Engaging students and staff in sustainable research

This case study records the efforts to build a research community in a small research institute. The transdisciplinary nature of the research, and the commitment of the researchers within the institute to draw on approaches adopted by key leaders in their field, has resulted in a strong community-based model of research education and leadership. (This case study is given from the perspective of a director of a research group)


The Institute for Sustainable Futures is a research centre. The research work is multi-disciplinary. The research program is quite small; we have about twenty-five students. The students work on very diverse projects, partly because of the diversity of the interests of the staff. Of the twenty-five students probably three quarters are full-time, although they move between full-time and part-time to manage their candidatures. The initiatives have developed over the last 10 years.

Senior role

I have a position as a Professor in the Institute, and I’ve always been part of the senior management group because in the early days there were only three of us. We have created a model based around portfolios reporting to the Institute Steering Group. There are five portfolios and one of those is the Director of the Postgraduates portfolio. There has always been someone in the administration team who has had a postgraduate assistant function but, as always, the calibre of that assistance depends a bit on the individual and their level of interest in the role.

Building a research community

The first need of the program was to develop a community. Because the students didn’t have a space, they felt very isolated; they saw only their own projects, and they were topic-focused so they couldn’t see any similarities across any of the other students at the Institute. Creating a community meant that we needed to find something that was shared amongst them: the thing that was shared was ‘what are your cross disciplines?’ This meant bringing more than one perspective into the space they were working on. We needed to find a language to talk about that so we started to explore the concepts of multi-disciplinary research and decided that mostly what we’re doing is transdisciplinary. Because of the nature of our students and because of the nature of the Institute, there are some important distinctions between the different ways of working across disciplines. Also the mission of the Institute is to create sustainable futures, and we take that seriously, so when we’re working on projects we actually do want to make a difference. Therefore the goal is that we shouldn’t be doing repeat work, but should be helping people in the best possible way with how they do their projects. So our students either pick that up because of the kind of space they’re surrounded by or they come with that intent because they’re mature age students and there’s something that’s annoying them or some issue that they see in their space and they’re really motivated to create some change in that place.

The following links contain approaches adopted to engage the students and staff in sustainable research.

Support groups

Working with supervisors

Retreat for postgrad program

Candidature plan process

Monthly meetings of supervisors and students

Student roundtables and Modules

Leadership and future challanges

Commentary on this case study can be found here

A pdf of this case study can be found here.

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