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Winter 2016
The Graduate Calendar

School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social and Ecological Sustainability
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The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in Social and Ecological Sustainability is devoted to understanding and pursuing sustainability in a dynamic and complex world, and to considering and integrating understanding across disciplines and scales from the organism to the planet.

Three broad conceptual themes guide the design and delivery of the PhD program:

  • Assessing the theoretical foundations and practical implications of progress towards sustainable societies, and application of this analysis as a broad context for specific work in particular situations;
  • Understanding socio-ecological interrelations as dynamic complex systems vulnerable to being over-stressed by human activities; and
  • Examining conventional and alternative social arrangements, including institutions and governance, as means of improving human wellbeing and environmental responsibility.

Within this general orientation, faculty and student research can be focused on quite specific topics but always with attention to the larger context of social and ecological systems and to the normative sustainability objectives within which the topics are embedded. Students pursue topics of particular interest to them, with guidance from faculty members and other people with appropriate experience.

Admission Requirements

Successful applicants must hold a Master's degree with distinction (typically an overall average of at least A-), or the equivalent. We are interested in applicants from a broad array of fields and combinations of fields, including but not limited to the following: anthropology, biology, business, communication, english, ecology, environmental studies, geography, planning, political science, engineering, sociology, and earth science. Beyond specialized training, most incoming students will have experience in a variety of fields of study and application. The program aims to provide the greatest possible flexibility for students to pursue a PhD that reflects both their previous training and their long-term intellectual vision.

Applicants to the doctoral program must use the University of Waterloo’s on-line application process.
The application materials must demonstrate that the applicant has the necessary background to pursue further graduate studies at the PhD level in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, and has a research agenda that fits with the Department’s capabilities. Key components of the application include:

  • transcripts;
  • three letters of reference, at least two of them from academic sources;
  • supplementary information form outlining
    • main areas of academic and other expertise, experience and curiosity;
    • the main area(s) of research the student hopes to emphasize in course and thesis work; and
    • information on prior education, training, practical experience, field work, publications, or other accomplishments pertinent to areas of interest. 

Attention to the areas of particular expertise available among faculty members (potential doctoral advisors) in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability is highly recommended. Applicants are strongly encouraged to contact prospective doctoral advisors to discuss their research interests. 

International Students - English Language Proficiency

Applicants who have not completed three or more years of post-secondary work at a Canadian institution or at an institution at which English was the primary language of instruction, or have not been employed for a similar period of time in a position in which English was the primary language of business will be required to provide certification of English language proficiency.

Accepted Examinations and Required Scores

Internet-based TOEFL: minimum score of 100, with minimum skill scores of 26 in each of speaking and writing;

Paper-based TOEFL: minimum of 600 overall is required and 5.0 on the TWE;

IELTS (International English Language Testing System): minimum score of 7.5;

MELAB (Michigan English Language Assessment Battery): minimum score of 90;

CAEL (Canadian Academic English Language Assessment): minimum score of 70 is required with 70 in writing and 70 in speaking;

EFAS (English for Academic Success [Renison University College, University of Waterloo]): 80% overall in level 400.


For current information on funding, see the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability website.

For information on scholarship possibilities, see the Graduate Studies Office website

Part-time Studies

This program will not normally be offered on a part-time basis. In exceptional circumstances, students may assume part-time status after their formal course work has been completed.  

Degree Requirements

To meet the program's degree requirements students must

  • complete a minimum of three one-term courses in the first year - the two core courses for students in the program (ERS 701 and ERS 702) plus one elective (a graduate course at the 600 level or above, selected in consultation with the advisor) and maintain an academic average of at least 80% in each of the core courses;
  • prepare and defend a written comprehensive examination to assess knowledge within the chosen research area, explicitly situated in the broad transdisciplinary context of the PhD program, as well as within the more specific context of the chosen research area;
  • prepare and defend a dissertation proposal, following successful completion of the comprehensive examination, and no later than the end of the second year;
  • present a lecture on some aspect of their research and findings at a Faculty of Environment research seminar prior to the end of their third year; and
  • write and defend a doctoral dissertation based on original research. 

Teaching experience (e.g. through teaching assistantships) will normally be part of the doctoral program for each student.

The University has set the minimum required enrolment period for the Doctoral degree at six terms (two years) from completion of a Master's degree, and has set the maximum period for full time students as twelve terms (four years) from completion of the Master's degree, though time extensions may be granted.

For further information regarding university regulations, see the Minimum Requirements for the PhD degree


Doctoral students are expected to define their own area of focus and research agenda, though in consultation with their advisors and other committee members.


Each student’s work in developing the dissertation proposal, conducting the research, and completing the dissertation will be done in close communication with the advisor and assisted by other members of his or her advisory committee. The advisory committee must be formed during the student’s first year in the program. 

Course Requirements

Two PhD seminar courses must be completed by all students: ERS 701: Socio-Ecological Systems and ERS 702: Critical Analysis and Advanced Research in Environmental Studies.

Each student will be required to take at least one additional course. This course-work will be determined through discussions with his or her committee, and will be based on previous training, area of specialization, and long-term academic vision. The third course will to seek to fill the greatest “gap” in his or her portfolio, perhaps related to their research or even to obtain an additional “teachable” for academic job applications. In some cases, it may be decided that a student would benefit from further specialization related to their area of study. In other cases, it may be deemed beneficial for a student to take a course in the field in which they have least training, so that they are more capable of moving in the direction of transdisciplinarity.

The third course will be taken at the graduate level and as such will emphasize independent reading and research. The third course may be a course offered in another department, including the Department of Geography and the School of Planning in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Students may be required to take additional courses to ensure they have the requisite research skills in their field, particularly related to methodology and statistics. The MES curriculum includes both a methods course (ERS 669: Research Design and Methods) and a proposal development course (ERS 670: Thesis Development), but it is assumed that, normally, students coming into the PhD program will have equivalent training and experience. Students may also choose to take supplemental courses later in their program based on discussions with their advisory committee. They will also need to do so if they fail their comprehensive exam (see below).

Course work requirements for students entering the PhD program from the MES

Such students may be required to take the PhD seminars described above, but they may also be exempted from some course-work if their committee concludes that this is warranted based on their previous training.

PhD Research seminars

PhD students will be required to publicly present some part of their PhD research in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability seminar series during their time in the program. They will also be expected to attend the seminar lectures during their tenure in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, especially during their first year in the program. This series will help to establish a community of scholars and will also nurture their awareness of research in other areas.

Comprehensive examination

Candidates must write a comprehensive exam within 16 months of beginning the program. Normally the exam will be held towards the end of the candidate‘s first year. The exam will be a “diagnostic”, with both oral and written components, which tests their breadth and depth of comprehension of the leading literature and perspectives in their field of study and their ability to situate that work in the broader context of concerns related to the sustainability of socio-ecological systems.

The identification and delineation of the “field of study” will be accomplished through discussions between the candidate and his or her comprehensives committee. Because of the transdisciplinary nature of the work, the “field” may in many cases represent a conjunction of thought and practice in several areas and/or from several perspectives. Background preparation for this aspect of the comprehensive exam may include course work, previous training and/or independent or directed reading. These preparations will be guided through discussions with the major advisor and committee regarding areas of strength and weakness in the candidate’s knowledge.

The comprehensive examination will also test the candidate’s broader understanding of transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability in socio-ecological systems discussed in the two core seminars. Specifically, candidates will need to situate their particular field of study in the broader context explored in the two core seminars.

The procedure for the comprehensive examination will be initiated by the supervisor, who in consultation with the candidate will identify appropriate members of the comprehensive advisory committee. That committee will be comprised of the supervisor (who must be a member of the department except in the case of co-supervisors, one of whom must be a member of the department), and at least two others, at least one of whom must be from outside the department. The Program Director, in consultation with the supervisor, will be responsible formally for establishing the comprehensive advisory committee as the examining committee for the comprehensive. The comprehensive question or questions will be proposed by the comprehensive advisory committee for the approval of the Program Director. The written comprehensive response will be subject to word and time limits, and an oral defence. Students must complete the comprehensive exam before proceeding to the dissertation stage. Failure to take the comprehensive exam within the first 16 months may result in dismissal from the program. Those who fail their exam may be permitted to re-take it once, but will first be required to take specified courses or to undertake other specified supplementary work to relieve weaknesses revealed by the first comprehensive. Candidates who are permitted to re-take the comprehensive after completing additional requirements must satisfy the comprehensive requirement within one calendar year after the unsuccessful attempt. Candidates who fail to meet these conditions will be required to withdraw.

Dissertation Proposal and Defence

A dissertation supervisory committee, composed of a supervisor and two faculty of the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability program (or one School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability faculty and one from another department), will be formed by the student with the agreement of the Program Director and the approval of the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies. Each supervisor must be accredited at the University of Waterloo as an Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS).

The candidate will be required to submit a dissertation proposal to his or her committee in time to defend it by the end of his or her second year (sixth term) in the program. In exceptional cases an extension to allow defence of the proposal in the seventh term may be permitted.

Before approving the proposal in cases where the proposed dissertation research depends significantly on texts and/or interviews and/or other communication in a language other than English, the dissertation supervisory committee must determine whether the candidate has sufficient proficiency in that language. If the candidate does not have sufficient proficiency in the view of the committee, the committee must prescribe suitable means for the candidate to achieve the necessary proficiency for the particular circumstances of the case. This may include requirements to take formal courses at the University and/or special training courses at the research location.

Upon formal approval of the proposal by the dissertation supervisory committee, the candidate proceeds to the research and writing of the dissertation. Candidates who fail to satisfy the dissertation proposal presentation and defence requirement within the established time frame will be asked to leave the program.

Normally, and in keeping with University of Waterloo regulations, students should complete and defend the dissertation within four years of starting the program. This time limit can be extended only by following the procedures outlined in the University of Waterloo’s Graduate Studies Calendar. Students may also fast-track and complete the program more quickly, but in no less than three years. The dissertation must draw upon transdisciplinary inquiry and it must be no more than 70,000 words in length.

Before the oral defence is scheduled, each student will be expected to have presented an element of his or her research at a minimum of one academic conference and submitted at least one paper from the research to a refereed journal.

When the dissertation is ready for defence, including completion of revisions recommended by the committee, an oral defence will be scheduled. The Doctoral Dissertation Examination Committee will consist of all members of the Supervisory Committee; an External Examiner chosen by the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies who shall be provided with a list of appropriate External Examiners recommended by the thesis supervisor and the Program Director; an Internal-External Examiner nominated by the supervisor; and a Dissertation Examination Chair appointed by the Associate Provost, Graduate Studies.

Graduate Studies Office
Needles Hall, Room 2201
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1
519 888 4567 x35411

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