplinary research care must be taken to assure that the writing is not biased to one’s own knowledge of specialized citations, methods, or language (Turner and Carpenter 1999). Anticipating the composition of editorial boards can be important (Campbell 2005). When submitting manuscripts it is useful for interdisciplinary scholars to suggest reviewers who are broadly familiar with relevant multiple literatures and who have an interdisciplinary orientation.

Collaboration is often an important element of interdisciplinary scholarship. Although there is no cookbook process for interdisciplinary collaboration, several strategies can enhance the odds of success (Turner and Carpenter 1999). One key factor is effectively negotiating barriers to communication and collaboration across disciplines (Likens 1998; Turner and Carpenter 1999; Fox et al. 2006). An important barrier to interdisciplinary collaboration is disjunct disciplinary cultures and at root an absence of trust and respect across disciplines (Fox et al. 2006; Reich and Reich 2006). Factors that can offset these obstacles are appropriate training, a willingness to invest team time, and shared experiences (Likens 1998). It is essential to develop “cultural competence,” recognizing that disciplines are, in a real sense, different cultures (Reich and Reich 2006). Developing an appreciation for diversity, being cognizant of power dynamics, and avoiding tokenism can enable collaboration. Identifying common ground can also build cultural competence and bridge different beliefs, interests, and positions across the natural and social sciences and the humanities (Pickett et al. 1999; Campbell 2005).

As noted above, conceptual models can function as a tool to foster communication across disciplines (Heemskerk et al. 2003). The process of developing an abstract model of a phenomenon or process by an interdisciplinary team that knows the standards and strategies can overcome barriers frequently posed by differing disciplines, languages, and approaches. Such interdisciplinary models can improve the clarity of goals, precision of research questions, and the correspondence between theory and real-world problems, thus improving collaboration and the utility of cooperative work. Our collective experience supports an adaptive, iterative approach to problems by the team of investigators at hand (see also Brunner and Willard 2003; Musacchio et al. 2005).

Clarifying the interdisciplinary approach

Integrating knowledge and action requires an explicit approach, method, and framework in order to mobilize the disciplines and other forms of knowledge into a common endeavor that is focused on problem solving, fully attentive to the context of problems, and invites the use of multiple methods. Integration is a strategy to address problems—a problem-oriented, contextual, multimethod strategy.


In the most general terms, building on the work of Jantsch (1970), Lasswell (1971a, b), and others, we argue that in its truest sense interdisciplinarity is a meta-concept, an explicit and systematic approach in concept, framework, and method that rests on a higher order means of organizing knowledge and action. It is a further evolution beyond the disciplinary approaches that are the common intellectual heritage of higher education in most of the world. What sets interdisciplinarity apart from disciplinary approaches is its focus on integration (i.e., it is clear about what is to be integrated and how). Its purpose is to reorganize and invigorate the knowledge structure in the humanities and social and biophysical sciences to address problems. We emphasize that the interdisciplinary approach is not meant to displace or do away with the established disciplines; on the contrary, it builds on the disciplines and connects them with actual problem solving in new ways. The interdisciplinary approach is a kind of grand synthesis, a unification of concept and framework that is practical in application. A concept grounded in human experience, excellent scholarship, and the pressing problems of our time (see Lasswell and McDougal 1992), it is an overarching thought model that is holistic in intent and practical in application. In simple terms, it is a heuristic guideline and an integrative scientific—in the broadest sense of the word—approach to knowledge production and problem solving (see Lasswell and Kaplan 1950).

The interdisciplinary approach can facilitate an orderly, problem-oriented inquiry into complex problems, for example, those of sustainability and human dignity (see Mattson and Clark 2011). As a meta-concept it meets several design criteria:
  1. (1)

    It requires the user to establish a standpoint and purpose.

  2. (2)

    It delineates relevant foci of attention (i.e., problems).

  3. (3)

    It requires clarifying goals (e.g., sustainability).

  4. (4)

    It specifies the key intellectual tasks of problem solving (e.g., rationality).

  5. (5)

    It develops and uses dependable and efficient procedures (see Lasswell and McDougal 1992 for full description).


It employs multiple methods and encourages any and all methods that can help understand and ameliorate problems. In short, interdisciplinarity encompasses a practical theory as well as a method that can be used to model or map any problem accurately (Clark 2002). To do this, skills, concepts, analytic categories, and language are needed to construct useful maps of problems and their contexts (Brunner 1997a, b). These are prerequisite to inventing, evaluating, and selecting a course of action to address problems.

Problems exist when there is a shortfall or discrepancy between our goals and the situation at hand (Lasswell 1971a, b). Goals are always about what we value, a desired future. Recognizing and solving problems rest on a mix of practical, analytic, and normative concerns. They also depend on a host of individual and human matters of perspective, perception, values, epistemology (ways of knowing), classification and naming, language, symbols, thinking, deliberation, transcendence, abstracting, creativity, self-direction, action, and leadership, among other things (Charon 2009; Brunner et al. 2005; Brunner 2006). Problem solving requires a dual focus on the problem itself and on the problem solver, which is a matter of identifying one’s standpoint relative to the problem at hand, biases, epistemology, knowledge, and skills.


There is available an analytic framework that encompasses a set of operations to guide the use of interdisciplinarity. The interdisciplinary problem-solving approach rests on foundational principles abstracted from human experience into an analytic framework, which serves as a stable frame of reference that can be used to understand problems and what might be done about them. Its intent is not to narrow the scope of inquiry, but continually to call attention to what is left out of our evolving understanding of any particular situation. This requires a comprehensive and stable frame of reference, a framework that allows users to be problem oriented and contextual and to employ multiple methods.

The postulate underlying this framework is that people seek values through society’s institutions using and affecting resources (see Clark et al. 2010a, b). All four of these variables—people, values, institutions, and resources (both cultural and biophysical)—can be researched and used in problem solving, and thus this framework supports a practical, problem-oriented research and teaching agenda (Lasswell 1971b; Clark 2002; Clark and Wallace 2010). One of the most pressing problems in the world today, as we see it, is that humanity has yet to find a formula for solving environmental policy problems that works and can be broadly justified, a formula that fully considers the dynamic interplay among these four variables. In other words, people and their institutions are unsustainable at present and our global natural heritage and human dignity are rapidly losing ground.

Being problem oriented means attending to the basic tasks of rational problem solving (Muth and Bolland 1983; Weiss 1989), specifically:
  1. (1)

    To clarify goals (and set indices to see that goals are being met)

  2. (2)

    To determine what has happened in terms of biophysical events and processes as well as social and decision-making events and processes with regard to those indices

  3. (3)

    To explain the conditions under which those trends have taken place

  4. (4)

    To project into the future what is likely to happen if nothing is done to alter the conditions and trends

  5. (5)

    To ask if a problem exists, that is, a discrepancy between the desired goals and the projected trends

  6. (6)

    To invent, evaluate, and select one or more options or alternatives to solve the problem as defined


These steps may appear easy, but quickly raise critical issues. For example, to explain conditions (see item (3)) it is necessary to map the context (Muth and Bolland 1983). This requires identifying and asking questions about the participants, that is, the individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions that participate in the problem at hand. The participants’ perspectives also need to be identified in terms of their expectations, beliefs, and preferences. The situation or arena within which the problem occurs needs to be characterized in terms of its ecology, institutional setting, participants, place, and time. Of prime importance is determining the values at play in the problem, specifically, respect, power, wealth, well-being, rectitude, knowledge/enlightenment, skill, and affection. In addition to the values they seek, people also use the values they have in order to obtain more or additional values (e.g., using skill to amass power or rectitude to obtain respect). All these value dynamics need to be explicitly identified. Finally, it is important to identify the value outcomes of problem-solving efforts as well as the longer-term institutional consequences.

Another key part of contextual mapping is to determine how people are going about making decisions with regard to the problem. The decision-making process, its component activities, and how well it meets certain accepted standards all determine whether a problem can and will be recognized and resolved (Clark 2002). It is clear that these few problem-orientation tasks open up an in-depth and comprehensive inquiry into all relevant aspects of solving complex policy problems.


Concerning the history of interdisciplinarity, current thinking draws on an intellectual foundation dating to the 1920s and earlier. Among the many early leaders was Harold D. Lasswell, who “stands out as the pre-eminent moving spirit behind the growth of ” the interdisciplinarity approach (Parson 1995, p. 21). In 1960, Lasswell was awarded the America Council of Learned Society award, the citation calling him “master of all the social sciences and pioneer in each; rambunctiously devoted to breaking down the man-made barriers between the social studies, and so acquainting each with the rest; filler-in of the interdisciplinary space[s]” (cited in Reisman et al. 2007, p. 575). Since the 1920s a growing number of people have come to appreciate the need for the interdisciplinary approach, and many people today are developing and applying diverse efforts in that direction. Some may be little aware of the long history of interdisciplinarity as an approach to problem solving. Consequently, some recent approaches, which go by diverse names, are reinventions and approximations of what was talked about or eluded to decades ago by other scholars and practitioners. However, recent approaches include modern concepts and language (e.g., complexity sciences, resilience and sustainability, complex adaptive systems) that did not exist decades ago. None of these recent efforts is precisely equivalent to earlier formulations of the interdisciplinary approach, but nevertheless seem well motivated by the same interest to integrate knowledge and action to address our growing problems. In hind sight, it seems that smart, experienced people tend to converge on the interdisciplinary approach despite their many different origins or starting points (Brunner 1996).

However, the term “interdisciplinary,” currently in vogue and frequently associated with cutting edge thinking, has been widely adopted by all kinds of people and programs, sometimes without attention to approach, method, and framework. One detriment of the term’s popularity is that it is frequently inflated to encompass work that is in fact disciplinary or multidisciplinary. In current use, the term seems to capture an aspiration more than a genuinely integrative method and framework that is explicit, systematic, and teachable. As a result, we felt it was necessary both in our workshop, in this paper, and through future planned papers to clarify the interdisciplinary approach and restate the concept’s invitation to all the disciplines and methodological approaches to join in (Johnson and Onweugbuzie 2004).

Concluding remarks

There is a significant and growing need for interdisciplinary environmental scholars to develop, teach, and apply successful problem-solving approaches and to educate the next generation of scholars and professionals. Yet such professionals often work in departments where most of their colleagues are disciplinarians and the reward and incentive system is based on disciplines or is at best multidisciplinary. They need diverse strategies and support to overcome the many difficulties that they face day to day in research, teaching, and administration, as well as over the course of their careers.

AESS is emerging as an organization to assist professionals who are already in the environmental program movement or those who wish to join by assembling a supportive community of environmental educators, researchers, and problem solvers, by clarifying and promoting standards for successful interdisciplinarity in the classroom and in the field, and by offering advice and support on career issues for both up-and-coming professionals and established faculty and practitioners. It is essential for both AESS and the environmental program movement to be grounded realistically, to clarify best practices, and to provide for ways to share practical advice on scholarship and careers. This is exactly what the AESS workshop attendees appreciated most from the June 2010 workshop. As some wrote in their evaluations, it was “helpful to think about roadblocks confronting interdisciplinary researchers and teachers,” it was a “very good workshop, especially good for younger faculty,” it was “so much more substantial and practical than the typical conference/workshop,” and “becoming familiar with resources available for dealing with interdisciplinary challenges and ways to address the foreseeable problems, especially about how to interview, getting pre-tenure advice, and suggestions for tenure advancement (how to plan ahead) were very helpful.” We need more opportunities for this kind of interaction and outcome. AESS can be expected to take the lead in bringing these benefits to help its members, our communities, and our society address significant environmental problems.


We want to thank the AESS leaders, the workshop attendees, and our many students, friends, and colleagues, especially those who struggle to do genuinely interdisciplinary work. We thank our respective colleges and universities for providing the opportunity to develop and apply interdisciplinarity. We thank our many coworkers in the diverse applied situations that we have worked in nationally and internationally. Denise Casey, David Cherney, Laura Bozzi, and anonymous reviewers offered critical advice.

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© AESS 2011