The sustainability of development presents some of the most important policy challenges concerning the future of our planet, and it requires an interdisciplinary approach involving the social, natural, engineering, and health sciences. The PhD in Sustainable Development includes a set of rigorous core requirements in the social and natural sciences designed to provide a deep understanding of the interaction between natural and social systems, and provides students with the flexibility to pursue in-depth research in a broad variety of critical policy areas. No other doctoral program produces graduates with the unique combination of diverse skills and deep insight into the most challenging problems of future human welfare. Together with experts and faculty at Columbia, you’ll conduct research in a wide variety of areas, including climate change and its social consequences, causes and solutions to extreme poverty, energy systems, agricultural transitions, water resources, and more.

Who It's For

The PhD program in Sustainable Development is for those looking to pursue rigorous scholarship and research at the boundary between social and natural sciences. Students should have an interest in pursuing academic careers in interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate programs with a focus on policy and the environment as well as in the more traditional social science disciplines. This degree is also ideal for students interested in a variety of non-academic career paths, including leadership roles in government ministries throughout the world, creating environmental and sustainable development policy for NGOs, in international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, or in private firms engaged in environmental and development projects.

Career Paths

Students have their choice of academic positions as tenure-track professors or post-doctoral fellows, as well as high-level positions in non-academic fields, such as the private or NGO sector, government, or finance, for example.

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Students in the first two years of the program generally take a total of 60 credits in the areas of sustainable development, economics, qualitative analysis, natural sciences, and social science. This is followed by the planning and execution of research. In the third and fourth years, students may take electives as needed for ongoing research and preparation for the oral exam. The fifth year is highlighted by the dissertation defense.

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Admission Requirements

Admission to the PhD program is processed by the Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS); please refer to their website for basic admission requirements.

The PhD program requires the following:

  • Strong background in social science, including four courses in college-level social science with a minimum of two economics courses
  • Quantitative skills, including at least two courses in college-level calculus through multivariate calculus (Calculus III in the US) and at least one college-level course in linear algebra
  • Three or more college-level courses in natural science or engineering
Tuition & Fees

Full-tuition fellowships with stipends are available for all admitted students who are not already sponsored by their governments, employers, or a foundation.

What is the application deadline?

Applications for the PhD program are due on December 15, 2022..

How long does the PhD take to complete?

The PhD program generally takes five years to complete. Students are heavily encouraged to complete the program within five years, as funding is not guaranteed past the fifth year.

How many applications do you receive and how many students will be admitted?

We generally receive about 130 applications per year and enroll 4-6 students per cohort.

What is the profile of the ideal candidate?

The students we admit have different academic, professional, and national backgrounds. While there is not one single, ideal profile, the essential common qualities are the ability to do extensive quantitative work and the interest in and commitment to sustainable development work.

In recent years, students have had backgrounds in subjects including geography, environmental science, civil engineering, economics, chemistry, and physics. Most of them already hold master's degrees, and most of them have professional experience.

What are the prerequisites for admission? Can I still apply if I haven't taken all of the recommended courses?

Students admitted to the program come with a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. While there are no fixed academic requirements for admission, typically successful applicants have the following:

  1. A strong background in natural sciences or engineering, with usually three or more courses in college-level science
  2. Two economics courses, preferably including microeconomics and econometrics
  3. A strong grounding in mathematics, including at least two courses in college-level calculus through multivariate calculus (Calculus III in the US) and at least one college-level course in linear algebra. 

Candidates who do not have all the prerequisites may be considered at the discretion of the admissions committee.

Do I have to have a research proposal before I apply?

No. Students will have to complete two years of course work, write a master's thesis, and take comprehensive exams before they have to formulate a PhD dissertation proposal. However, you need to have a well-developed idea about what your research interests are.

Can I transfer from a SIPA program (MIA, MPA, MPA-EPM) or from another PhD program at Columbia University to the PhD in Sustainable Development?

No. SIPA and/or Columbia students will have to apply separately just like everyone else. All applications for the PhD in Sustainable Development go to GSAS admissions.

Is it good for my application to include work experience?

We welcome applications from both professionals and students. Relevant prior professional experience does strengthen the application. We expect that the strongest applicants will have outstanding academic and professional qualifications.

What standardized tests am I required to take? Can testing requirements be waived?

At this time, the GRE is required.

Students who are non-native speakers of English must also take the TOEFL or IELTS test. The only exception to this rule is for students who have completed a bachelor's degree at an institution in an English-speaking country. Students who have completed only a master's degree with English as the language of instruction must still submit TOEFL or IELTS scores in support of their application. More information on test scores and other admissions info can be found on the GSAS Admissions' page.

Can I submit letters of reference from my employer instead of from former professors?

Yes. You are free to submit the references that you believe best support your application. Two or more academic references are preferred, and even one reference from a professor who knows your work is helpful, but the committee also recognizes that professionals who have worked for several years may have difficulty obtaining references from their college studies. In such cases, relevant professional references are certainly acceptable. Personal references, e.g., family or friends, are not acceptable.

Are funding or scholarship opportunities avialable?

Yes. All admitted students are guaranteed full funding for five years. This includes the cost of tuition as well as a salary and stipend (fall, spring, and summer). More info on salary and stipends can be found on the GSAS Financial Aid page.

Is health insurance covered for students and their partners/spouses and children?

Yes. Health insurance is covered in full for students and dependents of students in the program.

I am currently enrolled in/have already completed a master's degree program. Can this shorten the time that I would be enrolled in the PhD in Sustainable Development?

Mostly likely, no. This program has a high component of required core courses (see the curriculum description). Credit for previous graduate work done elsewhere, while very rare, may be granted on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of the program directors—after students have already been admitted to the program—and cannot exceed a total of 30 credits.

Do I have to identify an adviser before I apply?

No, students will have to complete two years of course work, write a master's thesis, and take comprehensive exams before they have to identify a dissertation supervisor.

Is there an application fee waiver?
Can the program be done part-time.

No. The program is full-time and on campus?

Program Requirements

Students must complete the following as part of this program.

  • At least 60 overall credits
  • Completion of an MA thesis
  • Completion of a dissertation prospectus and oral examination for the MPhil
  • Six semesters of teaching or research fellowships assignments
  • Defense of dissertation

Given that a large part of the program’s curriculum is dedicated to a unique set of required core courses, credit for previous work is very rarely granted. However, credit for previous graduate work done elsewhere, at a GPA of 3.5 or higher, may be granted on a case-by-case basis and at the discretion of the program directors after a student has been admitted to the program, and cannot exceed a total of 30 credits.

Application Checklist

  • Official Transcripts
  • GRE Test Scores (should you have access issues due to Covid, please contact the Program Coordinator)
  • TOEFL Scores
  • CV
  • List of and grades received for economics, math and other quantitative coursework
  • Statement of Purpose
  • 3-4 Letters of Recommendation
  • Application Fee