How to Get a PhD in Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineers have been cleaning up our air, water, and land for generations. Now the generation’s most pressing environmental issues–climate change and dwindling natural resources–are expanding the scope of the field. Environmental engineers have to confront some of the most daunting and important engineering challenges of our time, turning back the clock on pollution, global warming, and the depletion of critical resources.

A PhD in Technology with a specialization in environmental engineering takes you to the top of the profession. You have an opportunity to learn from pioneers in the field and apply your knowledge to solve pressing environmental problems. An environmental engineering doctorate qualifies you for leading research, consulting, and policy making roles in the public and private sector. Work for a government agency like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or develop a new product or production method in corporate R&D. Or stay the course in academia, conducting cutting-edge research and training the next generation of environmental engineers.

This guide to the PhD in environmental engineering helps you build a foundation for success in the field. Start your academic journey by clarifying your academic and career goals, research online and campus PhD programs, and prepare yourself to take advantage of the opportunities ahead.

A guide to the PhD in environmental engineering

Environmental engineering originated in the 1960s as a civil engineering specialty. Initially, the field focused on “sanitary engineering” issues such as waste water treatment and water distribution systems. The environmental engineering discipline did not come into its own until the 1970s and 1980s, when new environmental legislation and regulatory agencies shifted the focus to pollution control. By the end of the 1980s, environmental engineering had expanded well beyond municipal water treatment into areas such as soil and groundwater remediation, toxicology, risk assessment, atmospheric modeling, transport of contaminants, and environmentally sound process design. This evolution inspired environmental engineers to look beyond civil engineering and incorporate chemical and mechanical engineering methods as well.

Today, environmental engineering is the fastest growing engineering discipline. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 25 percent growth in environmental engineering jobs in the decade ending in 2016, more than any other engineering specialty. Global warming, new public health threats, and biological terrorism are some of the newer issues driving demand for environmental engineers.

To learn more about the environmental engineering discipline, see’s Guide to Majors, which includes a special section devoted to environmental engineering.

Doctoral degrees in environmental engineering: PhD or DEng?

The environmental engineering discipline offers two terminal degrees: the traditional doctor of philosophy (PhD) and the alternative doctor of engineering (DEng). The DEng resembles the PhD in its rigor and prestige, but differs in purpose. Unlike the PhD, which prepares students for academic or industry careers, the EngD is solely focused on professional practice. The DEng dissertation emphasizes applied research to solve a practical engineering problem rather than an original contribution to theoretical scholarship.

In short, the PhD is the more versatile degree, offering access to both academic and professional research careers. The DEng offers a more focused path for mid-career engineers looking to expand their knowledge and tackle a specific problem in their engineering practice.’s Online PhD Degrees and Doctoral Programs section offers an overview of different doctoral degrees and the distinctions among them.


Doctoral students in environmental engineering have the opportunity to focus their research on a particular environmental resource or problem. Specializations in the field include:

  • Water and waste water treatment
  • Air quality
  • Solid and hazardous waste treatment
  • Environmental hydrology
  • Marine environmental engineering and oceanography
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Environmental remediation

As a PhD candidate, you have the opportunity to develop your own approach to a specialized research problem. Setting your sights on a specific area now ensures that you choose a program with the resources and faculty expertise to support your research.

Career track

A PhD in environmental engineering is a versatile qualification leading to either an academic or a professional engineering career.

Academic engineers serve as university professors, advancing the field through both theoretical scholarship and cutting-edge research. They teach college courses, training the next generation of environmental engineers.

Professional engineers can head R&D labs or work as consultants, focusing their research on solving specific problems for government agencies or corporate employers. Environmental engineers in the public and private sector work to improve:

  • Public works such as waste water treatment facilities, solid waste disposal, recycling technology and more.
  • Government regulation, either as a policy adviser or as an enforcement expert.
  • Remediation of polluted groundwater or soil.
  • Natural resource management, conducting risk assessment and creating policies to protect natural resources.’s Career Resources can help you gain clarity in your career ambitions.

Plan for a PhD in environmental engineering

Completing a PhD in Environmental Engineering takes planning and commitment. The doctoral program is an intensive, self-paced course of study and research spanning four to six years. By planning your path now, you can set yourself up for a smooth journey to the top of your profession. The following steps lead you through the process of preparing for graduate school, from choosing a program to applying and joining the academic community.

Step One: Find the right graduate environmental engineering program

Most graduate research universities offer a PhD in Environmental Engineering or Civil Engineering with an environmental engineering concentration. Deciding which doctoral programs are right for you requires introspection and research. You’ve already focused your academic and career goals. The following steps lead you through the research process to help you find the perfect fit.

1. Find accredited PhD programs

Begin your research by compiling a list of accredited PhD programs in environmental engineering. Accreditation is an essential baseline criterion for choosing a school. The value of your doctoral degree–and your eligibility for certain federal financial aid programs–depends on the program’s validation by an independent accreditation agency. The primary accreditation authority in the engineering field is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The U.S. Department of Education lists other approved national and regional accreditation agencies. Learn more about accreditation at


The following online databases list accredited PhD programs in environmental engineering nationwide.

  • maintains a convenient, searchable database of online PhD programs in environmental engineering. Search Degrees by Subject to find an online or campus PhD program in environmental engineering, or browse a list of university partners.
  • The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) lists member institutions with accredited engineering programs. You can search schools by discipline (select “Environmental”) and location.
  • U.S. News & World Report regularly updates its A-Z Directory of Engineering Schools.

2. Choose campus or online format

Your preferred program format shapes your program options. The traditional full-time campus format still dominates graduate education in environmental engineering. But you can also find a growing number of online PhD programs in environmental engineering. Online programs use advanced digital technology to support virtual communication and collaboration.

Each format has its advantages; the right one for you depends on your personal circumstances, learning style, and career objectives.

Campus programs offer distinct advantages for aspiring academics, such as access to departmental research facilities and the opportunity to form close working relationships with faculty mentors and peers. You also have the opportunity to teach undergraduates, an important apprenticeship for a career in university teaching.

Online PhD programs offer advantages for mid-career adults balancing their education with work and family responsibilities. Most online PhD degrees in environmental engineering require periodic campus residencies, which facilitate access to local resources and help you build relationships within the academic community. Online PhD programs emphasize independent research, and are best suited to working engineers who have access to research facilities and plan to conduct research related to their professional practice.


The Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections at help you weigh your options and find schools that offer your preferred program format. If you decide to study on campus, search campus degrees by location to find a PhD program in environmental engineering near you.

3. Explore academic programs

Once you’ve pared down your list by format and location, it’s time to explore individual academic programs in depth. Each PhD program takes a different approach to the environmental engineering discipline, influenced by resident faculty expertise, industry or government partnerships, and available resources. Find the right match with your interests, and it’s easier to achieve your academic and career goals.

Research the following features to determine a program’s academic specialties and resources:

  • Program specializations
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Faculty areas of expertise
  • Research facilities
  • Special programs: foundations, conferences, publications, research centers, etc.
  • Partnerships with government agencies or industry leaders

Resources helps you find and research schools that match your academic program criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your preferences, and the system automatically puts you in touch with representatives of matching schools. You can save time by discussing the program’s features and resources directly with an academic counselor.

School websites generally post links to the information above. Look for graduate course catalogs, PhD program requirements, environmental engineering specializations, research institutes, faculty bios, and graduate dissertation titles.

Academic journals offer a useful tool to identify the faculty and academic programs spearheading research in your environmental engineering specialty. The major publications in environmental engineering are:

  • Journal of Environmental Engineering (ASCE journal)
  • Environmental Engineering Science
  • Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine (trade publications)
  • International Journal of Environmental Engineering

4. Evaluate program quality

Finally, cull a list of five or more PhD programs in environmental engineering that meet your quality and selectivity standards. Aim to apply to a range of programs, taking into account both the following quality criteria and your own competitiveness as an applicant.

Program criteria include:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Graduation Rate
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Career Support Resources
  • Student Body Profile

The PhD admissions committee takes into account your undergraduate grades, test scores, work experience, and faculty or professional recommendations in evaluating your application.


Rankings can help you assess a PhD program’s reputation and selectivity. Major ranking publications include:

Departmental Data Sheets often publicize the quality metrics listed above, with information on graduate admissions, student demographics, graduation rate, and career placement.

Campus Visits offer the best means of assessing a university’s engineering research facilities. You can also set up appointments with potential faculty mentors and talk to graduate students about their experience in the PhD program.

Step Two: Apply to PhD programs in environmental engineering

Once you’ve identified your target schools, the next challenge is convincing the admissions committee that you’re the right fit for the PhD program. Put your best foot forward by completing the following three steps to completing doctoral program applications. For added guidance on test preparation, prerequisite courses, and financial aid, consult the Education Resources Guide.

1. Complete prerequisites

Most campus and online PhD programs in environmental engineering require the following:

  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering. If your degree is in another field, you may have to complete basic engineering, science, and math courses before beginning the doctoral program.
  • Tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the TOEFL (for international students)

2. Prepare application materials

Graduate school applications require supporting documents that can take some time to collect. Most schools ask for:

  • Faculty or professional letters of recommendation
  • Academic transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Personal statement of your research interests

In some cases, submitting your application ahead of the final deadline can give you an advantage in admissions. In any case, it pays to submit your applications materials well in advance of any deadlines.

3. Secure financial aid

Financial aid for PhD students can come from many sources, university funding, federal programs and even private donors. For best results, start researching and submitting applications for financial aid alongside your admissions application.

Funding for an environmental engineering doctorate can take the following shapes:

  • Grants and scholarships
  • Teaching and research assistantships
  • Tuition waivers
  • Employer sponsorships
  • Federal or private loans

Step Three: Join the academic community

With the application logistics behind you, you’re ready to take the next step: building relationships with academic peers. Graduate school offers a valuable opportunity to engage with engineers who share your passion for developing solutions to environmental problems. Reach out to the academic community by taking the following steps.

1. Join environmental engineering associations

Gain access to networking opportunities and resources by joining professional and academic engineering organizations. Major environmental engineering associations include:

  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers
  • American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
  • Water Environment Federation
  • Air & Waste Management Association
  • American Public Works Association
  • Solid Waste Association of North America
  • American Institute of Chemical Engineers
  • American Society for Engineering Education

2. Attend conferences and events

Universities and engineering associations host conferences and other events to facilitate community among environmental engineers. Attend these events and start forging relationships with your peers and future mentors.

3. Subscribe to journals and trade publications

Reading the environmental engineering journals and trade publications listed above helps you engage with the ideas and research trends current in your specialty.

The PhD program in environmental engineering offers a unique opportunity to indulge your intellectual curiosity and transform your knowledge into groundbreaking research. The doctoral degree offers you inside access to the resources you need to reach the pinnacle of your profession. By planning your educational journey now, you’re setting yourself up to take full advantage of the experience and emerge as a leading light in your field.


“Architecture and Engineering Occupations,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014,

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), Search All Accredited Programs
American Academy of Environmental Engineers
American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)
Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education
Environmental Engineering Science, The Evolution of Environmental Engineering as a Professional Discipline, by Michael D. Aitken, et al.
National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP)
National Research Council, Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs
Texas A&M University Graduate Catalog, The Degree of Doctor of Engineering
The Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP)
The Center for Measuring University Performance
U.S. News & World Report, Best Engineering Schools
University of California, Riverside, Environmental Engineering Careers
University of Massachusetts, Lowel, Civil & Environmental Engineering Doctoral Programs
University of Southern California, Ph.D. Programs in Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering