Transforming Research Education for Postnormal Times

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Magazine, Canadian Science Policy Magazine, Next Generation
Headshot of a white woman with glasses with the title: Transforming Research Education for Postnormal Times


Susan Porter

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, UBC

Dean and Vice Provost

We live in ‘postnormal’ times, [1] a transitional era when the conventions of science, understanding, institutions, and society that brought civilization to this juncture have proven inadequate, and different ways of being and thinking are in flux. As we careen into an uncertain and surely momentous future for our planet and its people, it may not be overblown to suggest, as Open Philanthropy’s Holden Karnofsky has, that we live in the most important century of all time for humanity. 

Global warming, rising inequality, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all painfully illustrated the extraordinary interconnectedness and complexity of all facets of our existence, to an extent and with a speed of change never before experienced. Along with this complex interdependence are other postnormal characteristics of uncertainty, chaos, and deeply conflicting values. 

We are in an era of epistemological rupturing. Slowly fading are ‘normal’ ways of thinking that include the belief that we can control and manage life through technology and science, that reductive scientific reasoning leads to truth and thence to optimal policies and interventions, that constant economic growth is desirable and inevitable, that science is inherently value-neutral. 

As first described in the 1990s by Sylvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, the science needed for this postnormal age must be grounded in assumptions of uncertainty and incomplete control, and integration of multiple perspectives and ways of knowing. We are seeing this in many areas, with the rise of interdisciplinarity, the incorporation of Indigenous and other ways of knowing in scientific thought and mobilization, and the democratization of the scientific enterprise. 

What if we took seriously these necessary ways of doing science when we shape the education of our future scholars? The scientists of today and our future – whether their ultimate scholarly activities encompass research, analysis, teaching, policy, engagement, management, or any other realm – will need to be fundamentally different from 20th century scientists. Through the work they do, they will need to be humble, empathic, and motivated to integrate diverse perspectives and ways of knowing; they will need to be imaginative and skilled in lateral, abductive, and systems thinking; they will need to be attuned to both the big picture, specific contexts, and the ethical dimensions of all they do; they will need to be resolved and able to elicit change. These are holistic qualities, closely aligning with concepts of wisdom and ‘postformal’ thinking (in reference to Jean Piaget’s ‘formal operational’ thinking which describes reasoning within a formal, structured system). As such, they are nurtured through truly transformative learning most akin to the German concept of ‘bildung’, or ‘formation’, rather than simply ‘skills training’.

Changes to graduate education in recent decades have mostly been the addition of experiences and modules tacked on to ‘normal’ modes of graduate education. While some have the potential to be transformative, they are typically unintegrated with students’ deepest intellectual formation.  I would argue that for students to become the types of scholars needed in the 21st century, they need to do, and be assessed in, at least some aspects of these scholarly practices, and that objective needs to be explicit in the goals of a graduate degree. 

In 2018, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) completed a two-year, national consultation of faculty and students on this question; that is, are broadened forms of doctoral research and dissertations necessary, acceptable, and feasible in the current academy? We found a nervous but excited ‘yes’ to this question, with acknowledgment of potential problems and of barriers to achieving this in a very slow-moving, ‘normal’, academic and larger research ecosystem. The final report of the task force included ten recommendations for students, faculty, and universities to enable such changes, including the need for a parallel legitimization and assessment of broadened forms of faculty research.

At the University of British Columbia, we have been devoted to reimagining doctoral education along these lines for almost a decade.In 2015, we launched a program open to doctoral students across all disciplines (the Public Scholars Initiative) to financially and academically support students in broadening their research and dissertation in ways relevant to their own and society’s needs. Successful applicants engage diverse perspectives and partners towards a tangible societal benefit, generally breaching disciplinary and academic norms in scholarly approaches and products. Over 90 of the 262 students so far have completed their dissertation and graduated. For fields in which these broadened forms of research are increasingly common, the program provided needed resources or enabled students to expand their interactions with partners or mobilize their research. For others, the research and dissertation were a radical departure from the norms of their fields. Among these were social scientists incorporating creative approaches and products in their dissertation (e.g., art, film, creative writing); natural scientists and engineers incorporating pedagogical, qualitative, or engaged research, or knowledge mobilization products; applied scientists incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, policy papers, or participatory action research.

We have learned much from this ‘experiment’. Perhaps most importantly, we confirmed that at least parts of the academy are prepared to embrace these expanded forms of scholarship and communication as integral to the doctoral degree. We were delighted to discover that students often understood their topic more profoundly through applying the findings or using alternative ways of addressing them. Most surprisingly, we heard how deeply meaningful it was for students to have their identities as change agents and their approaches to scholarship legitimized. This has given us confidence for continued reform, including the development of a transdisciplinary collaborative PhD model, expanded notions of supervision, and concurrent credentials on the types of subjects and competencies needed for these postformal research approaches (e.g., design and systems thinking).

Continued institutional and broader national change is needed to make this more accessible. Funding needs to further expand beyond disciplinary and traditional academic boundaries; the changing nature of scholarly work needs to be valued in all assessments; students should be able to expand their research and mobilization efforts beyond the limitations of the supervisors’ funding. The sole ‘master-apprentice’ model of graduate mentorship needs to continue to evolve. There remains a need for discipline-based, fundamental research, but there should also be ways to ensure students in those fields have some exposure to thinking outside those boundaries. There is no time to lose.


  1.  Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures 67:26.