How to Start a Career in Sustainability

How to Start a Career in Sustainability
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on November 9, 2020

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Young people are on the front lines of climate change activism, organizing student strikes and leading international initiatives to curb pollution and waste. For many college students, the environment isn't just a political issue but a potential career path as well.

Sustainability jobs can be found across popular industries like science, engineering, and business management. These professionals act as stewards of natural resources by conducting research, identifying eco-friendly alternatives, and guiding policymakers and companies toward greener choices.

“[Sustainability] is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Source: — The United Nations, “Our Common Future” Link: More Info

A career in sustainability has never looked more sustainable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that demand for sustainability professionals will continue to grow over the course of the decade. Fulfilling, well-paid green jobs — from environmental technicians to environmental scientists — with education requirements ranging from associate degrees to doctorates are slated for above-average growth.

While the majority of college graduates end up working jobs unrelated to their majors, students who earn sustainability degrees could be more likely to work in their chosen fields. Many green majors fall within STEM fields, which boast a high major-to-career match.

Establish Eco Expertise With a Green Degree

A sustainability degree comes in many forms. Some majors, such as environmental studies, innovation studies, and bioethics, focus specifically on sustainability, whereas others include sustainability in their curricula but take a wide-lens approach.

The science-leaning student has the widest array of options, including biology, bioresource science, climate science, food science, environmental science, marine biology/oceanography, and a slew of engineering concentrations.

Examples of Green Majors With a Sustainability Focus

Bioethics Bioresource science Chemical engineering Climate science Communication Entrepreneurship Environmental architecture/design Environmental engineering Environmental science Fashion design Food science Innovation studies Marine biology/oceanography Political science Public policy Renewable energy Sustainable agriculture Wildlife biology/ecology

If you're interested in combining sustainability with another specialization, such as fashion design or architecture, you may consider an interdisciplinary major or minor. A growing number of colleges allow students to bridge two or more disciplines — an especially productive option when it comes to environmental problem-solving.

Interdisciplinary and build-your-own-degree programs allow students to earn their degrees in more standard fields, like political science or public policy, while taking a special interest in green issues. Additionally, any broad subject, such as communication or entrepreneurship, can easily link back to green initiatives.

Educational Requirements for Sustainability Careers

While many hands-on careers in sustainability, like wind turbine technician and environmental engineering technician, start with vocational training or an associate degree, most green jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. For example, engineers need only a bachelor's degree to start their career.

Some sustainability careers may require a graduate degree.

Other sustainability careers, however, may require a graduate degree. Advanced degrees in sustainability equip students to conduct research, perform in-depth analysis, and think in terms of large systems.

The green MBA — that is, a master of business administration with a sustainability focus — is one popular option for aspiring sustainability leaders. Green MBA graduates often shoot for business liaison roles, such as sustainability consultant or chief sustainability officer. You can also check out an online MBA in sustainability.

At the doctoral level, students study some combination of sustainability, environmental and earth science, engineering, policy, communications, and management to equip them for careers as college professors, department chairs, or research scientists.

List of Popular Green Jobs
Job Minimum Degree Required Median Salary (2019) Job Growth Rate (2019-29)
Environmental Lawyers Doctoral or professional degree $122,960 (all lawyers) 4% (all lawyers)
Environmental Engineers Bachelor's degree $88,860 3%
Environmental Science Professors Doctoral degree $82,430 9% (all professors)
Hydrologists Bachelor's degree $81,270 5%
Urban and Regional Planners Master's degree $74,350 11%
Environmental Scientists and Specialists Bachelor's degree $71,360 8%
Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists Bachelor's degree $63,270 4%
Conservation Scientists Bachelor's degree $62,410 5%
Environmental Engineering Technicians Associate degree $50,620 7%
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians Associate degree $46,540 8%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Degree-holders looking to strengthen their resumes can explore certificates in sustainability. Certificate programs help professionals hone expertise in in-demand subfields, like environmental management, urban planning, conservation, renewable energy, and many more.

A number of professional organizations offer sustainability credentials as well. The Association of Energy Engineers, for example, runs several Certified Sustainable Development Professional programs, while the International Society of Sustainability Professionals offers Sustainability Professional Certification and other professional development tools.

The Green Industry Is Gaining Momentum

Through scientific research, environmentally focused curricula, clean energy engineering, and eco-friendly policymaking, green jobs introduce sustainability throughout the supply chain and across sectors. These days, sustainability professionals are working hard to establish a global green economy that will increase employment while also protecting the environment.

As lawmakers and corporations respond to the increasing demand for eco-friendly alternatives, the green job market is poised to boom. More and more college campuses, corporations, and government agencies are setting ambitious green goals and looking to sustainability experts in order to hit them. Truly, now is the time to start establishing a career in sustainability.

Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images

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