Program Overview

Earth and Climate Sciences (ECS) at the Nicholas School offers a PhD in four broad research areas of geoscience:

  • Earth-surface sciences focus on processes that shape and change landscapes and environments--the interactions between life, water, and landscapes, including coastal geomorphology and ecomorphodynamics, and the evolution of coupled human-landscape systems as climate and societal forcings change.
  • Ocean, atmosphere and climate sciences include ocean circulation, atmospheric dynamics, marine biogeochemistry, and ocean/atmosphere interactions, particularly as they relate to global climate change.
  • Earth resources addresses the geologic formation and human use of mineral, energy, water, and land resources including mineral formation, life-cycle analysis, energy consumption/emissions, water quality as it relates to human health, and the role of technology in the Anthropocene. This area also includes evaluation of the health and economic impacts of changes in air quality and climate associated with policy choices.
  • The history of Earth and life encompasses the temporal evolution of our planet through its lifetime including aspects of paleoclimate, paleoceanography, and paleoenvironment. It asks the fundamental question: how did the geologic history of Earth affect its biotic evolution and biodiversity.

The ECS PhD program has minimal formal coursework requirement, in additional to individual needs and preferences determined by student, advisor, and committee.



List of Current ECS Students

Student name (matriculation year)

  • Aaliya Aaliya (2021)

  • Sofia Avendano (2021)

  • Erin Benson (2018)

  • Ariana de Souza (2020)

  • Shuai Gu (2018)

  • Perrin Hagge (2021)

  • Keqi He (2019)

  • Robert Hill (2021)

  • Ningjie Hu (2019)

  • Conner Lester (2020)

  • Alexandria Niebergall (2018)

  • Traian Nirca (2020)

  • Lauren Prox (2020)

  • Yiqun Tian (2021)

  • Zhen Wang (2018)

  • Gordon Williams (2020)

List updated 7/8/2021



How to Apply

  • Before applying to the ECS doctoral program it is critical to identify one or a few professors you would like to work with who can discuss program options. For further information, contact Brad Murray, Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), or one of the professors who mentor in the ECS program.
  • Applications are handled entirely through Duke’s Graduate School. See the Duke Graduate School Admissions page for details about admission and degree requirements.

For Current & Admitted Students

Program Requirements

A minimum of 30 units of credit are required. 

  • At least 24 of which must be graded, 12 of which must be in the major subject. Courses will preferably be in EOS/ENV. All courses must be approved by the PhD committee (or advisor in Year 1).
  • Courses need to be graduate level courses.
  • English language courses cannot count toward graded units, but can count as ungraded units.  However, they can’t account for more than 6 ungraded units.

If a graduate student joins ECS with a Master’s degree, he/she can request waiving:

  1. Some of the required courses but not the credits, 
    Or, in rare cases
  2. Part of the 30 credit requirements.

In both cases, a faculty vote is required. In the latter case, the student should be aware that should he/she fail to earn a PhD, he/she may not have enough credits for an ECS Master’s degree.

Required EOS courses

  • EOS 785S – Analyzing Current Contributions in Earth, Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences (2 credits/semester, 6 credits total, ungraded)

  • EOS 701S – Research Orientation Seminar

Required Duke courses

  • RCR – Responsible Conduct in Research offered at various times.
    12 credits required.
    These are not counted in the 30 units of credit.

With the approval of their Director of Graduate Studies, master’s students may enroll in undergraduate courses at Duke University to round out their programs of study. Students pursuing a master’s degree are limited to two undergraduate courses, and they must receive a grade of B- or better to have such courses counted as part of their earned graduate credit.

Timetable, Year by Year


First semester:

  • International students whose native language is not English must pass the English proficiency test or take appropriate Graduate School approved courses.

Second semester:

  • In consultation with your advisor select faculty members for your PhD committee.  Submit electronically the Committee Approval form to the Director of Graduate Studies Assistant (DGSA), Danielle Wiggins).
  • Consult with advisor and inform the Director of Graduate Studies (via the DGSA) whether or not you intend to take a Master’s degree on way to PhD.
  • In April submit your Annual Report to the DGSA


Third semester:

  • Meet with your committee before the end of the semester for progress review.
  • Submit the signed Committee Meeting form to the DGSA.

Fourth semester:

  • Complete Master’s degree if following that route. Follow graduate school deadlines regarding when to submit “Intent to Graduate” form, dissertation check, etc.
  • In April submit your Annual Report to the DGSA.


Fifth semester:

  • Normally you will take the Preliminary Exam in this semester.
  • Prior to the exam meet with your committee and submit the signed Committee Meeting form to the DGSA. The Preliminary Exam cannot be given prior to submission of the Committee Meeting form. 
  • E-mail a notice of your intent to take the Preliminary Exam to the DGSA at least 3 weeks prior to the exam.  Check Preliminary Exam Procedures (below) for requirements and what needs to be included in the e-mail.
  • The student should a submit a prelim proposal 2 weeks prior to the prelims which includes an introduction to the field of research, research questions (generally 3 or more, representing tentative thesis chapters), methods and proposed timeline for the PhD. The student should be well under way for the first research question (ideally with a submitted manuscript, or a draft of a manuscript, which would also be provided to the committee).

Sixth semester:

  • Preliminary Exam must be completed by the end of the semester.  If it is not, a request for extension must be sent to the Graduate School by the DGS and student’s advisor.
  • In April submit your Annual Report to the DGSA.


Seventh semester:

  • Meet with your committee before the end of the semester for progress review.
  • Submit the signed Committee Meeting form to the DGSA.

Eighth semester:

  • Begin organization for your dissertation.
  • In April submit your Annual Report to the DGSA.


Ninth semester:

  • Meet with your committee before the end of the semester for progress review.
  • Submit the signed Committee Meeting form to the DGSA.

Tenth semester:

  • Normally all PhD students should be finished by the end of this semester.
  • Exams must occur while a term for which you are registered is in session.
  • Dissertation must be provided to committee members at least 2 weeks prior to the defense (and can be extended to 1 month prior to the defense at the discretion of the committee).
  • Submit a Committee Approval Form with the final examination box checked at least 2 weeks before the exam.
  • E-mail the title of thesis and the planned date and time of your dissertation defense to the DGSA at least two weeks prior to the exam.
  • Follow graduate school deadlines regarding when to submit “Intent to Graduate” form, dissertation check, etc.

Your PhD Committee

  • Needs to be approved by the Graduate School at least 30 days before the Preliminary Exams are taken.

  • The committee consist of:
    • at least 4, and often 5, faculty members.
    • at least 2 graduate faculty members from the major department (ECS; secondary faculty members also qualify) and, usually, at least 1 from outside the department.
    • at least 1 member of the committee must represent the student's minor or related area; at least 3 must represent the major.
    • According the Graduate School Bulletin: “The requirements for the composition of the committee are the same, regardless of the examination, though its individual members may change over time. This committee also typically serves as an advisory committee to the student during his or her studies, and should be appointed to reflect research expertise that is helpful in guiding and evaluating the student’s research project. As early in a student’s course of study as is practicable and not later than one month (thirty days) before the preliminary examination, the director of graduate studies in the degree program will nominate for the approval of the associate dean a milestone committee consisting of at least four members of the Graduate Faculty, with one member designated as chair. The chair must be a full member of the Graduate Faculty and hold a faculty appointment in the degree-sponsoring program. Individual programs may specify whether the chair can or cannot be the primary research advisor. In all cases, this committee must include at least three Graduate Faculty members from the major field of study, and at least one from a minor area, being from outside the degree program or from a clearly differentiated subfield within the degree program. At least two members of the committee, including the chair, must be faculty in the degree-sponsoring department or program. A majority of the committee must be Duke University faculty members, except in the case of joint PhD programs with other universities. This committee, with all members participating, will determine a program of study and administer the preliminary examination. The student’s milestone committee, either the same or with some or all members replaced as needed, will also examine the dissertation and administer the final examination.”
  • The Committee Form (found on SAKAI, ECS Graduate Student) is filled out by the student and e-mailed to the DGSA who then puts it in the system, forwards it to the DGS for his electronic signature, and then forwards it to the Graduate School.
  • If a committee member is not a Graduate Faculty.  Another form needs to be filled out by the student.  The DGSA will advise the student if this is the case and will forward them the form to fill out.
  • The DGSA will forward you the confirmation from the Graduate School that your Committee Approval Form has been approved.  Please keep this for your records.  If you don’t receive it within 3 weeks please notify her.
  • Once you are ready to defend…if the committee is the same as when you did your prelims, send an e-mail to the graduate school stating it’s the same.  

​Preliminary Exam Procedures

  1. You need to take the exam during a semester, before the last day of Final Exams.

  2. Requirement:  Committee on file (on the Committee Approval Form) must be the committee that will be present on the day of the prelim.  If it won’t be the same, submit a new Committee Approval Form at least 30 days in advance of the exam.

  3. Reserve a room
  4. E-mail DGS and DGSA the following information at least 3 weeks prior to your prelims:
    • Title
    • Date
    • Committee members
    • Location
    • Time
      ​I’ll circulate the announcement.  It's a requirement that the announcement be posted 2 weeks before the exam.
  5. Prelim Exam Report Form
    I’ll fill out the form and put it in your mail box.
  6. After the exam you’ll have to:
    • Have the committee sign it.  Remote participants can e-mail their vote on their letterhead as a pdf file to the DGSA.  Templates for the text to use will be provided with the approval notice for remote participants.
    • Have the DGS sign it
    • Give copy to DGSA
    • Take it to the Graduate School
  7. Classes should be taken early during the PhD program. Ideally required courses and credit requirements should be fulfilled prior to the prelims (if not possible, request special permission from the DGS)

Notes:  Grad School will not approve the exam if the following requirements aren’t met.

  1. The committee must contain at least four graduate faculty members; AND
  2. All of the members on the officially-approved committee form, which was submitted to the Graduate School for approval, must be present for the exam.

If a committee member needs to participate remotely, the DGS needs to state the reason why and request permission from the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Graduate School.  Only 1 member can participate remotely, even if you have 5 members on the committee.