Guidelines for Prospective Bren School
Political Science PhD Students

We are looking for bright, hard-working, energetic PhD students who want to pursue research in environmental politics and policy in a collaborative, interdisciplinary, beautiful, and fun setting.

Bren School PhD Faculty Advisors in Political Science

Sarah Anderson
Mark Buntaine
Matt Potoski
Other Faculty

The most significant opportunities to improve human well-being by managing the environment require collective responses. From local water scarcity to global climate change, finding solutions will depend on steering the actions of multiple individuals and organizations for the common benefit. In some cases, win-win gains can be made by addressing environmental problems. In other cases, it is difficult to address environmental problems because of conflicting interests.

Our research focuses on finding institutional solutions to environmental problems -- the formal and informal rules that guide action at multiple levels. These rules come from many sources: our relations with other people, the structure of our government bodies, our demand for goods in the market, and the structure of international agreements. The potential of environmental institutions lies not only in their technical merits, but also in how they fit with the social, moral, and legal rules that structure societal interactions.

We use advanced research methods, including large-scale field experiments, surveys, and institutional data, to learn applied lessons about how institutions can solve environmental problems. While we are political scientists, we draw on insights from across the social sciences and seek to address pressing theoretical questions with analytical rigor. We are engaged in a number of collaborative projects to answer questions about steering collective actions to fit specific political, economic, and ecological contexts.

PhD Mentoring

Every PhD student is matched with a faculty mentor to guide them through their studies. The mentor will tailor a program of study to best fit the student’s career goals, taking advantage of the Bren School’s flexible PhD training program and the extensive resources of a campus where sustainability research is a top priority. We work with faculty in Political Science, Economics, Psychology, Sociology, Technology Management, and other departments and disciplines to equip our PhD students with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to become independent, creative, and productive scholars who develop effective solutions to the most pressing environmental problems.

In their first year, our students will take the required Bren PhD courses on proposal writing and collaborative writing, as well as topical courses in environmental issues, and courses in science and research methods, such as econometrics and survey design. By the end of the first year, we expect students to be contributing to collaborative research projects and starting their own research agendas. By the end of the second year, they should be prepared for the qualifying exam and ready to move into leading their own research projects.

Examples of Projects

Public Management of Wildfires

A graduate student admitted to the Bren School could become involved in fire management research. The greatest fire management challenges lie in addressing simultaneously the threat to human well-being posed by fires, particularly at the wildland-urban interface; the uncertainties associated with various fire-related land-management practices, such as thinning and controlled burns; and the complicating factor of climate change. Projects in this area could include understanding the role of jurisdictional disconnects in fire management or understanding what drives fire management decisions in public agencies.

Moral Politics

The language of environmental politics in the United States has changed over the years. A half century ago, people talked about pollution as a problem to be solved. Today, many people talk about the environment in more sacred terms - pollution has evolved from being a problem to being a sin. Some of our research studies this change and its consequences for government policy to solve environmental problems. Our research investigates how moral language helps raise environmental issues on the national agenda because it effectively motivates people on both sides. At the same time, moral language also makes people more polarized and less willing to accept compromise, making it harder to reach a policy agreement.

Information for Accountability

Public agencies, government offices, and international organizations fail the people they are supposed to serve because of information and accountability problems. A series of projects are under way to investigate ways that information can be used to improve the implementation of environmental policies. Regarding international organizations, the project investigate whether citizen complaint mechanisms have made the allocation of environmentally risky projects by aid agencies more selective. Expanding on this work, a large-scale field experiment is being run to test when NGOs can be motivated to monitor the performance of international organizations. At the national level, field experiments are currently being developed to test whether citizen monitoring or the provision of information about public services to citizens can limit corruption and the loss of resources for local environmental management activities.

Spotlight on Former Students

Sara Hughes

Sara Hughes received her PhD from the Bren School in June 2011, studying under Bren professors Oran Young (now emeritus) and Sarah Anderson. Hughes's specialization areas were political institutions, science in policy, and water resources management. Her dissertation was supported by fellowships from the Australian–American Fulbright Commission and the CALFED pre-doctoral science program. After graduation, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She is now an assistant professor of urban politics in the Political Science Department at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

Mary Collins

Advised by Sarah Anderson, Mary Collins graduated from the Bren School in 2012, with a dissertation that investigated sources of disproportionate harm from pollution. While at Bren, she studied with the late Bill Freudenberg, a sociologist, and benefited from the insights of Bren professor Bruce Kendall, an ecologist having expertise in statistical methods. Collins became a post-doctoral scholar at the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland, where she has continued to investigate why certain firms emit more pollution than others and the consequences for underprivileged communities. She is now an assistant professor of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.


While there are no specific course requirements for admission, we admit students whose experiences and/or coursework have prepared them to formulate and answer research questions in the social sciences. This will typically involve training in quantitative data analysis, econometrics, statistics, and/or research design, as well as substantive training in political science, economics, public administration, or another related social science. While we encourage collaboration across fields, all PhD candidates will be required to develop core competency in modern social science research methods.