Practical advice – University of Copenhagen

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Practical advice on studying sustainability

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Incorporating sustainability matter

If sustainability issues are not yet familiar to your discipline, it is quite possible that your teacher or supervisor won't at first find that your chosen subject matter fits the bill. However, by doing your homework you may still succeed. Dismissing sustainability subjects is often a matter of habits - if not used to dealing with sustainability, people will often reject the subject. We are all very used to thinking, that someone else will take care of this.

If you are able to justify the integration of sustainability, e.g. by arguing that the methods and theories of your discipline can be used to shed new light on the subject, whist you still learn what you were supposed to, you will be in a far better position.
Have a look at your study programme to see what competences you're expected to develop with a given course. Keeping this in mind, write five lines on why you find it relevant to involve the chosen sustainability subject, and what effect this will have for your final product. This way you'll be better off when discussing with your teacher or supervisor.

Imagination, a bit of research, and reflections on new possibilities for your discipline - this might be how to get sustainability issues to fit with your assignments and studies. This is only problematic because not many have gone before. This also means that it is ambitious: the outcome of your work may be novel connections and insights - which will inspire others to follow.

Theory and methods - what you need to consider

When involving new theories and methods in your work, it is important that you are able to use them with the theories of your own discipline. Incommensurabilities means trouble. Pay attention to the fundamental assumptions underlying the theories and methods you intend to use. Sometimes, even if there is not a total overlap, theories can complement eachother. Be sure be very explicit on how and why the different approaches can be combined in your papers. If you happen to be taking classes in the philosophy of science, these can be used to investigate and resolve these types of questions.

Use your supervisor. And be sure to put your thoughts on the matter, as well as the counceling you get, in writing. This way you are able to go back and see, what you agreed on and how you reached your own conclusions.

Master thesis

When writing your master thesis at UCPH you obtain a master's degree in a single discipline. This is why your master thesis supervisor must typically (but not always) be a teacher/researcher from your own institute. Make sure to check the study programme rules for the fine print on this as it may vary.

Interdisciplinarity in your thesis

You're obviously tasked with using tools and theories of your own discipline in your master thesis. But whether,and to what extent, you will be able to integrate theories and methods from other disciplines is another matter. This depends solely on your discipline, and in deciding this, you need to use the help of your supervisor extensively. While he or she might not be familiar with the theories you inted to use, your supervisor can still tell you what, and how much of it, is acceptable.

Make sure to have your arguments ready: why using a given theory or method is a good idea and makes sense. You must be able to explain why you want to do it - what is the purpose and why are these new theories necessary? And in which way does the theories and methods in question harmonize with the rest of your theories? Write theese arguments down; if you succeed in explaining this to your supervisor, you have already come a long way in formulating the theoretical considerations of your thesis. You're on your way!

Need I find a supervisor within sustainability?

At many institutes you will learn that few or none of the teachers are specialized, or have even dealt with, topics such as sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, pollution or resource consumption. Nevertheless, they may very well still be able to supervise you!

The important thing is the point of view from which you consider sustainability. Since this point of view is likely to originate in your academic discipline, your supervisor can guide you with regards to theories and methods - the very tools that you need to shed light on your subject. His or her experience with sustainability doesn't necessarily matter.

Sustainability topics for a thesis

Since the choice of topic of your thesis is your own this is an excellent opportunity to integrate sustainability studies. Find out exactly what it is, that makes you curious about sustainability, and use your curiosity as a guide: what is you really want to understand?

Curiosity will get you far, and it will keep your selected topic interesting to you during the somewhat lengthy process of writing a thesis. Also, it is crucial to be able to explain to your supervisor why the topic is important, and how your take on the problem can be rewarding.

Co-supervision

Co-supervision may provide you with necessary insights and clarifications. For example, when working with theories and methods that are alien to your discipline, co-supervision can provide you with assistance that you can't get at your own institute.

Usually, it is possible to get co-supervision when writing your thesis at UCPH. However, getting a counselor from another institute assigned might be quite a challenge, and in some cases it will not be an option. On the other hand, some institutes open up the possibility of assigning an external supervisor, e.g. from another university. Before you decide to make use of a co-supervisor, you should check the existing practice at your institute.

The Sustainability Science Centre works for better conditions for students who want to make use of co-supervision from other institutes. Feel free to contact us regarding specific challenges in this regard.

Will co-supervision be a good idea?

You ought to consider whether co-supervision will actually help you or leave you worse off. It can be confusing to receive advice from different supervisors and the advice may sometimes conflict. In turn, this can make your thesis too complex and leave you in the dark as to how to untangle it.

Receiving supervision from different adacemic branches is relevant as long as your methods balance between the two disciplines or if for parts of your examinations you need very specific, alien guidance. Most often, all you need is references to relevant literature of the alien theories or methods, which you can then explore for yourself. Thus, you need to make clear a) what kind of help you need, b) for what purpose, and c) by whom.

In any case, your main supervisor will always be the one to assess if your work lives up to the requirements of your discipline. In the end, your thesis will be reviewed in light of the criteria of the academic regulations of your own institute.

Informal supervision

Some teachers and researchers are simply better at finding the time to assist students on a pro bono basis than others. Thus, you might be able to get your questions answered from an informal supervisor.

Before you approach a researcher, you must carefully consider what you need help with, and how extensive the favour you're asking is. Write down - in some detail but no more than half a page! - what the idea behind your thesis is, why you are seeking the help of this exact person, and what it entails. If your idea comes through meaningful and important, and the need for this persons expertise is obvious, the chances that he/she will help you get started are much higher.

Always make sure to check out all sources of information before you inconvenience a busy researcher. Use our bibliography. Sending unfocused requests off left and right always shines through, and most busy researchers will ignore these. Correspondingly, if you are well prepared and focused the researcher will be more inclined to help.

A refusal must be respected - consider whether you could seek the help of a different researcher instead.