Environmental Social Science PhD

The environmental social science program at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University focuses on the social dynamics of environmental issues. It is the only place where graduate students can partake in a transdisciplinary program that combines leading school and university-wide insights, methods and theories of planning, geography, anthropology, sociology, political economy and more, while still focusing on environment-related topics.

Reducing human impacts and developing more sustainable environmental practices will be difficult, if not impossible, without a fuller understanding of the social forces and dynamics at the root of human-environmental interactions. There is a pressing need for leadership in academic teaching, research, government and NGOs to investigate, articulate and advocate transdisciplinary social science understandings of the environmental crisis.

Students of this particular program are uniquely qualified to fill this need thanks to an education experience grounded in core research and theory, combined with the ability to tailor their doctoral program to specific environmental research interests. This results in highly individualized and flexible training with a focus on real-world skills. Current job titles held by alumni include social scientist, urban agriculture researcher, policy and advocacy specialist, and refugee employment researcher.

4½ years to degree
85% funding rate
15 faculty members

Degree Overview

The 84-credit program requires comprehensive exams, a prospectus and a dissertation.

We are very interested in graduate students who are open-minded, collaborative and wish to work in two or more of these areas, in which we provide particularly strong graduate-level training:

  • urban environments and environmental justice studies
  • environment and health systems
  • geographic information systems and GIScience
  • political and cultural ecology research
  • hazards geography and vulnerability studies
  • social network analysis in environmental research
  • archaeological studies and deep history of environments
  • institutional analysis and mathematical modeling
  • environmental and resource policy analysis


Students in this program may include the following optional concentration in their coursework and should consult the graduate advisor for more information.

Complex Adaptive Systems Science

This concentration trains the next generation of scientists in advanced concepts and methods needed for approaching diverse phenomena in the social and life sciences. The program is tightly integrated with diverse, ongoing, university-wide research on complex adaptive systems science and emphasizes the value of this perspective to give better insight and a more active role in seeking solutions to a broad array of critical issues facing our society today. Students will be fluent in the common language of complexity while also receiving a solid foundation in the domain knowledge of existing academic disciplines. Students will select 15 credits from an approved list of applicable courses.

How to apply


Prospective students must submit an application for graduate admission, the application fee and the following required materials:

  • official transcripts
  • personal statement outlining educational and professional goals
  • current curriculum vitae or resume
  • three letters of recommendation
  • proof of English proficiency

Applicants may also submit an optional scholarly writing sample not to exceed 20-30 double-spaced pages. More information on submitting your materials is available from the Graduate College.

To be considered, prospective students must have earned a bachelor's or master's degree from a regionally accredited institution. Applicants must have a minimum of a 3.00 cumulative GPA (scale is 4.00 = "A") in the last 60 hours of a student's first bachelor's degree program, or applicants must have a minimum of a 3.00 cumulative GPA (scale is 4.00 = "A") in an applicable master's degree program.

    Undergraduate coursework in the social sciences (e.g., geography, political science, sociology, anthropology, planning or history) is not a prerequisite for admission but is generally advisable. Students may be admitted without such a background and may be required to acquire knowledge of the social sciences in a manner to be specified at the time of admission.

    All program graduates are currently employed in academic or applied positions in environmental social science.


    The PhD in environmental social science requires a total of 84 credit hours. A previously awarded master’s degree in a related area can be used to satisfy 30 hours of this requirement. An additional 30 hours of coursework are required.


    Core courses


    Proposal writing course


    Technical expertise courses


    Approved elective courses






         Total credits


    Courses and electives

    Students entering the PhD in environmental social science do so with diverse backgrounds and with varied career goals, so we recognize the need to be flexible in planning the most appropriate path for each student. Thus, curricular tracks will tend to be individualized and final determination of the most appropriate course of study or how each requirement should most appropriately be met is made by a student’s advisory committee in consideration of the research and career goals of the student.

    All students will take the following core courses (6 credits):

    ESS 501 Social Theory and the Environment (3 credits)
    ESS 502 Political Ecology: Theory and Research (3 credits)

    Students select three of the following core courses (9 credits):

    ESS 504 Introduction to Analyzing Sociotechnical Systems (3 credits)
    ESS 510 Urban Environments (3 credits)
    ESS 512 Landscapes (3 credits)
    ESS 513 Institutions, Society and the Environment (4 credits)
    ESS 514 Health and the Environment (3 credits)

    One course, with the specific focus determined based on the student's interests and research plans.

    ASM 579 Proposal Writing (3 credits) (or equivalent)

    Two courses that provide intensive background in some area of science relevant to the student's research interests (6 credits).

    Students will choose the courses that best fit their needs in consultation with their committee (36 credits).

    Research Skills Portfolio
    The student writes two research papers that demonstrate the ability to systematically gather, analyze and interpret relevant information; and to use that information to address a question of interdisciplinary environmental research interest. Such papers are normally written in the context of program courses, but papers written in other contexts are also encouraged. Students present one of the research papers in a school-wide research symposium, held in the latter part of each spring semester.

    Doctoral Examinations
    Prior to advancing to candidacy, the student completes a written doctoral examination and prepares and orally defends a dissertation proposal (oral examination). The dissertation proposal should (in most cases) serve as the written part of the comprehensive exam. In other cases, a student may instead prepare one or two papers (typically a theory paper and a methods paper which directly contribute to the proposal).

    Students write a dissertation, which must be approved by their supervisory committee. The format of the dissertation must be in accordance with ASU Graduate College guidelines. While the ASU Graduate College will accept either three published papers or a dissertation format, for ESS students a research dissertation is almost always recommended to speed completion of the degree. The culmination is the public presentation and discussion of the dissertation, including answering questions from both the student’s committee and the public in attendance. Generally the public presentation will comprise a 20-25 minute summary of the dissertation and key findings, followed by questions from the committee and the audience, with no more than two hours allotted to the proceedings.

    ESS 792 Research (12 credits)
    ESS 799 Dissertation (12 credits)