Skip main navigation

Career paths of ‘transdisciplinarians’

Watch Tobias Buser discuss with Flurina Schneider and Christian Pohl how transdisciplinary research marked their career paths.
When engaging in transdisciplinary research it is not only about how you approach the research process, but it has also implications on the career paths. So to discuss this I’ve invited Christian Pohl, and Flurina Schneider, both are educators from our course. So to start, Christian, I would like to know from you, what was your first encounter with transdisciplinarity? I think my first encounter was during my studies of environmental sciences. At that time, the German philosopher Jürg Mittelstrass introduced the concept, also to some of our professors at that time. It meant bringing different disciplines together to address environmental problems. And one of our professors presented it to us, and I was very excited about it. That was my first encounter.
And Flurina, when and how was your first encounter with transdisciplinarity? I think it was also at the University when we learned on the term. So I have to say I cannot remember that I knew what it meant really, but what I remember is that I studied three very different topics, geography, biology, and law. And each of them has a very different scientific culture. And I had to learn how to master these different ways of thinking. And for me at the time, it was very obvious that different ways of thinking are needed, so I didn’t really know what transdisciplinarity means. And when then going into your early career phase, what have been your main steps?
Well then, once I concluded University, I first went to the practise. I worked in organic certification. And after I think two years I went back to University for doing a PhD, and this PhD was located in a transdisciplinary project. So we were two PhD, both focusing on the issue of soil protection in agriculture. And my colleague was looking from a natural science perspectives, processes of soil erosion, damage is occurring as a consequence. And I was looking from a social science perspective, more on what are the farmer’s rationales, how do they perceive soil erosion, why they apply or not certain soil protection measures. And we also really explicitly reflected on transdisciplinarity. We collaborated with stakeholders and with our supervisor team.
We, for example also wrote an article on what it means to collaborate together and with the stakeholders. And how was it with you, Christian, in your early career phase? Now when I hear Flurina, I think, I also did a PhD together with an engineer, I was in environmental science, he was an engineer. So that was a bit of transdisciplinary collaboration, in the sense of bringing a very application-driven and a research-driven discipline together. But it was not in my mind they were transdisciplinary. At that time I think in the Swiss research community transdisciplinarity became an issue in the Swiss Priority Programme Environment.
But then only when I was invited to do a postdoc, Collegium Helveticum with Dr Helga Nowotny, it came back to my mind that I would be very interested in studying researchers who do transdisciplinary research. And that’s when I could do a four year postdoc studying projects, how they bring disciplinary knowledge together, how to integrate and those things.
So both worked in their PhD to some extent, or already quite fully, in transdisciplinary ways. I guess there have been more steps towards the position you have now, but I would like now to hear about where are you now and what are your tasks in your actual position? So please, Flurina. So today I serve as a cluster head of the Centre for Development and Environment of the University of Bern. A cluster is a group of around 20, 25 people, all focusing on questions of land, land use, land management, land governance. We do research but also implementation. So it’s actually a very transdisciplinary group.
And what I do, on the one hand I manage this group, but I’m also involved in transdisciplinary research projects still. I’m involved in teaching. For example, I developed a training course on how to do transdisciplinarity. And more recently, I started to collaborate with funding agencies, because I realised that it’s really key to not just look at the project level itself, but more at the science policy level, and to think together with the people there how can the conditions of transdisciplinary research be increased and improved. And Christian, where are you now? Can I go one step back, before. That’s fine.
What I’ve found in my research and my postdoc is that the researchers don’t have really a clear plan how they do transdisciplinary research, and they don’t have concepts and methods. So I thought, oh, it could be cool to develop such methods and tools. And luckily, I had the chance to do this when we created the Transdisciplinarity Net at the Swiss Academies. Together with Gertrude Hirsh Hadorn and Theres Paulsen, we really had the chance to build a network of inter- and transdisciplinarians to develop a handbook, principles for designing it. So I think that was a huge chance at the time that we could do that. And now I’m like Flurina, at the University, at the Transdisciplinarity Lab of ETH Zürich.
And together with my colleagues– we have three co-directors, with Michael Stauffacher and Pius Krütli– we develop teaching classes, bachelor, master, and PhD classes, where we teach students how to run transdisciplinary projects, how to collaborate among disciplines and their stakeholders. We also do transdisciplinary projects in different fields, urban development is one of the fields, another one is development studies. And I also do a lot of studies on inter- and transdisciplinary research, where I try to further develop the theory and the tools. This was a very rich and insightful discussion, this view into both of your careers.
It’s also very impressive to see what steps you have taken and where you are now at this positions where you can do what you really like to do. I hope this is also encouraging for you to pursue a transdisciplinary career. So thank you very much, Flurina, for the discussion. Thank you very much, Christian. And thank you for listening.
The career paths of transdisciplinary researchers are diverse and often unpredictable.

In this video, Flurina Schneider and Christian Pohl let us know about their first encounter with transdisciplinarity, their early career stages, and their current positions.

Educator: Tobias Buser

This article is from the free online

Partnering for Change: Link Research to Societal Challenges

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now