Environmental Life Sciences, PhD

The environmental life sciences PhD program is a unique degree that trains students to solve complex environmental challenges and explore ecological questions in the context of natural and human-caused environmental change.  

Arizona State University is an innovative leader in interdisciplinary environmental research. Our faculty participate in novel, collaborative, academic units. In this program, you'll perform research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. Participating faculty come from eight diverse academic units and each student will work with professors from at least two of these units.

You will participate in field work at local, national, and international field sites, including NSF Central Arizona Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research site; NSF-NEON Santa Rita Experimental Range; NSF Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research site; and sites in Australia and Namibia. Also, you'll have access to a wide variety of research laboratories and instruments, including facilities for microscopy, genome sequencing, mass spectrometry and chemical analyses.

This program will prepare you for a range of careers related to global environmental change. Our graduates have secured positions as researchers in government laboratories, university professors and staff scientists in conservation organizations.

You will participate in funded research projects that address some of the most difficult and pertinent environmental issues of our time. We will train you to take an integrative approach to studying today's environmental challenges so that you will be positioned as a leader in tackling future challenges in our changing world.

44 program faculty
8 academic units
29 students

Degree Overview

Environmental life sciences is an interdisciplinary program providing focused training on ecological and environmental questions in a changing world. 84 credits are required, including one core class, electives, seminars, reading groups and research. We encourage you to explore and solve complex questions in the context of natural and anthropogenic environmental change.

Participants include:

How to apply

The environmental life sciences PhD program admits one group of students annually to start the program the following August. Before applying, we encourage you to read our Tips for Applying.

Follow the Apply Now  link.
You will be asked to:

  • review university standards, degree program timelines and application requirements
  • complete graduate admission application
  • send official transcripts and language tests (international students only)
  • complete academic record form 
  • submit non-refundable application fee

Application deadline
Applications are accepted Sept. 1 - Dec. 15. There is no guarantee that applications received after Dec. 15 will be reviewed.

In January, the top applicants will be invited to a recruitment event scheduled in mid- to late-February. We will notify you of your admissions status by April 15. 

Desired qualifications include:

  • research experience 
  • undergraduate GPA minimum 3.0 (on 4.0 scale)
  • international students: TOEFL score of 100, or IELTS score of 6.5

We guarantee 5 years of academic-year funding as a teaching or research assistant. This includes stipend, insurance and tuition support to cover the required 84 hours for the degree.

This program allowed to me to work with 8 faculty mentors in four departments. My research had a wider breadth of applications and I have a greater understanding of more fields.
—Jorge Ramos, alumnus, now with Conservation International


The PhD in environmental life sciences is a research degree culminating in a dissertation that must draw upon multiple disciplinary perspectives. You must complete 84 credit hours, 12 of which are for dissertation.

You may apply up to 30 hours from a prior master's degree toward the total credit hour requirement — after the program steering committee provides its approval. Working with your supervisory committee, you'll develop a unique study plan, which your committee will approve.

There are no foreign language or statistics requirements, except as needed for your particular dissertation project. You will complete the following coursework and milestones.


 Credit Hours

Core courses


Elective courses






Total hours required


Courses and electives

The Environmental Life Sciences program is a research-based degree, focused on developing skills for collaborative and integrative study of global environmental change. You will gain interdisciplinary skills by working with research mentors from at least two academic units at ASU. You will also work with your mentor to define and carry out a research project or series of projects.

Coursework provides the additional training needed to support your research activities. Throughout this program, you will be expected to develop into an independent and creative scientist. Skills in scientific publishing are a key component of scientific training. You will be expected to write several publications for peer-reviewed journals prior to graduation.

ELS 501
Grand Challenges in Environmental Life Sciences (3). This course is required during your first semester and is intended to introduce first-year graduate students to a range of topics, resources and faculty members in environmental life science. The course may be co-instructed and run by different faculty members each year. You will complete writing assignments based on active discussion of current literature. 

At least two elective courses (3 credit hours each) are required from 500+ level courses related to the following topics:

  • Earth sciences (e.g., geology, hydrology)
  • organismal biology (e.g., physiology and behavior)
  • evolutionary biology (e.g., population genetics)
  • ecology/ecosystems/biogeochemistry
  • sustainability/social/policy

ELS 799, dissertation

Quantitative course (3 credit hours)
A 3-credit course in quantitative/modeling/statistics. Exact course to fulfill this requirement is selected in consultation with your supervisory committee.

Additional credits (60 credit hours)
The remaining credit hours will be filled by other graduate elective courses or ELS omnibus courses (ELS 790, doctoral reading and conference; ELS 792, Research.

During the second semester and in collaboration with your supervisory committee, you will develop a program of study (POS) that defines what courses you will take.


  • Semester 2: Graduate committee decided and program of study approved
  • Semesters 3-5: Comprehensive exams and defense of the dissertation prospectus
  • Defense of the dissertation

Requirements to advance to candidacy

  • Required coursework to demonstrate breadth of knowledge (3.0 GPA minimum)
  • Synthetic NSF-style proposal

A detailed description of the rationale and experimental plan of the thesis, in NSF grant-style, should be submitted to the graduate committee at least two months before the scheduled comprehensive exam date. You will be engaged in dissertation projects that explicitly involve interdisciplinary research and will be evaluated on it.

The dissertation committee will judge how well your research proposal is designed and justified. Within one month of receiving the dissertation prospectus, committee members should approve the prospectus as “ready to defend” and send any suggestions for prospectus approval to you. All committee members should indicate that the prospectus is “ready to defend” before the exam is held.

At the beginning of the exam, you will give a 15-30 minute presentation on their research plan. This part is open to a general audience of faculty, as well as to the supervisory committee. Questions from the committee in closed session should then focus on the prospectus and on your general knowledge of your research and teaching discipline.

You will submit your completed thesis to your committee members at least one month prior to the scheduled exam. You are strongly advised to work with your committee members, allowing them sufficient time to provide input on the chapters.

The first hour of the defense is a public presentation of the thesis research. After the public defense, you are examined by your graduate committee, which will judge whether your performance in the oral and written exams are sufficient to award the PhD degree.

We encourage you to take coursework across multiple disciplinary fields. Graduate elective courses 500-level or higher may be taken from any unit at ASU in consultation with your main advisor.



The Environmental Life Sciences PhD Program makes funding offers in conjunction with admission offers. The program director works with faculty who might serve on a prospective student’s advisory committee to develop funding from a variety of campus resources, such as research assistantships funded by faculty grants, teaching assistantships and fellowships.

Prospective students desiring funding should be sure to list three faculty members they may wish to work with on their online application.

External Support

We encourage all students to seek external support. The following funding agencies provide graduate student fellowships:

  1. National Science Foundation(link is external)
  2. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)(link is external)
  3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)(link is external)
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)(link is external)
  5. US Department of Agriculture (USDA)