Coffee, hummus, and sustainability: What is the future of our careers? Supporting interdisciplinary career paths to solve sustainability crises

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Back in Summer 2019 we, a group of eight Earth Institute (EI) postdoctoral fellows, initiated informal biweekly meetings to reflect on different issues related to sustainability. We started identifying common concerns regarding career development and future opportunities for early-career scholars who, like us are interested in interdisciplinarity and partnerships that advance actionable interdisciplinary science. As recent job seekers, we are aware of how difficult it is to secure a permanent job in academia. We have found a higher uncertainty, however, when expectations and metrics for interdisciplinary research careers are not well defined—and even members of search committees for interdisciplinary positions cannot always agree on what qualities a candidate should have. With few forums available for openly discussing and sharing such inquiries and concerns, especially from early-career scholars' point of view, our biweekly meetings quickly became a space for commiserating and strategizing.

For taking action, we started a writing project to compile our questions and ideas. We asked our EI Program Officer to arrange a meeting room in the Earth Institute and to spend part of the budget that EI allocates for social gatherings to buy some items to fuel our creativity—coffee, carrots, and hummus. Over time, we bonded with each other and gained confidence in expressing our ideas in this non-judgmental and open-minded environment. We also defined small but specific tasks such as group surveys to reveal our histories, values, and ideas (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The authors' diverse background includes professional and academic experience in natural science, social science, and humanities. Bachelors to Ph.D. degrees and postdoctoral training took place in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Furthermore, this figure shows that there is an increasing number of publications related to interdisciplinarity (Google Scholar search interdisciplinar*)  beginning in the late 50s. 

 We are not sure if it was the caffeine or the spicy hummus but suddenly, our pool of references, ideas, and text fragments grew. We also started to consider ways of sharing our perspectives inside and outside our academic community. We split into small groups that focused on different aspects, including grant and funding issues, publication requirements, and career development. We planned a retreat to the Cascades in upstate New York, or a boat trip in the Hudson River, hoping the fresh air would inspire us even more.

 Abruptly, the world changed and our plans too. From one day to the next, our beloved New York City became the site of the tragedy, as Covid-19 ravaged the city. Simultaneously, the increasingly frequent wildfires around the globe, and the social protest ignited by systemic exclusion and racism, illustrated complex interactions that do not fit neatly into a single discipline. Now our concerns were not only about our future careers but also what academia was doing to effectively respond to these challenges. 

 In an unexpected reality, but with a stronger motivation, we ask: do current career paths and structures incentivize and facilitate the collaboration required to address the sustainability challenges we face? The changes to work and daily life necessitated by the pandemic delayed our writing, and we missed bonding as a cohort in-person. Nonetheless, this new dynamic also motivated us to share our new fears and aspirations openly.

 Our meetings and discussions were a unique opportunity to recognize the support we have received in the form of postdoctoral fellowships, seed funding, and mentorship. Simultaneously, we identified an unclear career path for interdisciplinary early-career scientists characterized by an undervaluation of skills required to advance collaborative work and out-of-sync criteria for judging candidates considering the timing, funds, and communication channels necessary for interdisciplinary research. 

 This manuscript serves as a testimony of our shared time as interdisciplinary postdocs. We are thankful to the EI staff and scholars for a unique opportunity in our professional life. For this manuscript, we are especially grateful to the Nature Sustainability Editorial team, the peer-reviewers, and colleagues and friends who took the time to provide their feedback and facilitate our writing process.

 We invite academics and non-academics to think about the specific strategies we propose for moving forward and setting a new agenda.  We are encouraged by initiatives like the recently announced Climate School at Columbia University, however, the time is long past due for expanding institutional support and recognizing interdisciplinary scholars' value. Hummus and carrots are a good appetizer; however, we hope for a full meal, and we envision a long-term adventure that welcomes all relevant knowledge to provide sustainable answers. 

J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera

Postdoctoral Research Scientist, The Earth Institute, Columbia University

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