ESE PhD Model Program

This description of the Environmental Science & Engineering PhD course expectations augments the school-wide PhD course requirements.  Students should make themselves familiar with both.

Intellectual Scope

ESE is broadly conceived, covering science and related engineering applications for the atmosphere, oceans, land, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Areas of study include dynamics (weather, ocean circulation, physical climate, atmosphere-ocean interactions, glaciology, geomorphologic and hydrogeologic processes), chemistry (atmospheric composition, global and local pollution, aerosols, marine biogeochemistry), biology (atmosphere-biosphere interactions, microbial transformations in the environment), and engineering (water technology, geologic hazards).

Graduate Programs in ESE

Graduate programs in ESE are diverse and flexible, as needed for the wide range of subject matter, but nonetheless there are common elements shared by many students. Programs are built around introductory courses that apply principles of physics and chemistry to the atmosphere, oceans, surface and near-surface earth processes. Students build on a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computational science, and study both the fundamentals and research frontiers of atmospheric, oceanic, and land surface processes and dynamics.

Climate phenomena and global changes in atmospheric and ocean composition are a strong part of the curriculum, including advanced applications of statistics and large-scale data analysis, and including transient/accelerated glacial processes, air and water pollution, the science of geologic hazards (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides), energy-related geoscience, and engineering applications are a growing component.


The program below forms a starting point for a discussion with the faculty about areas of interest. Students should work in close consultation with their advisors to develop an appropriate program plan that is consistent with the PhD Program's overall course requirements. Courses provide the background knowledge that is often needed to successfully complete research and allow students to learn more broadly about a field or related fields in a structured fashion.

Note: Many courses in ESE are taught by SEAS faculty jointly with the Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) department, and are listed as EPS courses.  Students take 10 total courses.

  • Students take at least 8 disciplinary courses which do not include a 298r and with at most one 299r, at least 6 of which are at the 200 level (not including any 299r)
  • at least one course is chosen from EPS 200, EPS 202, and EPS 208.

Most students take two or more of EPS 200, 202 and 208, and 9 to 10 disciplinary courses. Seminar, research, reading courses (e.g., 299r), and courses in other Harvard schools (e.g. Kennedy School of Government, School of Public Health, Business School, School of Design) fill out the balance of the program requirements (10 total courses)

Students normally take two introductory graduate courses and two more advanced courses in their areas, two applied mathematics courses, and two graduate level courses in engineering sciences, earth science, biology, physics, or other areas where technical breadth of preparation is needed. Many students participate in the Harvard Consortium on Energy and Environment to provide complementary interdisciplinary training and experience.

All plans of study must also comply with the SEAS overall Ph.D. course requirements documented in the “Policies of the Committee on Higher Degrees”. 

Core Courses


Preparation in mathematics and statistics is required for all ESE students. Since students have diverse backgrounds and a broad range of educational goals, they undertake mathematics at different levels. Generally students will take 2 courses in the mathematical sciences which include math, applied math, and statistics. Note that ordinarily a maximum of 2 100-level courses can be applied to a Ph.D. program of study.

Minimum levels

  • AM 101 Statistical Inference for Scientists and Engineers
  • AM 105 Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations
  • AM 115 Mathematical Modeling

Typical programs include at least one of the following courses

  • AM 201 Physical Mathematics I
  • AM 202 Physical Mathematics II (partial differential equations)
  • AM 203 Introduction to Disordered Systems and Stochastic Processes
  • AM 205 Advanced Scientific Computing: Numerical Methods
  • AM 221 Advanced Optimization, AM 222 Stochastic Modeling

Physics, Chemistry, Biology

Generally students must take at least one of the following courses. In most cases students take two of the following.

  • EPS 200 Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (includes computer laboratory)
  • EPS 202 Mechanics in Earth and Environmental Science
  • EPS 208 Physics of Climate

Sub-areas of ESE each have additional educational needs for foundation courses covering various aspects of physics, chemistry, engineering sciences or biology, such as fluid mechanics, spectroscopy, laser physics, ecosystem dynamics, etc. In consultation with his/her advisor, each student will develop a program that includes the relevant graduate courses of this type.

Physics/Dynamics-oriented courses

Students divide roughly by physics and chemistry foci, but many students do some of each.

  • EPS 231 Climate Dynamics
  • EPS 232 Dynamic Meteorology

Chemistry-oriented courses

  • EPS 236 Environmental Modeling (includes computer laboratory)
  • ES 268 Chemical Kinetics
  • ES 267 Aerosol Science and Technology

Technical Breadth Courses

Most programs will have courses outside of the students direct research area. These courses ensure that there is technical breadth in the student’s education. A typical program will contain two courses which provide technical breadth. The following is a list of courses which will often satisfy the technical breadth requirement:

  • ES 123 Introduction to Fluid Mechanics and Transport Processes, or ES 220 Fluid Dynamics
  • ES 231 Energy Technology
  • ES 237 Planetary Radiation and Climate
  • ES 240 Solid Mechanics
  • ES 265 Advanced Water Treatment
  • ES 267 Aerosol Science and Technology
  • ES 269 Environmental Nanotechnology
  • OEB 157 Global Change Biology
  • Physics 223 Electronics for Scientists

This is list is by no means comprehensive. Courses at the graduate level in Physics and Chemistry (e.g. quantum mechanics, molecular structure, electronics) are commonly included.

Please note that many students studying Geophysical Fluid Dynamics take 1 or 2 MIT courses.

Note that, for Program Plans in Engineering Sciences, Physics 223 Electronics for Scientists is considered to be a 200-level SEAS-equivalent technical course.