Emerge as an innovative leader in the field of sustainability to address socio-ecological resilience, climate change, water scarcity, food insecurity, environmental policy, economic justice, and more.

At a Glance

For the program beginning summer 2025

Credits

64

Format

Online

Residency Locations

Portugal, Tanzania

Priority Deadline

November 1, 2024, followed by rolling admissions

Final Deadline

January 31, 2025

Duration

4 Years

Critical Global Issue of Study

Climate & Environment

Climate & Environment Icon

Development & Inequality

Development & Inequality Icon

WHY A PhD IN SUSTAINABILITY FROM SIT?

Developed for professionals working to create a more sustainable future, PhD in Sustainability students will investigate the social, ecological, technical, and political dimensions of sustainable transformations, the relationship of science and society in advancing more sustainable futures, and novel and inclusive approaches to community-based problem solving and sustainable development.

This online program is complemented by two 10-day international residencies across four years of part-time study. During the first-year residency, students will immerse themselves in Lisbon, Portugal, a beacon of progress in renewable energy innovation, marine conservation, and sustainability. During the second-year residency, students transition from theory to hands-on exploration through unique case studies in Tanzania’s Zanzibar Archipelago, which is at the forefront of blue economy initiatives.

Students will develop skills in research, organizational leadership, policy development, and communication in order to contribute to climate change mitigation, advocate for social equity, and innovate sustainable business practices for economic prosperity. Graduates of the program will be prepared to lead multi-stakeholder groups as they will be effective communicators in policy circles, academic and organizational contexts, and in popular science. 

SIT’s global faculty bring experience in both teaching and mentorship and applied work in many facets of sustainability, from integrative conservation, climate change, food security, environmental governance, and sustainable business and technology. With SIT’s global network and long history of experiential learning, students will gain a unique global perspective they can apply to their careers.

Career Paths

This program is ideal for professionals enthusiastic about producing evidence-based analysis to investigate the social and ecological dimensions of sustainable transformations, the relationship of science and society in advancing more sustainable futures, and novel and inclusive approaches to community-based problem solving and sustainable development. Career paths may include:

  • Climate and environment analyst

  • Lead sustainability designer or director

  • Energy policy advisor

  • Regenerative systems specialist

  • Green tech innovator

  • Sustainability curriculum designer

  • University faculty

  • Leadership and research roles in academic, government, NGO, and business

Read about SIT Graduate Institute alumni careers through the SIT blog and our Career Impact page.

Residencies

First-Year Residency: Lisbon, Portugal

A beacon of progress in renewable energy innovation, marine conservation, and sustainability, Portugal offers a vibrant environment of breathtaking coastlines and majestic mountainous regions that will serve as your classroom. During this 10-day residency, students will explore and contribute to areas such as marine conservation, renewable energy innovations, and sustainable agriculture practices.

The program base, Lisbon, received the 2020 European Green Capital Award. The city surpassed its 2030 target for carbon emissions reduction in 2016 and aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Second-Year Residency: Zanzibar, Tanzania

Transition from theory to hands-on exploration through case studies in the Zanzibar Archipelago, which is at the forefront of blue economy initiatives. This 10-day residency serves as a cornerstone for grounding the program themes and tools in real-world applications, where your research becomes a powerful catalyst for positive change.

Go beyond the classroom to contribute to solutions for sustainability challenges, particularly related to food production and tourism in the face of climate change. Visit key sites and interact with stakeholders to gain valuable insights into local sustainability practices and challenges. Beyond the local context, this experience extends to a global perspective as participants compare their Zanzibar experiences against similar cases worldwide.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

Academics

Program Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the PhD in Sustainability, students will be able to:

  • Conduct groundbreaking transdisciplinary research that cuts across systems thinking, sustainability studies, and social action.
  • Design effective and successful project solutions that lead to inclusive, tenable results for the flourishing of human livelihoods and ecosystems at different spatiotemporal scales.
  • Contribute to an emerging body of research and action that redefines mainstream environmental thought guided by contemporary, alternative conservation epistemologies.
  • Lead organizations and initiatives in the creation and implementation of sustainable and regenerative systems that satisfy human and ecosystem needs.
  • Design and carry out original, ethical research informed by relevant literature and grounded in appropriate methodologies and approaches.
  • Contribute to scholarship and practice of the field through publishable research findings.

Read more about Program Learning Outcomes.



Coursework

Students complete 64 credit hours of work across four years (12 semesters) of study in small personalized cohorts. Courses focus on theory, research methods, applied practice, professional development, and dissertation preparation. Throughout, you will learn from professors and advisors from across the globe. This PhD draws on SIT’s 60-year history of experiential education and global partnerships to provide students with a unique and powerful learning experience.

Students can request to transfer up to 15 credits of relevant previous graduate coursework during admission, thereby reducing the overall credit requirement from 64 to 49.

With approval, students can pursue an accelerated pathway to complete the degree in 10 semesters. The research and dissertation writing phase of the program may vary, dependent on individual student progress, outside commitments, and type or scope of research.


Please expand the sections below to see detailed course descriptions and admissions information.


This is SIT

  • We value active togetherness, reciprocity, and respect as the essential ingredients for building a sustainable community.
  • With open minds, empathy, and courage, we facilitate intercultural understanding and respect for the commonalities and differences between people.
  • We champion social inclusion & justice in all that we are and all that we do, from ensuring our community and our programs amplify the voices, agency, and dignity of all people to deliberately instilling the principles and practices of inclusion in all of our work.
  • We are committed to human and environmental well-being through sustainability and contributing to a better world for all living and future generations.

Year 1

Summer

  • Elective (3 credits; or 3 approved transfer credits)
  • Perspectives on Sustainability (3 credits)

In this course, students will delve into the foundational bodies of theory that underpin both research and practical applications of sustainability approaches. This course provides the theoretical background for the discussion and analysis of sustainability issues that range from energy and natural resources to biodiversity and global climate change. Core concepts of the course include social-ecological systems thinking, vulnerability, resilience, regenerative development, policy, and communication in the context of sustainability.

Central to the course is the interconnectedness of sustainability issues across different scales and systems. Students will gain insights into how communities, governments, organizations, social movements, private corporations, and individuals can collectively address the looming threats to sustainability. The exploration of sustainability topics spans a wide array of perspectives, fostering adaptability in addressing the complex task of reshaping human society and its relationship with nature and technology. The overarching goal is to guide individuals towards more sustainable patterns in ecological, social, political, and economic relations while preparing them to be effective communicators of hope throughout their graduate degree and beyond.

Fall

  • Elective (3 credits; or 3 approved transfer credits)
  • Social-Ecological-Technical-Political Systems and Integration (3 credits)

This course provides the theoretical background for the use and application of complex systems thinking and decision making for sustainability. The course content draws on diverse fields and spheres, including the social sciences, ecological systems, and technology, with a focus on how these spheres overlap, interact, and how we may further bring them together. Core concepts of the course include social-ecological systems thinking, supply-chain and networks analysis, and ethics and social justice in the context of sustainability. Students will examine interrelationships among natural, societal, economic, technological and political systems on multiple scales, and learn to identify problems and conceptualize solutions using systems thinking.

Spring

  • Elective (3 credits; or 3 approved transfer credits)
  • Integrative Biodiversity Conservation (3 credits)

In this course, students will examine past and current environmental conservation theories, paradigms, approaches, and practices that explore and weigh 1) the challenges and successes of resource conservation on multiple scales, 2) the role of carbon in current and future management of ecological systems, 3) the emergence of environmental governance, and 4) ecological restoration and its potential impacts on human flourishing. Holistic in its approach, the course focuses on the relationships, nuances, and sacrifices involved in balancing human use of natural resources and the maintenance and regeneration of ecological health. The course will also draw on theories and concepts from the pluriverse, environmental psychology, and notions of the inseparable duality of the human-nature mosaic.

Year 2

Summer

  • Case studies in Climate Change and Sustainability (3 credits)

Societies in developing countries depend on ecosystem goods and services for their livelihoods. Climate change impacts have damaged the integrity of ecosystems and placed stresses on residents’ livelihoods, public institutions, and businesses. This Praxis course addresses climate change impacts and sustainable practices in the tropics and, furthermore, shows that sustainability is a key factor of the development process. The idea of sustainability emerged in response to growing concerns about the apparent failure of conventional, state-led “development” initiatives and about the extent and pace of socio-environmental degradation, including in African settings. In general, a practice is sustainable and resilient when it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, while not further undermining the natural resource base and its multi-sectoral linkages.

This 10-day course takes place in the Zanzibar Archipelago, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania in East Africa. The course addresses three specific cases by experiencing examples and putting theory and skills into practice where Africa meets the Indian Ocean. During the stay in Zanzibar, we also visit key sites and meet with stakeholders about sustainability practices and challenges, for instance as linked to food production and tourism in an era of climate change. Experiences and applications in Zanzibar are compared against global cases. This course grounds doctoral program themes and tools with on-the-ground experiences and applications in the Global South.

  • Preliminary Review (0 credits)

At the conclusion of year one of the program, students must pass a preliminary examination. Preliminary exams demonstrate mastery of content covered in core courses and demonstrated progress towards the dissertation research proposal.

Fall

  • Elective (3 credits; or 3 approved transfer credits)
  • Analytical Tools and Methods in Sustainability Studies (3 credits)

Sustainability assessment balances environmental, social, and economic impacts while respecting contextual and long-term risks. This Research Methods course provides a critical and systematic review of qualitative and quantitative, but primarily mixed methods, approaches to sustainability. Previous comprehension of baseline qualitative and quantitative methods is expected of students. The course also introduces and applies diverse analytical tools essential to the assessment of sustainability cases and outcomes. A broad comprehension of disciplines, scales (space and time), data types, metrics, indicators, and the strengths and limitations of specific paradigms and approaches informs the course and its content. Sustainability evaluations can impact policy and decision-making in both natural/physical and social spheres. Enhanced livelihoods and environmental conservation and social development can result from improved scientific and technical applications that assess the synergies and tradeoffs of sustainability outcomes.

Spring

  • Elective (3 credits; or 3 approved transfer credits)
  • Qualitative Research Methods (3 credits)

In this course, students will be introduced to a range of approaches and methods used in qualitative inquiry. Among the approaches covered are process tracing, discourse analysis, ethnographic research, case studies, comparative historical analysis, archival research, interviewing, ethnography, content analysis, ethnographic research, political profiling, and agent-based modeling. Students will deepen their knowledge about these approaches and enhance their data collection skills by conducting surveys, analytical frameworks, designing case studies, and reflecting on each method’s strengths and limitations. Students will also learn how to code data inductively and deductively, develop codes, look for patterns emerging in data, develop overarching themes, and interpret findings.

Year 3

Summer

  • Comprehensive Exam (0 credits)

Upon completion of all coursework, students must pass a comprehensive examination and begin a prospectus (proposal) for their dissertation research. Comprehensive exams confirm students’ mastery of their chosen field of study and serve as the basis for their doctoral dissertation literature review. After passing the comprehensive examination and prospectus defense, students enter candidacy.

  • Research Colloquium (3 credits)

The Research Colloquium gives a platform for doctoral students to present and discuss possible PhD research projects, exchange ideas, receive constructive feedback, and workshop ways to prepare and improve their dissertation research proposals. Across 10 days, students interact in a conference format, presenting their research ideas, the literature and debates attached to those ideas, and the methods they are considering using in their inquiry process. Students are also expected to critically evaluate the work of their peers, providing constructive criticism to help them advance their research agenda, operationalize their research questions(s), and identify and develop plans for overcoming challenges in the data collection and analysis phases of their research. Prior to the in-person colloquium students will work with their advisor as needed to develop their presentations.

Fall

  • Doctoral and Professional Development Seminar 1 (1 credit)

The Doctoral and Professional Development Seminars 1-4 seek to build a community of practice of PhD students as they work to complete their doctoral dissertations.  Students meet bi-weekly with each other and their degree chair to share their dissertation progress, problem solve, and share drafts of their work for feedback. The seminar will also feature occasional guest speakers who will share their own doctoral dissertation journeys and their professional transitions after receiving their PhD.

  • Proposal Defense, IRB approval (3 credits)

The proposal defense is designed to evaluate the feasibility, significance, and originality of each student’s proposed dissertation research project. It serves as a critical checkpoint to ensure that the research project is well-structured, well-developed, and has a high likelihood of success. The defense is conducted in front of the student’s three dissertation committee members: their primary advisor and their first and second reader. It consists of a formal presentation followed by a question-and-answer session. After the questioning, the committee deliberates, then provides feedback to the student regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. The outcome of the defense will be one of the following: 1) Pass: the student may proceed with their research, 2) Conditional Pass: The student is allowed to proceed, but they must address specific issues or complete requested revisions to the proposal before doing so, or 3) Fail: The proposal does not meet the required standards, and the student will be required to revise and redefend it at a later date. *Requires successful completion of comprehensive exams.

Spring

  • Dissertation (5 credits)

At least 20 credits of the PhD program consists of research and dissertation. After completion of the dissertation, the student must pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation. The culminating experience for the doctoral degree program is publication of the dissertation. The non-coursework portion of the program usually lasts two years.

  • Doctoral and Professional Development Seminar 2 (1 credit)

The Doctoral and Professional Development Seminars 1-4 seek to build a community of practice of PhD students as they work to complete their doctoral dissertations.  Students meet bi-weekly with each other and their degree chair to share their dissertation progress, problem solve, and share drafts of their work for feedback. The seminar will also feature occasional guest speakers who will share their own doctoral dissertation journeys and their professional transitions after receiving their PhD.

Year 4

Summer

  • Dissertation (5 credits)

At least 20 credits of the PhD program consists of research and dissertation. After completion of the dissertation, the student must pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation. The culminating experience for the doctoral degree program is publication of the dissertation. The non-coursework portion of the program usually lasts two years.

  • Doctoral and Professional Development Seminar 3 (1 credit)

The Doctoral and Professional Development Seminars 1-4 seek to build a community of practice of PhD students as they work to complete their doctoral dissertations.  Students meet bi-weekly with each other and their degree chair to share their dissertation progress, problem solve, and share drafts of their work for feedback. The seminar will also feature occasional guest speakers who will share their own doctoral dissertation journeys and their professional transitions after receiving their PhD.

Fall

  • Dissertation (5 credits)

At least 20 credits of the PhD program consists of research and dissertation. After completion of the dissertation, the student must pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation. The culminating experience for the doctoral degree program is publication of the dissertation. The non-coursework portion of the program usually lasts two years.

  • Doctoral and Professional Development Seminar 4 (1 credit)

The Doctoral and Professional Development Seminars 1-4 seek to build a community of practice of PhD students as they work to complete their doctoral dissertations.  Students meet bi-weekly with each other and their degree chair to share their dissertation progress, problem solve, and share drafts of their work for feedback. The seminar will also feature occasional guest speakers who will share their own doctoral dissertation journeys and their professional transitions after receiving their PhD.

Spring

  • Dissertation (5 credits)

At least 20 credits of the PhD program consists of research and dissertation. After completion of the dissertation, the student must pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation. The culminating experience for the doctoral degree program is publication of the dissertation. The non-coursework portion of the program usually lasts two years.

  • Dissertation Defense (1 credit)

In this course, students will complete their dissertation, prepare for their oral defense. working closely with their primary and secondary advisors, and deliver and defend their work. Students will be able to present their dissertation remotely.

Electives and Transfer Credits (15 credits)

Students must take 15 credits of elective courses prior to sitting for comprehensive exams. Elective credits can be fulfilled by two means: transferring prior graduate credits earned at SIT or another accredited institution or completing an advisor approved elective offered through one of SIT’s course offerings in the master’s or PhD programs.

Admissions Criteria

Our admissions staff work one-on-one with every applicant to facilitate a highly informed and multidimensional admissions experience: applicants are required to undertake an interview with SIT faculty during the application process.   

As applicants become familiar with the attributes of an SIT education—grounded in the experiential learning model and focused on social justice and leadership skills in intercultural environments—they determine for themselves how SIT can help them meet their educational and career objectives. 

For the PhD in Sustainability, admissions will evaluate candidates to ensure they meet the following criteria:

  • Bachelor’s or master’s degree in any field from a regionally accredited institution
  • Strong academic writing and scholarly potential, as evidenced by a statement of purpose
  • Demonstrated English language proficiency (see details below)
  • Intercultural and professional experience
  • A minimum preferred cumulative grade point average of 3.5 on a scale of 4.0
  • Demonstrated ability to use experience as a source of learning
  • All applicants are required to interview with program faculty

All applicants must submit:

  • graduate admission application and application fee
  • official transcripts
  • statement of purpose
  • three letters of recommendation
  • resume or curriculum vitae
  • proof of English proficiency

Additional Application Information
The statement of purpose should not exceed 600 words and should describe how the applicant’s experience will contribute to success in the program; describe how completion of the degree will support long-term professional goals; and expand on key research questions the applicant aims to address as part of the plan of study. Letters of recommendation must be from three people who can attest to the applicant’s academic and professional achievements. At least one letter should be academic in nature.

Applicants will be able to transfer up to 15 credits of related graduate coursework toward the PhD program. Please contact us for more information.

English Language Ability

Applicants whose first language is not English and who did not graduate from an English-speaking institution must demonstrate English language proficiency.



*This new program is pending accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) in accordance with the Commission's Policy on Substantive Change. The approval process is anticipated to be finalized in fall 2024.

Faculty & Staff

Sustainability – PhD (Online)*

Joseph Lanning, PhD
Chair and Assistant Professor
Alyson Dagang, PhD
Affiliated Faculty
J. Richard Walz, PhD
Associate Professor
Cátia Magro, PhD
Assistant Professor
Nicolas Stahelin, EdD
Assistant Professor
Samuel Alexander, PhD
Associate Professor
Raed Al-Tabini, PhD
Associate Professor
Lowery Parker, PhD
Affiliated Faculty

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