Over the past couple decades, we’ve seen environmental issues evolve from a niche concern of left-leaning politicians and hard-science academics into a regular fixture of national and global news outlets. A seemingly endless stream of natural disasters and notable climate irregularities have finally lead to widespread public concern.
These rapid changes are certainly daunting, yet many young people appear to be embracing the challenges as a massive opportunity to create real and lasting change in the way we relate to the world around us. Thousands have been inspired to dedicate their lives to environmental science, in hopes of being part of a movement that could very literally save the world.
If you are interested in a career in environmental science, the following guide should help you understand the process of obtaining an education in environmental science, as well as what to expect when you’re ready to apply for your first job.
Part I. The Environmental Sciences Industry
Seemingly constant projections of doom and gloom due to our rapidly changing climate, as well as the concern over how actions of human beings enable these changes, have actually created a growing market for environmental scientists. At the same time, the idea of what constitutes an environmental scientist is constantly evolving as well. Listed below are a few potential careers in this dynamic field.
Environmental Science-Related Careers
- Environmental Scientist: As an environmental scientist, your duties can vary significantly depending on your organization. You will likely spend some time in the field, working in natural environments to promote conservation and conduct research. However, many environmental scientists also spend much of their time in office settings developing and implementing policy. Environmental scientists also often work in education, corporate or government settings.
- Environmental Engineer: Using the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry, environmental engineers work to develop solutions to environmental problems. They are often involved in efforts to improve recycling, waste disposal, and public health. Environmental engineering is an excellent field for anyone who wants to develop viable solutions to the various environmental issues our planet is currently facing.
- Ecological Consultant: Ecological consultants need to not only understand the important environmental issues we face, but also be able to communicate in layman’s terms the ways they will affect us. Ecological consultants are often hired by governments or corporations to help provide solutions to environmental problems. They also provide advice on the various potential environmental effects of the organization’s activities.
- Research Analyst: Duties of an environmental research analyst might include studying, synthesizing, and drafting documents pertaining to environmental issues. In some cases, the position may also include drafting or editing speeches and briefings for scientific accuracy, reviewing and critically analyzing documents and forming an environmental plan for a company or government organization. Individuals who excel at reading and writing and are interested in environmental issues might consider a career as an environmental research analyst.
- Environmental Science and Protection Technicians: Technicians in the field of environmental science often focus on laboratory work and field tests. They are often responsible for monitoring the environment and investigating sources of pollution, often in regards to public health. They often work under the supervision of environmental scientists and specialists, and most positions in the field require no more education than an associate’s degree.
Salary and Career Outlook
In May 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the median salary of environmental scientists and specialists as $61,700. The lowest 10% earned less than $37,850 and the top 10% earned more than $107,990.
The BLS projects job growth for environmental scientists to reach 19% between 2010 and 2020, approximately as fast as the average pace for all occupations. The majority of growth is expected to come from private consulting firms as many businesses are expected to consult with environmental scientists in order to help them minimize the impact of their activities on the environment.
Part II. Top U.S. Environmental Science Programs
Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment oversees a myriad of collaborative environmental research projects, providing a particularly good opportunity for prospective environmental science students.
- Accreditation: Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
- Specialized Degrees: Earth Sciences; Energy Resources Engineering; Geological and Environmental Sciences; Geophysics.
- Industry Perception: Stanford is widely viewed as one of the best schools in the world, and is ranked 6th by the US News & World Report.
- Cost: $41,787 for the 2012-13 school year.
- Financial Aid: Aid options for scholarships are on the basis of financial need, including Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. Outside scholarships are also available, as well as student employment and loans, though the school discourages the taking out of loans to cover college costs.
University of California, Berkeley
UC Berkeley is a public institution that takes an active stance on environmental issues like climate change and environmental policy.
- Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
- Specialized Degrees: Ph.D. Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies; Master of Forestry; Master of Science in Range Management.
- Industry Perception: One of the highest regarded schools in the Cal State system, Berkeley is also widely considered one of the most progressive colleges in the country.
- Cost: Tuition was $11,767 for state residents and $34,645 for nonresidents during the 2011-12 school year.
- Financial Aid: Options for aid include merit-based and need-based scholarships from the Cal Alumni Association; externally funded, merit-based scholarships on behalf of the Scholarship Connection; and a number of academic achievement scholarships.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The university is a private institution that focuses on scientific and technological research. The school’s stated mission is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.
- Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Specialized Degrees: B.S. in Civil Engineering; Minors in Civil and Environmental Engineering; B.S. in Environmental Engineering
- Industry Perception: MIT is widely considered the finest institution in the nation for science-related majors. The high regard for the school lead to research expenditures upwards of $700 million in 2009, with funding coming from government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Defense.
- Cost: $42,050 tuition and fees as of the 2012-13 academic year.
- Financial Aid: Financial aid at MIT is distributed by three guiding principles:
- Seeking out and admitting the most talented and promising students without regard to family financial circumstances
- Awarding undergraduate aid on the basis of financial need only.
- Meet the full need of each undergraduate for all four years.
Northland College, Ashland
A private school on the southern shore of Lake Superior, Wisconsin’s Northland College is dedicated to sustainable living. In 1997, Northland College joined various other educational institutions around the globe in signing the Talloires Declaration, a mandate of principle that guides campuses to be environmentally responsible places to live, work, and learn.
- Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (formerly North Central Association)
- Specialized Degrees: Environmental Geosciences; Fisheries Ecology; and Management, Wildlife Ecology and Management
- Industry Perception: Northland College is known mainly for its focus on the environment and sustainability. While it is a small liberal arts and sciences college, it is still quite selective, with an acceptance rate of 72.8%.
- Cost: $28,568 total for tuition and fees during the 2012-13 academic year.
- Financial Aid: 99% of Northland students receive financial assistance. Aid at Northland comes in the form of federal state and private scholarships, as well as grants, campus employment and student loans.
State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, New York
SUNY – ESF is a public institution that offers students an education that is specifically geared toward environmental concerns. ESF is one of 64 schools in the State University of New York system.
- Accreditation: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- Specialized Degrees: Aquatic and Fisheries Science; Conservation Biology; Environmental Biology; Environmental Resources Engineering; Environmental Science; Environmental Studies.
- Industry Perception: With an exceptionally diverse offering of environmentally focused majors and minors, SUNY – ESF is considered a strong choice for students looking to receive a well-rounded environmental and science-based education. The school is ranked #77 on the U.S. News & World Report ranking of U.S. colleges.
- Cost: $6,570 in-state and $15,820 out-of-state tuition for the 2012-13 academic year.
- Financial Aid: Funds are awarded primarily on the basis of financial need and are coordinated to supplement parental support, student employment earnings, savings, and assistance from other sources. Some scholarships and fellowships are offered based on academic achievement or minority student status.
Part III. Launching a Career in Environmental Science
Portfolios: Environmental scientists do not necessarily need a portfolio to land entry-level positions. However, documented evidence of past environmental research projects or field work could prove to employers you are capable of doing the job.
Cover Letters and Resumés: Naturally, employers will look for related work and extracurricular experience in science and environment-related fields. Other skills that should be noted include the ability to use logic, reasoning and critical thinking, reading comprehension, writing, and strong communication.
Personal Branding: While a love of nature and a passion for environmental concerns is very important, you’ll also need to express a willingness to effectively take on the difficult (and at times, mundane) daily tasks inherent to science-related work. Unusual expertise in computer modeling, data and statistics, or even reading and writing will help you to stand out in this competitive field.
5 Tips from Industry Insiders
- My best advice honestly would be to learn how to write. I think no matter what you do in science whether you want to be a professor or a researcher or you want to work in policy and planning, almost no matter what you do you’re going to need to learn how to write. Even the really technical folks in our labs need to write standard operating procedures about how they use their equipment. So that would be my big advice… just because you like science don’t forget to take English or apply yourself in English. - Kathryn Snead, Environmental Scientist for the Office of Indoor Air and Radiation at EPA Headquarters
- If you are motivated to do the harder science and math classes, don’t be ashamed of that. My degree in chemistry has served me well. Don’t shy away from your interests and your skills based on what is perceived as not popular. Incredible doors will open for you, and there are a lot of places for young people in science. - Dr. Staci Simonich, Professor of Chemistry
- I would…encourage students to bite the bullet and learn how to speak in public. I was once at a cocktail party in London, a government cocktail party, and who should come into the room but Margaret Thatcher. She walked around, as politicians do, saying to everybody “what do you do?” She came to me and I said, “I’m an environmentalist.” And she said, “Oh, you’re one of those silly scientists who waste the taxpayers’ money on the environment.” And I said, “Now wait a minute Prime Minister, it’s not like that. If you will give me just thirty seconds I’ll tell you it’s different. And I had to start talking. After thirty seconds she said, “Try another thirty seconds.” And after that she said, “Ring my secretary. Come in some time next week, we’ll have half an hour together.” I would like all students to think, what would they say if they came face to face with a politician who said, “You’re wasting taxpayers’ money, justify it. Thirty seconds, go. - Norman Myers, Environmental Scientist, Fellow at Green College & Oxford University
- The most important thing for fitting into this job is loving the research you are doing. You have at least three years working on the same project. So unless you are truly interested in the subject you will not succeed. - Cecilia Fenech, Researcher specialising in pollution forensic science
- I think that most people that come into this field to it because they have a passion for that. I know that’s where I certainly came from. I didn’t have the degree I needed to do – I didn’t have the requirements I needed to do the masters – I had a lot of work ahead of me when I started on this path but I knew it was something that I really wanted to do. I would encourage anybody who feels strongly about the environment and is passionate about making a difference to not let anything stop you. – Charlotte Shearin, Environmental Scientist with Environmental Systems Analysis, Inc.
Saving the World, One Acidity Test at a Time
While environmental science draws a large number of scientific, lab-oriented individuals, the discipline also seems to inspire a great deal of passion from those who choose to study and work in the field. In many cases, environmental scientists are driven by their love of the natural world — and their fear for its survival — as much as they are an aptitude for research and lab testing.
No matter the impetus, environmental science requires a great deal of passion and dedication, as the daily work often requires a great deal of mental, and even physical effort. At the end of the day, it is easy for any environmental scientist to see the value in their work. The daily tasks of today’s environmental scientists, as miniscule as they may sometimes be, make a huge difference in the long run.