PhD in Environmental Studies

The doctoral program in ENVS is a research-based graduate degree. Students within the program conduct research in a variety of environmental fields, usually working closely with one or more faculty advisors and committee members. The following sections outline key components of the program.

Key Information for Graduating PhD students

Note that the requirements for exams and committee membership were changed during 2016, so that these rules apply to students starting their degree in fall 2016. For older procedures see Pre-2016 Rules.

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Required Coursework and Meetings

The PhD requires completion of 32 course credit hours (see information on transferring credits below). These include two courses required of all students: two broad introductory three-credit courses (ENVS 5000, Science Policy and Values and ENVS 5003, Theory and Methods in Environment). These courses, which are typically taken during a student’s first year, are designed to expose students to the multiple fields of study that are strengths within the ENVS program and also to expose them to interdisciplinary approaches and methods to environmental problem-solving. All students must also take two semesters of ENVS Colloquium (2 course credits), a topical seminar series. Additional course work is designed to meet a student’s individual needs and interests and is initially formulated during a student’s Guidance Committee meeting at the beginning of their first semester.

The PhD also requires 30 hours of dissertation credits and successfully preparing and defending the doctoral dissertation.

There are four major meetings and examinations that a doctoral student must complete:

  1. Guidance Committee Meeting. During the first six weeks of each new student’s first semester (typically, the fall semester), a guidance committee of three faculty members will examine a student’s past course record (from undergraduate and past graduate work) and devise a program of coursework for that student. Responsibility for convening these meetings falls on the advisor. However, the Graduate Director and Graduate Assistant will aid in the scheduling of these meetings and, if needed, will intervene to ensure they occur on schedule. These committees and their meeting should be shaped by these considerations:
    • The committee should be composed of the primary advisor and at least two other faculty members. To ensure breadth of viewpoints, one member of the committee will be assigned by the Graduate Committee and will be someone outside the student’s specific areas of research interest. The GC must approve the composition of each committee to ensure that appropriate knowledge of ENVS procedures and history are represented.
    • Before the committee meeting, the student should provide a brief overview of his or her intellectual interests and provide an assessment of his or her own weaknesses and strengths in training.
    • The committee, working with the student, should devise a list of both suggested and mandated courses. Coursework can be specified as either a single course or type of course (e.g., ‘a course covering the use of multivariate statistics’ as opposed to a specific course number). In addition, the committee can suggest that the student TA certain classes as another way of exposing a student to particular fields; any such suggestions should consider the feasibility of the student actually being able to TA such a course. For some areas of the program, groups of faculty have coordinated on a common set of classes for their students to take
    • The assigned course work shouldprovide the student with depth of understanding in their research field or fields and also to ensure that the student has some breadth of training or experience in one or more other aspects of environmental studies.
    • While the number of classes suggested or mandated will vary depending on each student’s past training and research plans, a typical list of required classes for a PhD student should generally not exceed six such classes.
    • This first semester guidance committee’s work is finished after its one meeting, with no requirement that the members be on subsequent committees for a student.
  2. Preliminary Examination.  The first exam that a doctoral student must take is the preliminary exam, typically given in the second year of a student’s program. This exam should test a student’s understanding of material from the ENVS core classes, as well as the breadth and depth of their knowledge in their fields of inquiry. The ENVS preliminary exam consists of only a written exam, and must conform to the following rules:
    • Committee must have at least three members and may have up to five. The Graduate Committee must approve the composition of each committee to ensure that appropriate knowledge of ENVS procedures and history are represented.
    • By two months prior to the arranged exam date, committee members will provide the student with reading materials that cover both general and specific material upon which the exam will be based. It is the student’s responsibility to meet with committee members and obtain these reading lists prior to the exam date, as well as to set a time for their exam. ENVS typically designates one weekend per semester as the standard dates for prelim exams, but depending on student and faculty schedules, the exam may be taken at another time, if approved by the graduate director.
    • The chair of the exam committee (usually the student’s advisor) will assemble questions from the committee members and send them to the Graduate Assistant prior to the exam date. The Graduate Assistant will then deliver them to the student and to the graduate committee on the first day of the exam. Each committee member may mandate whether his or her questions are to be answered open book or closed book.
    • The student will have 4 days to answer the questions.
    • The student will deliver his or her answers to the Graduate Assistant and the committee members at the end of the exam. The committee will then have two weeks to read and score the answers. The committee will confer and decide whether the student receives a pass, fail, or a conditional pass. If a fail or conditional pass is assigned, the committee may decide to allow the student to retake some or all of the exam, or to do additional work to prove sufficient competence in areas of concern.

3. Prospectus Defense. The prospectus defense (also known officially as “Comprehensive Exam ”) is designed to assess a Ph.D. student’s knowledge of his or her research area and specifically to evaluate a student’s dissertation research proposal. At the prospectus defense meeting, the committee also will review the student’s completion of course work assigned in previous committee meetings: a student may advance to candidacy without completing all the formally assigned coursework with the approval of the committee.

The exam should be taken in a student’s fifth semester, and no later than the sixth semester, of graduate study in ENVS. Any exceptions to this rule will require the permission of the ENVS Graduate Committee. During the semester in which a student plans to defend the dissertation prospectus, an Admission to Candidacy application must be completed and approved by the faculty advisor and the Graduate Director, and submitted to the Graduate School at least three weeks before the prospectus defense. The Graduate Coordinator will also submit a Doctoral Exam report at this time to inform the Graduate School about the date of the exam and the composition of the committee.

The Prospectus Defense Committee is made up of five people, including the student’s primary advisor and four other members who are approved by the ENVS Graduate Committee and who are in a field related to the student’s area of research. Three of the members must be CU-Boulder Graduate Faculty and one must be from outside the ENVS program. The primary advisor and outside member of the committee must have regular or tenured Graduate Faculty appointments. The other committee members must have either regular or special Graduate Faculty appointments. For committee members not on the CU-Boulder faculty roster, students must submit a CV to the graduate school and request a "Special Appointment to the Graduate Faculty." Please consult the Graduate Coordinator for details.

At least two weeks before the scheduled meeting the student must submit to the dissertation committee a research proposal on the dissertation topic. A copy of this proposal must be submitted to every member of the committee. Students are strongly encouraged to consult with committee members and particularly their advisors as they prepare this document. The research proposal should include the following categories:

  • Abstract of proposed work.
  • General introduction that puts the proposed project into perspective and reviews the relevant literature in the field.
  • Rationale for and importance of the research.
  • Relevant preliminary research already completed or in progress.
  • Research design, including proposed methods and research plan.
  • References (not included in page count).

This document must be limited to 15 single-spaced pages, including figures and tables, but excluding references.

The student should prepare a 20-minute formal presentation on his/her research progress and research plan that will be presented at the exam meeting. The presentation should be of a format acceptable at a national professional meeting, should highlight the questions addressed by the student’s research, and include sufficient details on methods to be analyzed by the committee.

At the exam meeting, the student will deliver his or her presentation, to be followed by a discussion of the research presented by the student. Committee members will also probe the student’s knowledge of the contemporary and historical literature relating to the student’s proposed research. Students are encouraged to seek advice from all Prospectus Defense Committee members about their expectations concerning subject matter and level of knowledge for this exam. No restrictions are placed upon committee members with regard to subject matter relevant to the dissertation topic. The combination of the presentation and oral examination will take approximately two hours.

Following the exam, the committee should complete the Doctoral Examination report and return it to the Graduate Coordinator, and list one of three outcomes:

Pass: No additional requirements. Successful candidates must receive affirmative votes from a majority of the members of the committee.

Conditional Pass: A student receiving a conditional pass will be required to take additional requirements as required by the examining committee and will not pass the exam until they complete these requirements. A conditional pass will be assigned if a student 1) fails to demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the literature in their core research area, and/or 2) fails to articulate the motivation and design of their Ph.D. research in either the proposal or during the oral examination.

Fail: A student who fails the prospectus defense will either be asked to leave the program or required to retake the prospectus defense. A student may only re-defend once.

4. Dissertation. A doctoral student writes a dissertation based upon original investigation and showing mature scholarship and critical judgment as well as familiarity with tools and methods of research. The subject must be approved by the student’s major department.

  • Generally, a PhD is comprised of main chapters that could together comprise a viable book manuscript or result in three independent papers in leading peer-reviewed journals in the student's field. Short introductory and concluding chapters that frame the work and speak to its intellectual unity and contributions also are expected of most PhD dissertations.
  • Every dissertation presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an advanced degree must represent the equivalent of at least 30 semester hours of work.
  • The student is responsible for notifying the Graduate School of the exact title of the dissertation on or before the posted deadlines during the semester in which the doctoral degree is to be conferred.
  • The dissertation must comply in mechanical features with the specifications for theses and dissertations available in the Graduate School.

In addition, the doctoral dissertation should meet the following conditions:

  • Be filed electronically at by the posted deadlines in the Doctoral Packet for the semester in which the degree is to be conferred. 
  • A signature page with original signatures from the chair of the student’s committee and at least one other committee member must be submitted to the Graduate School by the same submission deadline.
  • Submission of the Survey of Earned Doctorates Form online at

The final grade for dissertation credits taken by a student is withheld until the dissertation is completed. In progress (IP) grades are assigned during each semester until the defense is successfully completed and the final copy of the dissertation is accepted by the examination committee, at which time the final grade for all dissertation hours is submitted to the Graduate School.

5. Dissertation Defense. The final step in a PhD is defense of the doctoral dissertation. Several steps must be followed for a valid dissertation defense meeting to be held:

  • PhD students must be registered as full-time, regular degree-seeking students at CU Boulder, for a minimum of 5 dissertation hours during the semester in which they pass the final examination.
  • Students must notify the Graduate School of their final oral examination at least two weeks before their scheduled examination date. The examination must be scheduled no later than the posted deadline for the semester in which the degree is to be conferred. This information should be provided on the Doctoral Examination Report and Leaflet.
  • This defense is wholly or partly oral, and consists of both a public presentation, open to anyone, and a closed door meeting with the committee. This committee is appointed by the chair of the major department and approved by the Dean of the Graduate School, and should consist of at least five persons, one of whom must be from outside the student’s major department. Three of the members must be CU Boulder Graduate Faculty. The chair and outside member of the committee must have regular or tenured Graduate Faculty appointments. The other committee members must have either regular or special Graduate Faculty appointments.

Following the defense meeting the committee votes on the outcome. More than one dissenting vote disqualifies the candidate. The committee chair and a majority of the committee must be present on the Boulder campus for the examination. A student who fails the examination may attempt it once more after a period of time determined by the examining committee.

Transfer Credit

Transfer credits from accredited institutions are accepted by CU Boulder only after approval by the faculty advisor and ENVS Graduate Director. A maximum of 21 transfer credits are accepted towards the PhD degree. Transfer credit is defined as any credit earned at another accredited institution, credits earned on another campus of the CU system, or credits earned as a non-degree student within the CU system. Students earning a master’s degree at CU Boulder may apply all 5000 level or above course work towards their PhD electives with the approval of the ENVS Graduate Committee.  Course transfer credit from courses taken at other universities or for online courses taken at the University of Colorado cannot be counted toward the fulfillment of Common Core Requirements, Secondary Core Requirements, or Required Interdisciplinary Electives.

Key Information for Graduating PhD students

Time Limit. PhD degree students have 6 years to complete all degree requirements. Students who fail to complete the degree in this six-year period may be dismissed from their program with the concurrence of the advisor. To continue, the student must file a petition for an extension of the time limit with the Dean of the Graduate School.

Online Graduation Application. Students must apply online to graduate. To do this, logon to On the Student tab, select the Apply for Graduation link under Academic Resources. This notifies the Graduate School and your department that you intend to graduate, and it provides necessary information to the Commencement Office for ordering and shipping diplomas. If you do not complete requirements for the graduation you indicate on the online application, you must apply online to graduate for the new graduation date. You must apply to graduate online whether or not you plan to attend the ceremony.

Graduation Forms & Information. The Graduate School has gathered important information required for graduation on its website. A deadline sheet and admission to candidacy form are included. Students should consult this website starting the semester before graduation in order to avoid missing important deadlines that will delay graduation.