PhD in EEB - Sustainability Track

Illustration of two contrasting almond agroecosytems by artist Allyson Makuch in collaboration with Dr. Emily Reisman.

Illustration of two contrasting almond agroecosytems by artist Allyson Makuch in collaboration with Dr. Emily Reisman

Students acquire the advanced training to produce world-class researchers and scientists for the 21st Century by integrating across natural and social sciences to address sustainable wellbeing. The program is well suited to those investigating the political and ecological dimensions of environmental transformations, the relationship of science and society in advancing more sustainable futures, and novel approaches to community-based problem solving. Students will attain expertise in their research area and teaching required to pursue a career in academia, as well as the skills and qualifications needed to work in industry, government, and non-profits.

The PhD typically requires a minimum of four years to complete. The scope of the dissertation is larger than that required for a MS program, often encompassing several components to a research question. The PhD program also requires successful completion of a qualifying exam.

Advisory Committee

During the first semester in residence in the Program the student and their advisor will form an advisory committee for the purpose of selecting courses, conducting the qualifying exam and overseeing and ultimately approving the student’s PhD research. The Committee must contain a minimum of 3 faculty, two of whom are in the Department of Environment & Sustainability.  Each semester the Advisory Committee evaluates the student’s progress toward their degree and reports that progress to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). In cases in which the student is not making satisfactory progress, the advisory committee, by majority vote, can recommend to the DGS that the student be placed on probation. Students on probation will have two semesters to correct the deficiencies identified by the DGS. If they do not do so, they face dismissal.


In addition to meeting the Graduate School requirement of 72 credit hours, students are required to complete EVS 501 Fundamentals of Sustainability (3 credits), EVS 553 Foundations of Ecology (1 credit)
and EVS 554 Grad Research Seminar (1 credit) in their first two semesters; as well as enroll in EVS 555 Colloquium (1 credit) each semester until they are advanced to Candidacy (i.e., upon completion of their qualifying examination), and complete at least 16 additional hours of formal courses.

To promote interdisciplinary training, students are also required to take a minimum of one course (3 credits) from the Ecological Dimensions menu and 2 courses (6 credits) from the Social Dimensions course menus below (with option to substitute a course with advisor approval):

Ecological Dimensions

  • GEO 515     Conservation Biogeography
  • GEO 546    Global Change Ecology
  • GEO 570     Integrated Environment Management
  • GLY 569      Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Ecology
  • EVS 545      Restoration Ecology

Social Dimensions:

  • APY 619      Political Ecology
  • COM 640   Risk Communication
  • GEO 503    Environmental Governance
  • GEO 560    International Development
  • EVS 543      Business, Sustainability, and Society
  • EVS 560      Leadership in Sustainability
  • EVS 570      International Organizations, Gender and Sustainability
  • EVS 489      Sustainability & Social Theory
  • EVS 589      Emerging Technologies & Sustainability
  • EVS 589      Community Resilience to Natural Disasters
  • SOC 546     Environmental Sociology
  • URP 568      Environmental Planning & Policy

Students are expected to design a program, along with their adviser, that best fits their particular needs and interests. You must achieve proficiency in qualitative methods, quantitative methods, and a relevant professional skill(s) before advancing to candidacy. This can be accomplished through coursework, independent study or other experiential learning. The following are a preliminary list of courses likely to be relevant for students in the Sustainability track:

  • APY 508    Qualitative Research Methods
  • APY 546    Physical Anthropology Special Topics
  • APY 547    Behavioral Research Methods
  • BIO 500     Bioinformatics/Genome Analysis
  • BIO 525     Developmental Evolution
  • CIE 500      Economic Perspectives on Engineering Sustainability
  • ECO512      Environmental Economics
  • ENG 503    Professional Digital Communication
  • EVS 509     Advanced Ecology
  • GEO 503    Survey Methods for Human Geographers
  • GEO 508    Research Methods in Geography
  • GEO 577    Environmental Statistics
  • GEO 560   Geographical Information Systems
  • GLY 558     Macroevolution
  • GLY 565     Environmental Remote Sensing 
  • GLY 569     Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Ecology
  • PSY 634     Animal Behavior
  • PSY 640     Animal Communication
  • SOC 525    Race & Ethnic Relations
  • SOC 511     Social Stratification
  • SOC 504    Intro Stats for Social Sciences
  • URP 508    Race, Class, Gender and the City
  • URP 522    Economic Development Planning
  • URP 568    Environmental Planning & Policy
  • URP 578    Environmental Planning Methods for Sustainability

Qualifying Examination

The examination consists of two components, 1) an evaluation of the student’s background knowledge, and 2) a defense of a research proposal on the student’s PhD research. The background test is meant to test the student’s knowledge and understanding of material in evolutionary biology, ecology and behavior. The evaluation of the research proposal is meant to assess and provide feedback on the student’s research plan and assess their ability to collect, analyze and interpret the necessary data. Both components of the exam should be completed by the end of the student’s fourth semester in residence and in cases of required revision no later than the start of the 5th semester. A typical timetable will be to take the background exam at the start of the fourth semester and to defend the research proposal late in the fourth semester. Under exceptional circumstances the student may petition the DGS for an extension of the time limits for the qualifying examination.

The format of the background examination may be written or oral or some combination of the two at the advisory committee’s discretion. The exam may be held in any of the first four semesters in residence, but no later than the fourth semester in residence.  Prior to the semester in which the exam is to be taken the committee will meet with the student and communicate the format and scope of the exam to the student. The background component of the qualifying exam can be scored as pass, pass contingent upon successful completion of a course designated by the committee, pass contingent upon successful evaluation in a specific subject area designated by the committee, or fail. The score of the background portion of the qualifying exam will be based on the majority vote of all members of the advisory committee.

Following successful completion of the background exam the student will prepare a research proposal on their proposed PhD thesis research similar in form and detail to the project description of a National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health proposal.  The proposal will be provided to the committee no less than 1 month before the exam and the committee will return the proposal to the student with comments no less than 2 weeks before the exam. The exam must be held prior to the end of the 4th semester of residence.  The student will be expected to defend the research proposal and address the advisory committee comments in an oral examination that can include questions on the background, rationale, design, methodology and analysis of the proposed research. The research component of the exam will be scored as either passed, passed contingent on successful revision of the proposal or failed. The advisor will not participate in the final vote, and passing the exam will require approval of the advisor and the majority of the voting advisory committee members. In the case of a pass contingent on successful revision, the student must defend a revised version of the proposal no later than the start of the 5th semester.

PhD Dissertation

The Advisory Committee will oversee progress of the student’s research and will report that progress in evaluations each semester.  Following completion of the data collection and data analysis phases of the project the student will present their research results in a data review. At that time the Advisory Committee will determine whether the research is of sufficient scope and quality to proceed with the preparation of the dissertation. The student will then prepare a dissertation following guidelines set by the committee. Once a draft of the dissertation has been approved by the Advisor, the student provides each of the remaining Advisory Committee members with a copy of the dissertation. The Committee members may accept the dissertation as submitted or request revisions. The Advisory Committee may request comments on the dissertation from an outside reader, selected by the Advisory Committee. This may be especially valuable when the candidate’s research incorporates work that is outside the expertise of the majority of the advisory committee members. If the Advisory Committee invites comments from an outside reader those comments must also be received and addressed prior to the defense. Once the Committee members and Advisor approve any required revisions, the oral defense may be scheduled.

Oral Presentation and Defense

The PhD Dissertation must be presented orally before the Advisory Committee at an announced defense that is open to the University community. The date, time, and place of the defense are arranged between the student and the Advisory Committee and must be announced two weeks prior to the defense. To ensure the student has time to make the necessary revision after the defense, the defense must be held one month prior to Graduate School’s deadline for submitting materials.

The oral defense is open to all members of the UB academic community. The defense, chaired by a member of the thesis committee other than the major advisor, consists of a presentation by the candidate which should include a statement of the problem, methods used, results obtained, and conclusions reached. The presentation should be given as though it were a formal paper being presented at a scientific meeting.  Upon completion of the summary, attendees outside of the committee will be given an opportunity to ask questions.  The members of the committee will then question the student.  Immediately, after the committee has completed its questions, the committee along with any interested faculty will meet in private to discuss the outcome of the defense. The Advisory Committee will determine, if the oral defense was passed successfully and whether any revisions to the Dissertation are required. Members of the Advisory Committee will approve the final revisions to the Dissertation or at their discretion delegate that responsibility to the Advisor. In the event of failure, the student will be permitted a second oral exam which is to be scheduled in consultation with their committee.