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Graduate Field of Development Studies

Field-leading social scientists & development practitioners

Our doctoral program in Development Studies (previously known as Development Sociology) focuses on ‘development,’ a central and contested concept that gained prominence after World War II, which implies progressive change towards improving economies and people’s well-being while conserving nature at local, regional, and global scales. Faculty and graduate students in the field of Development Studies study processes of social, cultural, ecological, economic, and political change, and the historical and contemporary forces that shape those dynamics. They also study the organizations and actors that engage in development-related processes and the practices, knowledge, and forms of expertise they bring to bear on their work.

An interdisciplinary field, Development Studies draws from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, economics, political science, human geography, anthropology, history, Indigenous and postcolonial studies, and the natural and technical sciences. Our doctoral students study in a range of contexts, some working directly with communities around the globe, others exploring large data sets or studying institutions as they seek to understand the complexities behind development and its impacts on people and the planet.

The program offers preparation for research, for the application of social sciences in government positions, the non-profit sector, consulting, and think tanks, and for college teaching in development studies and related fields.

For the Ph.D. degree, students are expected to demonstrate (1) a thorough knowledge of social theory in development studies, with special emphasis on theories in their major concentration, (2) knowledge of previous and current research pertinent to the concentration, and (3) knowledge of multiple research methods, including qualitative and quantitative, with special emphasis on research design, data collection, and analytical techniques relevant to study in the concentration.

Students are admitted into the Ph.D. program. If they do not have a M.S. degree in Development Studies or a related discipline, they will complete a qualifying paper or M.S. thesis as part of their training.

Ph.D. in Development Sociology

The Graduate Field of Development Studies offers a single Ph.D. degree track in Development Sociology. With an acceptance rate of 15%, our cohort of 45 Ph.D. candidates come from backgrounds including journalism, natural resources, environmental studies, sociology and more.

The Department of Global Development works together with the Cornell Graduate School to process applications. Required documents must be submitted online via the Graduate School online application and requested test scores must be sent through the testing agency.

Application deadline

December 1; no spring admissions

Before You Begin

  • Graduate study at Cornell is organized using a field structure. You can familiarize yourself with this structure to gain a better understanding of which faculty members might serve on your dissertation committee.
  • The application will ask for your major concentration. The options are Population and Development, Rural and Environmental Sociology, and State, Economy, and Society. Here you will find an overview of the concentrations as well as a list of core and affiliate faculty associated with each concentration. You can also review the Student Handbook
  • You are encouraged to familiarize yourself with faculty members' research areas before applying and to identify in your personal statement faculty members with whom you are interested in working. It is appropriate to email faculty members to see whether your interests and goals align, though this is not required.
  • Please contact the aeb238 [at] (graduate field coordinator) if you are interested in visiting campus before you apply.

How to Apply

Submitted by the applicant via the online application

  • all Graduate School Requirements, including the TOEFL Exam or IELTS Academic Exam for non-native English applicants
  • Academic CV (upload PDF)
  • Short writing sample (under 10 pages, upload PDF)

Submitted by recommenders via the online application

  • Three letters of recommendation must be on business letter and contain a signature of the letter writer, two of which must be from academic recommenders

Submitted by the testing agency to the Cornell Graduate School upon applicant’s request

  • TOEFL Exam scores are required of applicants from countries where the native language is not English; see the Cornell Graduate School website for requirements and exceptions.


Contact Rachel Bezner Kerr, Director of the Development Studies Graduate Field at rbeznerkerr [at] (rbeznerkerr[at]cornell[dot]edu).

Those admitted to the Ph.D. program are guaranteed 5 years of funding. This includes tuition, health insurance, and a stipend.

Stipends for academic year 2022-23 are $30,088. For 2022, the estimated living expenses are:

  • Rent and utilities:  $1,500 - $2,000/month
  • Food:  $300/month
  • Student Activity Fee:  $86/Year
  • Health Insurance for spouse/domestic partner:  $3,612/year; for one child: $3,612/year; for two or more children: $7,224
  • Optional dental plan: $271.15*
  • Optional vision plan:  $4.65/monthly*

*Coverage available for spouse/domestic partner and children at additional cost

Application Fee Waiver

In cases of extreme financial need, the Graduate School will consider a request for a fee waiver.  If you think you are eligible for a waiver, please submit your application and the fee waiver request at the same time, right in the application form.  The Graduate School reviews waiver requests and notifications are sent within one to three business days.  Whenever possible, please submit your application with the fee waiver request at least three days before your application deadline.  If your request is denied, you will receive a notification asking you to revisit your application and pay the fee.  Please visit the Graduate School Application Fees website for additional information on fee waivers.

Cornell offers several fellowships for newly admitted students, including the CALS Excellence Award and the SUNY Diversity Fellowship.  These are determined by the department at the time of admission.

Teaching and Research Assistantships

  • determined on a yearly basis
  • include tuition, a stipend and student health insurance
  • students are expected to work about 15 hours per week

For the academic year 2022-23, tuition is $20,800, the stipend is $30,088 and student health insurance (or SHP) is $4,046.  Summer and conference travel grants are available for students to apply to.

The Graduate School offers more information on available fellowships for Cornell students.

Cornell Graduate School Travel Funding

The Graduate School is pleased to provide research degree students (M.A./M.S., Ph.D., J.S.D., D.M.A., M.F.A.) with financial support for travel that is linked to research and scholarship.  Eligible students are encouraged to apply for grant funding related to professional conferences, research travel, or summer language education. Ph.D. students are eligible for travel grants starting in their first semester until the end of the fourteenth semester of enrollment.

Visit the Graduate School Travel Funding Opportunities page to learn about the following: 

  • Conference Grant 
  • Research Travel Grant 

  • Intercampus Travel Grant 

  • Summer Foreign Language Grant 

Department Conference Travel Grants

  • Graduate students will be eligible for up to two conference grants of $400 during their graduate career.  A student must be making an oral presentation at a conference in order to be eligible for an award.  Graduate students who wish to use conference grant funding from the Graduate School or any other source and conference grant funding from Global Development must demonstrate a financial need by presenting a budget to the graduate program coordinator for review and approval.
  • Travelers should review Cornell’s Travel website.

Mario Einaudi Center grants

Dissertation Research Grant

The Ronny Adhikarya Niche Award (RANA)

  • The R-Adhikarya “Niche” Award (RANA) empowers students to pursue innovative thinking in their studies and careers. This $10,000 annual prize to a graduate student in Global Development recognizes young visionaries who dare to think differently. 

The Cornell Graduate School hosts a database containing over 700 funding opportunities. Here is a list of common sources of funding for Development Studies students, based on the previous five years:

Other funding sources:

Faculty in the field rely on a wide range of domestic and international funding to support research and graduate students. Graduate students also successfully apply for a wide range of internal and external grants for their fieldwork, such as the Wenner Gren fellowship, National Science Foundation and Fulbright fellowships.
Students and faculty members are actively conducting research around the globe, both in the United States and elsewhere. Although some doctoral dissertations are based on field-collected data, other candidates rely on rich secondary-data resources, working closely with the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER) and the various libraries on campus.

Faculty members also participate in other fields such as Natural Resources, City and Regional Planning, Anthropology, Crop and Soil Sciences, in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and in the area studies programs for Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Several of those programs have supported dissertation research overseas. The department is also home to the Polson Institute for Global Development, which funds assorted working group research initiatives in the U.S. and abroad.


Students in the field of Development Studies engage in theoretical and applied research, teaching, and outreach on the causes, dynamics, and consequences of social, cultural, political and economic change.

The program offers preparation for academic careers in development studies, sociology, rural sociology, geography and related fields, and for applied careers in development studies, including development work in the United States and other countries.

For the Ph.D. degree, students are expected to demonstrate (1) a thorough knowledge of social theory, with special emphasis on theories in their academic concentrations, (2) comprehensive knowledge of the body of work that is pertinent to their concentrations, and (3) knowledge of multiple research methods, with special emphasis on research design, data collection, and analytical techniques used in the discipline.

Learning Goals

By the time you graduate from our program, you should be able to analyze the world as a social scientist with expertise in development studies. This means that you will be able to synthesize a range of social science and related technical knowledge and apply it to today’s problems. You should be able to think critically and independently and generate research that makes a substantial contribution to the field.  We offer courses that foster foundational skills in both theory and method, and we provide courses that teach specialized skills in sub-areas that are central to Development Studies.  You should be able to use what you learn here to enter a career in academia, in the public or private sector, or in development practice.

Students in our field must be able to convey the results of their research in writing and through their spoken abilities. You will be given ample opportunity to prepare your research for presentation in coursework and eventually at conferences. It will be important to organize material for a clear and concise presentation and to adhere to time guidelines. When you are ready to present your work at professional meetings, we will encourage an in-house public presentation first, so that you can receive constructive feedback on the substance or your work and your presentation style.

It is critical that Development Studies scholars be aware of and able to adhere to ethical guidelines regarding the conduct and dissemination of their research, whether the research is an individual project or a collaborative one. Students in our program must take part in Institutional Review Board (IRB) training and any research involving human subjects must receive IRB approval before it is begun.


A candidate for a Ph.D. in Development Studies is expected to demonstrate mastery of knowledge in theory and method and to be able to make original and significant contributions to the field upon completion of her/his degree. 

Proficiencies that are required to be demonstrated by the candidate:

Make an original and substantial contribution to the discipline through the following:

  • Demonstrate your understanding of the field of knowledge in our discipline
  • Be able to identify new research opportunities 
  • Be able to identify an important research question
  • Think critically and creatively
  • Synthesize knowledge and apply in important innovative research 

Acquire and communicate advanced research skills

  • Synthesize existing knowledge
  • Master existing quantitative and qualitative research methods 
  • Master oral and written communication skills for conveying information clearly and effectively

A commitment to advancing scholarship

  • Gain and maintain familiarity with core knowledge and advances in the field



Lecturer Sarah Giroux and graduate student Anthony Poon discuss research

Population & Development

Focuses on theoretical, methodological and applied aspects of population and development in both developing countries and the United States from a social demography perspective emphasis on links between population, food and environmental sustainability, fertility, and population movements.

Environment & Development

Emphasis on environmental equity and rural sustainability, social carrying capacity and the nexus between poverty and resource allocation, access and use, and devolution of power and responsibility.

State, Economy, & Society

State, Economy, & Society combines themes of political and economic sociology, within macro- and micro-comparative and historical approaches, emphasizes general training in the social change and development area to enhance students' credentials for general sociology programs, and views development as less the analysis of the Third World, and more the analysis of global and local processes with broad variation.

Our Experts

Rachel Bezner Kerr headshot
Rachel Bezner Kerr


Department of Global Development

Director of Graduate Studies, Graduate Field of Development Studies

Department of Global Development

Director, Institute for African Development

Global Cornell

Rachel Bezner Kerr
Food And Agriculture
Headshot of Derar Lulu
Derar Lulu

Graduate Field Coordinator

Department of Global Development

Derar Lulu
  • dl987 [at]