Doctorate in complex adaptive systems science

Complex adaptive system concepts and methods serve as a common language to fuse different intellectual disciplines and thereby promote the interdisciplinary collaborations needed to come to grips with current and future intellectual and societal challenges of the 21st century. Rather than focus on specialized understanding of the characteristics of a limited suite of phenomena, as is common in most academic disciplines, the Complex Adaptive Systems doctoral program emphasizes the interconnections among phenomena comprising dynamic, evolving systems. Many of the systems most critical to human life and society can be approached in this way: from cells to organisms to populations to ecosystems to societies to technologies. 

Graduates of this in-person doctoral program will be fluent in the language, concepts, and methods of complexity needed to enable this innovative and valuable approach to understanding and addressing challenges of the complexly coupled human and natural world in which we live. ASU is already an international leader in complex adaptive systems science, with a growing constellation of research centers, and now the first of its kind School of Complex Adaptive Systems. By broadly embedding an understanding of complex adaptive system-relevant approaches into the practice of normal science, graduates of the PhD program will gain the ability to transform science, becoming global leaders in this emerging academic discipline.

The School of Complex Adaptive Systems in the College of Global Futures, the Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative with its 100+participating ASU faculty across more than 10 academic units, and our partner institution, the Santa Fe Institute with its resident and external faculty represent the world’s leading concentration of researchers in complex systems science. This group of faculty is able to offer a new, advanced doctoral degree program that is unique in both its scope and level of expertise. Students will benefit from the expertise of this large group of researchers with a unique combination of theoretical foundations, advanced methods, and practical applications in complex adaptive systems science.

This degree is the first of its kind in the US, and graduates will have multiple career opportunities. Complex adaptive systems science is an important part of solutions in such areas as sustainability, finance, social and ecological sciences, life sciences, biomedical sciences, geophysical sciences, and computer science. It is equally foundational for understanding risk and security.

Learning outcomes

The CASS PhD program promotes the development and testing of robust theory and sophisticated methods in a wider array of research settings. This is needed to develop a deeper understanding of the nature and dynamics of complex adaptive systems, grounded in concrete examples and applications. Students in the PhD in Complex Systems Science program will develop skills in theoretical foundations, modeling, problem solving, and critical thinking. By embracing this complex systems perspective on human and natural systems, and importantly, the multi-dimensional interconnections between them, graduates of this program will become advocates and leaders of a new kind of science with the potential to fundamentally transform society.

While all doctoral students will receive rigorous, advanced training in Complex Adaptive Systems concepts and methods, we envision two educational and career pathways for doctoral students.

Domain Science Emphasis: In this area of emphasis, students will enhance CAS-specific education with in-depth training in a social, life, physical science, or engineering field. They would be expected to be able to make significant contributions to their chosen domain science field from the perspective of CAS science.

Transdisciplinary Bridging Emphasis: In this track, students will enhance CAS-specific education with advanced training in computer science and data science. The goal of this track is to enable students to use a CAS perspective and framework as a bridge to enable intellectual fusion across multiple disciplines by applying advanced knowledge of CAS theory, data science, and information technology.


A total of 84 credit hours are required to complete this program for students entering with a BA or BS degree

Students who have already earned an MA or MS degree may be able to complete this program with only 54 credit hours of study with approval of the SCAS faculty.

Courses and electives

The required foundational and core methods courses provide all students in the program with a common understanding of key theory and concepts of complex adaptive systems science (CASS) and expertise in the advanced methods needed to apply CASS approaches in diverse fields.

Building on this fundamental base, students can then gain in-depth knowledge of how CASS approaches can be used in specific research and applied domains. Finally, students will have the opportunity to design and complete an applied project in a real-world context guided by a faculty mentor.

Required foundation courses: must take both (6 credit hours)

  • CAS 570 Fundamentals of Complex Adaptive Systems Science (3 credits)
  • CAS 571 Applications of Complex Adaptive Systems Science (3 credits)

Elective courses (54 credit hours or 24 credit hours for approved students entering with an MA/MS degree)

Elective courses will be selected by the student in consultation with and with the approval of a student’s doctoral supervisory committee. 

All students must demonstrate to the satisfaction of their doctoral supervisory committee competence in relevant quantitative and computational methods sufficient to carry out doctoral level research in complex adaptive systems science. The committee may require students to enroll in elective courses to gain expertise in relevant methods.

Independent research (12 credit hours)

Doctoral dissertation research (12 credit hours)