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The next generation of transdisciplinary sustainability researchers

An innovative new Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarships Programme to equip the next generation of researchers with the ability to integrate methods and perspectives from different academic and practice fields into transformative, transdisciplinary research designs with an integrated approach to human-environment interactions.

Warwick is proud to launch a new Doctoral Scholarships Programme thanks to generous support from The Leverhulme Trust. A total of 18 full-time doctoral scholarships will be available to enable postgraduate research students to work on transdisciplinary projects that address a real-world sustainability challenge. Projects will be defined together with an external practice partner and doctoral scholars will study under the supervision of at least two academics from different disciplines relevant to the challenge.

The global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the failings of traditional approaches to sustainable development and the critical need to “build back better/greener”. As the process of recovery slowly begins, new questions are emerging around whether a return to the status quo of unsustainable social, economic and environmental conditions is desirable, or whether countries should advance towards a more sustainable future.

The United Nations recently proposed that the current crisis could open up a window of opportunity for transformative change towards sustainable development pathways. However, this opportunity can only be seized if we close important knowledge gaps around research and practice related to the sustainability of human-environment interactions. For instance, designing a more sustainable society will require tackling longstanding and ingrained urban challenges while simultaneously addressing the root causes of unsustainable environmental practices and how they are intertwined with existing socio-economic inequalities and inequitable health outcomes.

A number of recent academic and research policy initiatives have emphasised the need for transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability research.

Transdisciplinary research has two main defining characteristics:

  • It should involve a genuine collaboration between two or more academic fields and enable a synthesis that does not only result from articulating closely related disciplines, but crosses the boundaries between research in the humanities/social sciences and the natural sciences/engineering/mathematics.
  • Research should go beyond the academic arena to be challenge-led, embedding the perspectives of non-academic stakeholders with an orientation towards transformative real-world impact.

There are important theoretical and methodological gaps that need to be filled in regard to the complexity of human-environment interactions and their relationship to context-specific issues. For instance, how can we combine knowledge on natural hazards and socio­economic vulnerabilities with the need to do research that effectively supports transformative change in governance? How can we use novel methodologies in data analytics to reveal existing health inequities in different urban settings and simultaneously empower local governments and communities to effect change? Answers to such questions require new theories and methods to bridge existing siloed disciplines and the perspectives of non­-academic practitioners. They also require the ability to design innovative research projects to tackle specific challenges, going beyond traditional divisions between quantitative/qualitative, conceptual/applied methodological traditions.

TRANSFORM will fill these theoretical and methodological gaps by delivering an innovative training programme that equips the next generation of researchers with the ability to integrate methods and perspectives from different academic and practice fields into transformative, transdisciplinary research designs with an integrated approach to human-environment interactions. This will be accomplished by enabling postgraduate research students to work on transdisciplinary projects that address a real-world sustainability challenge defined together with an external practice partner, under the supervision of at least two academics from different disciplines relevant to the challenge.

The programme participants will benefit from and expand the transdisciplinary networks of the Global Sustainable Development community at Warwick. Students will have a supervisory team composed of a mentor from a practice organisation (e.g. UN-Habitat, Médecins Sans Frontières, British Geological Survey, Environment Agency, Met Office, African Population and Health Research Centre, International Livestock Research Institute, Center for International Forestry Research, International Institute for Environment and Development), as well as two academic supervisors from different disciplines across the social sciences/humanities and the sciences, broadly understood to encompass natural sciences, engineering and medicine.

In future, researchers who are skilled in challenge-led, transdisciplinary methods will play an important role in developing innovative solutions to sustainable development challenges that bridge academic and non-academic perspectives. On the programme, students will develop capacity in methodologies that will allow them to combine contextual, place-based understanding of the required sustainability transformations with the development of new transdisciplinary research methods and we expect that the outcome will be more impactful research that will contribute towards transformative change.

  • Six doctoral scholarships available in each year in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Each scholarship covers maintenance costs at the appropriate UKRI domestic rate* and home tuition fees, and research and training expenses for the doctoral student over four years.
  • A four-year PhD programme focused on training students to have competence in a subject area that spans at least two disciplinary perspectives.
  • Our cohorts will be trained in transdisciplinary methods, enabling researchers to draw on skills from multiple disciplines and work effectively and equitably with non-academic partners to deliver impactful sustainable development research.
  • Students will be recruited into a new PhD in Global Sustainable Development hosted in the School for Cross-faculty StudiesLink opens in a new window. This cohort of students will also be embedded within a larger network of PGR students working on sustainability from across Warwick’s departments, other postgraduate programmes, doctoral training centres, and interdisciplinary research centres. Full course details for the PhD in Global Sustainable Development can be accessed here.Link opens in a new window
  • Recognising that students will come from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds, in Year One they will all be required to follow a 20CATS module from the MASc in Global Sustainable Development, with the intention of ensuring that the cohort is equipped with the core skills and knowledge required to undertake PhD research.
  • PhD students will have the opportunity to participate in masterclasses led by international experts, delivered either as intensive block workshops or as a virtual online module. These masterclasses will be open to TRANSFORM PhD students (with priority), and remaining places will be offered to other students. Masterclasses will provide training on human-environment interactions from different methodological and theoretical viewpoints broadening the students research approach. For instance, they can address methods such as: geospatial data analysis; impactful research with a theory of change; and participatory and community-based research. Furthermore, masterclasses will provide an opportunity for acquiring theoretical and conceptual foundations on substantive topics such as sustainable urbanisation, digital development, energy decarbonisation and sustainable industrial development. Speakers will consist of faculty at Warwick and other leading universities along with experts from our network of renowned international partner institutions such as UN-Habitat. In addition to the core module and masterclasses, students will collaborate with supervisors to establish individual personal development plans for the first year of the programme. These tailored training needs plans may require taking other postgraduate modules across Warwick departments and faculties to develop the specific methodological and substantive skills required for their particular projects.

*Awards increase every year, typically with inflation. The current UKRI stipend for 2022 to 2023 is £17,668 per year for your living costs.

In addition to this formal training framework, TRANSFORM will provide the following development components, with the aim of enriching the academic experience of the cohort by offering significant opportunities to engage with peers and experts from a variety of sustainable development fields. This will include:

  • A vibrant and well-supported Early Career Researcher (ECR) Network for Global Sustainable Development
  • Monthly seminars, consisting of internal speakers on related research projects of the Warwick community, as well as external experts at the forefront of sustainable development research and practice.
  • Weekly informal gatherings of faculty and students devoted to the topic of enriching the atmosphere of transdisciplinary sustainable development research at Warwick.
  • An annual research symposium in the format of a small cross-disciplinary symposium on Global Sustainable Development.
  • Access to Warwick's strategic partners in Australia, North America and across Europe. Student resources for participating in, and presenting research at, appropriate external conferences and events.

The initial pool of supervisors for TRANSFORM draws from Warwick's active Global Sustainable Development research community and spans all three faculties at Warwick: Arts, Social Science and Science, Engineering and Medicine. The initial pool of practitioner mentors will come from the organisations that are already collaborating with our academics as transdisciplinary research partners. The programme will be organised in three initial thematic clusters:

Climate resilience and socio-environmental justice

This cluster draws on Warwick's expertise in areas such as complex systems modelling, geographic information and critical research on environmental justice, enabling students to investigate transformations of human-environment interactions towards resilience to climate change and environmental risks.

More information about the theme and supervisors.

Sustainable urbanisation, health and wellbeing

This cluster concentrates on research for transforming urban human-environment interactions, investigating the interlinkages between the built environment, human behaviour and health and wellbeing outcomes.

More information about the theme and supervisors.

Sustainable economies and the food-water-energy nexus

This cluster draws on Warwick's research excellence in sustainable materials, critical data studies, business strategy and food supply systems, in order to enable students to study transformations to the food-water-energy nexus towards sustainable economic and financial relationships.

More information about the theme and supervisors.

Dr Xiaodong Lin, Associate Professor in Global Sustainable Development, is Principal Investigator and Director of TRANSFORM, providing strategic leadership and academic vision. Dr Lin was trained as an interdisciplinary social scientist, across Sociology, Cultural Studies, Human Geography and International Political Economy. His primary research expertise includes cultural landscapes of care, food, wellness, ageing, gender and migration. As Editor in Chief of the oldest sociology journal in the UK – The Sociological ReviewLink opens in a new window, Dr Lin is an advocate for internationalisation of knowledge production and transdisciplinary research in order to address complex issues of global changes and crisis. He is also Director of Graduate Studies (Research) for the School for Cross-faculty StudiesLink opens in a new window and member of the University’s Board of Graduate Studies, representing the Faculty of Arts.

Professor Jon CoaffeeJon Coaffee, Professor of Urban Geography in the Department for Politics and International Studies, is TRANSFORM's Deputy Director (Partnerships). Professor Coaffee's interdisciplinary research focuses upon the interplay of physical and socio-political aspects of urban resilience and he has also published widely, especially on the impact of terrorism and other security concerns on the functioning of urban areas. During this research he has worked closely with a range of public, private and Third sector stakeholders to ensure his research is co-produced and has real world impact. Professor Coaffee is the overall Director of the Midlands Graduate School, Resilient Cities Laboratory (@ResCityLab) and the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities (WISC) where he is also an Exchange Professor at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). Professor Coaffee is also co-lead of the University’s Global Research Priority in Sustainable Cities.

feng mao Dr Feng Mao is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Global Sustainable DevelopmentLink opens in a new window, leading the complex ecosystems and climate change research theme. His key research interests lie in the intersection of water, ecosystems, society, and technologies, focusing on three main themes: (i) water security and resilience, (ii) hydro-ecosystems under change, and (iii) data technologies and sustainability strategies, such as serious games, citizen science, data governance, low-cost sensor networks, and visualisation. Feng is the lead of GamEngage (, an international network of serious game researchers, developers, and practitioners.

Seven doctoral scholarships are available in the 2023 round of applications.

Each scholarship will cover full tuition fees at the home fee level and will also provide an annual stipend for living costs for 4 years at the UKRI rate (for 2022/23 this is £17.668pa and rates will increase slightly in subsequent years of the award). There will be additional funding available for research and training expenses. Students would normally be expected to be enrolled full-time.

For up-to-date information concerning fees, funding and scholarships for Home/EU and Overseas students please visit Warwick's Fees and Funding webpage.

Full application guidance including eligibility can be found on our Guidance page. Please ensure you read this prior to making an application.

The application process is outlined step by step here.

Applications for 2022 entry are now open and will close at 11.59 pm (GMT) on Monday 12 June 2023. Full details of the application process can be found here.

If you would like to make enquiries about the TRANSFORM programme, please write to our Leverhulme-TRANSFORM CDT Administrator Claire Atkins:

TRANSFORM Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars - Our Current PhD Students

We are delighted to have welcomed our first cohort of PhD students as part of the TRANSFORM programme:

Alice Coffey

Research project: Sustainable diets and child health, incorporating policy and how policy impacts health inequalities


Salma Elrouby

Research project: Examining systems of digital analysis of the socio-economic resilience of post-pandemic cities using spatial media


Sophie Kempston

Research project: Measuring the economic, social, and environmental impacts of altering the supply chains of critical raw materials for electric vehicle batteries


Laura Quinteros Nogales

Research project: Political ecology configurations of alternative finance enabling the renewable energy transition process in the Global South