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Earth and Environmental Sciences Adds Doctoral Program

The Earth and Environmental Sciences Department has unveiled a new doctoral program that is set to enroll students for the 2020-21 academic school year. The doctoral program will join the master’s program, undergraduate major, and undergraduate minor currently offered by the department.

“We have had a master’s program for many, many decades that has been very successful,” chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Ethan Baxter said. “We haven’t had a Ph.D. program, and we were the only science department that hasn’t had a Ph.D. program.”

The department will expand to full capacity over a three to five-year period, with Baxter hoping to accommodate 15 Ph.D. students and about six master’s students.

“The ability to create better, richer, broader teams increases the learning potential and the research potential of the team and the department as a whole,” Baxter said.

The doctoral program was introduced now because of the current prominence of environmental and earth sciences, particularly regarding climate change. Additionally, Baxter said the complexity of the issues that the department is tackling requires a diverse and interdisciplinary approach and Ph.D. students would assist the department in tackling these issues. 

Another main reason that the University has chosen to introduce a doctoral program is the expansion of faculty within the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department—from 2006 to now, the department has expanded from six faculty members to 12. The department has also promoted two faculty members to positions of tenure during that time.

“[The doctoral program] has allowed us to bring in some really exciting, fresh, young faces with new energy, with new innovative interdisciplinary interests that allow us to tackle these problems and really freshen up the department,” Baxter said. “We’ve done a lot of renovations to our labs, to our offices, and that’s really modernized the department in a really exciting way.”

The addition of Ph.D. students will enrich the research that faculty within the department are able to conduct, according to Behn, who said he’s excited about the opportunity to get students involved.

“Having students involved in research really enriches the overall research project in the sense that they bring more energy to a project,” Behn said. “It’s fun taking students into the field where they’re seeing things often for the first time. I really think it’s going to enliven the department.”

The final reason that the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department chose 2020 to launch the doctoral program has a lot to due with the crater that many of the environmental sciences faculty and students can see out of their office and classroom windows. BC is in the process of constructing the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, which will focus on energy, health, and the environment.

“We are already looking at the ways that energy and energy systems affect the environment and how environmental challenges and issues can affect human health,” Baxter said. “We see ourselves as a central player within the programs and the building of what Schiller could be in the future.”

Associate professor Mark Behn said that in addition to attracting Ph.D. students, the new program may attract research-oriented faculty who could pursue larger research projects because they will have the opportunity to work with Ph.D. students.

“We have been mindful in our departmental planning and working with the administration to make sure that our goals and directions are consistent with the broader goals for the natural sciences at Boston College,” Baxter said. “What we are doing has to fit with the goals and motivations of [the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society], and I think it does.”

The structure of the doctoral program will be relatively conventional, with students taking classes as well as conducting research. All third-year students will take a new “broader impact” class. Each student will also have to dedicate a chapter of their thesis to address the broader impact of a student’s research. The emphasis on broader impacts is designed to make students wrestle with how their research fits into a greater context, according to Baxter.

Baxter said that a main difference between the master’s and doctoral students is that doctoral students stay for up to five years, while master’s students are only enrolled for two years. There will be an avenue for master’s students to become doctoral students if they become interested in research.

“[The doctoral program] allows us to do everything we’ve already been working on at the level of education, at the level of research, at the level of outreach and collaboration, we can just do it more efficiently and more deeply,” Baxter said. “Ph.D. students bring in an additional tier to the fabric that we have at the department.

Ph.D. students will be involved with the department longer than any other students in order to ensure they have the time to acquire new skills and then apply them within the department through research or undergraduate instruction, according to Behn. 

“Having undergrads around gives us a lot more opportunities to have [Ph.D. students prepare] for going to get an academic job in the future,” Behn said. “I can imagine having a whole spectrum from undergraduates to master’s students to Ph.D. students [working on research projects].”

Baxter said that the addition of the doctoral program puts the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department in a position to lead both within the University and outside of it.

“I hope [the doctoral program] allows our department to be the best department we can be,” Baxter said. “I think this helps us to lead in shaping and defining what Schiller can be. I hope that it’s our students that go off and make the biggest contributions to these challenges outside of the walls at BC.”

September 12, 2019