FAQs on the STEP PhD at SPIA—direct from our faculty

step phd 3
Oct 23 2020
By Professors Mauzerall, Oppenheimer, Weber and Wilcove

What do faculty look for in prospective STEP PhD students?

One of the most important aspects of admission to the STEP PhD program is a good match between students’ research interests and those of the STEP faculty who would serve as the students’ thesis advisors. The STEP program covers a range of science and technology policy topics. Prospective students should review the profiles of current STEP faculty to begin to identify which ones could best support their academic pursuits. Students are not only part of an incoming cohort of STEP PhD students, but also part of individual faculty members’ research groups.

What STEP faculty seek in PhD students varies depending on the faculty member. However, generally, a strong technical background is desirable with an undergraduate and/or master’s degree in the field of research the student would like to work in (e.g. atmospheric science, conservation biology, psychology, etc.). In addition, a demonstrated ability to conduct research, indicated by undergraduate or masters level research ideally culminating in a publication in peer-reviewed literature, is highly valued. Finally, a strong indication of interest in policy-relevant research is important. That interest can be demonstrated by a joint undergraduate degree (e.g. atmospheric science and economics) or by work experience where technical expertise is applied to environmental policy (e.g. internship or work experience with an NGO, United Nations organization, World Bank, government agency or consulting firm) or by extracurricular activities.


How do you weigh academic coursework and how do you evaluate professional pursuits—what should I focus on?

A strong academic record is critical to be a strong candidate. Strong academics go beyond just GPA, however, and include having taken a diversity of rigorous courses that span a student’s disciplinary interest (e.g. atmospheric science, biology, chemistry, engineering, psychology, etc.) and policy-relevant courses like political science and economics.

Professional work experience in the field of science policy or related areas may be considered favorably as it often provides students with a better understanding of how policy-relevant research can be utilized by stakeholders and gives additional context and focus for their thesis work. However professional work experience isn’t a requirement; students have been successful entering the program directly from another degree program.


What type of academic background are you looking for in PhD STEP candidates (especially now that the GRE is not required)?

We are looking for a strong disciplinary background that includes rigorous courses and some courses in policy-relevant areas. Strong letters attesting to a student’s academic ability, maturity, commitment to research, and collegial attitudes from academic or professional references are also very valuable.


If I have no scientific background, can I apply for the STEP PhD?

The doctoral program focuses on both the technical aspects of science policy topics and the human side as well. This means that students should be willing to become comfortable with both quantitative and qualitative methods. Students with a background in natural sciences, engineering, or social sciences are best suited to the program. Students who do not have strong quantitative training can apply, but please contact the faculty member you are interested in working with first. Some faculty are more receptive to prospective students without a scientific or engineering background than others.


What advice would you give to a prospective STEP PhD student?

Despite considerable overlap and collaboration, the specific research areas of each STEP faculty member differ significantly from the rest of the STEP faculty. Accordingly, please consider carefully whom you would like to work with before you apply and mention the faculty member you would like as your adviser in your application. All students admitted to the PhD program enter after becoming associated with a particular adviser so it is critically important to engage with a specific professor during the application process. Students can sometimes be jointly advised by two faculty members, so prospective applicants are welcome to reach out to more than one STEP faculty member if the students’ interests naturally bridge two disciplines represented among our faculty.


What type of research is the admissions committee looking for?

The majority of the STEP faculty work on environmental or energy policy topics. Read more about these research areas on the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment’s website. Other areas of research under the STEP umbrella include information and communication technology policy, infectious disease, and nuclear energy and weapons technologies. Refer to the research areas of the STEP faculty for more details.


What areas of research are PhD STEP candidates pursuing in their thesis?

Examples of current STEP PhD candidates’ thesis research topics include:

  • Interactions between climate change impacts and migration, using Integrated Assessment Models
  • Assessing the air quality, climate change, and health benefits of transitioning to renewable energy sources
  • Ameliorating the impacts of destructive land-use practices or overexploitation on biodiversity and natural ecosystems
  • Human decision-making and its impacts on climate change and energy use
  • Verification options for future nuclear arms control and disarmament measures
  • Tracking China’s role in overseas investments in the energy sector of emerging markets
  • Long-run impact of hurricanes on labor and health outcomes, including employment and mortality

Read more about our current STEP PhD students and their research interests here.


How would you describe the SPIA STEP PhD community?

We currently have about 22 PhD candidates in the program at various points in their research, and these students have strong connections to both their faculty advisers’ research groups as well as to the STEP cohort. In the first two years of coursework at SPIA, the PhD students also spend a lot of time with the incoming MPA and MPP cohorts.

Because the program is an interdisciplinary one, STEP draws on deep connections with faculty and students outside of the School of Public and International Affairs. The PEI-STEP Fellowship Program brings students from other doctoral programs at Princeton into SPIA to pursue a policy certificate, and these students join in our regular PhD seminars.

The STEP program is also closely affiliated with the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, which hosts a weekly seminar series on energy and environmental policy topics that brings the community together.

Many of our doctoral students are actively engaged in other student groups and activities such as the Princeton Energy Climate Scholars (PECS) and CEREAL breakfast discussion group (Conversations on the Environment, Responsible Energy, And Life). The STEP doctoral students also organize weekly happy hours as a time to connect with each other and friends across the university.


Is the SPIA STEP PhD part of the OPT extension program?

Yes, a PhD in the STEP cluster is now considered a technical degree with 3 years of OPT visa possible following the degree. This is longer than the standard 1-year OPT visa extension that is typically awarded for a social science degree.


Can I complete the STEP PhD in less than 5 years?

It has been done, but very rarely.  Becoming an inter-disciplinary expert often takes more time than learning just a single field.  Five years is about the average for a STEP PhD.


Who can I speak to about the STEP PhD program?

Contact SPIA Graduate Admissions initially for general information about the program. Then, identify the faculty member you would like to work with and reach out to that person.


Is there a teaching requirement as part of this program?

Yes, all students must earn 6 hours of teaching credit serving as teaching assistants (preceptor) as part of our program.  That usually translates into being a preceptor for 2-3 courses over the five-year program