PhD in Transition Design

The Doctor of Philosophy in Transition Design (PhD) is a four-year, full-time, residential program. The PhD is appropriate for candidates who wish to become design academics or applied research leaders in design practice. The PhD in Transition Design aims to generate new knowledge about the nature of design and designing, especially in relation to the role design and designers can play in transitioning our societies toward more sustainable futures.

Program Structure: Full Time Candidates

Year One: is comprised of coursework that instructs candidates in design-specific research techniques, explores the intersection of Design and Transition Studies, and helps candidates develop teaching practices.

Years Two thru Four: candidates conduct their research in consultation with a committee of advisors and regular progress reviews are held. All candidates have their final submissions examined by a committee of relevant experts with no prior knowledge of candidate’s research, and defend their research in a public oral presentation.

Residential Intensives: All PhD and DDes candidates attend two intensives each year, the first at the commencement of the Fall semester (mid-August), and the second around Spring Break, usually in March.

The Fall intensive is a 3 day workshop exploring new forms of applied design research and current issues in design and Transition Design. The Spring Break begins with progress reviews from PhD and DDes candidates before panels of experts and peers and is followed by guest experts leading or participating in topical workshops with candidates.

Coursework: The first year of the PhD comprises an intense series of courses that address different kinds of Design Research: 1) research of designers and the expert design process; 2) contextual research for undertaking designing; 3) research that can be undertaken through design activities distinctive from social research methods. There are also courses related to how to teach design in both a studio and seminar formats, and courses on Transition Design, the focus of the School’s doctoral research. Transition Design courses address designers’ ability to leverage systems-level, design-enabled change within socio-technical systems.

Candidates are required to defend a research topic proposal in the Spring Intensive of their first year. At the conclusion of the coursework first year, candidates must submit a comprehensive written topic proposal to progress to the All But Dissertation Research Phase of the program for the following 3 years.

PhD: Year One

Training in research design approaches and Transition Design. Over the summer at the end of year one, students prepare a research project proposal to be examined in the late summer intensive.

1 Fall First Year

Research Topic Prep 6 units

Research OF Designing I 6 units

The nature of expert design practice

Research FOR Designing I 6 units

Observational research & visual data analysis

Research BY Designing I 6 units

Understanding craft & material making

Transition Design I 6 units

Evaluating risks to the resilience of our designed societies

Teaching Design I 6 units

Studio-based pedagogy

2 Spring First Year

Research OF Designing II 6 units

Reflective practitioner techniques

Research FOR Designing II 6 units

Interviewing & verbal data analysis

Research BY Designing II 6 units

Understanding craft & material making

Transition Design II 6 units

Design-enabled sociotechnical change

Teaching Design II 6 units

Seminar-based pedagogy

Progress Reviews I 3 units

Peer & external crit of research progress

Design Research Intensive I 3 units

PhD: Year Two

Students undertake a research project with regular progress reviews. PhD candidates are expected to attend the Progress Reviews in late Spring and late Summer intensives. These are workshops in which all DDes and PhD candidates interact and evaluate each other's work and also serve as external evaluation milestone of thesis proposal and final defenses.

3 Fall Second Year

Research I 5-36 units

First phase of an extensive research project

4 Spring Second Year

Research II 5-36 units

Second phase of an extensive research project

Progress Reviews II 0 units

Peer & external crit of research progress

Design Research Intensive II 0 units

Review of the latest design research

PhD: Year Three

Students undertake a research project with regular progress reviews. PhD candidates are expected to attend the Progress Reviews in late Spring and late Summer intensives. These are workshops in which all DDes and PhD candidates interact and evaluate each other's work and also serve as external evaluation milestone of thesis proposal and final defenses.

5 Fall Third Year

Research III 5-36 units

Third phase of an extensive research project

6 Spring Third Year

Research IV 5-36 units

Fourth phase of an extensive research project

Progress Reviews III 0 units

Peer & external crit of research progress

Design Research Intensive III 0 units

Review of the latest design research

PhD: Year Four

Students undertake a research project with regular progress reviews. PhD candidates are expected to attend the Progress Reviews in late Spring and late Summer intensives. These are workshops in which all DDes and PhD candidates interact and evaluate each other's work and also serve as external evaluation milestone of thesis proposal and final defenses.

7 Fall Third Year

Research V 5-36 units

Fifth phase of an extensive research project

8 Spring Third Year

Research VI 5-36 units

Sixth phase of an extensive research project

Progress Reviews IV 0 units

Peer & external crit of research progress


Candidates for doctoral study should meet the following requirements for application to the PhD program:

  • A Bachelors degree from an accredited institution, with a strong record of academic achievement.
  • A Masters degree from an accredited institution with a strong record of academic achievement. The degree must be in one or more of the School of Design's areas of focus: Communication Design, Product Design, Environments (design for physical/digital spaces/IoT), Design for Interactions, Design for Service or Design for Social Innovation. In select cases, 3+ years of professional design experience, demonstrated by portfolio and testimonials, may be considered if the applicant's masters degree is in a related or complementary field.
  • At least two years professional and/or teaching experience in the areas of design focus listed above.
  • Fluency in written and spoken English (see below).

Note: If an applicant's degree and/or teaching experience is exclusively in Engineering, Architecture or another design-related sub-discipline, we may recommend further masters-level study in Design preceding application to this program)

More on Language Requirements

GREs are not obligatory but are strongly recommended. We look for GRE scores of 160 and above for verbal, 148 and above for quantitative, and 4.5 or above for analytical writing.

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. 

Note: For PhD candidates who receive a stipend in exchange for teaching, there are additional English language requirements in regard to written and verbal capacities. These are required by Pennsylvania State Legislation. All non-native English speakers are required to pass an International Teaching Assistant Test administered by CMU. To ensure that candidates will be likely to pass this, minimum sub-scores of 25 (preferred score of 28 in speaking) in TOEFL and minimum IELTS scores of 7 in speaking and writing are required.

Note: Language requirements cannot be waived.


There are two financial models for the PhD program:

1) Full Tuition with Teaching Fellowship: Candidates who are qualified to teach design within one of the School's areas of focus (see below) in the undergraduate or masters programs receive full tuition for 4 years and an annual teaching stipend of $13,500 in exchange for teaching one course per semester.

2) Tuition Paying: Candidates who do not wish to teach or are not qualified to teach, have the option to pay full tuition each academic year. The table below outlines tuition fees for the academic years 2015-2019. Tuition goes up $1000 per academic year, based on 72 units per year.

YearFallSpringCost of Tuition per academic year
Year 136 units36 units$541.66 per unit for 2016/2017
Year 25 units5 units$555.55 per unit for 2017/2018
Year 35 units5 units$569.44 per unit for 2018/2019
Year 45 units5 units$583.33 per unit for 2019/2020
Total102 units$56,083.20 total for 2016-2020

Tuition-paying PhD candidates are responsible for all living costs as well as health insurance costs and some University fees. The School of Design does not offer scholarships for the PhD program at this time.

The Application Process

In addition to personal background information, the application for the PhD program has 3 main components:

1.  Biographical Essay

This 2-4 page document should give the Doctoral Selection Committee a sense of who you are and why you are interested in, and appropriate for, a doctoral research degree in Transition Design. We are particularly interested in accounts of your level of design expertise. We want to understand how you think about and practice design, and the place of research in your work. You should indicate to us key figures and approaches in design history, thinking and practice that you have learned about or had experience with. You should also indicate any relevant teaching experience. We use this essay to evaluate your fit for the School in general, given that doctoral students are asked to teach in the areas of Communication Design, Environments Design, Product Design, Interaction Design, Service Design and Design for Social Innovation. Your biographical essay should refer back to projects in your Portfolio of Expertise and connect forward to your Research Topic Proposal in Transition Design.

2.  Portfolio of Work

Because this doctoral program involves less coursework in order to accelerate candidates to the research phase, accepted candidates will need to have demonstrated a high level of mastery of design and design studies. Applicants should submit a portfolio of selected design and design-related work (no more than 10 projects). The nature of the projects you select should be determined by your biographical essay and research topic proposal (explained below); choose projects that demonstrate your expertise in research-based designing in the areas that you are interested in furthering through doctoral research. Any design-related teaching experience should also be evidenced in the portfolio. Applicants should host their own digital portfolios and provide a web link in the application. This part of the application cannot be waived.

Each portfolio piece should include:

  • a clear description of what your specific role on the project was
  • a clear description of what expertise of yours is evidenced in the project
  • a clear description of the research/research process you undertook for the project
  • a clear description of any external validation of the project by peers, reviewers or users 

3.  Research Topic Proposal

In 2-4 pages, describe 1 or 2 potential design research topics. These proposals are not binding – all candidates will develop more extensive research proposals that can vary markedly from their application proposals in the course of the first year of the program. The Research Topic Proposal is used by the Doctoral Selection Committee to determine:

  • a candidate’s practical understanding of design research
  • capacity of a candidate to undertake research in a topic area appropriate for their experience and expertise as demonstrated in the Biographical Essay and the Portfolio
  • the fit between a candidate’s research interests and those of the School, faculty at CMU and potential advisors within the School’s international network

Some guidelines for writing a Research Topic Proposal:

While recognizing that all candidates will undertake a year of coursework in design research, the Doctoral Selection Committee is looking for evidence of an ability to:

  • formulate a comprehensive research question that is not too broad in scope, but can sustain 3 years worth of investigation
  • identify appropriate collections of precedents of design work that might inform the research
  • identify appropriate bodies of literature that would frame the research
  • speculate/outline appropriate research processes and even methods, including practice-based design research projects, for conducting that research
  • list possible advisors on the faculty of the School of Design as well as those advisors external to School (within other departments at CMU or other institutions)
  • discuss potential audiences for whom the research outcomes would be appropriate

The School of Design’s Areas of Teaching and Research Focus

  • Communication Design
  • Environments Design
  • Product Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Service Design
  • Social Innovation Design
  • Design Studies
  • Transition Design

More on Transition Design

The School's Doctoral Program is focused on Transition Design, a new area of design practice, study and research that refers to the role of design in enabling systems-level societal shifts to more sustainable futures. Transitions are multi-level, multi-stage changes. Transition Design recognizes the role of products, communications and environments in the creation of innovative social systems that can better service everyday needs. In this way, Transition Design is a higher order of designing that nevertheless always involves the more material practices of lower order designing. Transition Design is related to Strategic Design but also learns from and can make contributions to design for complex digital platforms and ecologies. Transition Design also draws on various fields from outside of design:

  • Living systems theory, especially principles of self-organization, non-linear interdependence, emergence, fractals, holarchy, phase transition and sensitivity to initial conditions.
  • Socio-technical systems, especially the Multi-Level Perspective, historical transitions, and the importance of niche experiments.
  • Social practice theory, especially the relationship within practices between the elements of ‘meaning’, ‘competencies’ and ‘materials’, on the interconnections of such practices and on their inertial tendencies.
  • Social psychology theory, especially in relation to behaviour change and framing of values.\
  • Everyday life and lifestyles theories, especially those exploring the consequences for everyday life and lifestyles of centralized political and economic systems, and on the ability of communities to control the satisfaction of their needs
  • Futuring especially in relation to critical, speculative design and scenario development of future visions, and new forms of place-based everyday life that are sustainable and convivial.
  • Social and technological trends, such as the reemergence of the commons and the development of the sharing, maker and circular economy, economic localization and P2P networks.
  • Critical social theories, especially in relation to the potential for community self-organization and networking, thinking temporally, and the development of participatory political systems and equitable and sustainable economic systems.
  • Worldview theory, especially in relation to the emergence of a new holistic or ecological world view and the decline of the reductionist or mechanistic worldview.    

A monograph on Transition Design can be downloaded here >>

Applicants are encouraged to think about how their disciplinary expertise and research interests might be reframed within the larger context of design-enabled societal transition to more sustainable futures.

Submitting an Application

The School accepts applications to the PhD program each year beginning on December 1st for the following academic year. Applications may be uploaded from the Doctoral Program Admissions page on this website. Deadline for applications is February 28. Letters of notification of acceptance will be mailed in May.

Part 1 and 3 of the PhD application (the biographical essay and research topic proposal) may be uploaded as pdf files, part 2 of the application (portfolio) should be included as a link to an online portfolio/website. 

Shortlisted candidates will be asked to provide certified hardcopies of official documents (transcripts, GRE, and TOEFL/IELTS test results where appropriate) by mail.


If after thoroughly reading all sections of the website pertaining to the doctoral programs and the FAQs, prospective candidates still have questions, email us for more information about the Doctoral Programs. Note: language requirements cannot be waived.