PhD Program in Social & Engineering Systems

The Doctoral Program in Social and Engineering Systems (SES) is a unique research program focused on addressing concrete and societally significant problems by combining methods from engineering and the social sciences.

The first part of a student’s program consists of advanced, rigorous, and challenging classes (more details below). The lists of acceptable classes approved by the SES Graduate Program Committee (SES-GPC) will evolve as the SES program is offered, often originating from petitions by students and their advisors.

However, classes are just the first part of the doctoral program. After passing both the written and oral portion of the qualifying exam, the balance of a student’s academic activity will shift from classes to research. This immersion in research is the centerpiece of the SES program.

To get a sense of the style and variety of research that is carried out within IDSS please visit the web pages that describe some of IDSS’s domains of expertise as well as the web pages of individual IDSS faculty and senior research staff members. You may also find the videos from the recent IDSS Launch Symposium to be quite informative about the broader vision.

Applications are due December 15. The application opens around September 15.


The Character of the Program

  1. It is driven by problems of societal interest. The focus of the program is the study of problems that correspond to significant societal challenges, with emphasis on areas such as energy systems, finance, health care, social networks, and urban systems. This includes analytical research that can be used to inform policy making. An example of work that falls under this program would be studying systemic risk in the banking system and its impact on the overall financial system. In contrast, profit-maximizing portfolio management does not.
  2. It is application domain driven. For example, a student may be interested in problems related to the delivery of resources (e.g., vaccines and medical equipment) to control epidemics, using realistic models that take into account data and institutional aspects. This should be contrasted to a theoretical thesis that develops general, context-independent, analytical methodologies. Of course, an application-driven thesis may have to develop new analytical tools; this would be highly desirable, but the starting point should be the societal problem, not the methodology.
  3. It involves quantitative methods. Societal problems or policy questions can be addressed from many different angles. However, this program focuses on problems that can be addressed through mathematical modeling, data analysis, and other quantitative methods.
  4. It relies on real-world data. Research is expected to analyze data from the application domain of interest, and thus training in statistics is part of the program.
  5. It engages societal aspects of the problem. The research is expected to examine the societal aspects of a problem (e.g., regulations, institutions, human behavior, or economic aspects), using theories and tools from the social sciences.


The class requirements for the doctoral program follow. In some cases classes will be selected from pre-approved class lists and in other cases classes will be subject to approval by the SES-GPC.


Take 3 of the 4 following classes. With academic advisor approval, substitutions may be possible for 6.436 and 6.251.

  • 6.436 Fundamentals of Probability
  • 6.251 Introduction to Mathematical Programming
  • 14.121 & 14.122 Microeconomic Theory I & II
  • 21A.809 Designing Empirical Research in the Social Sciences

Information, Systems, and Decision Science

5 classes. These will be rigorous classes in the areas of probabilistic modeling, statistics, optimization, and systems/control theory. Classes used to satisfy the core can be counted toward this requirement. However, the remaining classes should be at a more-advanced level. One subject must involve the statistical processing of data. One subject must have substantial mathematical content (as defined by the IDSS-GPC). Two classes must belong to a sequence that provides increasing depth on a particular topic.

Social Science

4 classes. A student proposes a coherent and rigorous program-of-study in the social sciences that provides the background necessary for the student’s research. Classes used to satisfy the core can be counted toward this requirement. However, the remaining courses should be at a more-advanced level. Three classes must form a coherent collection that builds depth in a particular social science focus area.

Problem Domain

2 classes. A student takes a total of two classes in the application domain of their research. One class may also be counted toward the social science requirement. Another class may be satisfied by an internship or independent study in which the student is graded on their performance of hands-on work in a particular domain.


Qualifying Exam

Written Qualifying Exams

A student takes the written qualifying exams in December of their second year (the end of their third semester in the program). The student is examined on three of the core classes, and passes the written qualifying exams by passing each of these three core areas. Students may retake core area exams that they may have failed in May of their second year (the end of their fourth semester in the program) for a total of two attempts. In specific circumstances it may be possible to waive a core area exam if the student’s performance in the corresponding core class was strong.

Oral Qualifying Exam

Between the student’s fourth and sixth semester in the program, and after the student passes the written qualifying exams, they take the oral qualifying exam. The oral qualifying exam includes a research presentation by the student. To pass the oral qualifying exam a student must demonstrate the ability to undertake doctoral-level research and to handle questions about that research, including extensions to related problems.


More questions?

They might be answered in the Frequently Asked Admissions Questions or in the SES Policies & Procedures. If not, get in touch!

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