Environmental and Earth Sciences


Core Courses and Degree Requirements - FAQ

What courses have to be taken for a Master‘s degree?

There are 12-15 credit hours of required core courses. These include 2-3 courses in science disciplines relevant to environmental science (biology, chemistry, and geology). Students with a Bachelor‘s degree in one of these areas are waived from the corresponding course. Students must also take an engineering course called Environmental Engineering for Environmental Scientists, and a second engineering course chosen from one dealing with water quality or one dealing with air quality. Finally, students must take one course in City and Regional Planning, chosen from a list of three possible courses.

In addition to these core courses, students in a non-thesis Master‘s program take 9 credit hours of electives (3 courses) concentrated in one of the disciplines participating in the program (Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Science, Civil Engineering, and Urban and Public Affairs), and another 12 credit hours of their choice. Students also have to take two one-credit hour seminar courses. Students in the thesis Master‘s program take 6 fewer credit hours of electives, and must complete the thesis (considered to be the equivalent of 6 credit hours).

All Master‘s students have a supervisory committee of at least 3 faculty members. This committee must approve all courses that are applied to the degree program. The chair of this committee is the student‘s major professor, and guides their thesis research, if that is being done.

What courses have to be taken for a Doctoral degree?

Doctoral students must have the equivalent of the Master‘s core courses described above, when admitted to the program. If not, they must take these courses after enrolling. Students in the BS-PhD track must complete the Master‘s core courses described above. Otherwise, there are no specific coursework requirements for the doctoral degree. All coursework for a doctoral degree is chosen in consultation with the major professor and a supervising committee of 5 faculty members. Coursework for doctoral students is assigned on a case-by-case basis to support the student‘s dissertation research and professional goals. Usually, at least about 30 credit hours of coursework is taken after admission to the Doctoral program.

Coursework is not the major issue in a Doctoral program. Doing good dissertation research is the most important thing. To achieve this, doctoral students need to put some thought into their own research interests, choose a major professor wisely, and plan to put their main efforts into research.

Can I complete the program part-time while working?

All the core courses and most of the elective courses for this program are offered in late afternoon or evening hours to facilitate the needs of working students. Most students who work full time and study part time are in the non-thesis Master‘s program. It is more difficult to set aside the time required for thesis or dissertation research. Some students have done so, but it is uncommon in our experience. Completing a thesis or dissertation is usually possible only if your employer is supportive. Some employers offer flexible working hours or leaves of absence to allow for research time. Others will provide time and support for a research project that is job-related and of benefit to the employer as well as the student.

How long does it take to get a degree?

Most full-time Master‘s students finish in about 2-3 years, and most full-time doctoral students take about 3-4 years from the time of admission to the doctoral program. Part-time students generally take up to twice as long to finish. But there is a lot of variation, depending on the courses taken and their scheduling, how much time can be allocated to studies, and how long it takes to do research and write a thesis or dissertation.

What are the requirements to remain in the program?

You have to keep a Grade Point Average of 3.0 or better, otherwise you go on academic probation. That gives you one semester to improve your record, or you must leave the program. Going on academic probation also puts financial aid at risk. If you are doing a thesis or dissertation you also have to make satisfactory progress on your research and keep your major professor happy. You have to register for at least one credit hour in each fall and spring semester, unless you apply for and receive a leave of absence from the Graduate School.

How are students in the program advised?

The program‘s Graduate Advisor tracks progress to make sure that various requirements and milestones are met. All students are assigned an initial faculty advisor who will guide their coursework and help them pick members of a supervisory committee. Students can change to another advisor, especially if they are going to do a thesis or dissertation, in which case the major professor becomes the faculty advisor.

What is the supervisory committee, what does it do, and how is it chosen?

Every student has a supervisory committee that is responsible for approving all coursework applied to satisfy degree requirements. The committee also administers exams related to the degree requirements. It consists of faculty members chosen in consultation with the major professor, Graduate Advisor, and other faculty members. Committee members are selected because their expertise matches the academic interests and professional goals of the student involved.

What exams are required for the degree program?

For a non-thesis Master‘s student, the Master‘s Comprehensive Exam is required. This is either oral (more common) or written, and involves questions covering areas studied in coursework taken in the program. It is taken in the last semester, prior to graduation.

For a thesis Master‘s student, there is a Master‘s Thesis Defense consisting of an oral presentation of the thesis research, followed by questions from the audience and the student‘s supervisory committee.

For a doctoral student, there are three exams. The Diagnostic Evaluation is taken within the first year of enrollment and is a review of the student‘s prior studies and research interests, conducted by the committee. The goal is to plan the area of research for the dissertation and the coursework that will support it. The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination is taken after most of this coursework is completed, and it consists of a written dissertation research proposal presented to the supervisory committee, which then asks questions and provides advice on completing the research. The Dissertation Defense consists of an oral presentation of the dissertation research, followed by questions from the audience and the student‘s supervisory committee.