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Doctor of Philosophy in Sustainability

About the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree

The PhD in Sustainability engages scientists and leaders in research to investigate the urgent sustainability challenges of this century.

The flexible, interdisciplinary nature of the program allows students to focus on problems of interest to them, drawing upon relevant knowledge from a variety of disciplines.

Students may be admitted to the PhD program with either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution or the equivalent of a US bachelor’s degree from an international institution officially recognized by that country.

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Learning Outcomes

PhD graduates will have an advanced understanding of the dynamics of coupled socioecological systems and will be able to lead others in research and providing adaptive solutions to specific sustainability challenges. In addition to the common learning outcomes, PhD students will be able to:

  • Understand the concepts and methods of a number of critical disciplines bearing on the sustainability of systems at different spatio-temporal scales.
  • Lead others in applying these concepts and methods to developing sustainable strategies for water, land, air, and urban management at the local and global level.
  • Lead others in the analysis and design of the built environment and institutions’ policies, regulations, and technologies to support sustainable development.

In addition, they will be able to research particular sustainability challenges and develop standard (transferable) skills, including the capacity to:

  • Identify problems
  • Formulate and test hypotheses
  • Use statistical, econometric, and geographical-information-system
    techniques to construct and analyze datasets
  • Build and apply models
graduate students nivi joe lucky

93% Doctoral degree alumni are employed.

Data is from alumni survey respondents. Last updated Nov. 2015.


Requirements and Electives

With a Bachelor’s Degree Hours
Core Courses: 6
Foundational Courses: 15
Solutions Workshops: 6
Research: 12
Dissertation: 12
Electives (400-level or 500-level) Of which, a maximum of 6 hours can be at the 400-level: 33
Total Semester Hours Required 84
With a Master’s Degree Hours
Core Courses: 6
Foundational Courses: 9
Solutions Workshops: 3
Research: 12
Dissertation: 12
Electives (500-level or higher):


Total Semester Hours Required 54

Core Courses

  • SOS 510 – Perspectives on Sustainability (Required for all students)
  • SOS 520 –Research Design (Required for all students)

Foundational Courses

Foundational courses are designed to provide students with content knowledge, prominent theory, and major studies of the main themes of the School.

Some example courses include:

  • SOS 514 – Human Dimensions of Sustainability
  • SOS 518 – Uncertainty and Decision Making
  • SOS 525 – Social, Ecological, and Technical Systems (SETS): Domains and Interfaces
  • SOS 530 – International Development and Sustainability
  • SOS 532 – Sustainable Urban Dynamics
  • SOS 533 – Sustainable Water
  • SOS 534 – Sustainable Energy and Material Use
  • SOS 535 – Sustainable Ecosystems
  • SOS 536 – Food System Sustainability
  • SOS 545 – Organizations, Sustainability, and Public Policy
  • SOS 546 – Life Cycle Assessment for Civil Systems
  • SOS 547 – Urban Infrastructure Anatomy and Social Development
  • SOS 591 – Applied Robustness Analysis in Social-Ecological Systems
  • SOS 591 – Qualitative Methods for Sustainability Problems
  • SOS 598 – Sustainable Energy as a Social Problem

(Current students should refer to SOS Graduate Community page in Blackboard for an approved list of course distinctions.)

Solutions Workshops

Solutions workshops are listed under SOS 594 and are designed to provide students with experience solving real-world problems that involve multiple sustainability challenges. As such, they will be problem-based and not specifically attached to one of the main themes.

Some example workshops include:

  • SOS 594 – Short Form Documentary
  • SOS 594 – Sustainable Development in Action
  • SOS 594 – Sustainable Neighborhoods for Happiness
  • SOS 594 – Urban Sustainability – Best Practices/Case Studies

Research and Dissertation

At least 12 hours of the approved PhD program must be SOS 792 Research and at least 12 hours must be SOS 799 Dissertation. Students may not apply semester hours earned for a PhD previously awarded at ASU or another institution. At least 30 hours (which may include research credit) of the approved PhD program and 12 dissertation hours must be completed after admission to a PhD program at ASU. A maximum of 12 dissertation hours is permitted on the Program of Study. After completion of the dissertation, the student must pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation.

  • SOS 792 – Research
  • SOS 799 – Dissertation

Elective Courses

Electives must be approved by a student’s supervisory committee. A list of additional sustainability-related courses at ASU outside of the School of Sustainability can be found on the Graduate Courses page.

Comprehensive Examination

When students have completed or are close to completing the coursework in an approved program of study, they may request permission to take the comprehensive examinations. PhD comprehensive examinations are administered by the student’s supervisory committee. PhD students achieve candidacy status in a letter from the Dean of the Graduate College after passing the comprehensive examinations and successfully defending the dissertation prospectus.

Optional Concentration in Complex Adaptive Systems

Sustainability doctoral students can choose to pursue the Complex Adaptive Systems Science concentration, which is designed to train the next generation of scientists in advanced concepts and methods needed for approaching diverse phenomena in the social and life sciences. Students’ career opportunities will be enhanced by combining fluency in the common language of complexity with a solid foundation in the domain knowledge of existing academic disciplines. There is a growing need for scientists to be able to work and collaborate in an increasingly interdisciplinary context.

The concentration is integrated with diverse university-wide research and emphasizes the value of a complex adaptive systems perspective when seeking solutions to critical societal issues. Complex adaptive systems science is the study of interactive and dynamic systems that learn and change over time.

Complex system behaviors are often said to be emergent and subject to self-organization, which makes them more difficult to predict. Such examples can include studying the long-term changes in epidemics, land degradation, urban growth, and natural disasters and their resulting impacts. The concentration is open to students who have been accepted to doctoral programs in the School of Sustainability, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and the School of Life Sciences.

Fill out the supplemental application when applying.

The complex adaptive systems concentration is available in the following degree programs:

More Information

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