Environmental scientists study the natural world, applying their skills to identify, control, and help eliminate pollution and other environmental hazards. Due to rapid changes in energy industries and the emerging challenges of climate change, the field of environmental science continues to grow across the private, nonprofit, and public/government sectors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of environmental scientist and specialist positions will increase by 11% from 2016 to 2026, equalling nearly 10,000 new jobs.
Government agencies hire environmental scientists to conduct research that shapes public policy and informs environmental regulations. These scientists can also occupy roles as wildlife managers and sustainability engineers. By obtaining doctoral credentials, they can pursue positions as organizational directors and postsecondary teachers.
This guide provides you with in-depth information on career opportunities and entry requirements within the field of environmental science. You will also gain insight into degree options and professional development resources.
Skills Gained in an Environmental Science Program
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. Environmental professionals signal their skills by earning state licensure and 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. Integrative communication via written, oral, and multimedia formats also helps scientists act as community educators and public policy advocates.
- Research Application
- All environmental science students learn to design, conduct, and evaluate research. They gain a foundation in the scientific method, including literature examination and the formulation of hypotheses. They also use quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate and address specific inquiries. At graduate levels, learners apply their research findings to solve pertinent environmental issues such as 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 in using geographic information systems (GIS) and chromatographic methods to help convert data into actionable information. Environmental analysis allows students to not only remediate and solve existing problems but also predict the possible impact of future human activities.
- Environmental Ethics
- At its core, environmental science seeks to negotiate the growth of human communities and industries with respect to the needs of the flora and fauna of the natural world. Environmental ethics centers on social responsibility -- 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.
Why Pursue a Career in Environmental Science?
By earning a degree in environmental science, you can work in many industries, including business management, healthcare, law, and government policy. You can also pursue manufacturing occupations, like acting as a consultant to help companies make production more efficient and environmentally friendly. Environmental engineers enjoy high employment rates among architectural firms, government agencies, and organizations that provide disaster remediation services. According to the BLS, jobs for these professionals are projected to increase by 8% from 2016 to 2026.
The drive to create and distribute renewable resources contributes to the growth of "green" jobs. By pursuing environmental science degrees, students can work as wind turbine technicians and engineers, biofuel engineers, and alternative-fuel car designers. The BLS projects that opportunities for wind turbine technicians will grow by a staggering 96% from 2016 to 2026, adding over 5,500 new jobs. Solar photovoltaic installers can expect an even greater increase of 105%, meaning 11,800 new positions, in the same time span.
How Much Do Environmental Science Graduates Make?
The information below details average salaries for environmental scientists by experience level. However, pay ranges vary depending on factors such as industry and job function. According to the BLS, environmental scientists and specialists earn from $42,520 (the bottom 10%) to $124,620 (the top 10%). Your level of educational attainment also impacts wages. On average, those with a master's degree earn $12,000 more in annual salary than individuals with baccalaureate credentials. They also benefit from a substantially lower unemployment rate.
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.
Kara's experience extends to both small and large bodies of water. She has worked on significant public projects, with clients including the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and multiple entities in Vermont. Kara graduated from Roger Williams University with degrees in environmental science and marine biology. She is active in the aquatics industry, maintaining relationships with the Northeast Aquatic Plant Management Society (NEAMPS), the Lake and Ponds Association of Western Massachusetts (LAPA West), and the Massachusetts Congress of Lake and Pond Associations (MA COLAP).
- 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 sometime 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.
How to Become an Environmental Scientist
Earn Your Degree
Environmental scientists gather and analyze data to investigate environmental changes and hazards. They guide policymakers, work with private companies to reduce waste, and design remediation strategies to help restore natural landscapes. These scientists may also work in healthcare, helping individuals understand their impact on the environment and their communities.
Students need to earn at least a bachelor's degree to work as environmental scientists. Four-year programs in this field offer an interdisciplinary curriculum covering the complex processes that shape the natural environment. Common subjects include oceanography, climatology, and environmental geology. Learners also examine environmental law, focusing on issues such as natural resource extraction, watershed management, and fish and wildlife conservation.
Although a graduate degree is not necessary to qualify for common environmental science careers, many students enroll in master's programs to gain advanced research training. Graduate students also benefit from a greater selection of electives and concentration options, specializing in areas like aquatic biology, alternative energy, and environmental policy and economics. You can find more information about common concentration options in a later section of this page.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become an Environmental Scientist?
A bachelor's degree in environmental science is the minimum qualification for career entry. Most programs take full-time students four years to complete. Learners who want to expedite graduation can enroll in accelerated online tracks and earn their credentials in as little as two years.
While those with a bachelor's degree can access entry-level environmental science careers, management positions usually require at least three years of relevant work experience. Many certification programs also have similar requirements. For example, professionals who want to earn the certified hazardous materials practitioner designation from the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management must demonstrate at least five years of relevant experience.
Concentrations Available for Environmental Science Majors
- Geospatial Technologies
- A cornerstone of environmental science, geospatial analysis enables scientists to investigate geographic questions and patterns. Learners gain skills in global positioning systems (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 or with government agencies, overseeing water resource management programs and geological surveys.
- Natural Resource Conservation
- Here, 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. A natural resource conservation concentration prepares students for careers in natural-area management, environmental reclamation, and ecological restoration.
- Alternative Energy
- This interdisciplinary concentration synthesizes scientific exploration with contemporary policy concerns. Students explore different fuels and energy systems, with emphasis on regional bioenergy and sustainable engineering. They also examine U.S. renewable energy policies within the framework of climate change politics. By completing an alternative energy concentration, students are prepared to work for municipal government, public power companies, and global NGOs.
- Environmental Engineering
- An environmental engineering concentration explores methods to minimize the negative effects of technology and engineering processes on the natural environment. Coursework comprises topics like material science, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. Students apply these core principles to processes such as water purification, waste disposal, recycling, and sustainable design and manufacturing. Professionals must obtain a master's degree to work as licensed environmental engineers.
- Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences
- By pursuing this concentration, students develop an in-depth understanding of the chemistry and physics governing Earth's oceans and atmosphere. Typical topics include oceanographic studies, chemical properties of marine systems, and the physical basis of climate change. Learners develop the skills to work as meteorologists and atmospheric scientists. Graduates work in diverse settings, including government agencies, private consulting firms, and commercial aviation companies.
What Can You Do With an Environmental Science Degree?
An environmental science degree can provide numerous avenues of employment, dependent on your overall educational attainment. Bachelor's programs provide fundamental training in applied research methodologies and environmental analysis needed for careers such as environmental scientist, chemist, geoscientist, and hydrologist.
Professionals who want to specialize in an area of environmental science (like public health education, industrial ecology, environmental law, and urban planning and restoration) usually obtain master's credentials and gain industry-specific certification. Environmental and civil engineers must earn master's degrees and complete post-graduate internships to qualify for state licensure. Graduate programs also prepare students for careers as nonprofit directors, renewable energy consultants, and project managers.
At the doctoral level, academic preparation centers on independent research, scholarly publication, and teaching. Ph.D. graduates may work as postsecondary educators and dedicated researchers. They can also occupy senior environmental science positions within government agencies and private companies.
Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science
Most bachelor's degree programs comprise 120 credits, which full-time students can complete in four years. Online bachelor of environmental science programs offer learners low tuition rates, flexible scheduling, and accelerated degree options.
Coursework commonly consists of classes in human health and disease, environmental technology, and global environmental management. Most programs also require learners to engage in internships and faculty-led field research projects.
- Environmental Scientist
Environmental scientists conduct research and analyze data to identify (and in some cases, predict) human-made hazards to the natural environment. They use data and research findings to help government agencies create environmental protection regulations and policies. Private manufacturers regularly employ environmental scientists to help reduce production waste and develop sustainable company initiatives.
Chemists determine how substances interact by analyzing their molecular and atomic composition. These scientists often carry out complex experiments and create detailed reports. Chemists may also work as applied researchers who use their findings to develop new products or assess the quality of existing items.
Master's Degree in Environmental Science
Master's programs in environmental science require students to complete at least 30 credits, which typically takes two years. Some higher education institutions deliver online tracks that enable distance learners to earn a master's in as little as one year. These accelerated programs suit recent undergraduates who want to strengthen their skill set and cultivate specialized competencies before pursuing career entry.
Students take required classes such as cultural geography, remote sensing and GIS, and aquatic ecology. Concentration paths, guided and open electives, and self-motivated research projects allow learners to craft an academic experience that matches their career objectives.
- Environmental Specialist
Environmental specialists who complete graduate training often work in fields like climate change analysis and oceanography. They may also focus on remediation efforts, managing teams to clean up oil spills or restore wetlands. These specialists can also work as industrial ecologists who help manufacturers reduce their negative impact on the environment and improve employee health.
- Environmental Engineer
These professionals apply engineering, biological, and chemical analysis to solve environmental challenges. They design projects to control pollution and reclaim water sources. Environmental engineers also provide technical assistance during remediation efforts and legal/policy-oriented campaigns. They study hazardous waste discharges to discern the nature of the hazard and recommend solutions.
Doctoral Degree in Environmental Science
Doctoral programs in environmental science typically comprise 50-80 credits, which students generally finish in 4-7 years. Credit requirements can exceed 100 if candidates enter Ph.D. programs directly from earning a bachelor's degree. In the first two years, doctoral students complete coursework in areas like ocean dynamics, wetlands and climate change, and chemical geology. In subsequent years, they focus on research, publication, and defense of their dissertation.
Some doctoral students participate in fellowships, acting as laboratory assistants to faculty and university partner organizations. They may also teach undergraduate courses, which prepares them for careers as college professors.
- Postsecondary Teacher
College and university professors offer classroom instruction and laboratory training in the environmental sciences and related fields of study. They help students fulfill degree requirements, gain internships, and develop professional and academic goals. Postsecondary teachers also pursue their own research projects, publishing articles in scholarly journals and presenting at academic conferences. They may assist with administrative tasks for their department, like recruiting students and updating curricula.
- Senior Environmental Scientist
Senior environmental scientists work with diverse teams to analyze environmental hazards and disasters. They conduct research to discern the impacts of human development and industrial processes on soil, water, and air quality. They also prepare technical and financial reports for stakeholders. These scientists may also perform managerial duties such training employees, allocating resources, and assessing project effectiveness.
Where Can I Work as an Environmental Science Graduate?
Due to the ubiquitous effects of climate change and growing concerns within governments and private enterprises, environmental science careers exist in nearly all industries, settings, and locations. BLS data reveals that management, scientific, and technical consulting companies employ the greatest number of environmental scientists and specialists. Many work for local, state, and federal governments. However, these scientists earn the best salaries when working for electronic manufacturers and brokers.
Location significantly impacts environmental science employment prospects and salaries. According to the BLS, California boasts the highest employment level for environmental scientists and specialists, followed by Florida, New York, Texas, and North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, Washington, D.C. has the greatest concentration of environmental scientists, with many working as researchers and policy analysts for government agencies, NGOs, or private organizations.
For professionals who want to work in nonmetropolitan areas, northern New Mexico, central Kentucky, and southwest Montana can provide ample job opportunities. Environmental scientists and specialists enjoy the highest salaries when working in Washington, D.C., with Colorado, California, and New Mexico close behind.
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting
In this field, environmental professionals often work as project managers and product development specialists. They also occupy consultant positions, helping companies improve manufacturing processes to reduce costs and hazardous emissions.
Average Salary: $78,570
- 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 provides employment in highway departments and state park systems.
Average Salary: $66,650
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Environmental scientists who work for local agencies oversee road construction and other public works projects. Local governments may also oversee zoos and nature centers. In these settings, scientists occupy positions as conservationists and botanists.
Average Salary: $71,770
- 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: $76,900
- 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) or the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average Salary: $104,820
How Do You Find a Job in Environmental Science?
Environmental science students should expect diverse opportunities and a growing need for their services. The BLS projects that environmental chemists and material scientists will experience an occupational growth rate of 7% from 2016 to 2026, meaning 6,000 new jobs. Environmental scientists who want to pursue postsecondary teaching positions stand to benefit from a remarkable 15% increase during the same period.
Environmental professionals can bolster their career opportunities by joining industry organizations. The International Society of Sustainability Professionals and the Society for Conservation Biology operate job banks and deliver professional development resources including certification programs. The Society of Women Environmental Professionals offers networking opportunities and student scholarships. Environmental scientists can also gain certification from organizations like the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.
Professional Resources for Environmental Science Majors
Established in 1973, AAEES supports environmental engineers and scientists by funding research initiatives and public policy campaigns. In addition to offering board certification, the academy provides career guidance and other resources through its career center. Environmental science students can benefit from academic scholarships and research support. They can also connect with peers through regional chapters and the Tau Chi Alpha honor society.
APA advances planning and urban development through research, advocacy, and education. The association serves 45,000 members in over 100 countries, offering e-books and research publications through its online library. The APA career center delivers professional development guidance, job listings, mentorship opportunities, and certification options. Members can collaborate through regional chapters and volunteer programs. They can also engage in applied research opportunities that center on topics like green communities and hazard mitigation planning.
NAEP is a multidisciplinary organization dedicated to advancing environmental professions and providing unbiased information on related practices. The association offers student scholarships, certification training, and a variety of professional development opportunities, including webinars, in-person workshops, and national conferences. Members also enjoy the support of NAEP state chapters.
SETAC serves over 5,300 members in 90 countries. The society funds integrative research initiatives that analyze environmental challenges and develop sustainable solutions. Members can connect through regional chapters, special-interest groups, and global events. SETAC delivers online training courses and on-site workshops. Through the society's career center, professionals can search for fellowships, assistantships, and jobs.
YPARD operates as a network of individual members and organizations dedicated to creating sustainable food systems. Students and new professionals can engage in skill development training, global volunteer trips, and mentorship programs. YPARD offers academic scholarships, research grants, and organizational funding. The network also connects members with internships and job opportunities.