Being a Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability: Erica Russell’s Story

Erica Russell has recently begun the Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability program in CES. Here she reflects on her experience so far:

So what’s it like going back to university?

It’s challenging, interesting, thought provoking, fun, perception changing, and hard work. Having spent 30 years in business I’m now ‘trying out’ something different. Is academia harder? I’m finding that out, but what is clear is that it does need you to be open minded and it makes you realise that being able to review critically is a skill that needs honing. It’s a bit like joining a new company or starting a new project. You spend the first few months trying to get a handle on how it all works, having to get to know new people and then finally begin to figure out just what it is you’re supposed to be doing. And in any spare time there is always more to read.

So why the Centre for Environmental Strategy?

I did a Masters in Sustainable Development here in 2010. It was part time and I enjoyed the balance of academic thinking along with guest speakers from industry. I also liked the great breadth of thinking covered, from the costing of externalities to ethics. This mix of research and practical application mattered to someone that spent the rest of their time overcoming business problems. But most of all I liked the attitude of the academics and staff. They are keen to share their knowledge and saw passing on their experience as a critical part of their work. Coming up with great research results is not enough – it won’t help change behaviour if no one knows about it or what to do with it!! That resonates with me.

So back to school.. yes but first a job interview.

Gosh, that was something I’d not done in a while. I had to present my ideas to not just the University but also Carillion plc who were interested in sponsoring a PhD student to work with them. The Practitioner Doctorate programme, similar to the EngD format, is very much about joining real world business problems with academic knowledge. The area I wanted to research, ‘improving sustainability through the supply chain’, is something Carillion want to develop as part of their ‘Leading the Way’ position in the construction industry. The session went well and here I am.

But before I could start…. 9 intensive weeks of academic learning

This very focused period of full time learning based at the University offered three huge benefits at the start of the PhD. Firstly it meant I was able to get to know my fellow cohort of students. There were four of us in this inaugural year, all working on very different projects. I enjoyed spending time with Paschalena, Patrick and Abeer and we’ll continue to meet even though we are now spread out round the country. It’s really good having people who understand the problems and on whom you can bounce-off ideas. The second really important element was the modules on Life Cycle Thinking and Sustainable Development. Some of this was delivered through personal lectures and part came through filmed material created during the Master’s courses. During all of it Chris France and Jaqi Lee acted as mentors and challengers. It was fascinating to see how far life cycle thinking had developed from the module I had done on LCA in 2007. And finally the post graduate support at Surrey is impressive. We were given advice on the structure of a PhD, how to manage our data, our project planning and even what type of academic style we need to adopt. Having to write in a concise grammatical way which does not include sentences starting with ‘And’ or finishing with………! will continue to be a challenge.

Enjoying a break – Centre for Environmental Strategy Retreat 2015

And being a student…..

Yup, I wore jeans with holes, was a helper at the ISIE conference and wore the ‘Here to Help’ Tee shirt. I have the obligatory awful photo on the library pass/student card, have been to the pub, and lain on the grass sunbathing after lunch. And of course it wasn’t all about making the brain work! The four of us were invited to take part in the annual CES retreat. Academics, students and departmental support staff all spent time volunteering at the Weald and Downland museum and enjoying an open air lecture, sitting in WL West & Sons woodyard. It was unstuffy and fun.

Picture Credit: Ian Christie