August 28, 2020

PhD Students Explore Values and Make Lasting Connections through EIF Program

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
PhD Students Explore Values and Make Lasting Connections through EIF Program

By Anna Nordeseth

The complexity of today’s environmental problems requires training that goes beyond a typical graduate education. Confronting environmental issues often requires interdisciplinary teams to work synergistically to approach issues from various points of view.

To foster this blending of perspectives, the year-long Duke Environmental Impacts Fellow (EIF) Program brings together PhD students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Pratt School of Engineering, and the Sanford School of Public Policy for five weekends of discussion, reflection, and workshops. The result is connections across disciplines that inspire and transform.

“I didn’t expect to form such amazing connections with the other EIF fellows,” said Kat Horvath, a third-year environmental engineering PhD candidate. “I truly believe that the relationships we are forming through this program will last our careers and that we will be permanently bonded.”

This pilot program aims to fill a gap in traditional PhD training. Lydia Olander, the Ecosystem Services Program director at the Nicholas Institute and EIF program coordinator, describes it as “an opportunity for students to step away from the day to day, think about what they would like to achieve with their research and careers, and acquire skills and networks to help them achieve their goals and have impact.” The program allows students to explore a variety of potential career paths they might follow, including non-academic or nontraditional academic positions. 

The concept for the EIF program came from Emily Bernhardt, professor in the Department of Biology, and Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and professor at the Nicholas School. Inspired by the Leopold Leadership training they received as early-career faculty, Bernhardt and Doyle sought to create a similar opportunity for Duke PhD students that could help shape their professional trajectories while still in graduate school and give them a head start on meaningful careers. 

For Bernhardt, EIF is about “learning how to keep all of yourself as an academic or professional” to buffer against graduating with little sense of purpose at the end of five or more years. EIF advocates setting aside time for self-reflection and creating space for conversations that span disciplines. 

The EIF program is structured around four pillars of professional training: (1) self-awareness, (2) strategic career planning, (3) communication, and (4) engagement. For each module, fellows and external trainers spend one or two weekends honing in on how they relate to each pillar and developing these strengths to benefit their careers. 

“For me, the most useful component of the program so far has been reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses in working effectively under different group and individual contexts,” said Alice Carter, a third-year PhD student studying urban stream ecology notes. 

Through self-reflection on personal values and practicing effective cross-disciplinary connections, EIF participants develop a clearer view of how their PhDs can be put to work after Duke. 

“The EIF program has helped me gain a better understanding of the opportunities outside of academia that are equally as compelling and interesting,” said Erika Smull, a first-year PhD student studying water supply finance and management. “I think sometimes academia teaches us to believe that anything outside of academia is boring, easy, or unimportant, and that is just not true.”

The EIF program is funded by Duke University's Office of the Provost, Nicholas School of the Environment, Sanford School of Public Policy, Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Science, Divinity School, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.