State of the Planet

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How Universities Can Support Interdisciplinary Careers for Climate and Sustainability Progress

people sitting around a table with food
Postdoctoral research scientists at the Earth Institute during a pre-pandemic meeting to discuss issues in sustainability. Photo courtesy of J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera

In January 2021, eight postdoctoral research scientists at the Earth Institute published a provocative commentary in Nature Sustainability about how universities can better support the career development of young sustainability scientists and scholars whose work requires teams and public outreach.

On March 17, Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday and several of the article’s co-authors will discuss these issues and solutions in a special episode of the Sustain What? webcast hosted by Andy Revkin and also featuring Rita Colwell—the first woman to direct the National Science Foundation—and other distinguished guests. You can watch the discussion here on Wednesday from 1-2:30pm ET:

“We invite academics and non-academics to think about the specific strategies we propose for moving forward and setting a new agenda,” says J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera, the lead author of the article. “We’re encouraged by initiatives like the recently announced Climate School at Columbia University; however, the time is long past due for expanding institutional support and recognizing interdisciplinary scholars’ value.”

As a teaser to next week’s show, we’re sharing an excerpt of a reflection written by Hernandez-Aguilera and his postdoc colleagues on the motivations and inspirations behind their commentary. The original version appeared on the Springer Nature Sustainability blog.

Back in Summer 2019, we, a group of eight Earth Institute postdoctoral fellows, initiated informal biweekly meetings to reflect on different issues related to sustainability. We started identifying common concerns regarding career development and future opportunities for early-career scholars who, like us are interested in interdisciplinarity and partnerships that advance actionable interdisciplinary science. As recent job seekers, we are aware of how difficult it is to secure a permanent job in academia. We have found a higher uncertainty, however, when expectations and metrics for interdisciplinary research careers are not well defined—and even members of search committees for interdisciplinary positions cannot always agree on what qualities a candidate should have. With few forums available for openly discussing and sharing such inquiries and concerns, especially from early-career scholars’ point of view, our biweekly meetings quickly became a space for commiserating and strategizing.

For taking action, we started a writing project to compile our questions and ideas. We asked our EI Program Officer, Sam Ostrowski, to arrange a meeting room in the Earth Institute and to spend part of the budget that EI allocates for social gatherings to buy some items to fuel our creativity—coffee, carrots, and hummus. Over time, we bonded with each other and gained confidence in expressing our ideas in this non-judgmental and open-minded environment. We also defined small but specific tasks such as group surveys to reveal our histories, values, and ideas.

Read the rest of the piece on Springer Nature.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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