Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Getting a job in the field of Sustainability

As a faculty member in a School of Sustainability (, we spend a great deal of time preparing our students for life after college.  It’s a bit different than many other majors.  After all, everyone knows what an engineer or an accounting major can do.  But what does a sustainability graduate do?  What skills do they bring to the table?  I’ve written a great deal about the structure of our curriculum, the training our students receive, and how we prepare them for future employment in the past:

In future posts, I’ll write a bit more on our learning objectives in the school and how we’ve structured curriculum along skill sets that we want our students to take away rather than the topical areas of many other lines of study (environmental or otherwise).  I’ll expand a bit on the New American University at that point as well (for now, see

Instead, what I’d like to focus on is something of grave concern to our current students, their parents, and prospective students – job prospects upon graduation.  I’m very pleased to write that tracking all of our students from the first graduates until the past semester, we see the following:

  1. We have graduated 448 undergrad sustainability majors.
  2. Tracking most of those, 86% of them are employed with another 12% in graduate school.
  3. Of those employed, nearly 50% are in a sustainability position or a sustainability field.
  4. We have graduated 50 Master’s students and 13 PhDs.
  5. All of our grad students are employed.
  6. Of our Master’s students, 82% are employed in Sustainability.

So, if you are thinking about enrolling in Sustainability but are worried about finding a job, or if your friends and family are pushing you away from following your dreams toward a more “realistic” path, please take a look at the data first.  Great opportunities await.

For more information, see our Dean Chris Boone’s blog post ( as well as the data on the School of Sustainability’s website, noted above.

Social-Ecological-Technical Systems

In the next month, I will kick off a new required course designed for ASU’s School of Sustainability’s incoming graduate students.  The course is called “Social-Ecological-Technical Systems”.   This literature based seminar course will guide students in developing an integrated approach/framework for thinking about complex adaptive systems in a sustainability context. While overviews of content, theories and methods from each of the SETS domains (Social, Ecological and Technical Systems) will be presented, the primary focus will be on how to bring these domains together. The goal is to enable students to explore the SETS interfaces (intersections) from an integrated perspective and to equip students to make those linkages in their research and in subsequent elective courses.

Translated into everyday language, we hope to get students thinking in a more holistic manner across a wider range of knowledge domains.  Most of the sustainability problems confronting humanity are not pure social, political, or economic in nature.  Nor are they environmental problems apart from human contribution and influence.  Likewise, the causes of and solutions to these problems are also not exclusively technical.  Rather, they are a conflagration of these three knowledge domains.  While we cannot expect anyone to be a master of all, we do hope to provide a baseline standard and recognition of how various fields inform our study of phenomena of interest and contribute to our understanding of them.  As such, the course will require reading seminal literature on a wide range of topics – biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, environmental and natural resource economics, industrial ecology, and resilience/robustness and many others.  If you have suggestions for topics that we should be covering or readings that we should do, please let me know.  We have a planned syllabus, but this has great scope and potential as a grand experiment.

A New Application of Problem and Project-Based Learning

At the end of last summer, I wrote about an experimental approach to my 200-level undergraduate class, Systems Thinking, that used problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) techniques in the classroom.  As a lower-division course, I focused on more interactive approaches rather than real-world opportunities and outcomes.  I had student discussion leaders kick off each class by discussing a few key questions from the readings of the day.  I then had a Think-Pair-Share session where students spent a few minutes making notes to themselves in response to a question that I posed them.  They then partnered with a neighbor to discuss this for a few minutes.  Finally, the groups of two or three students then shared their discussion with the rest of the class for an extended group session.  The class ended with rapporteurs summarizing the day’s topics.

In general, this worked very well.  For those interested in trying a similar approach in your own class or training sessions, I would highly recommend it.  I’d also be happy to discuss in more detail.  The key is in crafting appropriate questions for the audience.  I do plan on changing a few aspects of this in the future.  First, the discussion leads often wandered away from the questions and into overviews or summaries of the readings.  This often took too long, led to misunderstandings or went in directions different from those that I had intended.  Second, the Think-Pair-Share sessions only work with some material and should be used with discretion.  Third, the reports from the rapporteurs took up time without adding a great deal.  However, the rapporteurs’ notes were invaluable.  I was able to post these to the course website.  Because they were being graded, they were generally quite thorough.  Also, there were always at least 2 student rapporteurs, so they tended to reinforce each other.  The main benefit was that they allowed the rest of the class to focus on the discussion without worrying about taking detailed notes.  It improved the performance (learning outcomes) of the entire class.

This semester I am teaching a 300-level environmental policy class.  I intend to use a similar format, except that I plan to augment it with a bit more lecture given that most class sessions have some more technical aspects that I want to cover myself.  I also intend to link this with the PPBL work that I’ve used in past versions of this course.  I link student project teams with local NGOs, municipal governments, or State agencies to help provide solutions to real-world challenges.  The students use what they learn in the course to help address problems that others face – the exact type of work that many of the students hope to engage with in their future careers.  They listen to the stakeholders present the issues.  Then working in teams, they present their findings in written reports and in presentations to the stakeholders themselves.  As a result, the students receive direct feedback on their work beyond the grades in a class.  They see the tangible contributions that they can make to society through what they’ve learned in class.

The semester starts next Monday.  We’ll see how it goes.

The Problem with Public Policy Schools?

I want to thank John Hulsey for posting this editorial from the Washington Post (  I would have otherwise missed it.

I had a number of quick thoughts and wish that I had the benefit of discussing with Roger Parks and other colleagues and advisors from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs before jotting down my ideas.

It’s worthwhile to first note that the authors are thinktank leaders and longstanding critics of the academy.  However, they raise a number of points worth considering.  Others have started targeting a number of critical flaws in the article (not fully understanding the enterprise of science, pushing a specific political agenda, etc).  I don’t want to continue dissecting the weaknesses of the article, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points that they have (perhaps unwittingly) raised.  Many of these challenges facing policy schools are the very same challenges that have been leveled at business schools for decades as well, and b-schools, in spite of their high profile, still struggle with their role in the academy around these issues.

First, the field of study is so broad, how does a school focus to the level needed to provide its students the depth of understanding required for future success?  At the same time, how does a school provide the broad perspective required for systems-level thinking and understanding.  Where should a program direct its efforts?  Should it directly them topically (environmental policy, public finance, etc) or around core skills needed by all MPA/MPP graduates?  How do the schools develop a common core curriculum?

Second, how does the faculty balance basic and applied research?  Should the work be predominantly applied and focused on real-world solutions and deliverables?  Should it be focused more on traditional science?  (And yes, I understand that science and application may not be in opposition).  If the focus is on more traditional academia outputs, how do professors balance their research with the solutions-oriented training and needs of their (mostly) professional students?

Third, and related to the previous questions, how do policy schools balance different disciplinary perspectives?  Is the program truly interdisciplinary?  Is it dominated by particular perspectives (hard-core quant, case-driven, environmental science labs,…) or disciplines (economics, political science, policy analysts)?

I noted earlier that public policy schools and business schools share in many of these dilemmas.  The same can be said for environmental studies programs and schools of sustainability.  At ASU’s School of Sustainability, we struggle with these issues a great deal.  We orient our program toward use-inspired  research and providing real-world solutions.  However, it remains a perpetual challenge to balance the world of academia with this approach.  We focus on an interdisciplinary approach oriented around skill development and sustainability competencies defined by the faculty as a whole (see Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.” Sustainability Science 6.2 (2011): 203-218.).  Much of this revolves around a more holistic approach to science and draws on research in complex adaptive systems.  If that sounds further and further from direct application, I need to explain what this means.  But that’s a topic for another day.

More thoughts on Open Access Journals

Recently an article in Science surveyed open access journals and found a number of distressing findings with respect to the peer review process.  An overview is available at:

The original version in Science is at:

As the Science article acknowledges, the same results could be found if we did a survey of traditional journals as well.  However, this was not done.  It would be interesting to see the results if PLOS One or another leading open access journal surveyed the traditional journal field.  Clearly, open access has opened the gates of “for profit” publishing wider, but I know of no serious academic that would either publish in such disreputable journals or seriously consider their work as quality research.  However, the Science article buries the problem with academic publishing beneath the castigating byline on the perils of open access journals.  While the pay for publication practices of some OA journals are clearly problematic, so is the traditional model of publishing, which is clearly broken.  Resting on the free labor of academics, publishing houses are currently reaping substantial profits.  These outfits are often slow (cutting research appearing years after the fact), exclusive (charges of $50+ for a typical article), and Western country-biased.  None of these four issues is mentioned in the original article, and none of these is necessary any more.  They can and are being addressed – mostly through Open Access publications.

Personally, I am closely involved with a few open access journals (and a few traditional journals as well), and they do a great job at ameliorating these problems without the shortcomings noted in the article.  The International Journal of the Commons is double-blind peer-reviewed by 3 reviewers (at minimum), has an editorial board of highly reputable and energetic scholars, and is supported by both the ISI Web of Science and Scopus, the two leading academic journal indexing bodies.  It is also free to download our articles, with most articles attracting hundreds or thousands of downloads.  It makes articles immediately available on our website without the wait for quarterly or semi-annual issues.  In addition, many of our readers, contributing authors, and reviewers are from developing countries with limited access to the traditional published journals.  IJC eliminates the problems of so many traditional publications without sacrificing high quality or reviewing standards.  My experience with Ecology and Society is the same on all counts.

Before jumping to conclusions and throwing all OA journals into the fire, let’s run the same test on traditional journals.  Then we can go back and focus on what’s important – high quality scholarship.  From there, we can look to the other problems that I’ve mentioned – speed, cost, and access.

Open Access International Journal of the Commons now indexed!

Some time ago, I wrote a post ( about how IJC was finally being recognized by Scopus, the primary academic indexing organization in Europe.  I am happy to say that after two more years of sweat equity, the International Journal of the Commons ( is now recognized by ISI, the leading publishing group in the US.

The importance of this stems from being an open access journal.  It seems that Open Access publishing is a real touchstone in academia now with a slew of articles in the Chronicle, on academic blogs, and through the big-time publishing houses.  Many of the charges against open access publishing are ridiculous, but a number of unscrupulous, for-profit open-access journals create an atmosphere where publication seems based solely on ability to pay.  This is decidedly not what open access publishing is about.

IJC publications are paid by the contributing authors after rigorous peer review (with exceptions made for developing country authorship).  This is where ISI recognition helps.  It shows that our journal abides by stringent standards, publishes high quality literature, and contributes to the scientific advancement of society.  At the same time, authors retain their copyrights, articles are accessible anywhere there is an internet connection for free, and our readership can move to practitioner and developing country readers beyond the paywalls of the main publishing companies.  ISI examined our 7 years of publication, the quality of our authors, the citation rates for the articles, and the consistency of publication.

Congratulations to my co-editor and friend, Frank van Laerhoven, to Erling Berge for his editorial prowess over the past several years,  to our outstanding editorial board, to the institutional support of IASC, and, most importantly, to our diligent and dedicated reviewers.  Without all of your help, this achievement would not be possible.  Thank you!

Worldviews and the Edge of Science

I happened to glance at an Economics forum where advocates from two different sides of a policy debate continued to launch “scientific” salvos at the opponents.  The debate was about the Fed and real versus nominal interest rates effects on the market, but nevermind.  It could have been International Relations scholars debating Realist vs. Liberal policies, policy wonks from the Cato Institute arguing against policy wonks from the ACLU, and so on ad nauseum.  In my mind, this specific debate sparked a couple intertwined thoughts.

The first goes back to my academic mentor, Elinor Ostrom.  I always found it interesting, humorous, and bizarre to see various groups take her work and twist it to support their (policy) agendas.  Whether it was some of her public choice work being seized upon by right-wingers, her small-scale, development work in developing countries by left-wing idealogues, or some other mix, it amazed me to see her work cited and utilized across the political spectrum.  Each group seemed to think that she was in their camp.  This seems quite unusual with many scientists, particularly social scientists, identifying and identified with certain ideological groups.  Think about the role of several other Nobel Laureates – Milton Friedman on the one hand (right hand, as it were), Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz on the other (left) hand.  This lead me back to a long-running discussion with a colleague of mine as to whether these scientists would/could ever come to the same conclusions scientifically.  My colleague insists that “science is science” and the data will provide the answer.  I take the position that this may hold for a small treatment conducted in isolation, but my gut tells me that the science generally supports the scientists’ worldview more generally.

Clearly this varies across the disciplinary spectrum, but it seems likely that once we leave the natural sciences this problem becomes pervasive – compare astrophysics (perhaps less of a problem?) with sociology or political science, for instance.  To further complicate matters, scientists are increasingly taking normative positions up front.  The Society for Conservation Biology, for instance, has a mission to “advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity”.  Many climate scientists have similar belief systems regarding earth system science.  ASU’s School of Sustainability mission is likewise normative calling to “develop practical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainability.”  Similarly, the Planetary Boundaries literature takes scientific research and seeks to “mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20 [emphasis added]”.

With these, and countless other examples, how do we reconcile our science and our worldviews?

The Stresses of Academia?

Recently, CNBC put out a report on the ‘least stressful jobs’ (found here  Number one on the list – University Professor.  Since then, my Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded with comments about this absurdity.  Several referenced the following blog entry:

This follow-up piece hits on a lot of the key refutations of the CNBC study.  CNBC clearly misunderstands what university faculty do for a living – that research is a huge part of it, that the demands on our time can be overwhelming, and that the work doesn’t stop with the end of the semester.  These points, and many of those raised in the responses from my colleagues, resonate with me.  However, there are a number of points that deserve to be revisited.  Some of this has to do with the number of academics that haven’t spent much time outside of academia.  With that, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the debate that have gone undocumented – one in the CNBC study and one from the rebuttals.

Other aspects of academia that the CNBC study doesn’t grasp include the two biggest stresses in the profession – finding a job and securing tenure.  It’s well documented that there is an overabundance of academics.  Is it because it’s less stressful?   Perhaps, but I’ll get back to this in a moment.  With more doctoral candidates than traditional university professorships, we often end up competing for positions with (literally) hundreds of other candidates for a single spot.  Clearly, there is competition for jobs in many fields, but few have such barriers for relatively low paying entry-level positions.  Similarly, academics are forced to go to the openings.  Fat chance for those desiring to live in specific locations, and for those in a two academic household – good luck with those job searches.  Additionally, the year to year fluctuation on the number of openings in a given research area can vary enormously.  Because of this, we see huge numbers of qualified candidates stuck in adjunct positions, post-docs, or working as barristas.  This is the starving actor model of career development, with a dozen years of university work on top.  Universities continue to take advantage of this through an increasing reliance on low-paying part-timers with no benefits.  But that’s a subject for another column.  Once we find a position, the tenure clock starts ticking.  This is an up or out mentality, similar to that in consultancies, law partnerships, and investment banks.  It’s hard-core, cutthroat, and, yes, stressful.  The issues with tenure are ripe for their own column.

At the same time, the academic response to this perceived insult fails to understand a few things about stress and the job itself.  Once we obtain a tenure-track position, the CNBC study isn’t that far off.  Yes, the time requirements are excessive, and the expectations are high.  And there is a U-shaped curve for education and pay (more education can lead to declining salaries).  But let’s look at the job in more detail.  First, we have more flexibility than the vast majority of jobs.  Going in at 10 or leaving at 4.  Working at home or taking time off for holiday breaks or summers traveling.  Yes, I know that most are working a tremendous amount through these time periods, as well as late into the night and early in the morning.  But guess what…so are most other professions.  We have the ability to work around our personal schedules a lot more than most.  We can travel and work remotely, have the summers to pursue our own independent research, can secure grants to pay for it, are expected to travel for conferences, workshops, and meetings.

Next, let’s talk about “stress”.  Much academic stress is self-imposed.  Reading yet another paper or writing yet another article.  Likewise, the deadlines are often self-imposed.  Part of our challenge is that, as academics, our minds never shut off.  Face it, many in the profession have their own closet neuroses driving them to succeed.  Try to find an academic without a bit of OCD sometime.  But this is self-imposed and personal, aside from the job.

The work is what drives us into the field.  Most of us love what we research.  We read this stuff for fun.  If we work too long, toward crazy self-imposed deadlines, we’re doing it, in part, for the love of what we do.  Let’s contrast this with “stressful” jobs.  I’ve worked driving a lumber truck, on an assembly line in a foundry, as a mechanical engineer, and as a business consultant.  These all had their own stresses.  Businesspeople face the stress of million dollar deals, ticked off clients, and cutthroat competition.  Manual labor faces the day-to-day stress of working their tails off to squeak out a living.  Medical workers clearly have life or death situations by the minute.  And let’s not even discuss dangerous jobs – soldiers, fishers, foresters, and so on.  That’s stress.  Those revisions that I’d hoped to submit this week…not so much.