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PhD in Environmental Studies

To address the most urgent challenges facing people and the planet today, the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change adopts an interdisciplinary approach to environmental studies, where the social sciences, humanities, arts and natural sciences meet and inform one another.

As a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies, you will be encouraged to use diverse theoretical approaches to explore complex environmental issues in their historical and comparative contexts, considering social, ecological, political, cultural and economic constraints and possibilities. You will be supported in your exploration of how theoretical and empirical concerns intersect, and how reflexive, rigorous, critical and creative thinking can inform interpretations, practices and policies.

Since the program was established in 1991, doctoral students in the Faculty have engaged with a wide array of environmental concerns and approaches related to natural, built, social, cultural, political, economic, organizational, spiritual, philosophical, artistic, literary and virtual environments.

Our students are inspired by a supportive and inclusive community of changemakers at York. Pursue a PhD in Environmental Studies to take your place as a champion of change.

Program Details

The PhD in Environmental Studies requires full-time registration for a maximum of 18 terms, six years (not including leaves of absence and other exceptional circumstances).

Our doctoral program follows three stages: Program Plan, Comprehensive Examination and Dissertation. The two first stages are regulated by the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, while the Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation are regulated primarily by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Program Plan Stage

The Program Plan stage typically spreads over two terms. In the first term, a PhD candidate develops their Program Plan with their supervisor and through the required ENVS 8102 PhD Research Seminar. The Program Plan serves as the student’s proposal for the comprehensive examinations.

The student also assembles their Comprehensive Committee, typically made up of the supervisor (from EUC) and two additional members (typically, with at least one of the additional members from EUC).

In the second term, the Program Plan is reviewed, revised and approved by the Advisory (Comprehensive) Committee. Once the Program Plan is approved, the student uploads in the Environmental Studies Graduate Dossier System.

Students are typically expected to have an approved Program Plan before the end of the third term.

Course Work

During the Program Plan and Comprehensive Examination stages, students are encouraged to take courses in EUC and other graduate programs at York University.

There is only one mandatory course in the PhD program, EU/ENVS 8102 PhD Research Seminar, for incoming PhD candidates in the first term of their program. It offers an introduction to select interdisciplinary themes in environmental studies. Critical exploration of interdisciplinary research problems assists with the preparation of the Program Plan and addresses questions emerging from the students’ comprehensive research fields. The course also provides opportunities to explore the various facets of academic life, including teaching, research, writing and professional development.

Grading in the Program is Pass/Fail. Students must receive a “Pass” grade in EU/ENVS 8102 to continue in the program. An “Unsatisfactory” grade will result in automatic withdrawal from the program.

The elective EU/ENVS 8102(b) PhD Research Design (Winter term) is highly recommended for second- and third-year students preparing their Dissertation Proposal. This seminar assists PhD candidates in developing their Dissertation Proposals through a critical and interdisciplinary exploration of research design and methodology.

Comprehensive Examination Stage

Following the approval of the Program Plan, students enter the Comprehensive Examination stage, which allows them to gain comprehensive knowledge of particular fields and theories (and their respective epistemologies and methodologies). During this stage, students are asked to read widely, yet in a focused way, to draw out prevailing themes, issues and debates in chosen literature.

The purpose of the PhD Comprehensive Examination is to ensure that the student:

1) has in-depth knowledge of the fields their research is situated in;

2) is capable of critically and rigorously engaging with current theoretical, methodological and/or empirical debates in their fields.

3) is capable of undertaking the independent work needed to successfully complete a dissertation and contribute to academic debates.

Format of Comprehensive Work

Each comprehensive field (generally two. occasionally three) is typically examined on the basis of a thorough literature review organized around the exploration of a problem, debate, theme, classificatory scheme, argument, trajectory or position within a (inter)disciplinary field.

Students are expected to review 60 to 75 significant books or their equivalent in articles or works in other formats in total across their comprehensive areas. Comprehensive work may take any of the following or other forms as defined and agreed upon with the Comprehensive Committee:

  • Integrated paper (25 to 30 double-spaced pages, plus bibliography) that exhaustively elaborates a particular aspect of the comprehensive area.
  • Review paper (30 to 40 double-spaced pages, plus bibliography) that systematically, synthetically and critically reviews a particular field.
  • Course syllabus (for an upper-level undergraduate course), including course rationale, readings, lecture topics, evaluation criteria and assignments. Course design usually also includes a teaching philosophy statement or reflection and lecture notes for two proposed classes.
  • Take-home examination paper(s) based on questions developed by the committee, with a clear deadline (not to exceed one term).
  • “In-situ” day exam based on questions handed out the same day or a few days ahead of time (materials and notes allowed).
  • Portfolio (two or three pieces of work), such as a refereed publication, exemplary course paper, book chapter, book reviews, conference papers and/or creative works.
  • Oral, visual or other type of original work (such as film, video, sculpture, dance, performance, multi-media, art installation) supported by a written account that conceptualizes related intellectual debates and issues.

Each comprehensive area is typically examined separately but may also be presented and examined collectively if agreed to the Comprehensive Committee.

The outcome of a Comprehensive Examination can either be acceptable, acceptable pending specified revisions or unsatisfactory. In the case of an unsatisfactory decision, the Comprehensive Committee shall give written instructions for revisions and schedule a second exam within a six-month period. Failure to pass a second exam will result in a withdrawal from the program for failure to meet academic standards.

Upon approval by their Comprehensive Committee, PhD students are required to upload each Comprehensive Examination into the Environmental Studies Graduate Dossier system.

Students are typically expected to finish this stage before the end of the eighth term.

Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation Stage

Following the successful completion of the Comprehensive Exams and coursework, a PhD student prepares their Dissertation Proposal. After the successful approval of the Dissertation Proposal, the student advances to candidacy (or ABD – all but dissertation).

The Dissertation Proposal is reviewed and approved by the student’s Supervisory Committee, which may consist of the same members as the Comprehensive Committee, as long as they are appointed to the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

The Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation are regulated by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), so the Supervisor and Supervisory Committee need to be officially nominated to the Faculty of Graduate Studies using the Supervisor & Supervisory Committee Approval form. The form is submitted to the Office of Student and Academic Services (OSAS) for the Graduate Program Director’s recommendation and FGS approval. PhD students are expected to have their Dissertation Proposal approved by their Dissertation Supervisory Committee before the end of the eighth term.

The process

The PhD Dissertation Proposal details the research topic and design, and must include a working title, a focused research statement, a succinct literature review, a detailed methodological section, a proposed schedule of activities, a tentative outline of the dissertation and an extensive bibliography. Recommended length varies between 3,500 and 6,000 words. The longer range (6,000 words) exceeds the FGS recommended proposal length so as to allow inclusion in the proposal of a topical literature review that might otherwise have been covered in a third Comprehensive Exam. Students should familiarize themselves with the FGS Dissertation Requirements and Process.

Graduate students undertaking research involving human participants are required to follow the appropriate procedures and obtain ethics approval before conducting research activities. All graduate student researchers must complete the TCPS tutorial to establish that they have completed the necessary education component and attach their certificate of completion to their protocols. Students also must maintain active registration status while conducting the approved research. For more information on the ethics protocols procedures for research involving Indigenous Peoples or the distinctions between funded/unfunded and minimal/more than minimal risk research, see Research Ethics on the FGS website.

Once approved, the Dissertation Proposal (including ethics protocols if human participants are involved in the research) is submitted to the Environmental Studies Graduate Dossier system for the Graduate Program Director’s recommendation and FGS approval.

A risk assessment, if applicable, must be approved by the Research Committee through submission in the Environmental Studies Graduate Dossier system.

Next Steps

Once the student has completed a full draft of the Dissertation, the supervisor and committee members must determine whether the Dissertation is suitable for examination. The supervisor is responsible for assembling the Dissertation Examination Committee and scheduling the Dissertation examination. A Recommendation for Oral Examination: Doctoral Dissertation Form must be submitted to OSAS for Graduate Program Director and FGS approvals. Contact for more information

The Dissertation must be completed before the 18th term. A student will be automatically withdrawn after 18 terms but may petition for a short extension or reinstatement to defend at a later time.