Sustainability Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree

The Ph.D. in sustainability fosters innovation and creativity in solving real-world challenges within social, economic, technological, and business realms. In this inherently interdisciplinary program, you’ll become part of a network of academics from across RIT who are working to optimize sustainable systems and practices in engineering, manufacturing, energy, education, and more.


Our approach to sustainability means working in the broader context of environmental assessment, economics, and policy. Each faculty member in the Golisano Institute for Sustainability sponsors a select number of students for specific research projects, with the scope varying from fundamental science to applied engineering to corporate sustainability applications. On acceptance into a sponsored research project, you will receive a fully funded education, a stipend to help with living expenses, your own office space, and the time to develop your technical expertise in sub-areas dependent on your research.

In the sustainability Ph.D. program, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from areas across the entire university to develop your own innovative approach to the field, building off of methodologies such as life cycle assessment, environmental risk and impact assessment, design for the environment, pollution prevention, closed loop supply chain management, and product life assessment. Moreover, you’ll work side-by-side with our world-renowned faculty who are avid researchers in diverse areas including biofuels, transportation, energy policy, resource recovery, smart products and systems, and more.

The Ph.D. degree helps you think innovatively about how sustainability can positively impact systems all over the world through big-picture solutions, from training future business leaders to maximizing natural resources. You don’t need a background in sustainability to join this program; you just need a desire to create positive change in the world. We bring in students of all ages, from all backgrounds—from biotechnology to business—and from all over the world. You’ll also find a wide range of experience—many of the program’s students have more than 10 years of career experience and/or education when they enroll.

The faculty are well-known scholars and active researchers who not only bring their knowledge into the classroom but also directly involve students in their scholarship. This work includes a wealth of hands-on experience in our impressive research facilities, including a 75,000-sq.-ft., LEED Platinum certified research building with over nine labs and six technology testbeds. With this level of experience, you’ll be prepared for diverse academic and industry jobs where you can make an impact on the way the world views and utilizes sustainable practices, from the macro to the micro.

Plan of study

With the Ph.D. degree’s integrative curriculum, you will develop a deep foundation in sustainability science, sustainable systems, risk analysis, and more. You can also choose several electives from across colleges at RIT—from Computational Modeling and Simulation to Principles of Statistical Data Mining—to tailor your degree and create interdisciplinary relationships throughout the university.

Through your sponsored research project, you’ll have the opportunity to make novel and impactful contributions to the development and understanding of sustainable technologies. Recent dissertation examples include:

Active research areas

Sustainable Energy
  • Fuel cells
  • Photovoltaics
  • Energy supply/demand models
  • Energy policy
Circular Economy
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Electronic waste and battery recycling
  • Waste-to-energy processes
  • Food waste management
  • Remanufacturing
Sustainable Urban Systems
  • Smart Cities
  • Transportation systems analysis
  • Food Waste Management
  • Food-Energy-Water Nexus

Community Involvement

Rochester, NY, is a hub for sustainability professionals and home to rich natural resources, such as fertile farmland and the nearby Finger Lakes. Many students share their passion for sustainability with the local community by working in volunteer service on projects like K-12 education, community gardens, farmer’s markets, and more. In addition, you will connect with the larger sustainability world by attending and presenting at professional conferences all over the world.

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Curriculum for Sustainability Ph.D.

Sustainability, Ph.D. degree, typical course sequence

Course Sem. Cr. Hrs.
First Year
Fundamentals of Sustainability Science
This course prepares students to conduct original research related to sustainable production and consumption systems and apply the scientific method in an integrative, team-based approach to graduate research. This course introduces the fundamental concepts of industrial ecology, ecological economics, ecosystem health and social ecology that are essential to understanding the interaction of industrial and ecological systems. Successful students will understand multiple perspectives on sustainability such as strong and weak formulations, the importance of sustainability as an ethical concept and a life-cycle approach to organizing research related to sustainability. It is a core course within the Sustainability Ph.D. program. Lecture 3 (Fall).
Industrial Ecology
Industrial ecology is the study of the interaction between industrial and ecological systems. Students in this course learn to assess the impact and interrelations of production systems on the natural environment by mastering fundamental concepts of ecology as a metaphor for industrial systems and the resultant tools from industrial ecology, including life cycle assessment, material flow analysis, and energy and greenhouse gas accounting. This is a core course within the Sustainability Ph.D. program. Lecture 3 (Fall).
Economics of Sustainable Systems
The goal of this course is to introduce students to economic concepts and analysis pertaining to sustainable systems. This course offers a nontechnical introduction, but based on rigorous economic reasoning. Additionally, a thorough treatment of models relevant to each topic is provided. The over-arching goal is for students to gain an appreciation for the logic of economic reasoning while teaching economics as it pertains to sustainable systems. Lecture 3 (Fall).
Risk Analysis
This course examines risk identification, quantification, and management from the standpoint of the three key components of sustainability science (economics, environment, and society). Economic subjects include cost-benefit analysis, value of information, time value of money, basic decision analysis, value functions, monetizing challenges for ecosystem services, and sustainability risk management. Environmental subjects include toxicological perspectives such as fate and transport and dose-response relationships including an overview of EPA's current practice. Policy and societal subjects include utility theory and lotteries, risk perception, ethical issues in risk quantification, and impact statements. Lecture 3 (Fall).
Multicriteria Sustainable Systems
This class will explore how decisions are made when confronted with multiple, often conflicting, criteria or constraints. The focus will be on the following analytical methods: linear and stochastic programming, optimization, and Monte Carlo simulation. Case studies will focus on sustainability multi-criteria problems such as energy planning, sustainable development, resource management, and recycling. Students will apply methods learned to a project involving their dissertation research. Lecture 3 (Spring).
Second Year
Research in fulfillment of Sustainability Ph.D. dissertation or M.S. capstone requirements. Thesis (Fall, Spring, Summer).
   Dissertation Research
Research fulfillment of Sustainability Ph.D. dissertation requirements. Thesis (Fall, Spring, Summer).
Technology, Policy and Sustainability (or approved substitute)
This course introduces students to public policy and its role in building a sustainable society. The course places particular emphasis on the policy process; the relationship among technology, policy, and the environment; and policy mechanisms for addressing market and government failures that threaten sustainability. Lecture 3 (Fall, Spring).
Third Year
Dissertation Research
Research fulfillment of Sustainability Ph.D. dissertation requirements. Thesis (Fall, Spring, Summer).
Fourth Year
Dissertation Research
Research fulfillment of Sustainability Ph.D. dissertation requirements. Thesis (Fall, Spring, Summer).
Total Semester Credit Hours


Admission Requirements

To be considered for admission to the Ph.D. program in sustainability, candidates must fulfill the following requirements:

  • Complete an online graduate application. Refer to Graduate Admission Deadlines and Requirements for information on application deadlines, entry terms, and more.
  • Submit copies of official transcript(s) (in English) of all previously completed undergraduate and graduate course work, including any transfer credit earned.
  • Hold a baccalaureate degree (or US equivalent) from an accredited university or college.
  • Recommended minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 (or equivalent).
  • Submit a current resume or curriculum vitae.
  • Two letters of recommendation are required. Refer to Application Instructions and Requirements for additional information.
  • Not all programs require the submission of scores from entrance exams (GMAT or GRE). Please refer to the Graduate Admission Deadlines and Requirements page for more information.
  • Submit a writing sample, of which you are the sole author, which should be a report or paper from previous academic or professional work that reflects your critical thinking and writing abilities.
  • Submit a personal statement of educational objectives. Refer to Application Instructions and Requirements for additional information.
  • Have completed at least two science courses, one calculus course, and one statistics course.
  • International applicants whose native language is not English must submit official test scores from the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE. Students below the minimum requirement may be considered for conditional admission. Refer to Graduate Admission Deadlines and Requirements for additional information on English requirements. International applicants may be considered for an English test requirement waiver. Refer to Additional Requirements for International Applicants to review waiver eligibility.
  • Contact the department with a few sentences detailing your work and/or research experience, especially as it relates to the area you’re interested in, so we can identify a potential sponsored research project match for you.

Learn more about graduate admissions