PhD in Sustainable Development

The PhD in Sustainable in Development at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST) is a four-year full-time research-intensive programme, embedded in both theory and practice, to capacitate students towards leadership in addressing sustainability challenges, with purposeful transformative student development.

The programme seeks to develop powerful African thinkers who can address pressing socio-technical and social-ecological challenges at local to global levels.

Programme overview and audience

In alignment with Stellenbosch University’s mission to provide a transformative student experience, networked and collaborative teaching and learning, purposeful partnerships, and inclusive networks. The programme takes seriously the structural challenges faced by future African academic leaders whilst:

  • Training PhD students to be competitive for industry or for applying to academic jobs locally and internationally.
  • Offering a globally groundbreaking sustainable development programme within an African context.
  • Offering international experience and exposure in the global North and South.
  • Capacitating powerful thinkers and leaders that can navigate global societal challenges in the Anthropocene; powerful leaders from the global South, drawing on their African identities.

We offer a four-year full-time research-intensive programme, embedded in theory and practice, to capacitate students towards leadership in addressing sustainability challenges, with purposeful transformative student development. The programme comprises four key elements:

  • Thesis by publication, supported by trans/interdisciplinary training, deep supervision, and mentorship
  • Coursework as a supportive element
  • Support for professional development
  • Networks at multiple scales

The CST is a vibrant, creative, and energetic community in a mesh of hubs, projects, and generous learning spaces. We grow our reach through interconnectedness of resources and communities. We respect and revere the depth and breadth of knowledge engagement and its production, giving the requisite time and space for thinking, reflection, and debate to build understanding, question and disrupt accepted norms and challenges, focusing on purposeful transformative student development.

Our honouring of diverse people, relationships, and a sense of the interconnectedness and complexity of the world, along with the real joy of collaboration and learning drives our critical, engaged scholarship as a powerhouse of rigorous intellectual thinking and teaching, resulting in being a globally recognised school of thought, and creating influence and meaningful impact that creates the change we want to see in the world as we inspire our students and address challenges beyond academics, for justice, social and ecological transformation.


Trans or inter-disciplinary thesis by publication

  • The core focus of the PhD qualification is the PhD thesis. This thesis will look different for each student, but is expected to include some main features:
  • An action and solution-orientated research focus, linking to the core CST research themes of knowledge co-production, social-ecological resilience, transformative futures thinking, finance and resource flows, political economy and development, in a diversity of contexts including food, water and energy, climate, conservation and the oceans at multiple scales.
  • Research projects embedded in larger trans- and interdisciplinary research programmes with strong trust and relationships. These relationships also provide direct links to industry, policymakers, practitioners, and local communities.
  • A mixed methods approach to research with supervisory guidance on using mixed methods in a rigorous and defensible manner.
  • APhD-by-publication model to drive work that is internationally recognised (by virtue of peer review), provides training in the process of publication, and is in alignment with the CST’s identity as a research centre.

Coursework as a supportive element

The PhD programme incorporates two compulsory (but not credit-bearing) modules, which students are required to complete within their first year. This helps to prepare the student for the PhD thesis and is therefore focused on skills development.

The two required courses are:

  • Conceptual foundations: introduction to core concepts underpinning the CST’s research themes and approaches, e.g., social-ecological systems, socio-technical systems, complex adaptive systems, transdisciplinary, transformation and resilience
  • Methodological approaches in sustainability: a core focus on mixed and multi-method approaches and applying methodological rigour in inter- and transdisciplinary spaces.

Application process and additional resources

Applications for the PhD in Sustainable Development close on 31 October 2024. Apply here.

Contact information

Prof Alta De Vos
PhD programme leader

Dr Julia Van Velden
PhD programme leader

Ms Amanda October
PhD programme administrative officer


Funding for PhDs is dependent on a case-by-case basis with supervisors. Funding options may include project-specific funding, National Research Foundation (NRF) funding, or Stellenbosch University bursaries. Students are encouraged to visit the Postgraduate Funding Support page for more information.

It is possible to undertake a PhD part-time as we recognise many students may choose to work concurrently while completing their PhD. Part-time studies should be negotiated with your supervisor upon your successful admission to the programme.

Finding accommodation in Stellenbosch can be challenging. Students are encouraged to begin their accommodation search early, as limited Stellenbosch University postgraduate housing is available. The CST may provide information on possible accommodation options.

CST welcomes international students to this programme. Please visit the Stellenbosch University International website for more information.

The schedule for the 2025 academic year will be finalised in November 2024. These dates will be communicated on our website. The schedule for the year takes into consideration the structure of modules, which each run over five weeks, with the in-person block contact period taking place in the second week. These five-week modules run back-to-back during the year, which means you will only have to focus on one module at a time, including preparation, in-person learning, and assessments. In addition, block contact periods are evenly spaced out and you will be required to attend in-person every six weeks or so.