We strive to give students:

  • A solid understanding of ecosystem science, with broad knowledge of ecology, physical science, policy and economics
  • The opportunity for focused study on a resource or ecosystem of your choice
  • Quantitative and analytical skills in statistics, applied mathematics and quantitative modeling, geospatial techniques, community-based participatory approaches and field ecology
  • Management skills to sustain ecosystem function and health, and promote successful collaborations in cross-disciplinary settings in the government, nonprofit, and private sectors
  • Oral and written skills to communicate scientific studies and management outcomes to a wide audience, especially at the interface of science, policy and the public


We take a systems-level perspective that encourages students to consider the larger implications of natural events (disturbances, climate change) as well as human activities (land use, management) on ecosystems and landscapes. Students benefit from customized curricula and high levels of faculty engagement thanks to our small class size and low student-faculty ratios.


The defining feature of the ESC program is a “topic x toolkit” framework that allows us to create a customized curriculum tailored to each student’s background, interests and career goals.

It works like this: You pick a topic area (for example, wetlands) and a toolkit (for example, geospatial analysis) that best fit your needs. Based on these choices, your advisor will help you select the core knowledge and skills courses you need to work effectively in your chosen area of specialization. You can choose from a wide array of courses offered across Duke and at our partner institutions.

Transferable Skills

Ecosystem Science & Conservation students receive in-depth training in:

  • Landscape management
  • Ecosystem services
  • Geospatial analysis
  • Field survey techniques
  • Community-based environmental management

Your Future

The Nicholas School’s dedicated Career Center helps our graduates find positions in federal agencies, conservation nonprofits, state governments, international organizations, the private sector, and regional and local land trusts. Example employers include the USDA Forest Service, the US National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.

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See Master of Environmental Management program prerequisites.

ADDITional prerequisiteS for ESC Students

  • Some previous training in the natural sciences or the social sciences related to the student’s area of interest.

  • At least one semester of college calculus.
  • A college statistics course that includes descriptive statistics, probability distributions, hypothesis testing, confidence intervals, correlation, simple linear regression, and simple ANOVAs.
  • A college course in Principles of Ecology.
  • Microeconomics is not required for the ESC program but it is required for Resource & Environmental Economics (ENVIRON 520), a course taken by many ESC students.

Courses & Requirements


In addition to the MEM degree requirements, a typical ESC curriculum consists of the following components.

  • 4 courses/tutorials required for all MEM students (6-8 credit hours)
  • 3 Core Courses for your selected topic area (9 credit hours minimum)
  • 4 Tools Courses for your selected toolkit (12 credit hours minimum)
  • 3 Specialized Elective Courses to complement your curriculum (9 credit hours minimum)
  • Master’s Project (4-6 credit hours)
  • Additional electives to meet the 48-credit hour minimum for degree completion

Requirements for All MEM Students

All MEM students must take the following courses:


Courses supporting the ESC program are taught within the Nicholas School, at several other departments at Duke, and at UNC-Chapel Hill and NCSU. This list of example courses is not exhaustive; see the Courses section for the current list of available courses.

Core Courses

Students choose at least three Core Courses for a total of 9 credit hours minimum. Two should be in the natural sciences (one of which must be in the selected topic area and which together must total 6 credit hours minimum), and one should be in the social sciences.

Natural Sciences

Suggested courses for an ecosystems focus:

  • ENVIRON 503 Forest Ecosystems (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 505 Functional Ecology of Plants (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 517 Tropical Ecology (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 564 Biogeochemistry (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 714 Landscape Ecology (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 744 Ecology and Conservation of Streams and Rivers (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 812 Wetlands Ecology/Management (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 721L Soil Resources (3 credit hours)

Suggested courses for a watershed management focus:

  • ENVIRON 734L Watershed Hydrology (3 credit hours)
  • EOS 723 Landscape Hydrology (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 740 Water Resources Planning and Management (1.5 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 741 Water Resources Finances (1.5 credit hours)

Suggested courses for a conservation focus:

  • ENVIRON 703 Conservation Biology; Theory and Practice (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 714 Landscape Ecology (3 credit hours)
  • EVANTH 184 Primate Conservation (may not be taken for degree credit or program requirements))
  • UNC/BIOL 661 Plant Ecology (4 credit hours)
  • UNC/GEOG 444 Landscape Biogeography (3 credit hours)

Social Sciences

Choose a social science course that will provide an overview and context for the concentration. The most appropriate choices include:

  • ENVIRON 520 & 521 Resource and Environmental Economics I & II (3 credit hours total)
  • ENVIRON 520 Resource and Environmental Economics and 680 Economics of Forest Resources (3 credit hours total)
  • ENVIRON 577 Environmental Politics (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 835 Environmental Law (3 credit hours)

Tools Courses

Students choose at least four Tools Courses for a total of 12 credit hours minimum. Choose one general statistics course (advanced, if introductory level course already met in prerequisites), two courses from a single approach, and one additional course from a different but complementary approach. 

Basic Statistics

  • ENVIRON 710 Applied Data Analysis for Environmental Science (3 credit hours)

Other similar courses (e.g., at NCSU or UNC) may be substituted with the advisor’s consent.

Geospatial Analysis

(Note: While some of these are 4-credit hour courses, only 3 credit hours count per course in meeting the tools distributional requirement):

  • ENVIRON 559 Fundamentals of Geospatial Analysis (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 724 Landscape Analysis and Management (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 761 Geospatial Analysis for Conservation & Mgmt (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 765 Geospatial Analysis for Marine and Coastal Mgmt (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 787 GIS for Water Quality and Quantity Assessment (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 857L Remote Sensing for Environmental Analysis (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 859 Advanced Geospatial Analysis (3 credit hours)

Community-based, participatory

  • ENVIRON 557 Social Science Surveys (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 556 Environmental Conflict Resolution (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 579S Collective Action (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 590.67 Participatory Methods (2 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 755 Community-based Environmental Management (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 758 Applied Qualitative Research Methods (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 832 Environmental Decision Analysis (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 850 Program Evaluations of Environmental Policies (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 869: Environmental Law Clinic (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 887A Theory and Methods for Policy Analysis of the Commons (3 credit hours, Beaufort)

Field Ecology

  • ENVIRON 701 Forest Measurements (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 706 Wildlife Surveys (3 credit hours)
  • EVANTH 344L Primate Field Biology (3 credit hours - note that undergraduate courses are tallied in “units” and 1 unit=3 credits.)

Various natural-history courses (ornithology, entomology, etc. at Duke, UNC, and NCSU)


  • ENVIRON 655L/BIOLOGY 655L Bayesian Inference for Environmental Models (3 credit hours)
  • UNC/ENVR 470 Risk Assessment (3 credit hours)

Advanced regression or other advanced statistics courses as appropriate.

See all Courses


The purpose of specialized elective courses is to support your topical concentration and Master’s Project and advance your career goals. Each student must select at least three electives (9 credit hours minimum) including one natural science course, one social science course, and one synthesis course. These courses should complement the rest of your curriculum and may be selected from the Concentration Courses and Tools Courses listed above, or from among many others in the Duke, UNC and NC State catalogs.


Students typically must take several additional elective courses to fulfill the minimum 48-credit hour requirement for degree completion. We suggest additional specializing electives, although alternative plans (for example, foreign languages) are acceptable. Several seminar courses are also popular with ESC students.

For Current & Admitted Students

Master's Projects

A Master’s Project combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship. Working singly or in groups, students apply skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to tackle real-world environmental challenges for real clients through a well-formulated and defensible analysis. The MP typically culminates in a paper and presentation in the program’s final semester. It fulfills 4-6 credit hours. The ESC program requires a business-sponsored MP with specific consulting components detailed to you when you start your second year.