Environmental scientists study how living organisms and the natural world interact. The field encompasses many disciplines in which professionals use their expertise to combat threats to the environment, including global warming. A degree in environmental science positions you to make a lasting, positive impact through the advancement of knowledge about the earth and its processes.
An online environmental science degree conveys a broad overview of biology, geography, chemistry, oceanography, and other topics. Some undergraduate programs also allow you to specialize in one of these subjects.
This page contains information on environmental science-related professions, details on environmental science online degree programs, and steps for finding a program that meets your academic and career goals.
What Is Environmental Science?
Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field that comprises the natural sciences. Highly trained environmental scientists play a vital role in informing the public and policymakers about how people's actions (e.g., consumption and pollution) affect the environment and human health. In the 20th century, the important work of these professionals led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since its inception in 1970, the EPA has pushed for better fuel efficiency standards and regulations on disposing of industrial waste, among other initiatives.
Many leading environmental scientists possess both a basic understanding of the field's different disciplines and expertise in one subfield. This allows them to collaborate with peers from other scientific backgrounds. Advancement opportunities are usually greater for environmental scientists with a master's or doctoral degree. The best environmental science bachelor's degree online programs can provide you with an excellent academic foundation for career entry and further academic studies.
Start your exploration of undergraduate environmental science degrees online using our detailed program page.
What You Can Do With a Bachelor's in Environmental Science
Environmental scientists and specialists are committed to combating pollution, enforcing policy, and promoting sustainable practices. They must have strong analytical and problem-solving skills to develop science-based policies and actions that protect the environment and maintain or improve society's quality of life.
An environmental science degree serves as a pathway to a broad range of rewarding careers. Many graduates find employment in government agencies that strive to ameliorate ecological degradation. An environmental science bachelor's degree can also lead to careers in management, consulting, and engineering services. Environmental scientists and specialists may also spend considerable time in the field, responding to public health risks, helping to clean up polluted sites, and implementing plans to minimize community impacts.
- Environmental Engineers
Using engineering principles combined with knowledge of chemistry, biology, and soil science, these environmental professionals develop solutions to a wide range of problems. They use their expertise to develop recycling programs, improve waste disposal for industries, and minimize water or air pollution. They also consult with businesses to ensure compliance with regulations. Entry-level environmental engineering positions require a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $87,620
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%
Hydrologists study the movement of water and address concerns about water quality and availability. They may evaluate the feasibility of water-related projects, such as irrigation systems, waste treatment facilities, and hydroelectric power plants. Hydrologists usually enter the field after earning a bachelor's degree in environmental science or a related field.
Median Annual Salary: $79,370
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 7%
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
Environmental scientists and specialists work in government agencies and industries, analyzing environmental problems and developing solutions. They clean up polluted sites, reclaim contaminated land or water, and advise the public about health risks from environmental hazards. Most of these scientists and specialists enter the field after earning a bachelor's in environmental science or another scientific field.
Median Annual Salary: $71,130
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 8%
- Conservation Scientists and Foresters
Government offices, private enterprises, and social advocacy organizations hire conservation scientists and foresters to monitor land use and quality of forests, rangelands, parks and other natural areas. They ensure compliance with government regulations and habitat protection measures. Most conservation scientists and foresters hold a bachelor's degree in forestry, agricultural science, or environmental science.
Median Annual Salary: $61,340
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 3%
- Environmental Science and Protection Technicians
These technicians investigate sources of pollution that affect public health and safety. They also investigate hazardous conditions and verify compliance with environmental regulations. Many technicians work for state or local government, consulting firms, or testing laboratories. While some technicians enter the field directly after earning an associate degree, your employment opportunities are increased by holding a bachelor's degree in environmental science.
Median Annual Salary: $46,170
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 9%
Our career page provides you with the latest information on environmental science career paths and salary potential.
What to Expect in a Bachelor's in Environmental Science Program
Although online bachelor's in environmental science programs may have different courses and graduation requirements, they typically feature similar learning outcomes and career opportunities. Learners in the best programs hone an array of analytical, research, and communication skills. With education beyond a bachelor's, graduates can become environmental program specialists, university professors, or governmental advisors.
A typical bachelor's program requires students to complete 120 credits, approximately 40 of which apply to the major. The other 80 credits include general education requirements and electives. Full-time degree-seekers typically earn their degree in four years.
Most programs require a capstone project in the final year. In a capstone, students complete fieldwork or perform original research on an environmental science topic. These experiences can help job seekers demonstrate skills to potential employers and can provide an advantage for graduate program applicants.
A typical environmental science curriculum can include the five courses below. Course names and specific academic requirements may vary among programs.
- Careers in Environmental Science: This survey course introduces learners to different environmental science careers. Programs require this course in the first year so students can start planning a career path as soon as possible.
- Fundamentals of Sustainability: In this course, learners analyze how historical trends and technological advances lead to and facilitate sustainable practices. They also explore how global warming and pollution threaten biodiversity.
- Pollution Science: Pollution science emphasizes how natural and human-made pollution affects biotic systems. Course topics include industrial pollution's short- and long-term effects on air, soil, and water.
- Environmental Law: This essential course introduces students to local, state, and federal laws pertaining to environmental protection. Learners may also examine international environmental law.
- Environmental Ethics: Environmental ethics courses blend philosophy, economics, and scientific topics. In class, students analyze the complex and evolving relationship human beings have with the natural world.
- Why did you choose to earn a degree in environmental science? Is this a field that always interested you?
Ironically enough, environmental science was not my first choice for a degree. Instead, I stumbled across it inadvertently as a marine biology major during the second semester of my freshman year. While registering for classes, I noticed some available courses that piqued my interest but were primarily for environmental science majors. At that point, I did some research and realized I could reasonably become a double major while still graduating at the same time, since many core classes required by both majors overlapped.
Although there were various factors involved in adding environmental science as my second major, the primary reason was because I had always been interested in the field. As a relatively new college student still at that time, I did not know what my post-college future would look like, and I also wanted to enter the job market as a versatile candidate in order to see where I truly would fit in.
- What was the job search like after completing your bachelor's degree?
My job search started during my senior year and, as many people experience, I had absolutely no idea what type of job I wanted. As a result, as I applied to various positions, ranging from lab work to educational efforts to fieldwork, and even some worst-case-scenario, fall-back options that were completely unrelated to either of my majors. As the application and interview processes developed, I began to have a better understanding of where I could see myself working, which was not in a typical 9-5 office job. So, through the course of the process, I began to adjust my searches, all while still trying to not be too picky.
If I had to describe my job search experience in one word, it would be "daunting." Knowing that I was applying and essentially competing for a position that so many other, potentially more qualified people were also applying for was very daunting. Knowing that I had to have the "right" answers during an interview so as to not ruin my chances of an opportunity -- daunting. Looking back is interesting (like many things in life), as all of those daunting choices I made then have led me to where I am now.
- What jobs have you had in the environmental science field? Which did you prefer the most, and why?
I have technically held two distinct roles, both through the nation's largest lake management company, SOLitude Lake Management. I started as an aquatic biologist and have since transitioned into a regional manager position. As I fulfill both roles concurrently each day, it's hard to say which I prefer the most, as it truly is one fluid position to me.
No two days are ever the same in my position. I enjoy serving our clients and designing lake and pond management programs that restore balance to their aquatic resources. Likewise, in my leadership role, I enjoy helping my own scientific team grow, both professionally and personally, which continually motivates me to do the same.
- What are some crucial skills that you acquired through your bachelor's program?
Aside from the true fundamentals of environmental science and biology, the most important skill I learned through my undergraduate education was time management. In an employment setting, procrastination is not sufficient nor appropriate, as colleagues and clients are often depending on the timely, high-quality completion of a task in order to reach their goals.
- What are some of the challenges you face in your work on a day-to-day basis?
It can be challenging to work in a primarily male-dominated industry, and this seems to be the case for various science fields. However, the industry is absolutely changing; just over the last few years, I've noticed an overall shift of women becoming more involved in the aquatic management industry, and it's incredibly exciting.
A challenge a bit more specific to my scientific role is ensuring the public and our clients are effectively educated on best management practices for the environment, new technology, and sustainable lake management strategies. Unless they live on a lake or pond, many people are generally unaware that my industry even exists, resulting in incomplete perceptions of what I do.
- What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your career in environmental science?
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is utilizing my knowledge and experience to help clients improve the health, beauty, and functionality of the aquatic resources on their properties. I get fulfillment from knowing that their questions and concerns have been addressed. It is incredibly satisfying to help someone learn more about lake management and to provide valuable information that they will hopefully pass along to others.
Another rewarding aspect of my job is managing an environmental project over the course of a year (or more) and quite literally witnessing the ecological transformation. I oversee projects from start to finish, inclusive of management implementation, which allows me to observe the success and/or areas I may need to adjust for those projects on a yearly basis. Hand in hand with many success cases, the subsequent client satisfaction and happiness is also incredibly rewarding.
- What advice would you give to students who are considering a bachelor's degree in environmental science?
Do not be afraid to stick it out and to find your passion. It definitely will not be easy, for various reasons, but it is absolutely worth it in the end. In college, I used to joke that I just wanted to work on a boat -- that's exactly what I'm doing now. To any student who is certain about choosing environmental science as a major but uncertain what specific field to pursue beyond college, I highly recommend thinking of the related environmental aspects they may be passionate about and following those. Opportunities are everywhere.
How to Choose a Bachelor's in Environmental Science Program
As you research potential online environmental science degrees, ensure that each school and/or program possesses regional accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education grants accrediting agencies a charter to assess schools at all levels. There are six regional accrediting bodies for colleges and universities around the country.
Additionally, the best online degrees boast programmatic accreditation. Both the National Environmental Health Science and Protections Accreditation Council and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology grant accreditation to only the most rigorous online environmental science degrees.
Other factors you should consider include:
If you want to specialize in an environmental science topic, the program you select should allow you to double major in chemistry, biology, geology, or another subject that matches your academic and career goals.
Graduate School Admissions
Some highly specialized careers and supervisory and management positions require a graduate degree. Before committing to a bachelor's program, determine what percentage of students go on to graduate school.
Academically gifted students should consider programs that offer additional academic opportunities, including an honors program. Honors program requirements (e.g., original research and a thesis) give learners an advantage when applying for positions or graduate school.
Bachelor's in Environmental Science Program Admissions
Admission requirements vary among schools. However, admissions counselors want applicants who can succeed academically and make a positive contribution in and outside of class. The three prerequisites listed below represent what many of the top online environmental science programs seek in applicants. Finally, in some cases, a program may offer conditional admission to an applicant who does not meet all application prerequisites.
- High School Diploma: Although most environmental science bachelor's programs accept the GED, the top programs solely consider applicants with a high school diploma.
- Recommendation Letters: Online environmental science degree applicants should ask for recommendation letters from high school science teachers and others who can vouch for their academic abilities.
- Standardized Test Scores: Most bachelor's programs require the SAT or ACT. Environmental science program applicants can boost their college applications by also submitting results from the SAT subject test in one or more natural science topics.
- Filling out college applications can be time-consuming, but the Common App makes this process more manageable. Students using the Common App fill out one form to apply to any of 750 member schools.
- Most colleges require you to provide a stamped, official transcript of high school grades that shows your GPA and courses taken each term. Some high schools charge a small fee for mailing these transcripts.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Some colleges may require as many as three letters of recommendation. Ask your recommenders several weeks prior to the application deadline, and choose teachers or advisors who know you well and will describe you in ways that make you stand out.
- Test Scores
- Some schools consider SAT or ACT scores as one of many factors in their admission decision, along with grades, cocurricular activities, and recommendations. Few schools require a minimum test score.
- Application Fee
- Students can expect to pay an average of $40 for each application. Some schools charge more, while others may not ask for any fees. Institutions may waive application fees for those who document financial hardship.
Resources for Bachelor's in Environmental Science Students
GSA provides a wide range of earth science-related resources, including access to Geofacets, a web-based database of georeferenced geological maps. The organization's GeoTeacher site provides educational resources for educators and students at all grade levels.
This daily publication presents breaking news on energy and environmental issues, major legislation, court cases, and technological developments. Greenwire helps professionals stay current on environmental-related controversies, ranging from climate change and energy policy to public lands management.
Maintained by the U.S. National Education Association, this collection of resources includes study guides, lesson plans, and teaching strategies designed primarily for K-12 educators teaching in all areas of environmental science, biodiversity, and sustainability.
Hosted by the North American Association for Environmental Education, this online platform provides a searchable database for educators, students, and other environmental practitioners. Research topics include environmental literacy, conservation, social justice, health, and human development.
This nonprofit focuses on the environmental impact of government policies, corporate practices, and investment decisions. Earthworks presents research and opportunities for advocacy on a broad range of issues, including fracking, ocean dumping, and climate change.