Environmental science explores topics like ecology, geology, and biology to understand environmental issues. This discipline also examines how humans impact the environment. Professionals in this field often become scientists or researchers. Others pursue environmental science careers in education, law, and government.
Below, readers can learn more about careers in environmental science and their salary potential.
Why Pursue a Degree in Environmental Science?
Careers with an environmental science degree require an aptitude in science and mathematics. These professionals need to understand scientific data in order to complete and interpret research about environmental issues.
Depending on their position, some environmental scientists split time between the field and a lab to conduct research. Others spend the majority of their time indoors, teaching students, writing policy, or consulting on the environmental impact of a company's projects.
Careers for an environmental science major require people with a passion for studying and working with the environment, while also embracing the technical rigor of a STEM career.
Environmental Science Career Outlook
The job outlook for environmental science careers varies depending on a worker's education, experience, and location. Readers should also look at employment trends in their city or state to learn more about salary outlook.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that civil engineers will only experience 2% job growth between 2019 and 2029. During the same period, the BLS projects that environmental scientists and specialists will benefit from 8% job growth — much faster than average.
The following table provides more information about salary outlook based on experience for some common careers in environmental science.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Environmental Health and Safety Manager||$58,750||$68,130||$80,190||$89,960|
Skills Gained With An Environmental Science Degree
Students develop core skills for environmental science careers through coursework in general biology and chemistry. They examine ecological systems with respect to energy cycles and sustainability concepts. They also learn to conduct field research and laboratory experiments using best practices and industry standards.
At the graduate level, learners gain additional skills in leadership, program development, and advanced research methodologies. Depending on their role, environmental professionals may demonstrate their skills by earning state licensure and/or industry-specific credentials.
- Integrative Communication
Through writing reports, creating presentations, and participating in group projects, students learn to convey ideas and facts to diverse audiences. Because they often work in multidisciplinary teams, environmental scientists must be able to translate and clarify technical or otherwise complex information. Strong integrative communication skills also allow scientists to act as community educators and public policy advocates.
- Research Application
Environmental science students learn to design, conduct, and evaluate research. They investigate important aspects of the scientific method, including the importance of carrying out literature reviews and formulating hypotheses. They also use quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate and address specific inquiries. In graduate programs, learners apply their research findings to solve pertinent environmental issues, such as those related to sustainable resource extraction and water pollution.
- Environmental Analysis
Students learn to apply research methodologies to determine the sources and effects of contamination on natural areas, like wetlands and forests. They develop specialized skills, such as using geographic information systems and chromatographic methods to help convert data into actionable information. Environmental analysis allows students to remediate and solve existing problems, as well as predict the possible impact of future human activities.
- Environmental Ethics
Environmental science seeks to balance the growth of human communities and industries with the needs of the flora and fauna of the natural world. Environmental ethics centers on social responsibility and stewardship, exploring how individuals, companies, and governments can support efforts to minimize hazards and build a sustainable world for future generations.
- Creative Leadership
Master's programs in environmental science typically focus on leadership training to prepare students for careers as laboratory directors, city planners, nature conservation officers, and public health managers. Graduate students learn to recruit diverse talent, coordinate staff, and develop holistic initiatives. They also develop motivation and conflict resolution skills that take into account cultural diversity and overall inclusivity.
Environmental Science Career Paths
- Geospatial Technologies
A cornerstone of environmental science, geospatial analysis enables scientists to investigate geographic questions and patterns. Learners gain skills in GPS and web-based mapping techniques, including spatial modeling, remote sensing, aerial photo interpretation, and computer-supported cartography. Proficiency in geospatial technologies prepares students for careers in engineering and software development. Individuals can also pursue work with government agencies, overseeing water resource management programs and geological surveys.
- Natural Resource Conservation
Students examine the biosphere and relationships between natural resource systems. They learn the restorative processes needed to cultivate sustainable forests, grasslands, wetlands, and watersheds. They also delve into land-use regulations and environmental decision-making. Relevant careers include those related to natural area management, environmental reclamation, and ecological restoration.
- Alternative Energy
Students explore different fuels and energy systems, with an emphasis on regional bioenergy and sustainable engineering. They also examine U.S. renewable energy policies within the framework of climate change politics. Learners who study alternative energy can work for municipal governments, public power companies, and global NGOs.
- Environmental Engineering
Environmental engineering students explore methods to minimize the negative effects of technology and engineering processes on the natural environment. Coursework covers topics like materials science, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. Students apply these core principles to water purification, waste disposal, recycling, and sustainable design and manufacturing.
- Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences
Learners who study these sciences develop an in-depth understanding of the chemistry and physics governing Earth's oceans and atmosphere. Relevant careers include meteorologist and atmospheric scientist. These professionals work in diverse settings, including government agencies, private consulting firms, and commercial aviation companies.
How to Start Your Career in Environmental Science
Most careers for an environmental science major require a postsecondary degree. Associate and bachelor's programs provide valuable skills and training for entry-level employment in roles like environmental scientist and environmental specialist.
Master's and doctoral programs prepare graduates for positions that require management skills, as well as specialized knowledge and expertise. Careers such as postsecondary teacher in environmental engineering require a doctoral degree.
The sections below detail environmental science programs at different postsecondary education levels. Readers can also find information about potential careers for each degree level.
Associate Degree in Environmental Science
A 60-credit associate degree takes full-time students about two years to finish. Many colleges offer online, on-campus, and hybrid associate programs.
These programs teach the fundamentals of environmental science, with little room for specialization. Students take classes like principles of biology and American environmental history. Additional courses may include an environmental science laboratory or an environmental ethics class.
An associate program can prepare graduates to go on and pursue a bachelor's degree. Many colleges allow students to transfer credits from an associate track into a bachelor's program, which may reduce the overall cost of tuition. Graduates can also pursue entry-level environmental science careers in technical or scientific positions like the examples covered below.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Environmental Science?
- Environmental Science and Protection Technician
These professionals investigate sources of pollution, including issues that impact public health. Environmental science and protection technicians may inspect public buildings, including restaurants. They may also take samples of the soil, water, or air to determine sources of pollution. These professionals must collate data and create reports.
- Geological and Petroleum Technician
Geological and petroleum technicians offer support to petroleum scientists as they extract natural resources from the earth. These professionals oversee and maintain machinery in the field. They also run scientific tests on geological samples to determine their properties.
Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science
A bachelor's degree features at least 120 credits and takes full-time students about four years to complete. Students who enter their program with a completed associate degree can usually finish their bachelor's in about two years.
Colleges offer many bachelor's programs online, in person, or in a hybrid format. A bachelor's degree in environmental science combines foundational science material with specialized content. Students can take classes in ecological principles and field methods, geology, principles of physics, and environmental ethics. Possible concentrations include data analytics in science and natural resources and conservation.
Graduates can find entry-level positions with engineering firms and scientific research organizations. They can also apply to graduate programs in environmental science.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Environmental Science?
- Petroleum Engineer
Petroleum engineers design and carry out methods to extract oil and other natural resources from the earth. These engineers design and maintain equipment for drilling rigs on land or in water. Professionals in this field oversee petroleum technicians. They also run tests on the product to ensure quality.
Hydrologists study water and how it moves through the earth. These professionals examine rain, snow, and hail. Hydrologists also measure and record different properties of water, such as volume or flow. They collect samples of water and soil to run tests and collect data.
Master's Degree in Environmental Science
A master's degree typically requires 30-50 credits and takes 18-24 months to complete. Individuals typically need a bachelor's degree in environmental science or a related field to apply.
These degrees cover advanced material in highly specialized areas in the arena of environmental science. Concentrations include energy policy and climate, environmental sciences and policies, geographic information systems, and environmental management.
A master's degree prepares students for jobs with increased responsibility, including management positions. Readers should also keep in mind that some employers may help their employees pay for a master's degree. Read this guide to learn more about the best online master's programs in environmental management.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Environmental Science?
- Environmental Health and Safety Manager
These managers ensure that laboratories and other work spaces meet safety standards and regulations. They may lead inspections and provide training to employees. Some of these managers work directly for companies, while others serve as contract workers. A master's degree can help differentiate aspiring environmental health and safety managers from their peers on the job market.
- Natural Sciences Manager
Natural sciences managers oversee other environmental scientists. They help direct research projects, coordinate schedules, and ensure the best allocation of resources for projects. These managers must feel comfortable working with both top executives and scientists.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctoral Degree in Environmental Science
Doctoral programs differ in length, and some may take up to eight years to complete. Doctoral students must complete an original research project and write a dissertation, which they defend in front of a panel of faculty members.
Doctoral programs in environmental science allow for the highest level of specialization and offer the most rigorous coursework. Common classes include waste management and reuse, ecosystem restoration, soil and groundwater remediation, and contaminant transport.
These degrees prepare graduates for careers in research, management, and academia. Graduates can pursue careers overseeing entire departments of engineers and direct branches of research at universities.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Environmental Science?
Biochemists study the chemical and biological processes of living organisms, including cell development and disease. These professionals typically work in a lab or office while conducting research. Biochemists may work as part of a team, coordinating schedules, sharing research, and maintaining shared equipment.
- Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers in environmental sciences prepare curricula and teach college classes. These professors act as advisors for student research projects in hydrology, climate change, and environmental protection. They must also conduct and publish their own research in addition to teaching.
- Senior Research Scientist
Senior research scientists usually work in a laboratory or office setting. These professionals often lead research teams in geology and biology. They may also train and mentor junior researchers and oversee the publication of any results from their lab.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Environmental Science
While an undergraduate degree in environmental science can prepare graduates for entry-level positions, they can pursue many opportunities to advance their careers. In many cases, professionals can increase their chances for advancement by taking proactive steps to improve their knowledge and skills.
In the following sections, readers can explore some common advancement methods, including earning certification or licensure, engaging in continuing education, and joining professional organizations.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Licensure is typically issued by a government agency and often requires candidates to pass an exam. Professionals usually need to renew their licenses every few years. Only a few careers in environmental science require licensure. For example, hydrologists may need a license in some states.
Certifications are usually voluntary credentials that are offered by professional organizations. Professionals typically need to pass a certification exam and renew their certification every few years.
Many environmental science professionals can benefit from certification. For example, environmental engineers can gain certification through the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, while environmental scientists can explore certifications through the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.
Environmental science professionals can take advantage of several forms of continuing education to earn a promotion, such as returning to school to earn an advanced degree, completing a certificate program, and enrolling in continuing education courses.
Not all environmental science careers require an advanced degree, but some professionals may benefit from returning to school. For example, environmental engineers should strongly consider earning a master's in environmental engineering to qualify for senior engineering positions.
Most universities also offer certificate programs in specialized areas. Environmental science professionals can enroll in certificate programs to stay current on new technology and research in the industry. Natural sciences managers can pursue this option to broaden their knowledge in areas like management and natural sciences technology.
Likewise, professionals can take individual courses offered by colleges to learn new material related to environmental science and their careers. Readers can learn more about free online courses below.
Environmental science professionals and students can use professional organizations as powerful resources in their quest for knowledge and advancement.
Professional organizations, such as the National Association of Environmental Professionals and the National Environmental Health Association, provide scholarly research and workshops for professionals and students, helping them stay current with trends and technology in their field. Many organizations also offer certification and continuing education classes.
Professional organizations also provide opportunities for peer networking at conferences and other events. Networking allows professionals to engage with like-minded individuals, solve common problems, and find new career opportunities.
Readers should note that most professional organizations reserve full access for their members only. Both students and professionals can become members of most organizations.
How to Switch Your Career to Environmental Science
The path to an environmental science career differs depending on an individual's background and experience and where they want to go. Professionals may need to earn another degree or engage in retraining to change their career to environmental science.
Most professionals transitioning into a technical career or position in environmental science, such as environmental engineer, must return to school for another degree. Professionals seeking a career in a humanities-based field of environmental science, such as consulting or activism, may be able to pursue their interests without earning an additional degree.
Where Can You Work With An Environmental Science Degree?
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting
In this field, environmental professionals often work as project managers and product development specialists. They also work as consultants, helping companies improve manufacturing processes to reduce costs and hazardous emissions.
Average Salary: $79,650
- State Government, Excluding School and Hospitals
At the state level, environmental scientists and specialists typically work for regulatory agencies. They ensure companies abide by laws and monitor the epidemiological status of various communities and populations. This industry also offers employment in highway departments and state park systems.
Average Salary: $67,860
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Environmental scientists who work for local government agencies oversee road construction and other public works projects. Local governments may also be responsible for maintaining zoos and nature centers. In these settings, professionals may work as conservationists and botanists.
Average Salary: $72,460
- Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services
Within this industry, professionals can work as environmental engineers and alternative energy specialists. Environmental scientists may also pursue careers in sustainable architecture, with additional opportunities as urban planners, community developers, and preservation architects.
Average Salary: $78,270
- Federal Executive Branch
The federal government operates multiple agencies dedicated to environmental conservation and management, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Environmental scientists can also obtain research positions with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average Salary: $103,920
Environmental scientists currently have the highest levels of employment in California, Texas, and Florida. The states and areas with the highest annual mean wages for environmental scientists include the District of Columbia, California, Washington, and Virginia.
Interview With A Professional
Kara Sliwoski is an aquatic biologist and regional manager at SOLitude Lake Management — an environmental firm that provides lake, stormwater, pond, wetland, and fisheries management services. Kara oversees SOLitude's scientific teams across New York and New England, where she focuses on designing and executing custom, sustainable aquatic management programs for state and municipal regulatory agencies, private property owners, and owners associations.
- How and when did you decide to pursue a career in environmental science?
Believe it or not, my original college/career intentions were to pursue an undergraduate degree as a pre-med student and eventually become a doctor. It wasn't until after beginning to really dig into the details and future requirements to make all of that happen that I changed my mind. This was during my junior year, as I had already visited a potential pre-med school of interest.
But even after realizing the medical field wasn't where I felt I should go, I knew that another STEM field would be my choice, as I've always been interested in many aspects of STEM. I've always enjoyed being outside and felt there was no better place to pursue a career than doing something I enjoyed.
Thus, upon graduating college, for various reasons, I was excited to take a job in an environmental science field, but more specifically aquatic management.
- What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is being able to assist our clients in improving their aquatic resources by sharing my own knowledge and experiences. It's very fulfilling to know their questions and concerns can be addressed, and that they'll hopefully learn something more about lake management in the process that they can pass along to others.
The most challenging aspect of my job is working in a primarily male-dominated industry, which seems to be the case for various science fields. However, in just the last few years, I've noticed an overall shift in women becoming more involved in the aquatic management industry, and it's incredibly exciting to see!
- What are some of the various career paths for those pursuing an environmental science degree?
The various career path options are truly endless. Having an environmental science degree opens opportunities in both the public and private sectors, from regulatory agencies, municipalities, consulting, and remediation to everything and anything in between.
If someone is pursuing an environmental science degree but has yet to determine the specific field they want to enter, I'd encourage them to identify what motivates them and what they're passionate about and follow that.
- What is the importance of environmental science in today's rapidly changing world?
Similar to any other field of science, the continual discoveries and improvements upon previous environmental science information will only benefit us all moving forward. Environmental science is quite literally the world around us, and if that is rapidly changing, then so should the information.
If the natural world we live in is of high importance, then our knowledge of it should be as well.
- How do you see the environmental science field evolving in the future?
I see more women becoming involved and prominent within the field as a whole, and I already think it is trending that way. Ideally, I'd enjoy seeing environmental science become more widely accepted.
Although things are beginning to move that way, there is still much validated environmental science information that is overlooked or disagreed with. Due to many environmental issues currently plaguing the world, I can only hope that the environmental science field will continue to grow across all facets of life as we move into the future.
Resources for Environmental Science Majors
Students and professionals alike should take advantage of the many educational and professional development resources available for environmental science majors. In the following sections, readers can find some links to professional organizations, open courseware, and scholarly publications in environmental science.
- Professional Organizations
National Association of Environmental Professionals: The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 paved the way for environmental science. NAEP was founded in 1975, shortly after the first environmental science majors graduated, and this group was the first professional association to testify to the EPA. Today, the association serves as a news source and a gathering place for professionals.
National Environmental Health Association: This association developed the first professional standards for environmental scientists. NEHA offers the registered environmental health specialist and registered sanitarian credentials. A jobs board, online classes, and books of interest are all available on the association's website.
Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences: AESS is composed of faculty and students of environmental science. The association supports environmental science education. Members gain access to the Journal of Environmental Studies and a jobs board.
California Association of Environmental Professionals: This nonprofit organization serves environmental scientists in California. Born of a need to support the California Environmental Quality Act, this association delivers news to thousands of members all over the state.
American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists: This organization offers professional board certifications in environmental science and environmental engineering. AAEES publishes an annual career directory for free, as well as comprehensive coverage of the industry.
- Open Courseware
Global Warming Science - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: This undergraduate course teaches the scientific basics of climate change. After an introduction to climate models, students explore variables that impact climate, including solar variability, oceanic circulation, and greenhouse gases.
Science and Policy of Natural Hazards - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: This class explores natural catastrophes and their relationship to science and public policy. Coursework covers phenomena like hurricanes, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Students who take this course learn to craft high-quality scientific writing.
Bioremediation Journal: This peer-reviewed journal publishes four times per year. Covered topics include water science, pollution, sustainability, environmental engineering, and environmental studies.
Environment International: Covering environmental research disciplines in a broad swath, this journal discusses all pollutants and contaminants that impact the environment. Published by Elsevier press, this journal is issued 10 times per year.
Environmental Technology: This publication explores technology developments that impact the analysis of pollutants. New issues are published bimonthly.
Green Chemistry Letters and Reviews: This peer-reviewed journal is published quarterly. Content focuses on developments to procedures and chemical syntheses that reduce or limit the creation of hazardous byproducts.
Marine and Coastal Fisheries: An annual publication of the American Fisheries Society, this journal provides original research in fisheries management. Recent articles have discussed the impact of artificial reefs on juvenile red snapper along the Gulf Coast, the effect of altered habitats on bull sharks, and the impact of phytoplankton on offshore food webs.
Journal of Environmental Management: This journal includes peer-reviewed original research and critical reviews on environmental management topics. The publication focuses broadly on sustainability. Research specialties include resource analysis, environmental economics, energy efficiency, waste treatment, remediation, and process modifications.
Silent Spring: This important book, published in 1962, was one of the first to draw attention to environmental issues. The book's publication led to the banning of DDT and crucial legislative changes in environmental law.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals: By exploring food webs and illustrating where food comes from, Michael Pollan advocates for clean, responsible eating. This book explains organic and sustainable agriculture and the food production industry in America.
Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: This deep dive into the flower production industry illuminates the long-term effects of manipulating a natural process. The book focuses on common practices of hybridizers, breeders, mass growers, auctioneers, and neighborhood florists.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change: Political journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tackles the crucial issue of global warming. Separating political agendas from climate science, this book asks penetrating questions about this rapidly accelerating, global environmental problem.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power: This book takes an in-depth look at the world's dependence on fossil fuels. It also covers politics and environmental science within the fossil fuel industry.
Pathways to Urban Sustainability: This book, funded in part by the National Research Council, summarizes a research project that explored urban sustainability in the U.S.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is environmental science a good career?
Yes. Careers with an environmental science degree tackle some of the most important issues facing the world, including global warming.
- What are the five major fields of environmental science?
The five major fields of environmental science are social sciences, geosciences, environmental chemistry, ecology, and atmospheric sciences.
- What kind of jobs can you get with an environmental science degree?
Careers with an environmental science degree include environmental scientist and specialist, environmental engineer, and environmental lawyer. Students often choose a specialization within environmental science, such as atmospheric science or ecology, which helps determine their career path.
- What environmental science jobs pay the most?
Salary outlook depends on a worker's education, experience, and location. However, the BLS reports that petroleum engineers earned a median annual salary of $137,720 in 2019. In the same year, natural sciences managers earned a median annual salary of $129,100.