phd sustainable development harvard

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.

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


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

Application Check List

  • 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


Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program harnesses the University’s strengths to promote the design of institutions, policies, and practices that support sustainable development. The Program addresses the challenge of sustainable development by:

  • advancing scientific understanding of human-environment systems;
  • improving linkages between research and policy communities; and
  • building capacity for linking knowledge with action to promote sustainability.

The Program supports major initiatives in policy-relevant research, faculty research, training of students and fellows, teaching, and outreach.

What’s New

  •  Videos showcasing 40 speed talks from Boston-area research at the nexus of food, agriculture, health, environment, and society are now available on the Global Food+ website.  Held in February and March, Global Food+ 2021 was a joint webinar series run by researchers at Boston University, Harvard, MIT, and Tufts.
  • Videos and meeting materials  are now available for  the virtual public workshop, “Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science” which was convened by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine November-December 2020 and co-chaired by SSP’s Bill Clark with Prof. Pamela Matson of Stanford University.  
  • New book Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat by Robert Paarlberg (Research Associate ’21) noted as New & Noteworthy by New York Times (2/21)
  • Clark and Harley on Sustainability science: Toward a synthesis in Annual Review of Environment and Resources (10/20)
  • launch with dynamic Research Guide (9/11)
  • Book release by Blal Aden Esmail and Davide Geneletti (Fellow ’11), Ecosystem Services for Urban Water Security: Concepts and Applications in Sub-Saharan Africa. SpringerBriefs in Geography (Cham: Springer International Publishing) (5/18)
  • Prof. Ray Goldberg discusses  the impact of climate change on agriculture throughout history, using food as medicine, the pros/cons of GMOs, and business model innovations some consumer brands are implementing to improve the profitability and financial resilience of their farmers in developing countries on the podcast Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi: The Father of Agribusiness: 60+ Years of Catalyzing Progress in Global Food Systems (4/23)
  • Molly Leavens (Goldberg Fellow ’17; College ’20) featured in Crimson’s  “Fifteen Most Interesting Seniors” [Profile] (12/12)
  • Seminar hosted on Deliberation Improves Collective Decision-Making: Experimental Evidence from Kenya, Tara Grillos, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Purdue University [Paper] (11/14)
  • Workshop on Transformation of Coupled Social-ecological and Socio-technical Systems: Defining the Contours of an Integrative Research Agenda cosponsored by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG) and SSP in Kastanienbaum, Switzerland. The event was organized by Christian Binz (EAWAG; Ruffolo Fellow ’15), Alicia Harley (Harvard/SSP; Ruffolo Fellow), Helene Ahlborg (Univ. Gothenburg) and Manuel Fischer (EAWAG) (5/6-8)  

Students of the program applied to and were admitted to one of two tracks: Government or Economics. Students became part of those Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments while completing requirements in both departments:

Sustainable Development Report 2021 - Sustainable Development Report

PEG Government Track: Course Requirements

  • Microeconomic theory (Econ 2020a, Econ 2020b)
  • Macroeconomic theory (Econ 2010c)
  • Econometrics (Gov 2001 or a more advanced course)
  • Two courses in Formal Political Theory or two approved courses in Political Economy
  • Two courses in a major field of political science
  • Two courses in a major field of economics 
  • A field seminar course in government
  • Doctoral Research Seminar

PEG Economics Track: Course Requirements

  • Microeconomic theory (Econ 2010a, Econ 2010b)
  • Macroeconomic theory (Econ 2010c, Econ 2010d)
  • Econometrics (Econ 2120, Econ 2140)
  • Four courses in government, including two in the same major field of political science 
  • Two courses in a major field of economics 
  • Doctoral Research Seminar

Oral General Examination: Additional Requirement

Students in both tracks were tested in their mastery of economics and political science. The exam consisted of three parts: 

  • Examination in an approved field of economics 
  • Examination in an approved field of political science
  • Examination in general analytical and research abilities based in part on a research paper prepared by the student


PhD in Political Economy and Government dissertation committees feature faculty from the Department of Economics and the Department of Government, as well as from HKS. This helps ensure the multidisciplinary nature of PEG’s research and advising process.