Environmental Science and Engineering

Aims and Scope of the Graduate Program

The ESE graduate program trains doctoral students to solve fundamental problems in environmental science and engineering. The problems cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries and span space scales ranging from global to local. Students are trained to acquire a broad base of knowledge of environmental systems, including the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere. They deepen their knowledge in one or more focus areas, culminating in research leading to a Ph.D. thesis. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of research in the ESE program, the program unites faculty from the Divisions of Geological and Planetary Sciences, Engineering and Applied Science, and Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

Graduate Option Rep

Christian Frankenberg

Options Manager

Julie Lee

Graduate Admission

Applicants for admission to the ESE program should have undergraduate preparation in science, engineering, or mathematics. Admission is limited to students intending to pursue the Ph.D. degree.

Information on how to apply is available from the Office of Graduate Studies. The deadline for applications is January 1.


An academic adviser is appointed for each incoming student to assist in designing his or her academic program. The research adviser is chosen by mutual agreement of the student and adviser during the second year of graduate study, after passing the Ph.D. qualifying examination. The thesis advisory committee (TAC), consisting of four Caltech faculty members including the research adviser, should be constituted and meet with the student soon after the student passes the qualifying examination; thereafter, it should meet with the student annually to review progress and provide guidance and support. Committee membership may be changed if the student’s research interests change. The TAC generally serves to approve the student’s advancement to candidacy; it may also serve as the examining committee for the final thesis defense.

Master’s Degree

Students enrolled in the Ph.D. program may be awarded a master’s degree if they have satisfied the Institute requirement of 135 units of work in courses numbered 100 or higher. These courses must satisfy the course requirements of the ESE Ph.D. program.

Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

For the Ph.D. degree, a student must (1) satisfy the course requirements, (2) pass the qualifying examination, (3) advance to candidacy, and (4) complete a thesis and successfully defend it in a final oral examination.

Course Requirements

During their first year, students, in consultation with their academic advisers, must design a program of graduate study that includes a minimum of 135 units of graduate work to be completed before the end of the third year. The course program should take into account the students’ individual backgrounds and focus areas, educate them broadly in fundamental questions and methods of contemporary environmental science and engineering, and prepare them for their research.

The course program must include the core courses ESE 101, 102 and 103. Attendance at the weekly research seminars (ESE 104 and ESE 110abc) is required for first-year students and is expected of all graduate students. All students are expected to have knowledge of methods of applied mathematics and statistics on the level of courses such as Ge 108 and ACM/ESE 118. In cases of unusual preparation, students may petition to substitute a similar but more advanced course for one of the required courses.

Additionally, students are required to take 36 units of elective courses from two of the three groups below:

  • Environmental biology: ESE/Bi 166, ESE/Bi 168, Ge/ESE 170
  • Environmental chemistry: ESE/Ge/Ch 171, ESE 175, ESE 176
  • Environmental physics: ESE 130–138, ESE/Ge 139, Ge/ESE 150, ESE/ChE 158

The remaining units of graduate work can be fulfilled by a combination of elective courses in ESE or related disciplines, reading or laboratory courses (ESE 100), and research (ESE 105, 300).  Of the total required 135 units, no more than 45 units may be in research. No more than 27 research units may be taken during the first year of graduate study. Exceptions may be granted by petition.

Ph.D. Qualifying Examination

The Ph.D. qualifying examination must be taken during the first term of the student’s second year of residency. The examination consists principally of an oral defense of two research propositions, each advised by a different faculty member. Written abstracts must be submitted for both propositions, and one of them must be described in the form of a research report or proposal. The qualifying exam also covers the material of the ESE core courses and of the elective courses the student has taken. In preparation for the qualifying examination, students are encouraged to register for nine units of research (ESE 105) in their second and third terms of residence.

Advancement to Candidacy

Students are recommended to advance to candidacy following the successful completion of a candidacy exam with their Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC). The exam, consisting of both a written Ph.D. thesis proposal and an oral presentation of this plan is required, and must be approved by all TAC members. Advancement to candidacy, including all required course work, should be completed before the end of spring term in the student's third year of residency.

Thesis and Final Examination

Copies of the completed thesis must be provided to the examining committee two weeks before the final oral examination. The final oral examination focuses on the work of the thesis and, according to Institute regulations, must be held at least two weeks before the degree is conferred.

Subject Minor

Students majoring in another option at the Institute may elect a subject minor in environmental science and engineering. They must obtain approval from the ESE Academic Officer for a course of study containing at least 45 units of advanced ESE courses.