What Can You Do With an Environmental Science Degree?
There has never been a more important time to enter the field of environmental science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—including more than 1,300 scientists from the U.S. and other countries—forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. The impact of such gradual heating on the planet could be catastrophic and, in the U.S., we’re already seeing alarming trends that are projected to worsen.
- Northeast: Heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea level rise will continue to pose challenges to communities
- Northwest: Increased ocean acidity, erosion, and changes to the timing of streamflow will reduce water supplies
- Southeast: Extreme heat, sea level rise, and decreasing water supplies will bring about shifts in agriculture and economic policy
- Southwest: Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks will contribute to wildfires, declining water supplies, and reduced agricultural yield
- Midwest: Extreme heat, heavy rain, and flooding will impact agriculture, forestry, and air and water quality
So, what can you do with an environmental science degree? The sky’s the limit. The world needs people with innate curiosity and sharp analytical minds to ask the questions and put in the place the policy that will help heal our planet.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” says Aaron Haiman, an environmental scientist at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy. “So much of the natural world is imperiled and needs as many advocates as possible. Anyone joining this career will never want for work. It’s also incredibly rewarding work.”
Three of the most common paths for environmental science degree holders include: 1) Spending your time on the frontlines as a technician; 2) Engaging in endless exploration in a lab as a researcher; or 3) Positioning yourself as an environmental restorer who helps heal already damaged areas.
These aren’t the only paths available to environmental science majors—they’re just three of the most common paths in the field. We dug into research from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) and found some expert advice to help you decide which path works best for you.
Table of Contents
- Career Outlook for Environmental Science Majors
- Day-to-Day Tasks You’ll Perform
- Knowledge You’ll Need to Acquire with an Environmental Science Degree
- The Bottom Line
Career Outlook for Environmental Science Majors
The vastness of the discipline and the myriad directions your career could take means an environmental science bachelor’s degree is a gateway to more comprehensive field.
“If you’re interested in social sciences, there is a need. If you’re interested in physical sciences, there is a need. If you’re interested in policy-making, there is a need,” Haiman says. “If you have any interest in almost any facet of science, wildlife, human interaction, you will find a place in [environmental science] somewhere.”
Whether you follow the technician, researcher, or restorer path will determine whether or not you’ll need more school or additional certifications. The good news is that all of these areas—including several other careers that prioritize and promote environmental health—are growing at rates the government deems “faster than average.”
Just keep in mind that the salaries listed in the graphic represent a nationwide median that includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Once you find a job, your salary can vary significantly based on geography and employer and those listed here shouldn’t be considered a starting salary.
Day-to-day tasks you’ll be asked to perform
Depending on the path you take in environmental science, your day-to-day tasks will vary based on your role, region, and employer. We broke down our task lists into our three focus areas so you can match your interests and abilities to the opportunities out there. According to USDOL, here are three of the most common tasks you’ll be asked to perform in each of the tracks.
- Record test data and prepare reports, summaries, or charts that interpret test results
- Develop or implement programs for monitoring of environmental pollution or radiation
- Investigate hazardous conditions or spills or outbreaks of disease or food poisoning, collecting samples for analysis
- Collect, synthesize, analyze, manage, and report environmental data, such as pollution emission measurements, atmospheric monitoring measurements, meteorological or mineralogical information, or soil or water samples
- Provide scientific or technical guidance, support, coordination, or oversight to governmental agencies, environmental programs, industry, or the public
- Review and implement environmental technical standards, guidelines, policies, and formal regulations that meet all appropriate requirements
- Plan environmental restoration projects, using biological databases, environmental strategies, and planning software
- Conduct site assessments to certify a habitat or to ascertain environmental damage or restoration needs
- Collect and analyze data to determine environmental conditions and restoration needs and communicate recommendations to landowners
Knowledge you’ll need to acquire with an environmental science degree
It’s true environmental science degree holders have a wide variety of career options but some of the skills you need to do your job successfully in this field are surprisingly similar. While each career path requires its own specific skills, the six listed below are shared across all tracks.
Obviously, you’ll need to know about biology to become an environmental scientist. But, you might have overlooked the degree to which these professionals interact with the public or the amount of correspondence, briefs, and presentations they create. Therefore, customer service experience and command of English are both considered valuable skills for this profession.
Regardless of which path you choose—i.e., technician, researcher, restorer—environmental science majors should consider building additional skills in these areas through coursework, volunteering, or internships:
- Law & Government: Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules, and the democratic political process
- English Language: Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar
- Biology: Knowledge of plant and animal organisms, their tissues, cells, functions, interdependencies, and interactions with each other and the environment
- Mathematics: Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications
- Geography: Knowledge of principles and methods for describing the features of land, sea, and air masses, including their physical characteristics, locations, interrelationships, and distribution of plant, animal, and human life
- Customer Service: Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction
The Bottom Line
Threats to the environment can be found on every corner of the globe, which is why the need for bright, analytical, environment-first minds is growing at a rapid rate. Choosing to earn a degree in this field puts you on a path to become a changemaker, as long as you’re willing to stay focused and do meaningful, impactful work.
“Environmental science majors are really positioning themselves to make a difference, to be real contenders in the future,” says Dr. Halina Brown of Clark University. “What I want to tell students in environmental science is to become great scientists, but before they leave [school] get involved in some policy questions. … Remember to put the power of science in the context of society.”
The responsibility of working in environmental science isn’t for everyone; but it might be for you. It’s a competitive field so if you have the opportunity to volunteer or intern for local or state-level environmental organizations while in school, take it. That will give you an idea of what the job really entails and position you well among your peers when it comes time to apply.
If you’re the type of person who wants to make real change and isn’t afraid of a challenge, check out this video from former student Matt Schnebly about what it’s like to study environmental science at Unity College.
Photo credit: California Department of Fish & Wildlife. A senior environmental scientist releases unarmored threespine sticklebacks into the wild.