StudyQA — PhD: Transition Design — Carnegie Mellon University


Transition Design

Study mode:On campus Study type:Full-time Languages: English
Foreign:$ 61.4 k / Year(s) Deadline: Feb 28, 2023
28 place StudyQA ranking:1731 Duration:4 years

Photos of university / #carnegiemellon

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 of designers in transitioning our societies toward more sustainable futures.

Year One: is coursework intensive and instructs candidates in design-specific research techniques, explores the intersection of Design and Transition Studies, and helps 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, 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. The Spring Break intensive is similar, but is preceded by progress reviews before panels of experts and peers. There will be invited guest experts leading or participating in the workshops with candidates.

Coursework: The first year of the PhD comprises an intense series of courses. These courses mostly concern different kinds of Design Research: research of designers and the expert design process; contextual research for undertaking designing; and research that can be undertaken through design activities distinctive from social research methods. There are also courses concerning Teaching Design, in studios and seminars as well as courses on Transition Design, the focus of the School’s doctoral research. These courses are based upon understanding and leveraging systems-level design-enabled eco-sociotechnical change.

  • 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).

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 7 in speaking and writing are required.

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 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 our focus is primarily 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.

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. 

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 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


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.
Year Fall Spring Cost of Tuition per academic year
Year 1 36 units 36 units $541.66 per unit for 2015/2016
Year 2 5 units 5 units $555.55 per unit for 2016/2017
Year 3 5 units 5 units $569.44 per unit for 2017/2018
Year 4 5 units 5 units $583.33 per unit for 2018/2019
Total   102 units $56,083.20 total for 2015-2019

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.

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