Sustainable Development

Program Category: PhD Programs
Director of Graduate Studies: John Mutter
Contact: Tomara Aldrich, [email protected] 
Degree Programs: Full-Time: MA, MPhil, PhD

Please note: The degree for this program is conferred by GSAS, but program specifics, such as admissions, degree requirements, and financial aid, are administered by other schools of the university.

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 PhD 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. 

The program 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, ensuring that they cultivate both a unique combination of diverse skills and deep insight into the most challenging problems of future human welfare. 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. Students also benefit from being part of the Earth Institute's research and practice programs that focus on 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.

Housed at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the PhD program continues Columbia's recent initiatives in multidisciplinary doctoral education and also reflects SIPA's longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary graduate social-science education for policymakers and analysts.

Special Admissions Requirements

In addition to the requirements listed below, all students must submit one transcript showing courses and grades per school attended, a statement of academic purpose, a personal statement, and three letters of evaluation, at least two of which are from academic sources.

GRE scores are required of all applicants, as we have found them to be useful indicators of academic ability.

All international students whose native language is not English or whose undergraduate degree is from an institution in a country whose official language is not English must submit scores of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or IELTS.

For more information, refer to our Admissions Information and Frequently Asked Questions pages.

*GSAS will accept up to four recommendations, regardless of the number required by your program of interest. However, to be eligible for admission at GSAS, at least TWO letters must be submitted by academic recommenders.


The following are also required:

  1. Transcripts of all previous post-secondary education
  2. A summary sheet listing courses taken in calculus and economics, with grades (as appearing on transcripts)

Serious work in the natural and social sciences at a graduate level requires that students have some experience in mathematics and the natural sciences, as well as the social sciences and economics, before embarking on the PhD program. For this reason (and in order to fulfill prerequisites for the required natural science course sequences) applicants should have outstanding undergraduate records. 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 completed two semesters of college-level calculus and demonstrate competence in multivariate calculus and linear algebra.