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Sustainability Science and Practice FAQs

Who is the Sustainability Science and Practice program for? Is it designed for students with a background in natural sciences, or is it also appropriate for engineers, social scientists, or humanists?  

The program is designed for and welcoming of Stanford undergraduate students of all backgrounds.  We use the term “science” in the title of the program in an inclusive manner that encompasses natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and engineering. Knowledge from all these areas is crucial to understanding and addressing sustainability challenges. The program is suitable for anyone keen to learn how to approach 21st-century challenges from an interdisciplinary and systems perspective and to develop mindsets and skills for leading change.

How does a student earn an M.S. vs. an M.A. (or vice versa)?

Students have the option to pursue either a Master of Science (M.S.) or a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Sustainability Science and Practice. The M.S. and M.A. are designed to be accessible to students from any undergraduate major, once certain pre-requisites are satisfied. In both degree tracks, students complete a set of core SUST courses as well as coursework in Earth systems, decision-making, understanding behavior, and design and innovation. To build on and complement these requirements, students take several elective courses from the program’s approved list. The type of degree earned will depend on whether the student completes a majority of natural science and engineering units or social sciences and humanities units.

How do prospective students choose/find an advisor?

Prior to applying to the Sustainability Science and Practice coterminal master’s program, candidates are required to identify a faculty member who will serve as their master’s advisor. The coterm advisor must be a member of the Academic Council. (Faculty on Academic Council typically hold a title of professor, associate professor, or assistant professor, whereas instructors with the title of lecturer, adjunct professor, or professor of practice are generally not on Academic Council. If unsure whether a prospective advisor is on Academic Council, please contact the SUST Student Services Officer to verify.) In limited cases, a student may also be permitted to engage a co-advisor who is not on Academic Council. Candidates who would like to explore a co-advising relationship should consult with the SUST Student Services Officer in advance. 

In seeking out potential advisors, students are encouraged to research faculty backgrounds to identify those with shared interests and academic focus areas that they would like to emphasize in their own studies. Candidates are welcome to seek out an advisor from any part of the University. As a starting point, students may wish to consult the People page of our program website, which includes a list of faculty members who are affiliated with the SUST program (note that not all who are listed are on the Academic Council). Once a candidate has developed a shortlist of carefully considered ideas, the student should contact the faculty member to ask for a meeting to explore whether an advising relationship could be a good fit for both parties.


What is expected of the advisor and the student?

The primary purpose of the master's advisor in the Sustainability Science and Practice (SUST) program is to serve as a mentor, helping to guide students in their academic development and support them as they prepare for their careers. Because SUST is an interdisciplinary program and does not have its own faculty, the program relies upon faculty in relevant departments to advise its students. The program greatly appreciates this advising support, and our staff is readily available to answer questions and assist as needed. Advisors are not expected to know the details of program policies or degree requirements; the program staff take the lead on communicating and advising students on these matters and are also available to support students with course selection, practicum guidance, and more.

A prospective faculty advisor meets with a student prior to application submission to:

  • Discuss the student’s interests and motivation for applying to the program;
  • Discuss what the advisor/advisee relationship will look like; and
  • Review, discuss and sign the student's SUST Course Proposal. The advisor’s signature on the completed Course Proposal is required at the time of application and serves as a confirmation of the faculty member’s willingness to serve in the advising role. The student must also review their Course Proposal with the SUST Student Services Officer to ensure alignment with program requirements.

Once admitted, the student and advisor should meet quarterly to:

  • Consider the student’s proposed courses for the upcoming quarter;
  • Discuss career goals and practicum ideas;
  • Help connect the student with sustainability networks outside of Stanford in support of the student’s practicum and/or career;
  • Review the student’s practicum proposal and attend (if possible) the student’s final practicum presentation. The SUST program director is an additional resource for students, specifically for practicum planning, mentoring, and completion. Students are expected to talk with their advisor and the program director about this aspect of the program.
  • Engage the student in relevant research opportunities and projects;
  • Discuss the student’s well-being and any support they may need.

The student is responsible for scheduling the quarterly advising meeting. If a student is on leave of absence, the program encourages him/her to check in with his/ her advisor each quarter via email. If an advisor is on sabbatical, it is expected that planning for this would have been covered in an earlier meeting. Most faculty members on sabbatical continue the advising relationship with existing advisees, and meetings shift from in-person to phone or video conference.

For a statement of University policy on graduate advising, please see the Graduate Advising section of the Stanford Bulletin.

Additional resources: We recommend and request that advisors and students review the excellent advising and mentoring materials provided by the Vice Provost of Graduate Education. Advisors should encourage a review of these materials during the first meeting with the student.


What does the practicum involve?

The practicum is an opportunity for students to put theory into practice. It is designed to develop the student's identity as a transformative leader through practice. The practicum should be conducted with an organization outside of Stanford and provide an opportunity for the student to apply knowledge, mindsets, and tools from the SUST coursework to a concrete sustainability challenge or project. Each student takes initiative to identify a partner organization and develop a project plan, with guidance from SUST program staff and the student’s master’s advisor. The practicum can be completed in a variety of ways: over the summer, in between quarters, as a final dedicated project, or part-time alongside academic work. Students enroll in the practicum for 4 units (these can be spread across multiple quarters) and should expect the practicum workload to span approximately 120 hours.

Do you offer course assistantships?

The program has a small number of paid Course Assistant positions available for certain SUST core courses, and SUST students with graduate student standing have priority access to these positions. Opportunities to apply for these openings will be announced several months in advance of when the courses are offered. SUST students are welcome and encouraged to seek out CA/TA/RA-ships in other departments or programs, however, the SUST program cannot provide funding for roles outside of SUST. Students interested in assistantships should review eligibility requirements and other University policies found here and here

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability offers several different graduate programs associated with environment, resources, and sustainability.  How do I distinguish among them?

Sustainability Science and Practice: The Change Leadership for Sustainability Program offers a co-terminal master’s degree (MS or MA) in Sustainability Science and Practice or SUST for short. The program focuses on building a set of perspectives, frameworks, and tools that prepares students to lead change effectively in any social-environmental system, no matter the sector or field of interest, with an explicit normative goal of intergenerational well-being. Students in the program are required to take specific courses in each of three major focus areas: Understanding Complex Social-Environmental Systems; Understanding Decision Making and Developing Strategies for Change; and Designing Innovations with Impact at Scale. Students also choose several electives to fill out their course lists. A Sustainability Leadership Practicum, during which students apply some of their learning in real-world situations, is also required. The Sustainability Science and Practice degree is offered co-terminally and is open to Stanford students pursuing any BA or BS undergraduate degree; it is not available as a stand-alone master’s degree.

Earth Systems: The Earth Systems Program offers an undergraduate BS as well as a co-terminal MS degree in Earth Systems and an MA in Environmental Communication. Students are expected to have fulfilled most of the requirements of the BS in Earth Systems before being accepted into the MS program. Most students use the MS as an opportunity to focus on and gain mastery in a topic or research area of interest to them, often choosing one of the Earth Systems tracks: Human Environmental Systems; Biosphere; Energy, Science & Technology; Land Systems; Sustainable Food and Agriculture; or Oceans and Climate, for their area of study. Because most Earth Systems students will have completed an internship prior to the graduate program, no internship or practicum is required. Many students opt to conduct research that culminates in a master’s thesis, but as this is a course-based degree program, there is no thesis requirement.

E-IPER: The Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) offers Ph.D. as well as joint and dual MS degrees. The MS program is for students concurrently enrolled in Stanford professional degree programs (MBA, JD, MD, MIP) or in certain Ph.D. programs. The MS is not offered as a stand-alone or co-terminal degree. Students in the program pursue a course plan with an area of scientific emphasis, one of nine course tracks, and complete a Capstone Project under the advisement of an affiliated faculty member from any of the seven schools. The MS program is flexible, with two required courses: an introductory seminar and the Capstone Project seminar.  The current course tracks include: Cleantech; Climate and Atmosphere; Energy; Freshwater; Global, Community and Environmental Health; Land Use and Agriculture; Oceans and Estuaries; Sustainable Built Environment; and Sustainable Design). A practicum is not required. Most professional school students pursue internships and/or are admitted to the program with two to four years of work experience.