PhD in Sustainable Development

Ph.D. Curriculum


The distinctive and innovative nature of this program requires a core set of courses that provide an interdisciplinary grounding. Each of these courses is taught at the level expected of first- or second-year Ph.D. students in the affiliated departments. The course structure is designed to provide students with PhD-level training in economics and a natural science field, complemented by integrative courses in sustainable development designed specifically for this program and courses in social sciences. The course structure combines flexibility to pursue an individual field of study with broad-based skills and knowledge development. The core curriculum consists of around ten core courses, listed below. Students must also complete two social science electives and a coherent sequence of four natural science courses for a minimum total of 60 credits and should maintain an overall B+ average with no lower than a B- in any of the core classes. In addition to course work, students participate in integrative seminars Sustainable Development Seminar I (SDEV U9200)/Sustainable Development Seminar II (SDEV U9201) throughout the first three years of the program, and complete the MA thesis and take an Orals Exam (leading to the MPhil Degree), in addition to presenting and defending a Ph.D. dissertation.

Due to the unique interdisciplinary content of the program, students entering with a master’s degree earned at Columbia University or elsewhere are still required to complete all MA and MPhil course requirements and examinations.

Advanced Standing for previously held degrees may occasionally be accorded at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) after successfully completing the first year.


Students must select an advisory committee before the end of the fourth semester, ideally earlier, with the help and approval of the DGS and Program Faculty. The committee ideally comprises 2 to 3 members, one of whom is the academic advisor and must be a member of the SIPA faculty. The remaining advisors can be from other Columbia University schools and departments or from other universities. An advisor from a different university cannot be the main academic advisor. The advisory committee should include faculty whose expertise covers both the social and natural sciences.

For the first year or (at most) two academic years, the DGS will have the role of academic advisor. The role of the advisor is to guide and monitor research progress, including reporting to GSAS on the progress of the student, sitting in on Orals and Defense committees, and other associated duties.

Service Requirements

In addition to completing the requirements for the MA and the MPhil, students have to fulfill a teaching and research requirement. This entails six semesters of work as a teaching fellow (TF) or a graduate research fellow (GRF), as assigned by the director of the program. Students typically serve as TFs in SIPA master-level courses as well as a few undergraduate courses. Students who secure external fellowship funding may reduce this requirement with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies. Still, in all cases, every student must TA at least two semesters.

Sixth Year

The Ph.D. in sustainable development is designed and supported as a five-year program. It is recognized that some students may need to extend their studies for all or part of a sixth year. While this can be accommodated administratively, students cannot assume that funds will be available to support the sixth year of study, and they are urged to make efforts to secure fellowship support or obtain funds through their advisors or from outside sources. Sixth-year extensions may be granted as exceptions and must not be assumed.

Contact Us

John Mutter, Professor 
Director of the Ph.D. in Sustainable Development

Tomara Aldrich
Program Coordinator for the Ph.D. in Sustainable Development