Admission to PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability

PhD program

The PhD program in School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) 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 SERS 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.

Fields of study

The program is transdisciplinary, integrating perspectives and insights from the natural and social sciences and the humanities. SERS does not divide itself into distinct specializations. Our teaching and research does, however, emphasize work in three overlapping fields:

  • Resource Analysis and Stewardship: this field concerns an analysis of existing resource systems as well as creative and innovative ways of utilizing the earth's resources in a sustainable fashion.

  • Socio-Ecosystem Function and Renewal: this field concerns ways to apply our knowledge of ecological systems towards renewing human relationships with the broader environment.

  • Sustainability Policy and Governance: this field concerns existing and new forms of governance and policy with respect to sustaining healthy and resilient human communities and biophysical systems.

While the SERS PhD program helps to develop specialist understanding of particular considerations in the social and physical sciences within the three fields outlined above, the students will also be encouraged to think more deeply about why they are conducting specific research and how it fits in the broader realm of human life and decision making. Each of the fields includes a normative element that demands attention to purposes and underlying positions on how we ought to live on this planet.


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, economics, communications, 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.


While our graduates will have specialized knowledge, they will leave here not chiefly as biologists, ecologists, sociologists, geographers or political scientists, but as scholars with access to a variety of intellectual and practical tools needed to address complex environmental issues and problems. This reflects the commitment of SERS faculty to the need for novel and advanced approaches to environmental research that mirror the transdisciplinary nature of environmental issues. 

Read the list of our current PhD students' research projects.


SERS has a long tradition of open collegiality. Students are welcome to discuss their work and their experience of the program with faculty members in informal, as-needed meetings. They also have representation in monthly departmental meetings, and are invited to participate in all discussions about the department and its graduate program.

The department is devoted to being a supportive community for transdisciplinary excellence, helping students with a diversity of backgrounds to expand their individual capacities and collective strengths.

More information

For more information on the doctoral program, contact Amanda Taves, Graduate Program Administrator or Prof.Simon Courtenay, Associate Director for Graduate Studies, SERS.

For more information on application requirements, see the University of Waterloo Graduate Studies Office website.

All students must begin their program in September because of the sequence of required courses.

Applicants to the SERS doctoral program must use the University of Waterloo's online admission application process. The application materials must demonstrate that the applicant has the necessary background to pursue further graduate studies at the PhD level in SERS, and has a research agenda that fits with the department’s capabilities.

Application process

Before you apply online through the Ontario Universities Application Centre, please ensure you are eligible by reviewing our admission requirements and deadlines.

If you were educated outside of Canada, please see our international admission guide.

Please read our frequently asked questions and check potential supervisor's profiles, research projects and website thoroughly before applying.

Once your application has been forwarded to the University of Waterloo's Graduate Studies Office, you will receive an email explaining how to access applicant Quest for uploading the remainder of your application.

Applying to a graduate program at Waterloo is a two step process:

  1. Apply online and pay the application fee of $100.00 per program.

  2. Submit your application materials (see the instructions outlining our required documents):

    • Transcripts: from each post secondary institution that you have attended.

    • Supplemenatary Form: complete on Quest 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.

    • References: 3 references are required, minimum two must be academic; the university will contact them directly by email based on information provided in your application.

    • Resume/curriculum vitæ (CV)

    • English Language Test Scores, if applicable (see Frequently Asked Questions)

    • Permanent Resident/Landed Immigrant card or form (if applicable)

    • Sponsorship letter (if applicable)

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

Applicants whose native language is not English must demonstrate command of the English language before being admitted, for example by obtaining a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score greater than 100/250/600. The University of Waterloo Graduate Student Calendar's admission regulations provides further details on acceptable English Language Proficiency Examination (ELPE) tests and scores.

Scholarship information can be found at scholarships and financial aid web page at the Graduate Studies Office website.

Admission of students currently in the SERS master's program

In exceptional cases, particularly excellent students from the SERS Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program may be admitted into the PhD program. A potential candidate will be considered for admission only after completion of all MES coursework requirements with a minimum A- average and clear evidence of exceptional research productivity and promise. The formal application from the candidate must be accompanied by detailed letters with unqualified support from the master's advisor, the master's committee member and (if a different person is involved) the proposed doctoral advisor. The proposed doctoral advisor must confirm that adequate funding is in place or reasonably anticipated.

Applications will be reviewed by the SERS Graduate Affairs Committee, whose recommendations will be passed to the departmental chair for decision on whether to propose the transfer to the University’s Graduate Studies Office. The SERS Graduate Affairs Committee will make its decision based on careful review of the student’s formal application and supporting letters; the student’s record, thesis proposal and progress, and research promise; and the adequacy of funding commitments and prospects for doctoral work.

Applications for transfer from the MES to doctoral program will normally be considered only during the candidate's third term in the MES program.

Part-time studies

The SERS doctoral program will not normally be offered on a part-time basis. In exceptional circumstances, students may apply for part-time status but regardless of registration status, all students are expected to complete their core course work in their first two terms in the program.

Questions about the Master's and PhD programs can be directed to Amanda Taves.