Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys: Reflecting on the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’

This is the first post in a series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’ which will run for the next six months. 

Have you ever watched a triple-jump athlete? It is incredible to see how the athlete executes this three-part movement. It requires excellent technical competencies, rhythm, and the ability to manage each of the three movements in concert. “Every aspect of the jump must be perfect: the run up, the hop, step and the jump”. And each of the movements requires focused attention to specific skills, training and preparation.


The transdisciplinary triple jump: A three-part movement in which PhD scholars must learn about paying attention to scientific rigour and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care (Graphic by Caydn Barker).

In our reflections on the challenges of applying principles of transdisciplinary (TD) research in our PhDs, we have come to realise that there are three critical aspects which we have had to pay attention to simultaneously. These are: scientific rigour and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. Like the athlete training for the triple jump, the TD PhD student must learn to afford equal attention to these three aspects, and manage them concurrently. The metaphor is not perfect though. We live and work in complex systems, which are characterised by uncertainty, non-linearity, values, emotions, spirituality, power, and context-dependence. We therefore humble ourselves, knowing that what is an appropriate balance between these three aspects will change over time and depend on us as individuals and the context in which we work. In learning how to conduct TD research, we will not execute these three aspects with perfection, and we don’t do them in a straight line as in the triple jump. However, in the context of a PhD, which is a carefully defined slice of complex reality and unfolds as a linear-time process, we find the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’ a useful metaphor to guide reflection and build reflexivity.

We are a small group of scholars at various stages of our PhD journeys. We briefly got to know each other through summer schools, conferences, and workshops in a field of research which we broadly define as ‘sustainability science’. Each of us works at a different institution across the global north and south, we have different research topics, and approach our TD PhD research from different perspectives. We recognise that people may ‘come at’ TD from different vantage points. The value in the unfolding conversation between us lies in celebrating those different viewpoints whilst finding common ground. We share an interest in connecting with others working in this way, and the need to reflect and learn together.

We’ve decided to do this through a blog series which will hopefully also encourage and inspire others, promote critical discussion, and through which we can get to know each other better. We have been surprised by how little discussion there is in the literature about the particular challenges of operationalizing TD in PhD research, and have been inspired by fellow early career researchers who have begun sharing their experiences of conducting research in novel ways to address the complex challenges of TD sustainability science. We therefore wanted to create a focused means of sharing the lessons we’ve learnt in each of our individual TD PhD journeys with the broader community of scholars in sustainability science and related fields.

We are drawn to transdisciplinarity as a means of conducting ‘science with society’1. We understand transdisciplinary research as a reflexive research approach which seeks to address societal problems through, and beyond, interdisciplinary collaboration. This is done through simultaneous collaboration between researchers and societal actors to transcend the boundary between science and society, to enable mutual learning processes and knowledge co-production2,3. We recognise that the label of ‘transdisciplinarity’ is just one of many labels for this kind of research, and appreciate that approaches such as participatory action research and community-based participatory research also seek to conduct science with society. Much can be learnt from and with academics working in these allied fields of research, and from exploring what makes TD research unique.

Responding to calls to ‘be transdisciplinary4’, we have committed to applying and critically reflecting on the principles of TD in our PhD research. However, in current institutional structures and cultures of academia, this adds an additional challenge to the existing demands of PhD research5,6. Not only are we expected to navigate the terrain of interdisciplinarity described as an ‘undisciplinary journey’6 which requires ‘epistemological agility’, but we are also confronted with the task of engaging meaningfully with societal actors beyond our academic comfort zones. All of this means we are constantly trying to ‘be everything to everyone’ and risk burning ourselves out in the process.

There is growing debate and concern in academic circles about the personal costs of an academic career, and as early-career researchers we are particularly aware of the pressure to successfully launch our careers. We would like to build a career in which we conduct academically excellent research which engages society meaningfully, but are not willing to sacrifice our own personal health and happiness in the process. We recognise that creating a work-life balance in academia is a challenge faced particularly by young researchers, by women, and by parents. We hope that our reflections provide a space to think creatively about how we can shift our academic institutions to become places in which we can thrive whilst serving society through our work.  

This is the introductory blog post for the series, which we envisage will run over the next six months. During this time, each of us will share reflections on our individual TD PhD journeys, and describe how we are navigating/balancing/managing the demands of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’. We will also share our thoughts on some of the questions being posed at the forefront of transdisciplinary research practice, including for example:

  • How do we manage the dual challenge of academic and practical relevance and rigour?
  • How do we learn and generalize across multiple TD and place-based research cases?
  • How can place-based TD research support efforts towards global sustainability?
  • What skills and competencies should ‘specialist TD scholars’ develop, and what are the different roles for ‘specialist TD scholars’ in sustainability science research teams?
  • How do we navigate issues of agency, responsibility and ethics in TD research?
  • How do we think about TD research in the global south?

We look forward to sharing our experiences, insights and further questions with you to deliberate the exciting opportunities and challenges we face in conducting transdisciplinary research. Please join the conversation!

You can subscribe to updates on this blog hosted by the ‘Social-Ecological Systems Scholars’ network, or follow the blog series via the FutureEarth Blog. You can also connect with us individually below.

Authors of this post:

Jess pic

Jessica Cockburn

Postdoctoral Scholar in the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa.

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My pic

My Sellberg

PhD Scholar at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.

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David pic

David P. M. Lam

PhD Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research

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Megan pic

Megan Davies

PhD scholar at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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Petra pic

Petra Holden

PhD scholar at the Plant Conservation Unit and the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town.

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Petra’s email address


Key references to the literature:

1Seidl, R., Brand, F. S., Stauffacher, M., Krütli, P., Le, Q. B., Spörri, A., . . . Scholz, R. W. (2013). Science with Society in the Anthropocene. AMBIO, 42(1), 5-12. Online here.

2Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., . . . Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25-43. Online here.

3Jahn, T., Bergmann, M., & Keil, F. (2012). Transdisciplinarity: Between mainstreaming and marginalization. Ecological Economics, 79, 1-10. Online here.

4van Kerkhoff, L. (2014). Developing integrative research for sustainability science through a complexity principles-based approach. Sustainability Science, 9(2), 143-155. Online here.

5Roux, D. J., Nel, J. L., Cundill, G., O’Farrell, P., & Fabricius, C. (2017). Transdisciplinary research for systemic change: who to learn with, what to learn about and how to learn. Sustainability Science, 12(5), 711-726. Online here.

6Haider, L. J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., … & Sinare, H. (2018). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 13(1), 191-204. Online here.


‘Learning for Landscapes’ – reflections and insights from a knowledge co-production workshop in South Africa

This article reflects on a recent workshop held with practitioners working on collaborative landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa.

Banner - connected landscapes research & learning + subtitle

We came from all different corners of South Africa to find common ground: …all the way from the West Coast: fynbos vegetation, commercial potato farmers and precious estuaries… all the way from the Marico Bosveld: thorny country with precious water resources, fiercely proud locals and the ever-present threat of mining… all the way from the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal:  hard-working farmers and agricultural landscapes covered in plantation forestry and dairy … all the way from pastoral grasslands: herders care for cattle which provide livelihoods and socio-cultural identity… and all the way from many other diverse contexts and projects, with a variety of stewardship objectives and practices.

We came from all different walks of life and work: local NGOs working with farming communities, leaders in large national NGOs asking questions about how they do the work they do, academics asking questions about how to do transdisciplinary research with landscape-scale stewardship initiatives, international NGOs piloting innovative facilitation and knowledge co-production processes for collaborative restoration of landscapes.

And we converged on ‘The Knoll’, on a small farm outside the village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), to learn and connect with one another!

It was surprisingly easy to find common ground: It turns out we were all committed to ‘Research and Learning for Connected Landscapes’, and we worked together to ponder these questions:

  1. What are the enablers and barriers of stewardship at the local level?
  2. What are the processes that support collaboration for stewardship in multifunctional landscapes?

Blog piece photo panel 1 - tribe.png

These are the key research questions which I am exploring in my PhD at Rhodes University (Department of Environmental Science). My research is taking a transdisciplinary approach, by working across social and ecological disciplines, and co-producing knowledge in partnership between academics and practitioners. This convergence of ‘the young tribe’ of practitioners working in collaborative, landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa was the result of on-going engagements with these practitioners which culminated in a learning exchange workshop held in February 2017 as part of the knowledge co-production activities in my PhD. The pre-workshop activities included a broad survey across the country to identify suitable case studies for the more focused work. This was followed by a string of site visits to each of the six selected projects where I got to know the diverse social-ecological contexts in which the projects are embedded, and began gathering stories of their work in a ‘Learning Jar’ (see Panel 2). The six projects selected as case studies are:

  1. Baviaanskloof-Kouga-Krom Landscapes Project (Living Lands)
  2. Marico River Catchment Conservation Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
  3. uMzimvubu Catchment Restoration Project of UCPP (uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme)
  4. Verlorenvlei Protected Areas Project (BirdLife South Africa & Wildlife and Environment Society of SA)
  5. WWF Grasslands Programme (WWF-South Africa)
  6. WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF-South Africa)

Blog piece photo panel 2 - stories

The workshop was designed with two primary objectives in mind:

  • Through innovative facilitation methodologies, to create an inspiring opportunity for participants to share lessons for building collaboration for stewardship, and build new networks
  • To collect insights and co-generate knowledge on collaboration and stewardship in landscape initiatives

The approach was based on U-Tools (developed by the Presencing Institute, based on ‘Theory U’ principles) and included activities such as dialogue walks, learning journeys, case clinics, and guided u-journaling. The intention of using these activities was to build a team spirit among participants through deep listening and sharing of personal experiences, and provide opportunity for self-reflection. These tools were complemented by knowledge-production activities such as the development of a ‘Map of Stories’ to set the scene and represent the diversity of contexts of the 6 case studies, and a ‘Map of Learning’ on which to capture and interrogate insights, lessons and findings throughout the workshop (See Panel 3).

Blog piece photo panel 3 - learning

So by now you’re hopefully wondering… what lessons did the tribe share and what now?

First and foremost, we learnt that we were glad to have found the other members of the tribe: Each project leader, in their local context or organisation is pushing the boundaries and innovating, working against a multitude of barriers to bring about change on the ground for improved stewardship. It can be lonely out there: there was a palpable sense of comfort, relief, renewed energy, in finding like-minded people, feeling free to express and share without having to explain too much, and feeling part of ‘a tribe’.

What lessons did we learn about building collaboration?

… that it takes time (at least 10 years), is resource intensive, requires particular skills and tools,

…that it may not always be necessary: localised, tangible stewardship actions and successes with individual farmers may be as important,

… that it can be extremely difficult and require personal sacrifices and that facilitators at the coal face need support systems,

… and that NGOs need to be catalysts and orchestrators of collaboration, but without the community and landscape taking ownership of stewardship, success will not be sustainable.

What lessons did we learn about enabling stewardship and overcoming barriers to stewardship?

… that identifying ways of ensuring tangible benefits of stewardship practices to farmers is important but difficult,

… that making links to market enablers and economic incentives can drive behaviour change and enable stewardship,

… that re-focusing stewardship on stewards, recognising their needs and priorities, and creating an enabling environment for them to become good stewards is an important starting point. This might mean doing things what do not seem directly related to the overall conservation outcomes we are striving for.

… that embedding stewardship facilitators in a landscape, for the long-term, and building meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual understanding is key to bringing about sustainable shifts to collaborative stewardship in multifunctional landscapes.

What did I, as a young scholar, exploring transdisciplinary research methodologies for place-based social-ecological research, learn from the experience?

… that facilitating knowledge co-production processes which emphasise both trust-building and knowledge building is a tricky tight-rope to walk: in this instance, I think we were more successful in building relationships, and did not have sufficient time to dig more deeply into the research questions,

… that the u-tools are a powerful means of bringing people together and creating ‘safe spaces’ for people to share personal experiences and self-reflect,

… that good food and drink, and beautiful outdoor settings are powerful enabling conditions for collaborative learning processes! (as provided at The Knoll!)

What now? The knowledge co-generated during this process will be incorporated into my PhD research, and I am in the process of analysing and writing it up. Furthermore, sparks of connection have been created through this learning exchange, and we hope that the various members of the tribe will keep in contact with one another. We have developed an online platform to share further lessons, resources, and information with the rest of the group in the future.

We all diverged back to our different landscapes, fields of work and research, and homes again after the two days. Keeping connected can be difficult, but this may just be the start of a new community of practice. I believe that the inspiration, energy and new connections that were made during this first gathering of this young tribe may have unexpected outcomes far into the future, and will be a positive force for good in the community of practitioners and researchers working on collaborative landscape stewardship initiatives in South Africa.

How are you building collaboration for stewardship? How are you using innovative methodologies for knowledge co-production? Connect with me on Twitter @jess_cockburn or drop me an email… let’s start a conversation to keep learning for landscapes:

I would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration of my supervisors: Georgina Cundill, Mathieu Rouget,and Sheona Shackleton; fellow workshop facilitators: Catherine Andersson, Dieter Van Den Broeck, and Daan van Diepen, and workshop participants: Vaughan Koopman, David Lindley, Sue Viljoen, Ayanda Cele, Samantha Schroder, Marijn Zwinkels, Ancia Cornelius, Ian Little, JP Le Roux, Joyce Loza, and Nicky McLeod.

Jessica Cockburn is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa. This research is part of the PECS Working Group on Collaborative Governance and Management and was cross-posted from the SAPECS Website – Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society.

Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…