Duke Nicholas vs. Yale FES

It’s spring again, which means some lucky potential students might be trying to choose between school options. Some people out there may be trying to make a similar decision to the one I did a few years ago, deciding whether to attend Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment or Yale FES (School of Forestry and Environmental Studies).

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Decision Time. The author in a boat. Photo: Ben Copp


I visited both schools a few times in my research, talked with lots of people, and looked around online. However, short of a few wondering forum posts on Grad School Cafe, didn’t really find much help for my decision on the internet. Perhaps some of what I looked at and learned will be useful for others.

First, a few disclaimers.

  • Obviously, this is a Nicholas School website, thus I choose Duke, so keep that bias in mind.
  • I had a similar cost to attend both schools, so money was not a deciding factor between the two.
  • I grew up in Raleigh and was interesting in moving back to NC for grad school, if it made sense for my career goals.


Duke has a great group of folks, but the average age is a bit younger than Yale’s. There’s more people straight out of undergrad or with less work experience (I had 5.5 years of experience and was 27 before starting school, making me a bit of an old man at Duke). I’ve been really happy at Duke, but there are a lot of people at Yale that I really cherish too.

Advantage: Yale, slightly


Yale makes a lot of noise in their admitted students process about the funding available to students, and those folks do have a lot of funding for various opportunities.

As an example of some of the things Yale students get to do, I was in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics and spent some time with folks from FES, who were there to raise awareness about climate change.

Duke funds a lot otherwise unfunded internships through its Stanback program.

Advantage: Tie

Skill Development/Curriculum

This is the crux reason why I chose Duke. I had a GIS background and was interested in gaining hard skills when I returned to school – specifically with the programming language Python.

Duke has a class that focuses on Python for weeks with in the context of environmental GIS applications. Yale suggested that I could take a Python class at Yale’s engineering school.

Clearly, Duke had the more attractive option in this instance.

Looking at other courses and chatting with my friends at both Duke and Yale, Duke seems to put a much greater emphasis on developing technical skills to prepare you for the job market, while Yale’s coursework is generally less focused in this direction.

I believe that technical skills are what will get me hired out of graduate school, and thus I chose Duke, because of its much stronger background in this area.

Advantage: Duke, significantly

Overall, I think the relative similarity between the people and funding opportunities at the schools is washed out by Duke’s strong technical focus. But, feel free to look into the question more yourself.

Overall: Duke

7 thoughts on “Duke Nicholas vs. Yale FES

  1. Just a quick comment from a current GIS student at Yale – I’ve taken both vector and raster courses taught by the “father” of Map Algebra, Dana Tomlin, whose master’s thesis formed the basis of ArcGIS’s raster applications. I am looking forward to taking his fall course which delves deep into “Python programming language in conjunction with ESRI’s ArcGIS, Google’s Earth Engine, and the open-source Quantum geographic information systems (GIS)” for customized geo-spatial data analysis and processing. More details at http://environment.yale.edu/courses/2013-2014/detail/754/

  2. I also had to make the decision between Duke Nicholas and Yale F&ES a couple years ago, but ended up choosing Yale. I’ve had a fantastic time and have run into lots of Duke students who are also active in my field, so I’m sure I could have had a postive experience in each school, though I think Yale has strengths in the openness of the course of study – I’ve taken courses throughout the University that have complemented my F&ES courses. One point – Yale does have a course that integrates Python programming and GIS called Geospatial Software Design.

  3. *Update:
    There is a class at FES that teaches python in a GIS context. It’s only been taught for two years, so when you were making your decision it probably was not on offer.

    But take a look at :

    It is taught by Dana Tomlin, who can only be described as a GIS Guru. He developed much of the software used by ArcGIS to this day and is an incredible professor.

    This class is on the cutting edge of programming with GIS. It touches on open source GIS (QGIS) and Google Earth Engine – both python and Javascript – at the end of the semester. Yale has developed a close relationship with google over the last few years, and a handful of students that took Dana’s class have gone on to work on Google Earth Engine projects funded by google.

  4. As someone who completed a Master’s at Yale FES and just started the PhD at Duke, it’s interesting to see this debate keeping in mind my past two years of experiences and the motivations that led me to ultimately end up at Duke.

    The short-comings of this article is that it is really shallow, and specific, in its overview of the two programs. Both programs have their relative strengths and weaknesses, and I think the best fit ultimately depends on what the candidate is looking to get out of the program.

    As someone who studies marine resource management and economics, I was very constrained at Yale via the course offerings, but was able to compensate for that through a myriad of extra curricular or course projects that helped me develop projects and research in my specific area of interest.

    However, now that I’m at Duke, with access to the course selection (which should be made publicly available for all prospective students), I am thoroughly impressed by the wide array of course offerings, especially for economic and marine topics. The access to courses at NC State and UNC is also fantastic.

    I chose Yale for the Master’s because there seemed to be better opportunities to conduct international research and receive adequate funding for that research, as well as participate in international conferences.

    Now that I am at Duke, I realize there are also such international opportunities, although they may not be as well funded or well advertised. Duke also seems to foster a strong interdisciplinary environment, especially between environmental or resource economists and faculty of other disciplines. Unfortunately, this collaboration and interaction across disciplines seemed lacking at Yale FES.

    I am also sure that both programs are subject to change based on the interests of the incoming class and the availability of professors to teach those courses. I think this is something all prospective students should be aware of. Rather than pick the program for its classes, pick the program that fosters the research or internship experiences you are looking for and that has the experts in your specific field of interest that can help guide you on the right path.

    I was fortunate to have excellent mentors and advisors at Yale, who added a lot to the quality of the program. However, I often heard from other students that meeting with their advisors was challenging. Once again, I am sure this is a case-by-case basis and you should really meet with other students working with your potential advisors to get a better understanding of the working relationship.

    Although I’ve been here less than a year, my experience with faculty has far exceeded my expectations, and meeting with professors has never been easier.

    Between Durham and New Haven, I would say New Haven has better pizza, convenient access to NYC, DC, and Boston, but a higher cost of living. Durham has an endless amount of excellent “foodie” restaurants, bars, and cafes, the best donuts I’ve ever tasted, and a low cost of living.

    Finally, both schools boast impressive LEED certified study halls: Environment Hall and Kroon Hall, which could start its own debate about which study space is “better”. But, just like the programs, where you end up is a matter of tastes and preferences for the type of experience you are looking for, and the “better” program really depends on what you make of the program you ultimately choose.

  5. I’m uncertain on the difference of technical skills. I know that FES offers a number of one-day, eight-hour “technical skills modules” on Saturdays, along with the three-week orientation in which all incoming students go camping around Connecticut in August.

    WRT Python, FES’ GIS professor (Dana Tomlin) began teaching this course in Fall 2013:

    Geospatial Software Design


    I’m not saying that FES is equal to — or better than — Nicholas. I’m simply offering this in addition to your comments… which I appreciate!

  6. During your application process did you also consider Michigan’s program? I’d be interested in hearing the pros and cons of that program as well.

  7. I’m having the same predicament. I have been admitted to Yale FES and Duke Nicholas. Concerned about quantitative v. qualitative coursework – from what I understand, Duke is more quantitative and structured whereas Yale is very flexible. Cost and location aside, which program prepares you better for the job market? Are there other things I should be looking at before making a decision?

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