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Doctoral Programs

Doctoral Programs

The PhD prepares students most commonly for careers in academia. In more recent years, students earning their doctorate from the environmental programs at Duke have gone on to have satisfying careers in consulting, business, government, and other arenas that allow them to apply their knowledge. Doctoral students emphasize scholarly research as a major part of their degree programs though a growing number of students focus their research on those areas with direct practical applications. An active research program is a vital component of the Nicholas School of the Environment, and most of the research projects in the school utilize PhD candidates as research assistants. The Nicholas School does not normally consider applications for the MS, although some students may be awarded an MS as part of a doctoral program.

A majority of faculty in the Nicholas School are members of the faculty of The Graduate School and are actively involved in the training of doctoral (PhD) students in the fields of earth and ocean sciences, marine science and conservation, environmental, and toxicological sciences. Prospective students should contact individual faculty mentors prior to applying to the doctoral program to ensure mutual interests in research topics. Policies and procedures for admission and registration, academic regulations, and requirements for the PhD are given in detail in the bulletin of The Graduate School and not repeated in detail here.

Doctoral students are admitted to work with Nicholas School faculty by application handled entirely by Duke Graduate School through one of the six PhD programs:

  • Environment (ENV)

  • Earth and Climate Sciences (ECS)

  • Marine Science and Conservation (MSC)

  • Integrated Toxicology & Environmental Health Program (ITEHP)

  • University Program in Ecology (UPE), with an advisor chosen from within the Nicholas School faculty

  • University Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP), with an advisor chosen from within the Nicholas School faculty

Environment (ENV)

The Environment (ENV) PhD Program offers students opportunities to work with faculty who specialize in an array of disciplines within the physical, chemical, biological, and social sciences, as well as integration among them. Because of the intensive research nature of this degree, coursework is tailored to the particular needs of the research topic agreed upon by the student, the faculty mentor, and the committees involved. The ENV program is organized around four research themes: 

  • Ecosystem Science, which emphasizes conservation ecology, landscape ecology, wetland ecology, forest ecology, soils, biogeochemistry, and hydrology of watersheds

  • Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology, which emphasizes the fate and effects of natural and anthropogenic stressors, particularly chemicals, in the environment

  • Aquatic and Atmospheric Sciences, which concentrate on problems spanning natural divisions of the biosphere- soil, plants, lakes, watersheds, and the atmosphere

  • Environmental Social Sciences, which emphasize the management of natural resources and the environment by individuals and societies.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the individual faculty member under whose supervision they are interested in pursuing graduate study. Information about each faculty member’s area of research interest can be found in the Nicholas School of the Environment bulletin and on the school’s website at While the program does not admit students for an MS degree, this degree may be awarded as part of a PhD program. The AM degree is available only for students who wish to participate in the joint JD program between the Nicholas School and the School of Law. Direct inquiries to Information about the program and the faculty can be found at

Earth and Climate Sciences (ECS)

The Earth and Climate Sciences (ECS) PhD Program offers research opportunities in three broad areas of geoscience: earth-surface processes, oceans and climate, and earth resources. Earth-surface processes in ECS focus on the interactions between life, water, and landscapes including coastal ecomorphodynamics and remote sensing, watershed ecohydrology, and landscape evolution including that of coupled human-landscape systems. Oceans and climate research in ECS include ocean circulation, atmospheric dynamics, paleoclimatic/paleoenvironment reconstruction, marine biogeochemistry, and ocean/atmosphere interactions, particularly as they relate to global climate change. In addition, research in earth resources addresses the geologic formation and human use of mineral, energy, water, and land resources, including mineral formation, life-cycle analysis, energy consumption/emissions, water quality as it relates to human health, and the role of technology in the Anthropocene.

A student in the ECS PhD program may elect to get an MS degree while working toward the PhD. If this option is elected, the requirements are the same as for the MS program in terms of coursework, time limits, and thesis requirements. Direct inquiries to More information about the program and the faculty can be found at

Marine Science and Conservation (MSC) Doctoral Study at the Duke University Marine Laboratory

Duke Marine Laboratory (DUML) campus is located in the coastal town of Beaufort, NC, situated 180 miles from the main Durham campus. DUML is home to the Marine Science and Conservation (MSC) PhD Program established in 2008 with an interdisciplinary, research-focused, five-year program with an emphasis on both natural and social sciences. Faculty research in the MSC Division is focused on oceanography, marine biology, marine biomedicine, marine biotechnology, and coastal and marine policy and management. Faculty and students study the biology of marine species, address global-scale marine issues, and use advanced technologies, analysis, and modeling that allow science and policy to be evaluated across space, time, and disciplines.

MSC doctoral students typically spend the first two semesters taking graduate classes on the Durham campus before moving to Beaufort to complete their research; however, residence in Durham is not a requirement. Although the residency of the advisor is not necessary to study at the Marine Lab, some sources of funding are contingent upon having an advisor from the Marine Lab’s resident faculty. Students receive up to five years of full support, including stipend, tuition, and fees, if they maintain satisfactory progress toward their degree. Students seeking admission to the MSC program are encouraged to contact faculty of interest directly prior to submitting their application to The Graduate School.

For information on the MSC PhD, visit or contact Rachel Lo Piccolo, Program Coordinator of Graduate Studies, at or (252) 504-7585. Additional DUML information can be found at

Cooperative University Programs

Integrated Toxicology & Environmental Health Program (ITEHP)

The Integrated Toxicology & Environmental Health Program (ITEHP) provides students with the theoretical and practical bases for research, employment, and teaching in toxicology. This interdepartmental program brings together graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members from a variety of scientific disciplines to address exposure, toxicological, and associated environmental health problems from their molecular basis to clinical and environmental consequences. The ITEHP includes the participation of faculty members from the departments of biochemistry, cell biology, chemistry, engineering, neurobiology, pathology, pharmacology, and cancer biology, and the Nicholas School of the Environment, including the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Among the principal areas of concentration in the program are neurotoxicology and neurological disease, epigenetics, genetic toxicology, cancer, developmental toxicology, children’s health, environmental exposure and toxicology, and pulmonary toxicology and disease. Duke faculty members have a variety of collaborative research efforts and, in some cases, student rotations are available with scientists at the nearby laboratories of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Application to the program can be made in one of two ways:

  1. Direct Admission: If a student’s primary interest is toxicology, then they may apply for admission directly through the ITEHP. Applicants should indicate their Intended Degree on their Graduate School application as “PhD. (Biomedical Sciences Programs – School of Medicine)” and their Department/Degree as “Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health –Ph.D.” Students admitted directly into the program affiliate with a degree-granting department (including various PhD programs in the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering, or School of Medicine) depending upon their choice of a research mentor, typically at the end of their first year. Students directly admitted to ITEHP are awarded a full fellowship (tuition, fees, and stipend), and these training grant fellowships are restricted to US Citizens or Permanent Residents only. Non-US Citizens who are interested in ITEHP must apply via Option #2 below through a participating department and pursue the ITEHP certificate.

  2. Certificate Option: Students who do not meet direct-admission requirements or those with a primary interest in a departmentally-based field may also apply to the ITEHP by selecting their primary program of interest (e.g. “Environment – Ph.D.”) on their graduate school application, then entering “ITEHP Certificate” in the “Area(s) of Interest” field on the graduate school application. In addition, these students must send an email to to indicate interest in the ITEHP certificate. (It is also possible for PhD students to add the ITEHP certificate option after they matriculate. Contact the program for more details.)

There is no difference in the eventual degree granted through either mechanism; both routes result in a PhD granted by a specific department, with certification in toxicology.

Complete program details and contact information can be found at Further information may be obtained from the ITEHP Program at

University Program in Ecology (UPE)

The University Program in Ecology (UPE), formed in 2000, is an interdepartmental PhD program comprising faculty from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Arts, and Sciences (biology and evolutionary anthropology departments), The Pratt School of Engineering (department of civil and environmental engineering), and the Medical School (department of molecular genetics and microbiology). The UPE Program offers training toward a PhD in ecology.

The UPE provides interdisciplinary training in all aspects of ecology, including physiological and behavioral ecology; population and evolutionary ecology; community and landscape ecology; biogeochemistry; and ecosystem and global-change ecology. The program serves to integrate an exceptionally broad and diverse collection of faculty expertise found in various departments and schools at Duke. The UPE is a rigorous, research-oriented graduate program with an excellent record of scholarly publications by the program’s students. All students participate in a two-semester, graduate-level core course that focuses on both historical and contemporary foundations of ecology (theory, principles, and research); any additional coursework is tailored to each student’s specific interests and needs. Students organize and run a weekly seminar series and participate in reading groups, symposia, and other activities run by the program.

Special facilities for study and research include the Marine Lab (, Duke Forest (, Duke Wetlands Center (, the Organization for Tropical Studies (, plus an extraordinary array of major analytical equipment and additional resources (

Students seeking admission to the University Program in Ecology should file an application with The Graduate School, specifying consideration by the UPE and one of the participating departments. Direct inquiries to Find more information at

University Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP)

The University Program in Environmental Policy was established in 2010 and is jointly administered by the Nicholas School and the Sanford School of Public Policy. It is the first and only PhD program in the United States jointly administered by a school of the environment and a school of public policy. It is a multidisciplinary, research-focused five-year doctoral degree, intended to prepare candidates for positions in applied academic departments and professional schools (e.g., environment and natural resources, public policy, public administration, international affairs), domestic and international public agencies, and environmental organizations, research institutes, and policy-consulting firms. Although the program is multidisciplinary, it is designed to ensure that students have strength in a particular social science discipline. Students designate their concentration when applying and currently may select either environmental economics or environmental politics.

UPEP students work closely with PhD students in other disciplines, within each School as well as across Duke. We have close affiliations with Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environmental, & Sustainability and the Duke Global Health Institute.

Applicants from diverse academic, cultural, socioeconomic, and professional backgrounds are welcome. Approximately 3-5 students are projected to enter the program each fall, for a total of 20-25 students enrolled at any given time. Direct inquiries to Further information on the University Program in Environmental Policy can be found at

Graduate School Registration

Students in PhD programs initiate course registration through the directors of graduate studies of the Nicholas School (in Earth and Climate Sciences, Environment, University Program in Ecology, University Program in Environmental Policy, and University Program in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health) and/or their faculty advisor/s. Registration for courses is completed through the student online registration system (DukeHub). Registration requirements and procedures are described in the bulletin of The Graduate School, the department/program websites, and in consultation with faculty advisor(s).