PhD programme

The interdisciplinary PhD programme in Sustainability Science and Policy (SSP) is designed to educate researchers, university teachers, and world leaders in the social, economic and natural science disciplines that underpin sustainable development.

The research produced by the programme’s doctoral dissertations will focus on integrative, interdisciplinary research that is needed to explore science and policy issues in sustainable development.

Integrated assessment methods and concepts (transitions, modeling, scenario analysis) will be instrumental to provide answers to the central questions of sustainable development.

Join the PhD programme

Paid PhD positions (employed researchers)
If there are positions available, you will find the vacancies listed here.

PhD student with alternative funding
If you have confirmed funding (an estimate of the tuition fee for a 4-year PhD programme is €20.000,-) for the PhD programme you are welcome to contact us for an application package.

Join the PhD programme

Admission requirements

The programme is designed for an international student body and therefore we are interested in candidates from all over the world. The basic admission requirements are:

  • A master’s degree (or equivalent to) from a recognized university or institution of higher education in the following fields: economics, humanities, engineering, political science, or other natural/social sciences
  • Excellent written and verbal English language skills. Applicants whose first language is not English may be asked to take the IELTS Test. A score of 7 or above is required
  • Applicants should demonstrate an ability to pursue independent research through their prior work and academic distinction
  • Upon graduation it is expected that the candidates will play an important role as scholars, policymakers and professionals in their home countries and in the international community, taking leadership roles in government, international organisations, non-profit organisations and business


Current PhD projects

Laura Niessen
Better, Not More – Business strategies to enable sufficient consumption

Transboundary learning in higher education for sustainable development: Designing learning environments and competence assessments

Ningna Xie

In the past two decades, education for sustainable development has been increasingly discussed on global, national, and regional agendas, resulting in a blossom of sustainability-related programmes and courses. Higher education graduates are expected to deal with sustainability-related societal problems during their professional and personal lives. The challenge is that these multi-faceted problems cannot be solved by individuals or using a single perspective. To produce competent professionals and improve education quality, universities put effort into defining/adopting relevant competence frameworks that include specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes. However, processes and impacts of learning still appear as Pandora’s box because: 1) Perspectives towards sustainable development are influenced by motivations, demographic, and intellectual backgrounds, but they remain inadequately assessed for the relevance to education; 2) interactions in learning environments can lead to both positive and negative outcomes for individuals, groups, and organisations, 3) complexities in real-world learning cannot be tackled without considering the direct and indirect impact of social, economic, and environmental factors.   

Successful crossing of disciplinary, cultural, and professional boundaries is an encompassing competence and a promising source of learning, which has become popular in designing learning environments. Although the patterns of interactions differ, study exchange, work placement, field trips, intervention workshops, student-stakeholder projects, university-led living labs, and start-up incubators are examples of learning environments that connect different perspectives and enable mutual learning. However, they risk failing to address students’ varying initial capacity and self-efficacy, group dynamics, support/hindrance in and outside the campus, the interplay of stakeholder interests, monitoring of career trajectories, and a lack of rigorous assessments overall.   

My PhD research contributes to fulfilling the said knowledge gaps, focusing on the design of learning environments and assessments for the competence of working across multiple boundaries:   

  1. Tapping into insights from education and management sciences, specifically taking stock of knowledge in situations of boundary crossing, boundary spanning, and boundary work.
  2. Linking different views on nature and ways of life from the Cultural Theory to perspectives on sustainable development (students, teachers, researchers, and stakeholders), quantifying the degree of diversity and change of perspectives before and after a study period.
  3. Designing and experimenting with configurations of learning environments (i.e. alternative classrooms) to enable boundary interactions and learning from different perspectives, offering an open, authentic, inspirational and fun part of higher education for sustainable development. 
Ningna Xie
5 people smiling and walking on the grass

Overpassing the hot spot: Climate proofing with in a sustainable development strategy for Central America.

Diego Ramírez

Central America faces decisive moments, not only by the challenges presented in terms of poverty, insecurity, vulnerability and institutional weakness, but also it is at a key time for taking the decisions and actions necessary to build a region of sustainable development.

The region has begun to implement climate proofing for public infrastructure, at national and local level, nonetheless, the region isn’t working to incorporate the climate proofing to the spatial planning, and even, the spatial planning is weak or absent in most of the region. At the same time, the Central American countries are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and also, have a large history of impacts thanks to extreme weather conditions.

In a region as vulnerable as Central America, is of high importance the use of strategies to climate proof their efforts towards its sustainable development. Climate proofing is a term considered new for the region, the Asian Development Bank define it as:

“identifying risks to a development project, or any other specified natural or human asset, as a consequence of both current and future climate variability and extremes, and ensuring that those risks are reduced to acceptable levels through long-lasting and environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable changes implemented at one or more of the following stages in the project cycle: planning, design, construction, operation, and decommissioning.” (ADB, 2005. P. 2)

The interest of this research is to document relevant international experience incorporating climate proofing strategies to the spatial planning as part of the efforts of adaptation to climate change in cities. Based on these experience, to build a proposal to strengthen the initial efforts of the region to climate proof public infrastructure, especially, elevating the scope to include climate proofing to the spatial planning in Central America’s cities.

The Role of Assumptions in Social Change Processes

Julia Backhaus

This PhD project is concerned with the assumptions that individual actors or actor groups involved in change initiatives towards more sustainable, just and inclusive societies hold about what is at stake and about how change can be brought about. The focus is as much on assumptions that are verbalised explicitly as on assumptions that underlie actions taken and strategies pursued.

Cases considered range from government-supported behavioural change programmes and research projects to civil society social innovation initiatives and activist groups. Findings are evaluated against a range of theories on transformative, social change from across the social sciences.

Julia Backhaus

The Role of Animals and Nature in Learning for Sustainable Development --a Chinese Perspective

Bingtao Su

Animals had many measurable benefits to both humans and society, such as enhancing physical and psychological well-being, reducing loneliness and depression, improving animal diversity and promoting sustainable nature and society development. From another point of view, the direct presence of public attitudes toward animals, which are somewhat influenced by human culture and knowledge, can contribute to animals’ healthy dietary and decent living environment, and eventually the construction of an optimum animal welfare system. Therefore, it is clear that a better understanding of public attitudes toward animals, animal emotions, as well as what effects the influential factors have on these attitudes, are of fundamental importance to both animals and humans.

My research mainly focused on the sustainable relationships between humans and animals in China, Japan, and the Netherlands. Through this research, I want to know how people attribute emotions to animals, and how the degree of attachment influences the attribution of emotions to animals in these countries. In addition, my research also aimed at finding out Chinese, Japanese and the Dutch people’s attitudes toward animals and their influential factors, such as culture, ethical ideologies, the degree of attachment and other possible variables. Furthermore, Ecological Paw Print as an important variable to measure sustainable development will also be included in my research. Through my research, I want to find out the current situation of animals and human-animal relationships in China (as well as in the Netherlands and Japan), and therefore find ways to improve people’s awareness of animal welfare.

Bingtao Su

Organisational Transformation and Systemic Change: Navigating pathways towards Sustainability for the University

Alex Baker-Shelley

How can universities effectively navigate pathways of transformation for sustainability? In order to answer this question, international case-study research on pioneering universities and their networks is developing and testing a tool to help evaluate and track fundamental transformation for organisations towards more actionable outcomes across diverse aspects of sustainability. These include but are not limited to: management performance, governance, intrapreneurship and innovation, sustainability in education, inter and transdisciplinary research, communications strategies, stakeholder management and social and environmental responsibility practices.

As part of an Action research approach, structured interventions will be applied to Maastricht University with the Green Office as the implementation agents, aiming to resolve system dysfunction and improve sustainability performance.

The project deliverables, aside from publications and a thesis, will include policy recommendations, management reviews, a transdisciplinary framework for organisational transformation for sustainability at universities, and – from a four year period of observations - executive reports on institutional governance for sustainability, longitudinal organisational assessments, and knowledge on increased social impact of academia through social entrepreneurship.

This PhD will work towards my core objective: to apply action research, for intentional change and improvement, in partnership with organisations that want purpose driven into their core and are committed to a fortuitous movement for sustainable development - whether in the public, private or social sectors. I will continue close participative research with the Green Office, and my network in social enterprise, in order to perform interventions for UM's sustainability performance in 2017. After 2017, the outcomes and continuation of this work will be primarily focussed and applied where there is the most traction and willingness to undertake necessary transformative change; external to ossified administrative, bureaucratic and political systems.

Alex Baker-Shelley

Are energy decisions about energy?

Wendy Broers

The most challenging element of the energy transition is to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption in the existing housing stock because of the complexity of the system of different actors and their social practices. In this PhD research an interdisciplinary socio-technical approach is used that goes beyond technology and individual behaviour and will also tackle the physical, economic and social context of the different actors. Empirical data is collected in the case-study of Parkstad Limburg (NL) and the results are used to develop recommendations to improve the effectiveness of energy transition policies and product offerings to residents.

Are energy decisions about energy?

Sustainability Assessment tools for Urban Mobility –policy lessons from a China-Europe comparison

Xu Liu

This PhD research originates from the argument of The World Health Organization (2016), that ‘good health of all its citizens is one of the most effective markers of any city’s sustainable development’.  This calls for sustainable, health-promoting urban policies. In China, sustainable urban development (SUD) is stimulated by, for example, the National Development and Reform Commission’s ‘low-carbon pilot program’. In Europe, SUD is stimulated by, for example, the new ‘Urban Agenda for the EU’. However, decision-makers do not often apply a ‘health-lens’ to SUD policies. So how can the dual goals of healthy citizens and urban sustainability be integrated in decision-making? And how can we enhance the health co-benefits of existing and anticipated SUD policies?

Sustainability assessment (SA) is nowadays a widely used term that covers a broad range of approaches aiming to operationalize sustainability concepts for decision-making, mostly within but also outside governments. It emerged as a ‘marriage’ between environmental assessment and sustainable development (see Dijk et al 2017). These approaches may be formal or informal, legally prescribed or voluntary, science-driven or policy-driven, etc., and may carry different labels, such as sustainability appraisal, sustainability impact assessment or integrated assessment. A common feature is that they try to integrate various perspectives, interests, and types of knowledge. However, despite scholarly progress, Gibson (2016) concludes that in public and private sectors the speed of sustainable development has been rather slow in the last decade. An important way forward is the development of new and better Sustainable Assessment tools. In this project we focus on the improvement of Sustainability Assessment tools for urban mobility.

An SA is designed to form a logic sequence within an analytic and decision-making process, and within which a range of different methods can be applied. There is no single and commonly accepted procedure for sustainability assessment. A procedure may be formally prescribed by law, such as in environmental impact assessment (EIA) in many countries (but with great variety between countries) and as strategic environmental assessment under the EU SEA Directive (2001/42/EC). A broad range of methods has been applied in SA, with often combinations of methods being used within one study. However, in assessments in the public and private sector, the choice is often poorly explained and, when combining methods, often one method is clearly dominant and basically shapes the SA outcomes. A common problem identified in the literature is the lack of guidance on what methods can be used. Thus, research on how to organize and deploy tools and methods in assessments seems to have a lot of room for improvement.

Sustainability Assessment tools for Urban Mobility

Understanding Human-Ocean Relationships: A Multi-Perspective Analysis of Chinese Ocean Society

Mo Chen

Throughout human history, the ocean has always been playing a crucial role in human society. How people view the ocean is strongly correlated with how they make use of the ocean, and subsequently, what the ocean looks like now. Are we considering human as the dominator of the ocean? Or are we regarding human society and ocean as equally important? Understanding human-ocean interaction would be helpful to build a healthy relationship between human society and ocean.

However, seldom studies look into this area in current academic community. Especially the conditions in developing countries, such as China, still remain unclear. On one hand, large-scale foreign trade and annual seafood consumption justify the significance of ocean to Chinese society. On the other hand, increasing maritime disasters and resource depletion indicate the environment is far from ideal.   

From three aspects, this research project targets at answering the question of how to understand and develop a sustainable human-ocean relationship. This research will assess how Chinese people perceive marine life, recognize marine economic development, and deal with modern maritime disaster. We will delineate a general picture of human-ocean relationship in contemporary Chinese society. And we would like to contribute to the discussion of how to shape a positive and robust relationship between ocean and human society.

Understanding Human-Ocean Relationships

Detecting and analyzing assumptions and behavioural changes on pro-environmental consumer behaviour in relation to waste management through Big Data Analysis (BDA)

Alessandro Concari

This PhD research originates from the need to better understand the human behaviour in relation to waste management through the analysis of the huge amount of unstructured data available online (like social media and other free platforms).

Nowadays the attention to sustainable development (SD) issues is continuously increasing as demonstrated, at the supra-national level, by development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their inclusion in the national agenda of many nations. At the individual level, the focus on SD matters is addressed through enhanced education, improved attention to our lifestyle and to the impact of our routine actions, responsible purchasing, respectful behaviours, etc. These concerns are also demonstrated by the creation of new terms as green attitude, pro-environmental behaviour, eco-friendly attitude, green consumption, to highlight the importance of the individual behaviour in pursuing the SD, and to indicate that the development of an environmentally sustainable consumption is also dependant on consumers' willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.

Actually the analysis of human behaviour is very complex and interdisciplinary, especially when considering pro-enviromental factors, as demonstrated by the huge variety of approaches and methodologies adopted by the existing scholars. In the latter years, novel expanded approaches have been proposed with the intention of including all applicable factors in the correct way. These activities are very challenging, and many scholars agree that human actions are the results of a complex economic, social, physical and psychological process, influenced by numerous and heterogenoeus factors related to environment, culture, laws, politics, geography, circumstances, emotions, intentions, just to name a few of them.

Nowadays the researches on human behaviour and its influencing factors can definitely benefits of the analysis of big data (BD). For example, it would be useful to understand from the posts on social media the reaction of the inhabitants of a town to the introduction of municipal novel waste measures, or to comprehend the influence and interactions of economic, social and psychological factors on human perceptions in relation to environmental issues.

Unfortunately the majority of data available on internet are unstructured, but they potentially contain very useful information offering a great opportunity for the advancement of researches on human behaviour.

This does not mean that the key for success is BD itself, but our challenge is to create value from it by creating transparencies and unvealing relsationships, to better understand the human behaviour thorugh the utilization of big data analysis (BDA).

For the above-mentioned reasons this research aims at understanding some specific aspects of the human behaviour by taking full advantage of the most recent big data analysis tools through an interdisciplinary approach open to the collaboration of scholars from different disciplines.

Detecting and analyzing assumptions and behavioural changes on pro-environmental consumer behaviour in relation to waste management through Big Data Analysis (BDA)

Network leadership for advancing transformative capacity of social innovation

Tim Strasser

Tim is working half-time as a PhD researcher, investigating learning processes in networks of transformative social innovation initiatives like Impact Hubs, Transition Towns, TimeBanks, Hacker Spaces and Ecovillages.

This research draws on involvement with the recently completed EU-funded TRANSIT project (2014-2017), which developed an empirically grounded theory on how such social innovations relate to transformative social change. The focus lies on better understanding how network leaders can effectively shape the learning processes at various network levels for social innovations to develop transformative capacity.

Network leadership for advancing transformative capacity of social innovation

Completed PhD Projects

Shared Value Creation and Inter-organisational Collaboration for Sustainable Business Model Innovation
     Myrthe Velter

Spatially Modelling the Positive and Negative Effects of Nature on Human Health: a Focus on Optimizing Urban Green Infrastructure
     Bram Oosterbroek

Global Sustainable Governance: Partnerships Between Fragmentation and Cohesion
     Ceren Pekdemir

Organisational Transformation and Systemic Change: Navigating pathways towards Sustainability for the University
     Alex Baker-Shelley

The OPEDUCA Concept - Basing schooling (from primary to higher) on Education for Sustainable Development in a local-to-global multi-stakeholder reality of Learning
     Jos Eussen

Climate and ENSO variability effect on dengue incidence in Aruba
     Marck Oduber

Certification contracts from an institutional economic perspective
     Esther Sri Astuti

Learning for sustainability: the learning process
     Anneloes Smitsman

Ecological Consequences of Globalization: Implications for Sustainable Development (2017)
Lukas FiggeRead more

Social and Economic Effects of Coffee Certification, with a Specific Focus on the Livelihood Effects for Farmers (2017)
Ibnu MuhammadRead more

The Role of Governments on Sustainable Agriculture (2017)
Atika WijayaRead more

The Social and Economic Effects of Palm Oil Certification, with a Specific Focus on the Livelihood Effects for Farmers (2017)
Nia HidayatRead more

Religion and sustainable development (2017)
Laura Kurth

The transition of farmers’ sustainable agricultural production behaviors:  comparative cases study in China and Netherlands
Jing Wang

Climate change and health: consequences and adaptation in Europe (2015)
Su-Mia Akin | Download

Climate change and dengue transmission in Vietnam: an integrated assessment (2015)
Toan Do Thanh | Download

A sunny future for photovoltaic systems in the Netherlands? An analysis of the role of government and users in the diffusion of an emerging technology (2014)
Veronique Vasseur | Download

Stepping stone cities? Exploring urban greening and gardening as a viable contribution to global biodiversity conservation (2014)
Carijn Beumer | Download

The Perspectives Method: Towards socially robust River Management. Maastricht University (2012)
Astrid Offermans | Download

Regional sustainable development: Barries in Practice (Findings from policy, citizens, practitioners and monitoring) (2011)
Annemarie van Zeijl-Rozema | Download

Living with Less: Prospects for Sustainability (2010)
Jeanine Schreurs

Sailing on the winds of change. The Odyssey of Sustainability of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Maastricht University. (2010)
Niko Roorda

Union democracy: The challenge of globalisation to organised labour in Ghana. (2010)
Akua Britwum

Innovation in car mobility. Co-evolution of demand and supply under sustainability pressures. (2010)
Marc Dijk

Climate change and tourism: Impacts and vulnerability in coastal Europe. (2010)
Alvaro Moreno

The role of future studies in innovation processes
Nicole Rijkens-Klomp