Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy

Questions about:

The program of study:

How long will it take me to complete the program? 

The program is intended to take two years to complete. Students enter the program in August (fall semester) and typically graduate in May of the following year.

How many students are in the program?

Each new cohort typically consists of about 8-12 new students. The fall semester you enter the program, you will share some classes with the exiting cohort. Therefore, we have our largest student numbers in the fall (about 20-25 students).

What are the ES & P program’s objectives? 

Our goal is to help students develop: 

  • scientific literacy needed to understand environmental processes;
  • technical skills necessary to work in the environmental sciences;
  • political literacy needed to understand the environmental policy process;
  • creative problem-solving skills required to deal effectively with environmental issues;
  • appreciation for the history and development of environmental issues;
  • familiarity with current trends in environmental thought in numerous disciplines.

Will all my courses be taken within the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability? 

No, our program involves a significant level of cross-campus collaboration among a number of different departments and colleges, including Biology, Politics and International Affairs, History, Communication, Forestry, Engineering, and Mathematics. Research and teaching often focuses on Arizona and Colorado Plateau issues, although many students and faculty include an international component in their work in the program.

How many credits do I need to graduate?

To complete the degree, you need 34-36 total credit hours.

  • 15 credit hours of core courses; and
  • 21 credit hours for the Science and Policy Emphasis or 19-20 hours for the Paleoenvironmental Sciences Emphasis

How many core courses are required as part of the degree and what do they cover? 

As part of your 36-credit hours, you will be required to complete the program core (15-credit hours). The core consists of an initial 3 unit course that provides an overview of environmental science and policy, typically taken in the fall semester; a three unit course in quantitative analysis; two one-unit courses in research methods and design; and 7 units of thesis credit where you will work closely with your major professor and others to conduct an original research project.

What kind of Emphasis Area courses can I take?

Students in the Science and Policy Emphasis will need to take 9 credit hours of emphasis requirements, focusing on Water Resources, Atmosphere and Climate, Land Resources, and Environmental Laws, Regulations and Policy. Students choosing the Paleoenvironmental Sciences Emphasis will need to take 19-20 credit hours of coursework in addition to the program core. You will choose these emphasis courses in consultation with your advisor.

What kind of elective courses can I take? 

Students in the Science and Policy Emphasis can take 12 units of specialized, elective courses at the 500 level or above, chosen in consultation with your Program Committee.

Is a thesis required to complete this degree?

Yes, a thesis, based on your own original research, is a key component of the master’s degree program in Environmental Sciences and Policy. Students typically develop a thesis proposal during their first year in the program. The process includes a formal thesis proposal and meeting with your thesis committee; independent research (usually conducted during the summer and your second year in the program); an oral defense before your thesis committee (usually as part of a public program at the end of your second year), and a final copy of the thesis submitted to the Graduate College.

If I have more questions about the program of study and degree requirements for the ES & P program, who can I talk to?

For more information about the ES & P program of study contact Dr. Nancy Johnson, ES & P faculty coordinator, or Amy Wolkowinksy, SESES Graduate Program Coordinator. The program of study form is available on the Graduate College's website.

Admission requirements and potential success in the program:

When are applications due?

The graduate committee typically reviews applications to the program annually beginning in January and makes decisions on admission by mid-February. Therefore, to be considered for fall admission into the ES & P program, we highly recommend that you submit your complete (on-line application, letters of reference, transcripts, etc.) application by January 15. We encourage students who are interested in applying after January 15 to contact the graduate coordinator for information about potential options and space availability in the program.

Can I apply for admission for the spring semester instead of fall? 

The Graduate College typically closes its admissions window in early spring, and from that point on, accepts applicants only for the fall semester. Exceptions from this policy are extremely rare, and only in extenuating circumstances.

You may take courses as a Non-Degree student if you have been admitted to the Graduate College but not to the ES & P program itself. No more than 12 units of graduate credit earned under Non-Degree status may be applied to a graduate degree, and only if the coursework is appropriate to your program of study. Taking coursework does not guarantee admission to the program, however.

Is completion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) required for admission into the program? 

No, the GRE is not required for admission.

How many letters of recommendation do I need to include with my application? 

In order to have a complete application, you should include 3 letters of recommendation. Please seek out referees that can speak to the quality of your work (e.g., past employers, professors, and/or mentors), as well as your potential success in graduate school (e.g., past/current professors). Avoid personal references from friends and relatives. Direct your referees to submit their letters electronically to the Graduate College.

Is a specific undergraduate degree required for admission into the program?

No, we do not require that you hold an undergraduate degree in a particular field for admission into the program. Students from a wide variety of backgrounds (e.g., environmental science, geology, engineering, biology, psychology, environmental studies, political science, environmental policy, business) have excelled in this program. While a science-based undergraduate degree is not required for admission into the program, we do recommend that students have some basic coursework in math (e.g., college-level algebra, quantitative reasoning) and the sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology) before entering the program. 

Is a personal statement, essay, or writing sample required? 

The ES & P program application requires that you submit both a short personal statement of your interests and goals in applying to the masters degree program, and a sample of your written work. The personal statement is an opportunity for you to provide information about yourself that is not already included in your transcript or letters of recommendation. You may want to go into more detail about the reasons you are applying to NAU, any irregularities in your academic record, or the faculty you have spoken or met with in considering the program. While we do not expect you to have decided on a specific thesis or research agenda prior to applying for admission, you should include examples of environmental problems, issues, topics, or processes that are of interest to you.

If you have recently received, or soon plan to receive your undergraduate degree, the writing sample should reflect your work in a classroom setting, such as a research paper or critical thinking/reflective work you submitted. If you are a non-traditional student who has been away from the classroom for awhile, the writing sample might consist of a memorandum or report you have written, a short publication, or similar document. Most writing samples are under 5 pages in length, and submitted primarily to demonstrate your writing ability rather than subject matter knowledge.

Do I need to identify a potential faculty advisor, or talk with faculty as part of the admissions process? 

Yes, we strongly encourage you to contact faculty members whose interests mirror yours prior to submitting your application to the program. Because we try to match up faculty and incoming students based on their potential research goals and program of study, it is advisable that you set up a telephone or in-person interview if possible. This list of our faculty outlines their areas of expertise and research interests. When speaking with a faculty member, be prepared to discuss your background, specific areas of interest, and career goals.

After I apply, when will I hear back if I am accepted to the program?  

You should hear back on whether you are admitted to the program by the end of March. Applicants should expect all communication to be electronic and sent to the email address provided with your Graduate College application. Some applicants may be placed “on hold” while the graduate admissions faculty wait to hear from the first round of students that have been accepted into the program once we reach capacity. We will make every attempt to keep you informed about your status throughout the process.

Do I need Arizona or in-state residency to be admitted into the program? 

No. All applicants are classified at the time of admission as either a residents or non-residents based on the information provided in the application. In addition, the ES & P program is part of the Western Regional Graduate Program (WRGP), which allows some out-of-state students (non-residents) to qualify for in-state tuition rates. For more information, see the link above and the information below under the FAQs for “financing your degree”.

Do I need to be U.S. citizen to be admitted into the program? 

No. International students applying for admissions into NAU graduate programs, however, have additional admission requirements, including financial guarantee statements, submission of official transcripts, and submission of TOEFL test scores or the equivalent. Go to the Graduate College website or contact the Graduate College (; 928-523-4348) for more information.

English is not my first language; will I be able to do well in this program? 

Non-native English learners have succeeded in this program.  The small class size of many of NAU’s graduate classes offered, along with the opportunity for many group and team learning activities can assist international students in their learning. The University requires a minimum TOEFL score of 80 on the Internet-based test, or 550 on the paper-based test. The minimum IELTS score is 7.0. Refer to the Graduate College webpage for more information.

I haven’t had much work experience; will this impact my ability to do well in this program?  

Many students go on to get their master’s degree directly out of their undergraduate studies. Others may have entered the Peace Corps, traveled, had volunteer or military experience, worked for a local, state, or federal agency or nonprofit organization, or raised a family.

Is there a minimum GPA or GRE score required for admission to the ES & P program? 

No, there is no minimum threshold for admission. The admissions committee considers an applicant’s total package in recommending acceptance, which includes their undergraduate GPA and coursework; letters of recommendation; GRE scores; and personal statement, along with any extracurricular and work experiences.

If I have more questions about my application/admission into the program, who can I talk to?

  • If you are having trouble with the on-line application or have additional questions about general admission requirements for NAU, please contact the Graduate College.
  • If you have questions about where to submit letters of reference or whether we have received your application materials, please contact the SESES office.
  • If you have additional questions about the specific admission requirements for the ES & P program, please contact Amy Wolkowinsky, the SESES graduate program coordinator. 

Financing your degree:

How much will my degree cost me?

The cost of attending graduate school includes tuition and fees, as well as books, room and board, transportation expenses, etc. Refer to this link for an estimate of annual cost of graduate school at NAU.

Do I qualify for in-state tuition rates? 

To qualify for in-state tuition rates, students must be a resident of Arizona. Proof of residency is required. In addition, the ES & P program is part of the Western Regional Graduate Program (WRGP), which allows some out-of-state students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Students classified as non-residents by the Admission Office may petition to change their residency status. However, it generally takes at least 12 months of physical presence in Arizona to establish residency.

Is there financial support available?

Limited tuition assistance (e.g., tuition waivers) and Graduate Assistantships (GA)(e.g., teaching and research assistantships) may be available to ES & P students. Tuition waivers are available for both Arizona and out-of-state students but do not include the cost of student fees, or incidental costs such as parking permits. The availability of tuition waivers and assistantships varies and will be awarded on a competitive basis. No additional applications or forms need to be completed or submitted in order to be considered for a tuition waiver or Graduate Assistantship. Students awarded a Graduate Assistantship must enroll in a minimum of 9 credit hours each semester.

Graduate students in the ES & P program generally receive four semesters (two years) of support, regardless of its source, as long as they are making satisfactory progress toward completion of their degree requirements and receive satisfactory job performance evaluations. Satisfactory progress and performance are measured by the student’s Program Committee and the graduate coordinator for the ES & P program.

In addition, we encourage our students to apply for competitive scholarships within and outside of the university. Refer to the website for more information. Additional scholarship and assistantship opportunities may be available through NAU; please refer to the Graduate College website for more information.

Am I eligible for student loans? 

If you are concerned about financing your degree, we encourage you to contact the financial aid office to learn more about current loan rates and scholarship opportunities.

Can I work while I am enrolled in the program? 

The ES & P program is an intensive program and is not conducive to part-time study. Therefore, full-time employment while enrolled in the program is not advised.  However, some students choose to seek part-time or summer employment to help cover tuition and living expenses. Students awarded a 20 hour per week Graduate Assistantship are not permitted additional employment while on contract for that position.

What if I need to take time off from the program?

Life happens. Students may apply for a leave of absence from the program. The conditions of leave of absence petitions are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Be sure to contact your advisor and/or the Graduate Coordinator if circumstances require you to reduce your course load, or withdraw from classes during the semester. Failure to do so may affect your financial aid eligibility for subsequent semesters, or delay your graduation.

If I have more questions about financing my education, who can I talk to?

  • For general questions about financial aid, on campus financial resources, and on-campus employment, go to the Graduate College's Financing website.
  • If you have additional questions about the availability of competitive tuition waivers and assistantships, please contact Amy Wolkowinsky, the SESES graduate program coordinator.

Living and finding housing in Flagstaff:

What is Flagstaff like?

Flagstaff is located in Northern Arizona at 7,000 feet and is situated within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in North America.  Only 80 miles from the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is a four seasons, mountain community of 68,000 people. There is plenty to do outdoors including hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and camping. Flagstaff has consistently been rated one of the best places to live in the West.

Flagstaff is about one hour north of the red rock scenic area of Sedona, and about three hours north of Phoenix. The city has a historic downtown area with dozens of unique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. There is also an airport serving Phoenix, and an AMTRAK train station, along with regularly-scheduled bus service. Local bus service is available linking the Flagstaff community with the university, the Flagstaff Mall, and downtown.

What is the cost of living in Flagstaff?

Students have a variety of on-campus and off-campus housing options as part of their NAU experience. Refer to the Graduate College website to get an estimate of annual living costs

If I have more questions about living in Flagstaff, who can I talk to?

Contact the Graduate College (928-523-4348) and/or visit the NAU Graduate College student resources webpage. Current ES & P students may also be available to meet with you or discuss Flagstaff life by email or telephone.

Types of careers available to Environmental Sciences and Policy M.S. professionals:

The masters degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy provides an advanced education for scientists and managers in the interdisciplinary environmental sciences. In-depth study of the environment has become increasingly dependent upon knowledge of the interactions between the natural world and human society. Today, organizations, agencies, and corporations are looking for people who can solve problems, understand, explain, and implement programs by going beyond a single field of study. Many of our ES & P graduates work with local, state, federal, and tribal governments or agencies as research scientists or in the field as ecologists, conservation biologists, wildlife monitors and technicians, or as land managers. They may be employed with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Arizona Game and Fish, the Navajo Nation, or other public entity. Others are employed as agency policy analysts, program managers, or work with nonprofit groups helping plan sustainable communities, developing conservation strategies, or advocating policy and political change in Washington, DC or in other cities, or work on a global level with international organizations. Still others may choose a career in the private sector, working with a company that seeks to understand environmental regulations or to establish a reputation for corporate social or environmental responsibility.  ES & P graduates seeking to influence policy and decisions may choose law school.

Some of our graduates even go on to earn their Ph.D. in science or policy-related fields, going on to careers in college or university teaching. In general, the need for individuals with joint expertise in science and policy is growing, and there are many job opportunities for individuals graduating from programs like ours. Refer to our alumni page for more information about where our graduates are working now.

How do I decide which career path to take?

One of the unique aspects of the Environmental Sciences and Policy program is the close relationship that develops between the student and his or her advisor—a relationship that begins immediately after acceptance. Because of the small number of students granted admission in each cohort, faculty work one-on-one with the student, not only providing guidance about courses, but also mentoring and recommending potential careers, showing how to network professionally, encouraging students to attend professional conferences, and co-authoring published work. The program seeks to prepare students for a variety of interdisciplinary careers, enabling graduates to move beyond a narrow focus or job title.

If I have more questions about what this degree prepares me for, whom can I talk to? 

For more information about the ES & P program curriculum and coursework, contact: Dr. Nancy Johnson, the ES & P faculty graduate coordinator.