Sustainability Science Graduate Students as Boundary Spanners

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Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences


Graduate training in sustainability science (SS) focuses on interdisciplinary research, stakeholder-researcher partnerships, and creating solutions from knowledge. But becoming a sustainability scientist also requires specialized training that addresses the complex boundaries implicit in sustainability science approaches to solving social-ecological system challenges. Using boundary spanning as a framework, we use a case study of the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) at the University of Maine to explicate key elements for graduate education training in SS. We used a mixed-methods approach, including a quantitative survey and autoethnographic reflection, to analyze our experiences as SSI doctoral students. Through this research, we identified four essential SS boundaries that build on core sustainability competencies which need to be addressed in SS graduate programs, including: disciplines within academia, students and their advisors, researchers and stakeholders, and place-based and generalizable research. We identified key elements of training necessary to help students understand and navigate these boundaries using core competencies. We then offer six best practice recommendations to provide a basis for a SS education framework. Our reflections are intended for academic leaders in SS who are training new scientists to solve complex sustainability challenges. Our experiences as a cohort of doctoral students with diverse academic and professional backgrounds provide a unique opportunity to reflect not only on the challenges of SS but also on the specific needs of students and programs striving to provide solutions.


This research was entirely funded by the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative (National Science Foundation Grant No. EPS-0904155). We thank Thomas Parr for his encouragement to conduct this study. We thank our SSI colleagues Mark Anderson, Susan Gardner, and Linda Silka for thoughtful reviews of the earlier versions of this manuscript. It was also greatly improved through comments by several anonymous reviewers. Finally, we are grateful for the mentoring and support of our faculty advisors and the SSI leadership, especially David Hart.