PhD course at the IFSA 2024

Given the excellent response of participants at previous IFSA PhD courses (held at all IFSA Symposia since 2012), we will also offer the course at the IFSA 2024! The PhD course is entitled "Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) in PhD Research - How to contribute to addressing challenges faced by farming systems".

The PhD course will be held in the framework of the 15th European Farming Systems Symposium.

The Course and the Symposium will take place in northern Italy, hosted by CREA.

We will provide a detailed course information by mid-2023!


Overview and design of the PhD course

Systems thinking and practice in PhD research

Working strategically to negotiate boundaries for research in a meaningful way in the areas of farming, food, rural areas and environment requires particular skills and abilities: It is necessary to be able to make relevant connections and to contextualize research activities without becoming overwhelmed by potential complexity and uncertainty. The context of the increasingly multifaceted complexity of issues of sustainability and climate change in relation to food production and consumption is particularly challenging for PhD research. It is a context that is however a core part of the IFSA community’s experience. The purpose of this course is to help you, the PhD student, develop your skills in contextualizing your research, to make connections among issues using systems thinking and to so improve your ability to work both strategically and purposefully. The course is also designed to help you build on what other researchers have done.

Through joining this course you can expect to:

  • gain an overview of the intellectual traditions of Farming Systems Research,
  • make links to the history of IFSA,
  • strengthen your research through developing understanding of systems theories and methodologies
  • have opportunity to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of different systems approaches and methodologies in relation to your own PhD research
  • get added value from your participation in the Symposium by also becoming part of a parallel critical learning systems community that has a PhD research focus
  • critically review potential contributions of your research to help meet global challenges
  • develop appreciation of multiple perspectives on contemporary issues
  • work across multiple disciplines

The course will be held in connection to the IFSA Symposium and draw on the gathering of specialists and researchers within this field. Its design draws on tried and tested ways of experiential learning. The course will be grounded in a project of your own choice, preferably based on your PhD work. In your time at the Symposium you will participate in an inquiry with three main parts - before, during and after the symposium. It will also involve some preparation and submission of a reflection during the final plenary.

  1. Before the course, you will be asked to complete assignments in which you describe and reflect on (i) your understanding and use of system theories in your project; and (ii) the rationale you have followed, or would follow, in making a choice to include, or not, systems theories in your PhD research
  2. The pre-symposium part of the course will be offered in a workshop format consisting of a mixture of student presentations, lecture inputs and group work. It will take place over two and half days starting 1.5 days before the IFSA Symposium.
  3. The part of the course that runs in parallel to the symposium will provide mentorship and help you plan your attendance at the most relevant workshops for you at the IFSA symposium. It will also provide an opportunity for joint reflection and feedback as the symposium progresses.
  4. The participants prepare a feedback that they will present as part of the final plenary.
  5. We have a final session after the closing of the conference, to draw forth 'lessons learned', including possible improvements of your own PhD study design, or future research trajectory, linking it to systems thinking and practice.


This PhD course will benefit strongly from the fact that many outstanding researchers within farming system approaches will be gathered at the Symposium of the International Farming Systems Association. Contributions specifically to this course will come from experienced researchers who have been a part of the IFSA community for many years. They will include lectures and/or workshops that

  • introduce systems theories;
  • consider different systems approaches and methodologies suitable for researching issues of farming, food, rural areas and environment:
  • bridge the different systems approaches – soft, hard, critical, etc.
  • explore how to deal with handling of complexity and the role that modeling can play
  • critically review focuses on action, learning and reflexivity
  • explicate social systems and learning systems approaches
  • explore the relationship between systems approaches and transdisciplinary research


Course Assessment: to obtain the course certificate over 4 ECTS you will be required to:

  • complete the assignments as outlined above
  • participate in the lectures and group discussion.
  • participate in one of the relevant working groups of the IFSA symposium.
  • after the Symposium, discuss improvements to your own PhD study, or future research trajectory design linking it to systems thinking and practice


Key literature

Darnhofer, Ika, David Gibbon and Benoit Dedieu (Eds.)(2012) The farming systems approach into the 21st century: The new dynamic. Dordrecht: Springer.

Blackmore, Chris (Ed.) (2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. London: Springer.

Ison, Ray (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World. London: Springer.

Ramage, Manus and Karen Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers. London: Springer.

Reynolds, Martin and Sue Holwell (2010). Systems Approaches to Managing Change. London: Springer.


Impressions from the PhD course in April 2022, in Evora (Portugal)

Impressions from the PhD course at the IFSA 2018

The 2016 course: Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) in PhD research: Appreciating and effecting transformations with farming systems research

The course was held around the IFSA 2016 and lasted from Sun. 10 July to Sat. 16 July 2016. It was designed and delivered byDr. Chris Blackmore, Prof. Ray Ison and Prof. Nadarajah Sriskandarajah, with inputs by Dr. David Gibbon and Dr. Giuseppe Feola. It was attended by 27 PhD students.

The aim was for participants to consider how research plays a key role in appreciating how purposeful transformations related to farming, food, rural areas and environment are realized in different parts of the world. It considered the increasingly multifaceted complexity of issues of sustainability, water, food and soil security and climage change in relation to food and fibre production and consumption, in addition to the maintenance or enhancement of ecosystems services and the concomitant enhancement of rural livelihoods.

The course was designed to help PhD students to develop their skills in contextualizing their research, to make connections among issues using systems thinking and thus to improve their ability to work both strategically and purposefully in relation to transformations.

Among other, the students were introduced to systemic inquiry, which is an alternative way to organise programmes and projects, so as to be better able to manage the complexity and uncertainty associated with living in a world where complex and uncertain issues like adapting to climate-change and sustainability are increasingly important.

Description of the course

The 2014 course: Systems thinking and practice in PhD research

The course was organised by N. Sriskandarajah and Ray Ison, with inputs form Richard Bawden, David Gibbon, Egon Noe and Giuseppe Feola

The course was attended by 23 participants from 12 countries.

Programme for the course during the IFSA 2014

Chris Blackmore: Introduction and Critical social learning systems

Egon Noe: How different systems traditions might engage in farming in the future, and bridging systems approaches