Some programmes that promote sustainability have augmented, rather than abandoned, their disciplinary approaches. For example, the University of Washington in Seattle runs a graduate certificate in Environmental Management that complements the research of students doing other graduate degrees. The students form multidisciplinary teams to tackle real-world problems presented by local, federal or tribal governments under a timeline and with specific 'deliverables' such as providing cost estimates for reducing a city's carbon footprint.
Even though disciplinary boundaries are observed, some departmental barriers have been broken down. In 2008, the University of Washington brought together its marine, Earth and atmospheric departments under the umbrella of the College of the Environment to encourage cross-communication, says Lisa Graumlich, dean of the new college. “We now have a much easier way for a graduate student interested in climate change to assemble the coursework, the mentors and the professional opportunities that bring together the dynamics of the Earth system — how the atmosphere interacts with the ocean, and how that has feedbacks with the biosphere,” she says.
Although unconventional, sustainability training has job potential. University of Washington graduates, for example, have been offered employment in local government, national agencies and universities. They might advise on smart-grid electrical technology and energy-use issues, or work in fisheries assessment or on clean-water issues, says Julia Parrish, associate dean for academic affairs and diversity at the College of the Environment. “They can point to a specific product they've done in graduate school,” says Parrish. “It lands them jobs and internships. It's a fabulous way for students to gain that breadth and real-world sustainability and environmental-science experience while still becoming experts in their disciplines.”
Parrish says college directors were careful not to limit their graduates by establishing jack-of-all-trades degrees. “When we talked to employers, whether they're top-tier universities, federal labs or large environmental non-governmental organizations,” she says, “they said 'we want disciplinary experts with cross-cutting skills in communication, problem-solving and leadership'.”
James Thorson, now a population ecologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, did a PhD in aquatic and fisheries studies at the college. Alongside his degree, he also conducted a team-oriented project with a real-world business bent: he worked with the Washington Restaurant Association in Olympia to develop standards and guidelines for restaurant sustainability. Thorson focused on energy-efficient lighting, which pushed him out of his area of expertise and into one with varied stakeholders. He learned about everything from environmental auditing and certification programmes to project management. Later, he used these skills in an outcomes assessment for the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization based in London that establishes standards for sustainable fishing. Making the transition from research to team-based projects is a big jump, he says. “It requires a ton of skills that graduate students don't learn when working individually.”