Empowering the Next Generation of Faculty Around Sustainability – Oikos PhD Fellowship Programme and the University of St. Gallen


If faculty engagement is one of the keys to bringing about responsible and sustainable curricular change in business schools, then empowering the next generation of faculty, the PhD students, is perhaps even more crucial. The University of St. Gallen, University of Zurich, and PRME supporting organisation oikos work together to offer the PhD Fellowship Programme, a unique opportunity to support international PhD students writing their thesis on sustainability in economics or management. I recently spoke with current oikos PhD Fellow Lena Hoernlein about this innovative programme.

How and why did the oikos PhD Fellowship Programme start?

The oikos PhD Fellowship Programme was initiated in 2006 at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, to support international PhD students writing their thesis on sustainability in economics or management and to provide them with an opportunity to engage in oikos programmes.

oikos is an international student-driven organisation for sustainability in economics and management. Founded in 1987, oikos empowers future leaders to drive change towards worldwide sustainability. oikos programmes embed environmental and social perspectives in faculties for economics and management and promote the integration of sustainability in curricula. PhD students are being key actors in shaping teaching and research, so the launch of the Fellowship Programme was the next logical step.

How does the programme work?

oikos PhD Fellows receive a 3-year grant to complete PhD courses, conduct research, finalise doctoral thesis and lead specific oikos initiatives. The fellowship covers a monthly stipend of 3’000 CHF as well as a travel and research budget of 3’600 CHF per year. Fellows conduct their research on topics related to sustainability in the fields of management, economics or finance. The Fellow is expected to engage in oikos programs, with 70% of time devoted to studies and research and 30% allocated to oikos initiatives.

What kind of research topics do the PhD Fellows do?

oikos PhD Fellows research a wide range of topics related to sustainability challenges, including social, environmental and economic concerns, framed in a business context. –Research topics that the programme supported in the past included human rights responsibilities of companies from the perspective of business ethics theories, the link between migration and development, the interplay between trade and sustainability, the development of the ethical fashion industry, and growth strategies of entrepreneurial firms in the sustainable lifestyle industry. My own research focuses on the incentives facing investors in natural gas and renewable energies in the transition towards a low carbon energy system.

What role do you think PhD and programs like oikos Fellowships can have on advancing sustainability and business and the SDGs?

The integration of sustainability into economics and management is key to making businesses and economies more sustainable. Sustainable business will remain an oxymoron and the SDGs will be out of reach without changes in the economic models that underpin policymaking and the management theories that drive corporate decisions. PhD students and young scholars are key to address this challenge, insert new thinking into academic debates, and shift teaching towards an approach that integrates sustainability into the core curricula. Supporting those researchers and lecturers that are willing and able to make this happen is crucial. Programmes like the oikos PhD fellowships will help to make a contribution in this direction. But obviously, much more needs to be done.

Do you think PhD programmes need to change in order for that to happen? In what way?

Absolutely. The problem with a lot of PhD programmes is often that research takes place in an ivory tower. We believe that inspiring students and professors to do more research on sustainability related questions and work on solutions can benefit both research and society. We are facing great challenges today – climate change, poverty, the financial and economic crisis, to name just a few – and these challenges actually provide a playground for researchers and an opportunity to directly impact policymaking. PhD programmes should reflect this. Once academia reflects this shift, programmes such as the oikos Fellowship won’t be necessary, but this is still a far off paradigm shift.

What have been some of the challenges? Successes?

Several fellows have already completed their PhD – with some of them being awarded for their research – and now promote sustainability in both academia and practice. Some have remained at universities and are continuing to drive the integration of sustainability in economics and management through their teaching and research. Others have moved into NGOs or built up their own initiatives to support the sustainability momentum.

A key challenge has been to involve mainstream institutes in the programme. Chairs dedicated to sustainability research have been key in building up the sustainability momentum at business schools and faculties for economics. However, it is critical to move into a next phase where long-term economic, social and environmental issues are pursued as an integral part of what happens in mainstream research. In that context, we are delighted that our most recent fellowships are the result of a collaboration with the Department of Banking and Finance at the University of Zurich. This partnership reflects the realisation – linked, inter alia to the lessons of the financial crisis – that finance research is essential in addressing sustainability issues in our economic system. In finance research today, on the one hand, some analysis is now done on the drivers and mechanisms of the financial crisis. On the other hand, this is still a niche field, and other sustainability related questions are mainly ignored altogether. But there are a lot of opportunities for fruitful research: the finance sector does not only have its own problems with regards to sustainability, as an academic discipline it also offers a lot of interesting tools that can be used to analyse sustainability issues in other sectors.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place and what’s next for the PhD Fellowship?

A PhD Fellowship such as this one needs a network of committed individuals. This group might consist of an engaged PhD administrator or academic director at the university, a few professors, and an NGO like oikos that can give input from the outside. Then it needs a lot of perseverance and patience – academic research takes a lot of time!

Our next fellowship class starts on the February 1, 2016. For more information click here.


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