STEPS Summer School: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

On this page you’ll find answers to some common question about the STEPS Centre’s annual Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability.

For up-to-date details on the course content and how to apply, read this year’s brochure and visit the application form via the main Summer School page.


How do you select participants? What are my chances of getting a place?

The Summer School is only open to those who are undertaking a PhD or have recently finished (and sometimes for those who are just about to start). You have to show your interest in the themes of the STEPS Centre, and link it to your own work. You must apply by the deadline. We aim for a diverse group by gender, geographical region, and theme of work. We look at your application and your reference, and make an assessment. It’s incredibly tough, as we usually have around 200-250 applicants for about 40 places. If your application isn’t successful the first time, you can try again.

Two weeks sounds like a long time. Other summer schools are only a week long.

The two weeks go by very quickly. The process we go through is much more in-depth than other summer schools. We really invest in getting to know you, and allow space for lots of different kinds of interactions. You get to explore a whole range of issues and get to know the group, and work together with other participants. Though you’ll be away for two weeks from writing, data analysis or other reading, you may save much more time in the longer term, as you reframe your ideas, focus your concepts, gain tips on new methods and so on!

You say it’s an immersive experience: that sounds scary!

By immersive, we mean it’s more than just listening to lectures. It’s about learning together and interacting with colleagues from all over the world. Immersion is also fun, as we have walkshops, socials and the final participant-led conference, which is often a spectacular affair.

It costs £1000: what does this pay for?

The Summer School is heavily subsidised and nearly all the time of the lecturers and professional staff is paid for separately. The fee covers direct costs, such as refreshments, lunches, walkshop transport, visiting speakers, drinks receptions and social events – yes, we have a few parties to help people get to know each other! And, most importantly, the fee allows us to offer some support with funding for those who can’t afford it, allowing diverse participation from across the world. As our participants have often pointed out in the feedback, it’s very good value for money. The acceptance letter can be used to apply for funding, and for a visa if required. Do apply for both well in advance!

Who comes to the Summer School? Since my research focus is rather narrow, will I feel alone?

We have a very diverse group each year – usually between 35-40 people, which we find is a good number to allow for wide participation amongst the group, and from many different countries (for example, in 2018 it was 23 countries). Everyone is working on ‘sustainability’, broadly defined, but may be working on very different topics within that. Recent examples include water resources in Uganda, transport in Germany, energy policy in India, smallholder agriculture in South Africa, and global climate change negotiations. The diversity is extraordinary.

But it’s not the focused subject that’s important, it’s the interest in engaging in wider debates about conceptualising sustainability, exploring the framings of issues and the role of science and evidence, thinking about the politics of policy, exploring inter- and transdisciplinary methods (in other words the themes of the ‘pathways approach’) that brings us together.

Will I be able to discuss and share my work and get advice on my PhD?

Yes! On the second day you will have the opportunity to share your work with others, and engage with themes associated with the STEPS Centre’s work. We hope this will allow you to think about your work in new ways. This day will be the start of a wider exploration. You won’t be presenting your PhD proposal or having a seminar on it – you can hopefully do this at your own university – but throughout you will engaging with themes and issues that will help you challenge your ideas and reflect on your work in new ways.  Participants find this really useful, and no matter where you are in your PhD process, or even if you’ve recently finished, many ideas emerge that will help in your research and writing.

Where is the STEPS Centre based?

STEPS is a research centre that is co-hosted by two institutions on the campus of the University of Sussex, about 4 miles away from the city of Brighton & Hove, UK. The two institutions are the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). For reasons of space, most of the course takes place at IDS, but SPRU is very nearby and some events take place in other buildings on campus. There are cycle routes and frequent bus and train links between the campus and the city.

Will I be able to engage with STEPS Centre faculty while I am at Sussex?

Absolutely. We have sessions delivered by 8-10 different staff members, from both the Institute of Development Studies and the Science Policy Research Unit, and others are involved in facilitating group sessions, attending walkshops and socials. Depending on their availability, we can point you to a wide range of research faculty linked to STEPS to set up individual sessions to discuss your work. The core faculty, including the co-directors of the Centre, are around most of the time. We enjoy the Summer School just as much as the participants, so we don’t want to miss any of it!

What does a participant-led conference mean?

This happens on the penultimate day of the Summer School. It is totally designed and led by the participants. It’s an opportunity for everyone to work together to reflect on some of the themes we’ve worked on. It’s completely up to you how to present this. We have had role plays, forum theatre, interactive games, poetry and song. And much more. It’s a great way to reflect and share your learning at the end of a busy two weeks. We always get new insights every year, including critical engagement with STEPS ideas and concepts.

I feel a bit alone in my department. Will I find kindred spirits who are committed to interdisciplinary working and have a political perspective on sustainability?

Yes, this is exactly the profile of Summer School participants. Many say that the Summer School is enlivening, enriching and affirming precisely because of exposure to like-minded people. We also encourage and help people to stay in touch after the course has finished. Many PhDs must be done within the confines of disciplinary (and disciplining) environments; the Summer School offers a liberating space for wide discussions. And normative, political commitments are encouraged, not hidden!

Do I have to do a lot of preparation in advance?

It is definitely worthwhile having a look at some STEPS Centre materials on our website, and think about how these relate to your own work. If you are going to read one thing, the book Dynamic Sustainabilities is worthwhile, but not essential. If you don’t have time, there’s no need to do a lot of reading or use our online course materials. We send round suggested readings for each of the sessions in advance. You can do this when you arrive (although it is very busy!) or dip in beforehand. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry: the Summer School is self-contained and you will get lots of material during the two weeks. It’s much less about ‘content’ but reflection and learning, which is why it’s great to be together for this intense period. Many people comment that it takes weeks and months before everything sinks in!

What’s Brighton like; is it really ‘summer’ in May?

Brighton is a fun city by the sea, with lots going on, especially in May. The Brighton Festival runs all month (along with the Fringe), and there are literally thousands of events on. You may not have time to see many, but check the programmes out. There are lots of free events too. May is the beginning of summer in the UK, and can be a glorious, sunny month, but (as ever in England), it can have occasional cold and wet days too! If you are accepted on the Summer School, we will send you information on accommodation, transport and so on to help you to find somewhere to stay.

What are the longer-term benefits of attending?

The STEPS Centre has an active alumni group, who continue conversations long after the Summer School is over. Joint writing and publications, helping out with job opportunities, raising funds for research and convening of workshops and conference panels are all activities that alumni have done together. Having access to this international network is an amazing opportunity not often afforded through PhD programmes.


If you have any other questions, please contact n.oxley@ids.ac.uk and we’ll do our best to help. For practical information about fees and applications, and details of the course content, see the brochure and application form on the main Summer School page.