PhD in Transition Design

Fundamental change at every level of society is needed to address the issues confronting us in the 21st century. From climate change, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of natural resources, to systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity, Transition Design tackles these kinds of complex, wicked problems.

The PhD in Transition Design is for people committed to making a positive change in the world. Our unique program develops future design leaders with the capacity to envision and realize sustainable change across a range of complex systems—from food, water, materials and products, to transport, healthcare, communications, and education.

Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in "transitional times," takes as its central premise the need for societal transition (systems-level change) to more sustainable futures, and argues that design and designers have a key role to play in these transitions. This kind of design is connected to long horizons of time and compelling visions of sustainable futures and must be based upon new knowledge and skillsets. Research in Transition Design, while grounded in systems thinking, can also be undertaken from the perspective of many areas of interest—circular economies, commoning, decolonialization, socio-technical transitions, public policy, stakeholder participation, and futuring, to name a few. 

Complex problems must be addressed through “ecologies of interventions” that draw on multiple design specialisms, alongside expertise from other disciplines. In this way, Transition Design is a transdisciplinary field that unites researchers from within and beyond Design. This sees service designers, social designers, communication designers and product designers, working alongside ecologists, anthropologists, philosophers, economists, and political scientists. 

Our PhD researchers develop their own research interests within the broad framework of Transition Design. Throughout the program, you will maintain fluid interactions between theory and practice, through critical engagements with texts, images, media, objects, and experiences. The program is designed to encourage a supportive, critical research culture in which students, their peers, and advisory committees work closely together to shape new knowledge. As a student here, your research will directly shape the development of this dynamic and emerging field.

Our program is housed within its own studio. Situated in the heart of the School of Design, this research space provides a vital setting for the development of our program culture and research agenda. 

The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon is a top-ranked Design School, situated at the heart of a world-leading research university, with a thriving undergraduate, graduate and doctoral student community. Upon completing the PhD, graduates are equipped to drive design-led systems-change through academic posts in leading universities and take on influential roles in nonprofit organizations, business, and government. Recent graduate destinations have included the University of Technology Sydney, New York University, Microsoft, University of Michigan, and North Eastern University.

Read more about Transition Design, or visit our PhD student profile pages to find out more.

Program Structure

The program has two key stages: the first is taught (year 1); the second comprises a self-defined project developed in consultation with an advisory committee (years 2–4). Where schedules permit, our students can take electives from across Carnegie Mellon's rich and diverse curricular offering.

The core curriculum is as follows:

  • Design Theory & Practice (Year 1, Fall) Advancing your understanding of how research from diverse disciplinary domains can inform new kinds of research and practice. Through this 15-week course, you will explore the intersections of theory, practice and praxis, to develop a holistic understanding of research as a reflexive theoretical and practical process. Coursework includes the design of praxis methods to shape your own research. Topics include: research of design, research for design, research by design, and design praxis.
  • Design Writing Workshop (Year 1, Fall) Deepening your connection with the craft of writing via a cross-section of academic, journalistic and creative styles. Through this 15-week course this practical hands-on course helps you develop your style, structure and confidence in design writing. Writing is framed as a creative process where ideas are explored, discovered and expressed. Coursework includes planning a literature review. Topics include: conference papers & journal articles, design criticism, podcasts & digital publishing, and transformational design curricula.
  • Transition Design (Year 1, Spring) Driving design-led, systems-level change towards socially and ecologically sustainable, convivial and equitable place-based lifestyles. Through this 15-week course, you will explore multilevel problems to establish mutually beneficial relationships between people, the natural environment and the designed world; repositioning designers as agents of sustainable change. Topics include: living systems & complex problems, mindsets & postures, theories of change, visions, and transition designing.
  • Experiential Futures (Year 1, Spring) Introducing future-focused design practices with practical training in futuring and foresight methods. Through this 15-week course, you will be introduced to a broad array of future-focused design practices, coupled with practical training in futuring and foresight techniques and methods. Coursework includes the development of a "Time Machine"—an immersive, future-focussed scenario for storytelling and research activation. Topics include: world modeling, futuring & foresight, emerging design practices, criticality & speculation, design pedagogy, and sustainable futures.
  • Framing Proposals for Change (Year 1, Spring) Defining a 3-year research project with your advisory committee, geared toward activating sustainable change. Through this 7-week course, you will frame new research contexts, define questions, plan methodological approaches, design open research structures that adapt and change, and speculate upon research outcomes and their impacts. Coursework includes writing a PhD proposal. Topics include: framing research problems, building an argument, planning your project, keeping research open, and writing a research proposal.
  • Research I, II, III, IV (Years 2 & 3) Developing a 2-year period of deep, reflective and self-directed research. Across this sequence of courses—spanning 4 semesters—you work closely with your advisory committee to build upon your research proposal and literature review. During this phase, you will deepen your literature review, undertake field research, develop your practice and begin pulling together your research into a coherent body of work.
  • Coda I, II (Year 4) Creating the critical space for divergent research themes to coalesce into a clear and conclusive body of research. You will assemble your dissertation in advance of the defense in May of the final semester. Dissertations can be entirely written (60–80K words), or a body of written and practical work (40–60K words, by negotiation). Your final body of work must demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge which expands understanding of transition design.

In addition to the above courses, students and faculty meet every few weeks for Critical Readings in Transition Design—a forum for in-depth discussion and critique of key texts, concepts and tools relating to transition design, and design-led systems-change more broadly.

Click here to view our PhD in Transition Design Planner, illustrating how these courses map across the 4 years of the program.

Faculty Advisors

Toward the end of the first year, you are supported in assembling a 3-5 member advisory committee. This mentoring group can comprise faculty with diverse expertise from the School of Design, or from other schools across CMU, and beyond. Design faculty advisors include:

Entry Requirements


Applicants should meet the following requirements:

  • A Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution with a strong record of academic achievement.
  • A Master's degree from an accredited institution with a strong record of academic achievement. In exceptional circumstances, we will consider applicants without a Master's degree, where there is evidence of equivalent professional experience.
  • Candidates for the PhD teaching fellowship will ordinarily have a Masters's degree in one of our areas of design focus. In select cases, 3+ years of professional design experience, demonstrated by portfolio and testimonials, may be considered if the applicant's Masters's degree is in a related or complementary field.
  • Candidates for the PhD teaching fellowship (see below) will generally have two years of professional and/or teaching experience in one of the school’s areas of design focus.
  • Fluency in written and spoken English.

Language Requirements

All candidates whose native language is not English are required to submit recent TOEFL or IELTS scores. This requirement will not be waived. A TOEFL score above 102 total, with minimum sub-scores of 25, or an IELTS score of 7.5, with no score lower than 7, is required for admission to the program. 

In addition to TOEFL and IELTS, we will now accept the July 2020 version of the online Duolingo English Test for applicants.Your scores must be submitted directly to "Carnegie Mellon University – School of Design" by Duolingo. The recommended Duolingo score is 120/160 overall (see below for scores in each category).

  • Literacy: 105 (recommended = 115)
  • Comprehension: 115 (recommended = 125)
  • Production: 70 (recommended = 100)
  • Conversation: 95 (recommended = 105)
  • Overall Band: 105 (recommended = 120)

Note: There are additional requirements for teaching fellowship candidates, in regards to written and verbal English language capacities by Pennsylvania State Legislation. All non-native English speakers are required to pass an International Teaching Assistant Test administered by CMU.


There are two funding routes through the program: self-funded and teaching fellowships.

Self-funded candidates find their own sources of funding. Subject to visa constraints, self-funded candidates have the option of relocating for an agreed period of time, for research and other purposes, after the taught component of the program has been completed (Year 1). This enables suitably qualified individuals to undertake their PhD in a "low-residency" mode during years 2–4 if they wish. It is possible that research assistantships or teaching opportunities may be available to suitably qualified self-funded students.

In addition to offering a self-funded route, we also offer a small number of merit-based teaching fellowships to suitably qualified applicants. These cover tuition fees and include a stipend of $13,500 per year. Teaching fellows teach one full course per semester, from semesters 2–7. Students on teaching fellowships must be in residence at CMU for the duration of the program. Under special approval, periods of research leave may be granted to teaching fellows, but during such periods, fellowship funding will not be available. 

Applicants who are accepted into the program, but do not receive an offer of a teaching fellowship, are required to pay the following fees, totaling approximately $60,000 over 4-years:

Tuition fees

  • Year 1: $41,700 (2020/2021)

  • Year 2: $5,931 (2021/2022)
  • Year 3: $6,069 (2022/2023)
  • Year 4: $6,208 (2023/2024)

University fees (annual estimate)

  • Activity Fee: $214.00
  • Transportation Fee: $210.00
  • Technology Fee: $410.00

Note: All candidates requiring health insurance, whether on a teaching fellowship or self-funded, are responsible for their own health insurance at approximately $2,000 per year.


The application system will open on December 1 and accept applications through February 28.
Click here to apply after December 1.

Your application should comprise the following:

  • Cover Letter: clearly articulating your reasons for wishing to undertake a PhD in Transition Design, and how your skills and experiences have led toward this. Applicants wishing to apply for a teaching fellowship should indicate this within their covering letter, and also provide evidence of suitability to teach within one of the school's areas of design focus.
  • Statement of Research Motivation: A clear articulation of the research area you are developing, the key questions underpinning the research, the motivations behind this work, and how it can contribute to the development of transition design.
  • Portfolio: featuring no more than 10 design and/or design-related works, supported by annotations clearly expressing the intention of each project. The portfolio should demonstrate your proclivity for research across theoretical and practical domains. Any design-related teaching experience, or curriculum development, should also be evidenced. Applicants may host their own digital portfolios and provide a link in the application, or upload a PDF version of your Portfolio.
  • Resume: Include an up to date PDF resume, which summarizes your key skills and experiences to date. 
  • Three Letters of Recommendation: Ask your references to write a substantive letter about your qualifications for doctoral study, making reference to previous study, research, or work at a job. All letters of recommendation must be submitted electronically. Recommenders will be sent an email when you complete the recommendation section and check the email request box. The email will include instructions, the URL, and a password to access the recommendation form.

Click here to apply.

Further Information

Please email us to arrange a visit, or schedule a call to discuss the program. You can also check out our FAQs page. As this is a relatively new program, insufficient data exists to provide helpful transparency statistics. This will be shared as it becomes available.