The best U.S. grad schools in ecology and evolution

The academic rankings of both undergraduate and graduate schools done yearly by U.S. News and World Report are taken quite seriously. Well, at least they are by the schools that make it to the top. When a school slips, the rankings suddenly become irrelevant, and excuses are made.

For many years the University of Chicago was number one in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and we well deserved that ranking. That’s why I came here from Maryland, for the faculty in this department were superb, and so were the grad students, who were more like colleagues than students. Sadly, we’ve slipped over the years, and now you can see, from this year’s rankings, that we’re #8.

I’m not sure how they arrive at these things, but the schools above us, including Harvard, Davis, Duke, and UT Austin, have clearly given us a run for the money.  They are excellent places to study. But at least I can say that I was an active faculty member during the best years of this department. (There were also great periods in earlier years, when the department was simply “biology”: they include the time when my adviser Dick Lewontin was here along with other greats, and even earlier when Sewall Wright, George Beadle, and other giants in the field were on the faculty.

Anyway, if you’re a student contemplating going to grad school in ecology and evolution, take a look at these schools; they’re all good.


  1. Merilee
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Sub (yay Stanford and Berkeley).

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:32 am | Permalink

      Sub (yay Cornell)

  2. Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Sigh… all the professors I personally know are retiring and before my boy has even started high school.

    Fortunately, UT Austin is a commute for us.

  3. Christopher
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I assume that the rankings don’t take free speech into consideration, otherwise Berkeley wouldn’t be on the list.

    Not that I can speak about what makes a uni worth attending, for biology or otherwise. I settled for nearby rather than any other consideration (boy, did I ever settle!) and i’dhave to settle for proximity again if I wish to return to complete my long-dreamt of biology degree.

  4. GBJames
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve sometimes wondered why the subject is called “Ecology and Evolution”. The latter would seem to subsume not only the former but also other sub-diciplines. “Ecology” seems kind of static, incorporating an idea of “things in balance”. “Evolution” is dynamic and focuses on things changing.

    • Ed Hessler
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always been comfortable with ecology and evolution.

      The Feb 1 issue of Nature has an article titles “Evology,” combining the two terms and ideas. It is written by a journalist.

      It includes this quote from Cornell ecologist Stephen Ellner, “Everything about ecology has to be re-examined in light of the fact that evolution is more important than we thought.”

      That Cornell is ranked number # 3 has nothing to do with me using this quote!

      I’ve been hoping that Professor Coyne would comment on the Nature essay but we already ask way too much of him.

      Happy Spring. Very light snow here but this is not atypical.

    • W.Benson
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      The German biologist and naturalist Ernst Haeckel, a fervent Darwinist, coined the term “Ecology”. In 1870 he defined it as “the study of all those complex interactions referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.” Ecological adaptations, the traits through which each species ‘makes’ its ecology, are the products of evolution in response to specific circumstances. Almost all the major advances in the understanding of evolutionary change — excepting neutral evolution, and phylogeny and paleontology — were made by naturalists (Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Poulton, E.B. Ford, Ford’s friend R.A. Fisher, J. Maynard-Smith, P.M. Sheppard, A.J. Cain, Wm. Hamilton, E.0. Wilson, George Williams, Trivers, Futuyma, Barton, etc. etc.) with a good understanding of the ecology of survival and reproduction.

      • Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        These days there is also the technology of what might be called “normative ecology”, i.e., how to maintain/change/prevent from changing interactions between organisms and environments.

        Probably there’s some of that in the department too (though I could be wrong).

    • Posted March 20, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Ecology and Evolution logically go together. Evolution studies species over time; ecology studies species in particular “spaces”, i.e.niches. Evolution occurs through the interaction of an organism with its environment; ecology is the study of that interaction.

      • Ted Burk
        Posted March 20, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        To express the interaction, the eminent early ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson spoke of “The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play”.

    • Posted March 20, 2018 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      It’s rather common to think of ecology as ‘static’ but a major part of ecology involves the dynamics of populations – invasive species, carrying capacities, cycles, parasites, dispersal, predation… all of which link tightly to evolution.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      I appreciate all the responses… And I understand all of that. Still…

      I think the issue I have is that I think of evolutionary biology as the umbrella under which all of the rest of biology resides, including the study of living things living in relationship to each other. So somehow it seems funny… like if we had departments of Evolution and Anatomy, or Evolution and Microbiology or Evolution and Herpetology.

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to see Wisconsin at the top in Microbiology. That was the consensus “when I was a kid.” More recently, I’d thought Michigan State, which US News doesn’t have in the top three.

  6. Posted March 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    You could say UC and Harvard are tied for sixth place rather than eighth. This ranking fetish is sort of silly. I imagine all of the programs on this list are pretty damn good.

    • jahigginbotham
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      You could say they tied for sixth highest score, or each could claim the sixth highest score. But sixth place is changing the accepted definition of place.

  7. Nick
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    As someone wanting to go to graduate school in ecology and evolution, I could not plausibly be accepted into any of these schools. Thanks for the advice anyways.

  8. Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    I’ll be applying for graduate school in the fall for ecology and evolution biology. Neither of my parents went to college, so I am not sure about the whole process. Any tips?

  9. Posted March 24, 2018 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    According to the US News & World Report website [1], the ranking methodology is based on surveys sent to academics over the past several years who are asked to rank schools based on a scale of 1 to 5. Only 8% of surveys in biology are returned.

    It also misses many schools. Only 10 were listed for EEB, but that is not the *top* 10 — it’s the only ones with at least ten surveys filled out. There are only 3 schools in the US that are rated for microbiology [2], for example, though of course many more offer training in this area.

    In short, slipping down or moving up on this list is probably not a data point worth fretting about.



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