Requirements and Forms (PhD)

Listed below are the Environment and Resources PhD program requirements and forms. These forms are not submitted or routed electronically. When you have completed your form, print a copy of the document for committee signatures and final approval by Nelson Institute’s Academic Programs Office and the chair. Our office will only take paper copies of documents for approval.

If you have questions about the procedure for completing and submitting these forms or have issues with accessing the forms, contact Jim Miller at (608) 263-4373 or

Curriculum Requirements Guidelines

You may use up to 24 credits from your master’s degree (if done elsewhere) to count toward E&R PhD curriculum requirements. If you did your master’s degree here at UW-Madison though, then you are not restricted to only 24 credits. Your advisor, advisory committee, and the program may allow all of your master’s credits to count since they were done here at UW. Here are the parameters all our PhD students must work within:

Category 1: Natural Science

  • Minimum of 9 credits with at least 3 of them being from UW-Madison

Category 2: Social Science/Humanities

  • Minimum of 9 credits with at least 3 of them being from UW-Madison

Category 3: Measurement and Analysis

  • Minimum of 9 credits with at least 3 of them being from UW-Madison

Category 4: Individual Program Focus

  • Minimum of 15 credits PLUS 2 graduate seminars and a variable number of research credits)
    • The seminar credits and research credits DO NOT count toward the 15-credit minimum in this category
    • At least 6 of the 15 credits must be from UW-Madison
    • You can double-count up to 9 credits with one of your breadth categories. Whichever breadth category most closely parallels your program focus is the category which you can double-count those 9 credits toward the 15-credit Individual Program Focus

Some combination of at least 26 credits for your program must be from courses either 700+ OR be from those that have a graduate attribute (Graduate 50%: Y) if in the 300-699 range.

Year 1

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Orientation with your advisor

All students should begin the planning of their graduate program with the assistance of their major professor (advisor). An advisor will work with you to develop a coherent program of courses and a plan of research. Once on campus, schedule a meeting with your advisor to plan your timeline and discuss common expectations including how often you should meet.

Meeting with your advisor does not preclude seeking another advisor whose interests or expertise may be more compatible with your needs.

Select and meet with your committee (including advisor)

By the third semester, students should comprise a minimum four-member advisory committee with the counsel and approval of their advisor.

Three out of four members of the committee (including the advisor) must be members of the UW-Madison faculty (this entails the ranks of Professor, Associate Professor, and Assistant Professor). The fourth member can be a qualified scholar and practitioner who is not a member of the faculty, but this fourth (non-faculty) person must be approved by the Environment and Resources program chairperson (which means their qualifications must be submitted for review). Learn how to nominate graduate committee members who are not members of the UW Graduate School faculty

If there is an instance of dispute, appeals over a fourth committee member’s approval may be made to the program’s faculty executive committee for a formal vote.

The faculty members of the committee should be balanced between the social and natural sciences and must represent at least three different departments or schools. The advisor will chair this committee.

To see a list of Nelson Institute faculty affiliates and their research interests, visit our faculty directory.

If at some point you wish to change your major professor or any other faculty committee members, you are required to submit your request in writing to the Nelson Institute Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.).

Submit Initial Coursework Proposal (required form)

Students must sit down with their advisor by the end of their first year in the program and submit an Initial Course Work Proposal to the Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.). The completed printed form should include necessary signatures when submitted.

Learn more about course requirements and credits on the curriculum page and search for classes on the Registrar’s Schedule of classes.

Initial Course Work Proposal Form And Instructions

Year 2

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Decide on a thesis topic with your advisor and committee

View a sampling of dissertation and theses topics from previous students for inspiration.

Prepare Final Coursework Proposal, Program Focus and Objectives (required form)

Meet with committee, discuss expectations for qualifying exam

The qualifying exam is intended to test your general knowledge of Environmental Studies. You should discuss with your advisor what the structure of the exam will be (e.g., oral or written or both). You should discuss with your advisor and your committee members the areas on which you will be examined. If you do this well in advance of the exam, you will be able to review or update your knowledge of relevant topics.

Year 3

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Interdisciplinary Qualifying Exam (required form)

There must be a minimum of 3 months between the qualifying examination and the preliminary examination.

This will be an oral (or written and oral) examination given by a student’s individual PhD committee when the student is completing his/her course work. The exam is designed to evaluate a student’s potential to develop and conduct interdisciplinary research. Questions generated by the student’s committee should test general knowledge in subjects and disciplines pertinent to the student’s area of interest. It is not intended to focus on the details of a specific research proposal.

A memorandum from the student’s individual PhD program committee indicating that the PhD candidate has successfully completed the qualifying exam must be sent to the Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.) to indicate completion of this requirement.

Meet with committee

After you pass the qualifying exam you should focus more narrowly on your dissertation research and on preparing or updating a written research proposal to be provided to your advisor and the committee in advance of the Preliminary Exam. It is advisable that you meet with your committee as a group or individually to advise them of your progress and get any feedback on your developing research proposal.

Pre-exam meeting with program chair

PhD students who are preparing to take their preliminary examinations are required to meet with the chair of the Environment and Resources Program, Sara Hotchkiss, before requesting their preliminary warrants. To schedule this appointment, students should contact the chair directly, either by phone, (608) 265-6751, or email,

Request Preliminary Warrant At least 3 weeks before exam (required form)

The warrant is issued by the PhD examiner in the Graduate School, but the request must be made through the Academic Programs Office. To request your warrant contact the graduate advisor, (608) 263-4373 or

For the Graduate School to release your warrant you must be in good academic standing without any incomplete grades and a minimum 3.0 grade point average. For the Nelson Institute to release your warrant you must have your final certification document turned in and any course substitutions approved by the program chair.

Request a preliminary warrant by email at

Preliminary Exam (required form)

This exam will be focused on a specific research proposal. Typically the exam would be oral and based on a significant written proposal. The type of the exam (written, oral, or a combination) and its content are determined by the student’s individual PhD committee. As part of the preparation for the preliminary examination, a PhD student must prepare a dissertation prospectus for review by his/her faculty committee.

The dissertation prospectus should normally include the following:

  1. Statement of the research problem
  2. Statement of the significance or important of the problem
  3. Statement of the research goals or hypotheses
  4. Proposed research methods

The prospectus should be given to the committee at least one week prior to the preliminary examination. However, the committee may require the prospectus to be distributed earlier. The final decision on this is made by the student’s advisor.

The student will need to pick up the warrant from the Academic Programs Office to bring with him/her to the exam. The committee members will sign the warrant only after successful completion of the exam. The student is required to return the warrant to Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.). The program chair will sign the warrant, acknowledging that all program requirements except the dissertation have been completed.

More Years (if needed)

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Enter "all but dissertation" (ABD) or Dissertator mode

Successful completion of the preliminary examination and credit requirements results in admission to candidacy for the PhD and to achievement of dissertator status. Dissertators must register for 3 credits of Envir St 990 every fall and spring semester until graduation. Specific instructions for preparation of the dissertation are available from the Graduate School. Care must be taken to ensure that these instructions are followed. The final oral exam must be completed within five years of attaining dissertator status.

Meet with the advisor and committee, discuss the expectations for the dissertation

There are decisions to be made about what the structure, length, and comprehensiveness of a dissertation will be, especially in interdisciplinary work. Commonly, dissertations consist of three or more stand-alone elements, some of which are intended to be first drafts of journal papers. Others (the “traditional thesis”) will be written as one document with chapters. These options need to be discussed and agreed upon by your advisor and committee.

Final Year

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First and subsequent drafts of the dissertation

Students tend to underestimate the time required to produce a final draft of a dissertation. You should plan for contingencies. Typically, a thesis, like any major document will require multiple drafts. You will want these drafts to be read by your advisor and, as appropriate, by willing committee members. You must allow them reasonable amounts of time to do so.

Final draft of dissertation

You should proceed to the final exam only if you have a clean draft of your dissertation with all the pieces in place. Some faculty will not be willing to review drafts, and will ask only for the final draft. In extreme cases, the exam and the delivery of a final clean draft of a thesis can be separated. This can only happen if all members of the committee agree to it. In such a case a pass on the exam must be followed in a timely way by the delivery and approval of a final draft of the thesis.

Request final exam warrant (required)

At least three weeks before the final examination, the candidate should ask the graduate advisor, (608) 263-4373 or, to obtain the final examination warrant from the Graduate School.

Request a final exam warrant by email at

Final exam ("Thesis defense") (required form)

When the dissertation research and writing is completed, a final oral defense of the work is required. Copies of the dissertation must be made available to all members of the faculty committee for review at least two weeks before the examination. The major advisor and all other members of the faculty committee evaluate final revisions to the dissertation, and will sign the final examination warrant only after the revisions have been satisfactorily completed. Return signed warrant to the Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.).

For more information, read the final thesis and dissertation defense guidelines.

Deposit your dissertation

After you pass your oral exam and have a signed final examination warrant, you will need to make an appointment with Alexandra Walter in the Graduate School for a review, and if approved, deposit of your dissertation. She may be reached at (608) 262-2433.

As a part of this review, the student brings the signed warrant and other documents together with the final version of the dissertation.

Additional copies of one’s dissertation should be distributed to the following: major professors should receive a bound copy; faculty committee members should be contacted to determine their need for a copy. Finally, the Environment and Resources Program requires a bound copy of all theses and dissertations, as well as an abstract of 100-350 words. A paper and electronic copy of your abstract (preferably via email in Word or PDF) should be submitted to the Academic Programs Office (70 Science Hall, 550 N. Park St.).