Ph.D. in Sustainable Development

Ph.D. in Sustainable Development

The Program of Study

The sustainability of development presents some of the most important policy challenges concerning the future of our planet. None of these central issues can be understood from the sole perspective of a traditional discipline, whether in the social, natural, engineering or health sciences. The purpose of the Ph.D. in Sustainable Development is to create a generation of scholars and professionals equipped to deal with some of the most crucial problems in the world today.

Housed at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the Ph.D. in Sustainable Development combines a traditional graduate education in the social sciences, particularly economics, with study in the natural sciences and engineering, to prepare scholars who are uniquely situated to undertake serious research and policy assessments in furthering the goal of sustainable development.

Many graduates will pursue 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. Others will choose nonacademic positions, taking leadership roles in government ministries in the United States and throughout the world, working on 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.

The Curriculum

The program’s curriculum 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. The course structure is designed to combine flexibility to pursue an individual field of study, with the development of broad-based skills and knowledge. Together with experts and faculty at Columbia, students in the program 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, infectious disease, global demographic change, ecosystems, disasters and conflict.

Ten core courses are required, including three quantitative courses, two social science electives, and a coherent sequence of four natural science courses, for a minimum total of 60 credits.

Core Courses:

  • Human Ecology U9240
  • Politics of Sustainable Development U9250
  • Environmental and Resource Economics U9245
  • Environmental Science for Sustainable Development U6240
  • Macroeconomic Policy
  • Microeconomic Analysis I and II (G611 - G612)
  • Introduction to Econometrics I and II (G6411 - G6412)
  • A third course in Quantitative Analysis

In addition to course work, students participate in integrative seminars throughout the first three years of the program, and fulfill a teaching and research requirement. This entails six semesters of work as a teaching assistant or a research assistant, as assigned by the director of the program. Students must complete the MA thesis which should address a problem in sustainable development using data and methodologies from the four natural science courses completed in the first two years of the program. Finally, students will take an Orals Exam (leading to the MPhil Degree), in addition to presenting and defending a PhD dissertation. The PhD dissertation will be on a social science topic in sustainable development.


The program is co-directed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs and Professor Joseph StiglitzFaculty who participate in the program by advising students, teaching in required courses or serving on committees, etc. are drawn from a wide variety of schools and departments at Columbia University in addition to SIPA. A student’s primary advisor need not be a SIPA faculty member but should be a member of the Columbia faculty.

There are currently four departments closely associated with the Earth Institute that are excellent sources of science course sequences and faculty advising for this PhD program. These are the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B) and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) at the Mailman School of Public Health; and Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering (DEEE) (DEEE) at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS).

The Students

Students in SIPA's Sustainable Development PhD program come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are working on a diverse set of research topics. Current students have backgrounds in geography, environmental science, civil engineering, economics, chemistry and physics. Most students hold master's degrees, and most have professional experience.
In spring 2008, the program graduated its first Ph.D. and by May 2011, it had 12 graduates. In September 2011, it will matriculate its eighth class.

The Community

Currently, the Earth Institute is affiliated with 30 academic programs at Columbia University. It has developed numerous innovative courses training students to understand and address the pressing and complex issues of environmental protection and sustainability. To achieve sustainable development, the Earth Institute is conducting and applying interdisciplinary scientific research to address many cross-cutting issues, while training a new generation of problem solvers to tackle these issues in all areas of society. Finding solutions to one problem involves tackling other related challenges. This is at the core of sustainability management.

The Earth Institute also hosts seminars and events in the field. Expert panel discussions on Bringing Sustainability into Routine Management Decisions and New York City as a Sustainable City are two examples of events designed to complement the curriculum. Students also benefit from being part of the Earth Institute's research and practice programs that focus on sustainable development.

To Apply

Rigorous work in the natural and social sciences at a graduate level requires that students have experience in mathematics and the natural sciences, as well as in the social sciences and economics, before embarking on the PhD program. Generally, requirements include four semesters of college-level social science, including two semesters of economics, and six semesters of college-level math and science. Specifically, all applicants must have successfully completed two semesters of college-level calculus and demonstrate competence in multivariate calculus and linear algebra. Applicants must also have high scores on the GRE with particular emphasis on the quantitative score.

Complete applications must be sent to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) by December 15th, at the latest, for admission for the following fall term. The program does not accept applications for the spring semester.

Information on application procedures including how to apply online can be found here.

Contact Information

Tomara Aldrich
Program Coordinator
PhD in Sustainable Development
Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs
International Affairs Building, Suite 1404-1408


School of International and Public Affairs
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory