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Melissa Ward Jones: Grad School Frustrations Become Career Strengths

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

When unplanned graduate school courses become career strengths and tips for increasing your interdisciplinary literacy

I did all three of my university degrees in the same department at the same institution: the Department of Geography at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. I remembered being told that this could potentially work against me for future job prospects as researchers are generally expected to complete degrees at different institutions. However, I had a great working relationship with my master’s supervisor and wanted to continue working in the Canadian high Arctic; so, when he was willing to also advise me for my Ph.D., I jumped at the opportunity.

My department housed both physical and human geography programs. One of the problems with doing all my degrees at the same place was that I had completed most of the physical geography classes between my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and I still had course requirements to fulfill to finish my master’s and Ph.D. This meant I had to branch out and take classes in topics outside my thesis area of permafrost geomorphology, including a northern development class focused on food security and subsistence practices as well as human adaptions to climate change. I remember being frustrated at my class options, because I simply wanted to take permafrost-focused classes, and the department didn’t have any available to me at the time beyond completing an independent reading class. I was able to achieve my desire to learn about all things permafrost by taking the Permafrost and Periglacial Environments course at the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS), Norway, an intensive class where I travelled to and lived in Longyearbyen for 6 weeks during my Ph.D. I didn’t realize it at the time but being exposed to the multiple disciplines represented in my geography department, as well as the human geography classes I ended up taking, has been helpful to my career.

Academia is divided into disciplinary silos. This is slowly starting to change as topics, such as sustainability and climate change, require interdisciplinary approaches and perspectives to adequately address research questions. A great example of utilizing interdisciplinary approaches in developing projects is the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) Initiative, which requires proposals to take a convergent approach and develop research questions relating to social systems, the natural and built environments.

I am now the Principal Investigator for an NSF NNA-funded project called Permafrost Grown. We are working with farmers in Alaska to understand permafrost and agriculture system interactions in the context of changing built, social, and natural environments. Being trained in a geography department with classes available in both the physical and human sciences, even the ones I was initially reluctant to take, has given me the skills and background knowledge to lead this project and successfully collaborate with researchers from other disciplines. Looking back, I am grateful for how my initial graduate school class conundrum has worked out for my career.

How to increase your interdisciplinary literacy?

If you are a student, take courses outside of your program focus. If you are a physical scientist, take a social science class and vice versa. If you are faculty and have the opportunity, consider auditing a class. Other strategies include attending presentations and simply exposing yourself to research in other disciplines. Online and hybrid-format conferences are increasing and providing opportunities to attend presentations without travel and provide opportunities to interact with researchers outside your discipline.

Joining and getting involved in organizations such as the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) Collaborations, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) and the Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN) provides opportunities for additional webinars and to interact with scientists from a range of backgrounds. The NNA-Community Office organizes the “NNA Broader Impact Network” meetings that are open for anyone to attend and provide a virtual networking opportunity to find potential collaborators. Subscribe to the ARCUS mailing list for event and opportunity announcements and to receive Witness the Arctic and Community Highlights newsletters for articles written by researchers about their work. These newsletters are also a great opportunity to write your own articles to highlight your research and can be used to share with others when networking.


University Center in Svalbard, Permafrost and Periglacial Environments Course:

US National Science Foundation Navigating the New Arctic Program:

Permafrost Grown project:

Project Website:

Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC):

Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS):

Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN):


Melissa Ward Jones is a Research Assistant Professor in the Water and Environmental Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is a permafrost geomorphologist and geographer interested in the causes, consequences, and significance of geomorphic change and applying her knowledge of permafrost to sustainability issues. She completed her B.Sc. (2012), M.Sc. (2016) and Ph.D. (2020) in the Department of Geography at McGill University and was heavily involved in outreach activities, including six years as a co-organizer for the student-led McGill Sustainability Research Symposium. She has conducted fieldwork on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Islands, Canada; Svalbard, Norway; and throughout Alaska, USA.

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