11 Challenges and Opportunities for Training Agents of Change in the Anthropocene

Jessica J. Hellmann and Leah R. Gerber

Jessica J. Hellmann is the Director of the Institute on the Environment and the Ecolab Chair in Environmental Leadership at the University of Minnesota
Leah R. Gerber is the Founding Director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and is a Professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University

The scope and nature of sustainability education is evolving. Notably, sustainability education is increasingly spanning disciplines in response to challenges that undermine the well-being of natural systems and human societies including climate change, biological invasions, food and water insecurity, and emerging diseases. In an environment with these increasing global challenges, graduates with advanced degrees have much to offer, provided they have meaningful leadership training. Recent data suggest that half of Ph.D. graduates gain employment outside of the academic sector in private corporations and government and not-for-profit organizations. The half that stay in academia can—and should—engage with diverse stakeholders if they want to affect positive social change. Thus, for graduate students to contribute meaningful solutions to today’s sustainability challenges they are not only required to have research capabilities but also policy-savvy communication skills and cross-sector capabilities in collaboration and engagement. Graduate training that predominantly focuses on disciplinary skills cannot meet the needs of these students or our planet. This chapter addresses the leaders of graduate programs and explores how graduate education—primarily focusing on the Ph.D.—can make a stronger contribution to sustainability outcomes through improved skills development and careful reflection on what sustainability leaders need in diverse work settings.


Our planet is facing a new era—the Anthropocene. In this era, all ecosystems are dominated by humans and all natural systems are affected by human activity. To ensure a future for humanity, economic externalities must be addressed, and healthy ecosystems restored. This requires creative and engaged work conducted by environmental scientists. Fortunately, scholars across the social-natural sciences and the humanities are working together to grapple with pressing planetary challenges. These scholars are calling for even greater disciplinary integration and engagement of researchers in the quest for sustainability (e.g., Clark & Dickson, 2003; Keeler et al., 2017).

This book explores several compelling examples of graduate training programs that are working to transform the academy so that it can be a more effective force for environmental sustainability. These case studies showcase some of academia’s most innovative institutions and individuals who are experimenting with new ways to build the human capital necessary to create a better future. The past decade of graduate training experimentation has revealed the importance of developing leadership and communication skills to create a new kind of Ph.D. graduate. Effective communication and strategy development allows graduates to reach new and diverse audiences and articulate why their work is important. New additions to graduate education also reinforce the call for interdisciplinarity (Brandt et al., 2013; Weiler, 2007). These new programs recognize that many graduate students seek employment outside of the academic sector and help them to be successful in alternate paths.

Despite the apparent efforts and progress made, the case studies in this book are a reminder that institutions of higher learning have more improving, growing, and evolving to do to fully realize their collective potential to steward the world through—and even reverse—the catastrophic consequences of environmental change. Despite new curricular approaches, the preceding chapters point to enduring, unmet needs in graduate training. We recognize that traditional departments, funding streams, and academic reward structures still have the potential to fail to generate graduates who are prepared to work alongside practitioners, able to cross community boundaries to test the social significance and validity of their scholarly work, and able to translate their ideas into practical business or action plans.

In this chapter, the leaders of graduate programs, namely the faculty and administrators who are responsible for teaching and learning in universities and who have within them the capacity to make further change, are addressed. From the perspective of teachers, scholars, and leaders of boundary-spanning organizations, how the products of graduate education—primarily focusing on the Ph.D. in the environmental sciences—can contribute to an evolving workforce in sustainability, the workforce needed to make meaningful change, is explored.

Eight Challenges and Opportunities in Sustainability Graduate Education

In this section, the eight current trends (see Figure 1) that we see in an outcomes-oriented sustainability practice with the potential to produce effective and engaged environmental scholars are described. Through the identification of these eight trends, it is hoped that future evolution and experimentation in graduate education will build upon them in interesting and transformative ways.

1. Sustained Interaction with the Public

Despite the emphasis placed on publishing in traditional graduate education, scientists must go beyond publishing in journals and academic books if they want their research to be relevant to society. Recent research demonstrates that the production of environment-relevant research alone does not lead to social or technological change (e.g., Evans, 2006). Failure to implement recommendations from academia is not only due to lack of awareness (Sturgis & Allum, 2004) but is also complicated by other factors such as trust and ideology (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009; Zia & Todd, 2010).

Figure 1: Eight Challenges and Opportunities in Graduate Education

Academic training rarely prepares future scientists to communicate with the press, the public, policy makers, and other relevant stakeholders. More importantly, it does not train students to engage in sustained, two-way relationships with non-scientists around scientific issues, especially those who disagree with them (Rosenau, 2012; Sherman & Howarth, 2016).

The current era that the world is in, the Anthropocene, is an era where the future depends on knowledgeable people who have innovative ideas about sustainability solutions and graduate programs that train students to communicate science in clear, accessible language. To increase awareness of how science is used in the broader world, students must be empowered to descend from the “ivory tower.” They need training and support to cultivate the skills and relationships necessary to be effective in science engagement. It is no longer enough to merely produce science; rather, students must be trained in conveying science to relevant stakeholders and forging relationships that keep diverse stakeholder communities at the table when scientific information is being discussed in a social-political setting. This requires skills in leadership, communication, and relationship-building. Along with these skills, students should gain an understanding of how the public forms opinions about science and science-policy and how stakeholders reach decisions and take action when presented with scientific information. For example, understanding how to connect decision-makers in business and government with scientific researchers and knowledge remains a critical challenge. While academic publishing should remain an important way to convey scientific information, partly because of its intellectual rigor, communicating with diverse stakeholders must become just as important if recipients of advanced degrees are to become helpful members of a sustainable society.

2. Securing Funding in an Insecure World

Ph.D. graduates working in academia or other grant-driven industries face a dynamic and uncertain funding environment (Blume-Kohout, Kumar, & Sood, 2015; Bromham, Donate, & Hua, 2016). In a tenuous funding landscape, leadership requires prowess in financial management, a set of skills needed for growing and sustaining a research enterprise. With federal support for research and development declining since 2004 (excluding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; National Science Board, 2018), an increasing number of grants are coming from non-traditional sources including mission-oriented agencies, private foundations, and individual philanthropy (Grant, 2017; Murray 2013). These sources often require cultivation, substantial reporting, and outreach. Even federal grants are evolving, with a substantial portion of funding committed to large, multi-investigator grants that require just as much project management as experimental design. Still, scholars’ ability to make progress in environmental and sustainability research—an essential ingredient to building a sustainable future—depends on the best scholars’ abilities to attract financial resources. Thus, success in this area must extend beyond the traditional, federal sources and requires an ability to express purpose and passion to a diverse group of potential funders.

3. Seeking New Points of View

In a rapidly changing biophysical, institutional, and cultural landscape, diversity in scientific and sociodemographic perspectives is essential to navigating pathways toward sustainability. Most of the sustainability science literature still views humans as external agents acting upon the environment, but humans are not a unitary force. They have diverse viewpoints, histories, and capabilities that affect change. Failing to recognize this diversity limits understanding of the causes and potential solutions to environmental problems. Successful sustainability implementers also will understand the legacy of history and power structures and how structural bias affects science and scientists (Puritty et al., 2017). The world needs a diverse workforce that understands that cultural arrogance and supremacy, as well as unchecked consumption by the wealthy, are important drivers of the environmental problems we confront today (Ivanova et al., 2015).

This need for diversity extends to geography as well. Many of the most important sustainability decisions that will affect the future will take place outside of the U.S. and western Europe. For example, in the last several years, some of the most innovative approaches to ecosystem management have occurred in China (e.g., national ecosystem service accounting) and Latin America (e.g., changes to the legal standing of nature; Pacheco, Barry, Cronkleton, & Larson, 2011; Ren et al., 2015). Meanwhile, biodiversity laws in developed countries like the U.S., Canada, and Europe have remained largely stagnant since the protection of endangered species. When learning occurs across international boundaries there is potential to accelerate change in stagnating countries.

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4. New Twists on the Academic and Research Career

One reason students lack support and training in engagement is the persistent idea that the primary goal of graduate education is to reproduce its faculty. While mentors and advisors train students like they were trained, with the goal of preparing them for the academic job market,  students have limited opportunities for success in the broader sustainability landscape. Not all academic jobs are the same. Some graduates head into more research-intensive settings while others head into more teaching-intensive settings. In addition, the academic market is changing. Today, more than 50% of life science graduates gain employment outside of the academic sector (Xu, Gilliam, Peddada, Buchold, & Collins, 2018), pursuing careers in government, non-profit, and the business sector. Graduate programs and mentors need to empower students to consider careers outside of academia, emphasizing the need for scientists in all aspects of professional life and showing that careers outside of academia can be meaningful and fulfilling. Graduate research that works towards practical outcomes offers a promising approach to training future sustainability leaders for a variety of careers. Training that offers students the opportunity to engage with practitioners in solving real problems may also help prepare students for a diverse workforce.

Even Ph.D. graduates that stay in higher education will occupy a variety of positions (University of Toronto, 2017). While there is little to no growth in the number of tenured faculty within U.S. universities, new Ph.D.s continue to be produced at a significantly higher rate than tenured faculty are retiring (National Science Board, 2018). Considering institutional, linguistic, and cultural barriers that constrain traditional tenure-track faculty (Gerber & Raik, in press), just to name a few, many institutions are exploring non-traditional faculty appointments. There is a long history of hiring “applied” faculty as part of extension programs and institutions are increasingly engaging translational scholars or “professors of practice” (Weerts & Sandmann, 2016). Cross-fertilization between academics and practitioners is necessary to address sustainability challenges in a rapidly changing world, and professors of practice do this more effectively than many traditional faculty. However, in many cases, emerging forms of these positions do not have the hard support that disciplinary, teaching-based tenure positions have. The professionals entering these jobs will be creating and molding the workforce from within and require a high level of creativity and resourcefulness—gained during their graduate training—to break the traditional mold.

5. Making it on Wall Street, Main Street, and at the Capitol

Think about the scale of environmental problems confronting the world today and the lack of political and economic action being invested into addressing those problems. The lack of appreciation for environmental issues, as well as the lack of problem-solving abilities and skills needed for evaluating credible information, are a few of the reasons for inaction. Imagine having legislators, small business owners, and corporate executives with Ph.D.s. Imagine scientists not on the edges looking in with their published papers in hand but instead occupying professional roles and titles and using their experiences and talents directly. These professions are realistic possibilities for Ph.D. graduates. In fact, 20% of students entering graduate school are not interested in academic employment and that number grows during Ph.D. studies (Roach & Sauermann, 2017). If students were empowered to consider non-academic employment, the diversity of professions available to advanced degree recipients could expand further than has ever been imagined before.

Consider the elementary fluency in business concepts, including incentives, corporate language, and the decision landscapes, that are required to work in the private sector. The semantic and cultural divide between academic scholars and business leaders hinders progress in fully accounting for biodiversity in the business sector (Gerber, Bakker, Bonini, & McCormick, 2017). In general, the corporate sector does not currently have access to the ecological knowledge or data necessary for decision processes that consider the value of nature or the consequences of their activities on natural systems. Environmental Ph.D. graduates need business training to generate future leaders who consider this value and the consequences of environmental, social, and financial activities.

Why are holders of Ph.D.s relatively rare in legislature and the boardroom? The answer could be two-fold. On one hand, employers outside of technical fields may not recognize the value of advanced degrees. On the other hand, higher education may not be producing advanced degree recipients that are attractive in policy making or less technical industries. While economic forces dictate the uptake of advanced degree recipients, graduate mentors may not sufficiently emphasize these career paths while students are in graduate school. Changing the latter is well within our control. Professional experience obtained through internships or external collaboration can build appreciation and preparedness for alternate careers.

6.  Training the Trainers in Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Those who stay in the academic sector and choose to work on sustainability challenges and outcomes will find themselves interacting with multiple, competing stakeholders in diverse social, political, and economic contexts. Yet, faculty are often not equipped to facilitate cross-sector collaboration and keep stakeholders at the table through contentious scientific deliberation. Many interdisciplinary collaborations fail due to differences in epistemologies, norms, and reward structures (see Ledford, 2015). When collaboration extends outside the academy, there can also be further differences in ideology, strategy, and the priority placed on empirically-based decision-making. In nascent research, trust appears to be a core issue affecting effective collaboration and teamwork (Harris & Lyon, 2013). Since obtaining real-world outcomes necessitates interdisciplinary and translational collaboration, problem analysis and systems thinking skills are urgently needed by the next generation of science practitioners. Science is not the only ideology that matters in discussions of sustainability; the ability to bring together a group of diverse individuals to achieve a common goal is a skill that can and must be taught.

7. Understanding the value of Knowledge Production and Knowledge Outcomes

An understanding of knowledge transfer is needed to bring data into relevant decision-making processes. To make the best use of primary data, there needs to be a pathway through which decision-making informs the design and application of models and guides the design of data discovery tools. Students are often motivated to do research because they think it is important, but their research is not necessarily aligned with what decision-makers need. Differences in social priorities, modeling questions and methods, and background theories represent important contextual variables that influence linkages between knowledge production and knowledge outcomes. For example, what makes people use decision tools in a policy context? What makes sustainability scientists effective at translating their research into changes in decision-making? Encouraging students to engage with decision-makers (e.g., through policy fellowships or internships) provides a mechanism for students to learn how research actually informs policy on the ground.

Furthermore, the way stakeholders view the fairness of decision-making processes is of importance because equitable decisions are known to be more durable (Klinsky et al., 2016; National Research Council, 2005). The inclusion of underrepresented voices and the social viability of action plans also influences how successfully plans are implemented. Understanding the factors that determine knowledge uptake and use is necessary to identify intervention strategies that increase equity in biodiversity decision-making.

8. A need for New Institutional Models

The need to replicate, scale, and build upon case studies described in this book represents a call to action for those within higher education to make the world a better, more sustainable place. There are critics who say that there is not enough time in a graduate education to learn disciplinary skills and capacities argued for above. These critics suggest that, even if academic programs could be transformed to offer new curricula and forge new practical experiences for graduate students, the graduates would still be missing something. We disagree. Instead of pointing out limitations regarding what students can absorb, the authors of this chapter point to present-day limitations regarding what institutions deliver.

Among other possible solutions, we have seen the proven value of investing in “boundary organizations” within academia to provide consistent support to future sustainability leaders and the places that develop the skill sets needed to advance outcome-driven research (Gustafsson & Lidskog, 2018). These boundary organizations do not supplant traditional or disciplinary education but offer innovative and ambitious students a place to engage like-minded colleagues, meet helpful role models, and develop practical skills.

Partnerships with non-academic entities, jointly-funded fellowships, and opportunities for life-long learning within the academy represent promising examples of institutional structures. Many graduate students seek hands-on experiences to better understand how to make conservation knowledge actionable. Cultivating partnerships with “end users” who can co-create solutions and collaborate in research activities produces a promising approach to providing hands-on applied research experience. A number of universities have made substantial investments in these activities (e.g., the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State University) and are committed to furthering institutional growth and evolution around collaboration and co-creation.


This chapter shares insights about the challenges and opportunities that exist in the development of advanced sustainability scientists. We think that these insights are critical to developing an evidence-based and flexible theory of change for sustainability education and we are asking other university administrators and leaders to join us on this journey. The future of our planet requires future leaders to have a variety of skills that are currently lacking in most graduate programs. Let us commit to turning the tide by placing greater emphasis on leadership and communication. Focusing on these concepts can help us address the complexity of systemic problems, determine viable sustainability solutions, and assist in managing and collaborating with—and working for—diverse stakeholder groups. We look forward to the next decade of transformation in graduate education for both sustainability scholars and practitioners. Advanced degrees have an essential role to play in developing the leaders needed for a sustainable future. The question is: Are we doing what is necessary to train these leaders?


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Challenges and Opportunities for Training Agents of Change in the Anthropocene Copyright © 2019 by Jessica J. Hellmann and Leah R. Gerber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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