Environmental Science as a Field of Study
Within the natural sciences, environmental science is very much a generalist degree. Focusing primarily on both the understanding of our natural and man-made environments, environmental science degrees draw from diverse fields of studies and require a strong background in the more traditional sciences: biology, physics, chemistry, geography, ecology, and even biotechnology. In addition, environmental science degrees also draw heavily from the social sciences, such as economics, business, or sociology. The degree to which any of these fields of study becomes prevalent within an environmental science education largely depends on the specialization one chooses. Due to the fact that environmental science is a generalist degree, students often complete specializations within a more select area, i.e. energy, sustainability, conservation, etc. True to most science degrees, environmental science programs often require significant field work, lab work, or other data-oriented work.
Job Prospects with a Degree in Environmental Science
A degree in environmental science opens exciting prospects into a wide range of careers. Environmental scientists can enter the work-force immediately, or pursue higher education at the master's or doctoral level to further explore topics of their interest. A number of environmentally-minded career paths are becoming increasingly prevalent today and include, but are not limited to, sustainability, renewable energy, conservation, agriculture, urban planning and development, natural resource management, and education. It can be seen that environmental science degrees are truly flexible in the scope of careers that they open doors to.
Branches of Environmental Science and Related Studies
Beyond the specializations that one often focuses their coursework on within an environmental science program, there are several variants that emphasize the social science qualities of the environmental debate to greater degrees. Several examples are:
A degree in environmental policy focuses on the creation and maintenance of legislation and regulations relating to the governance of our natural and man-made environments. Typically, environmental policy degree holders will go into careers that work with directly with the creation and upholding of environmentally-minded legislature.
The management variant of the environmental science degree focuses primarily on the business and more managerial aspects of natural resources. Typically, the decisions that one makes as an environmental manager are based on business and economics, but must also be informed by a baseline understanding of natural science. Degrees in environmental management prepare one to maintain the world's precious natural resources.
Degree programs in environmental studies focus primarily on the human and social aspects of environmental complexities as opposed to the natural science aspects. Oftentimes, environmental studies degrees can be best envisioned as a marriage between environmental science and anthropology. Nonetheless, environmental studies programs still require solid foundations in the sciences.
Environmental Science Degrees & Overviews
Like many other areas of study, Environmental Science has several degree levels ranging from Bachelor's to Doctorate degrees, listed below we focus on each degree type, including requirements, coursework, employment, and more.
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science
Foundations are taken in physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, economics, and geography. The student will typically take electives within their specialization, focusing on a select topic within the environmental science sphere. They may choose to major in one of the “core sciences” such as biology, chemistry, geology, or physics, and either double major in Environmental classes, or have a minor concentration of Environmental classes. It depends how the school has their program established.
The coursework commonly consists of introductory/intermediate level courses in each of the natural sciences, mathematics, and social science courses. Elective courses often become more theoretical, project-based, or applied in nature. It's not uncommon for students to conduct research projects over the summer, or complete an honors thesis their senior year.
Employment opportunities for recent graduates holding B.S.'s in environmental science are numerous. Environmental problems, particularly within the realm of sustainability, are becoming more pervasive across the globe and thus demand remains high for environmental scientists. With further specialization in a core area, holders of environmental science degrees only become even more marketable.
A vast number of schools have bachelor level programs in environmental science. Almost all accredited, well-known liberal arts colleges hold programs in one of the variants of environmental science. The quality of the program often ranges in the same manner that the quality of higher education institutions do. Selecting a school is a complex process that is influenced by a number of factors including quality of education, cost, and geographic location. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how important each of these are to them on a personal level.
Florida State University
Florida State University Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science offers B.S. and B.A. degrees in Environmental Science. Students need to take a major core of Environmental Science classes, and the difference between the two degrees is in the level of advancement of math classes require. B.A. students tend to take more classes in policy than science. They also offer graduate degrees with more emphasis on the aquatic sciences.
The University of Texas as San Antonio
The University of Texas at San Antonio offers a very intensive Environmental Science B.S. degree with a variety of core math, computer, GIS and science classes and many required Environmental subject areas including policy, ecology, and management.
Master of Science in Environmental Science
At the graduate level, the environmental science degrees take on a much more research-focused direction. Master of Science programs still require students to take full course-loads each semester, but one or two classes may be fulfilled with an “independent research seminar” in which the student devotes time towards their research project. Most significantly, the M.S. in environmental science requires the completion of a thesis, which is often a significant piece of original, independent research that is published by the student at the end of their program. A typical Master's degree in Environmental Science can usually be obtained in 2-3 years (perhaps longer if working while attending school). Your admittance to your program of choice may require a few basic steps; application fee, letter of interest, references, transcripts, and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. You may also need to take a subject test in the GRE's, but if your grades were high enough from undergraduate and you are communicating with the department of choice, this requirement might be waived.
A Master's program generally consists of 30 credits, with a breakdown of 24 for classroom, and 6 for thesis work. Your thesis work is generally under the supervision of your advisor. Funding may be more available as a graduate student than an undergraduate. If you are fortunate to find a researcher whose work you enjoy, you may want to approach them independently and inquire if they have any funding available for you. Be prepared that this means your work is their work. If they do have funding, it means they were given a specific task to complete already, and are bringing you in to complete it. Paying your own way may give you more freedom in a thesis topic, but your work is still the considered, at least partially, the work of your advisor. This is an important aspect of graduate school that many students don't quite understand before entering. Picking your advisor is perhaps the most meaningful thing you will do in graduate school. Why is picking an advisor so important? What if you just like the school, or the major? Even within small departments, professional reputations, funding resources, and overall character can vary greatly. One advisor may have funding, be a nice person, but have 50 students. Another may have funding for only one student at a time, but be studying something you really do not think you need to know. If it is in your field, it probably won't hurt you to know it. And the advisor with one student will have a lot more time to help with your coursework or questions, but they may rely too much on you, and slow you down. This is why you need to take the time and research the department. Try to talk with current or past students, generally their experiences will mirror yours. Be prepared for lots of advice and lots of stories about the student(s) that stayed forever!
Coursework typical of a M.S. in environmental science program is often intended to solidify a student's research methods, supply them with any necessary tools (i.e. GIS, statistics, etc.) that they may not have mastered in their bachelor's program, and delve into a few elective type courses. As the main focus of the degree is the completion of independent research, emphasis is given on coursework that supports the completion of the thesis project. As mentioned earlier, a Master's degree usually has 24 credit hours of class work and 6 credit hours of thesis work. Of course those 6 credit hours of thesis work usually take a lot longer than the classes. Many schools limit the time students can complete a degree to 7-10 years, so that the information is still fresh when the student graduates. Not only are you picking a school for its reputation, but the school wants to have the best students representing it!
Employment options for graduates of M.S. in environmental science programs are promising. Within the environmental sector, master's degrees are typically preferred for entry level positions unless the individual has extensive working experience. With a M.S. in environmental science, individuals can enter the workforce, advance within their workplace, and achieve highly fulfilling careers.
Similar to B.S. in environmental science programs, there is a wide swath of universities that offer programs in environmental science at the master's degree level. By the time that one is looking for graduate level education, it is often a good idea to specialize in a sub-sector of environmental science (e.g. conservation, natural resource management, sustainability, etc.). Oftentimes, it is possible to find graduate school programs that specialize in these fields. Whether one wants to continue a generalist environmental science degree, or move to a specialization within the larger environmental realm, is ultimately up to the prospective student.
Ohio State University
Ohio State University offers both thesis and non-thesis Master's degrees in Environmental Science. Students must make and submit their own Program of Study plan near the beginning of their second semester. They can concentrate in biological, physical, or social sciences. They have to present orally during the first year, and shortly before graduation. Master's are between 30-37 credit hours.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology's Environmental Science Program has both a 5 year B.S./M.S. program as well as a regular 2 year M.S. Students may choose from one of the following concentrations; Cell and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Ecology and Field Biology, Economics, Mathematics, Organismal Biology and Evolution, Public Policy, Remote Sensing and Digital Image Processing, or Statistics. They have many international options as well as a solid GIS specialty available to them.
Doctorate in Environmental Science (Ph.D.)
The primary reason students enter doctoral programs within the sciences is to conduct independent research. Thus, the predominant requirement of a Ph.D. in environmental science is the defense of a doctoral dissertation. Depending on the program, this can take anywhere from between three to six years. Perhaps you have decided you want to be the one to pursue funding, lead others, be recognized as a leader in your field, and initiate your own projects. In that case, a PhD is likely the degree you should choose. If you thought the requirements for a Master's degree were arduous, be prepared to buckle down and really work for your PhD. The training is rigorous, mainly to prepare a student for the world away from being a student. Generally after a certain amount of coursework (usually about what is required to complete a Master's), a student sits for an eligibility exam. This is generally both written and oral, and may consist of a presentation or simply a round table setting. Usually 3-5 members of your advisory panel are the ones to present, and grade questions, and then come to an agreement as to whether you have met their requirements for having the knowledge and wherewithal to move forward and pursue the PhD. Once you have been deemed eligible for your doctorate degree, you are then a doctoral candidate, not just a student. You are then given a certain number of years to complete your dissertation, submit your thesis, and sit for another exam. Passing is generally determined by the entire department, not just your advisor.
By the time one enters a doctoral program, it is expected that the student knows the majority of the research-based tools he will need to excel. Courses at the doctoral level are typically seminars, in which candidates heighten their critical thinking, presentation, and communication skills. Additionally, doctoral students will often begin teaching courses at the master or bachelor level, as many are on the track towards becoming a professor. You will have completed most of the “classroom” work when admitted for candidacy for a PhD, most classes now are research credits, and perhaps ongoing seminar courses.
Individuals holding doctoral degrees primarily work within academia. Although there is the possibility of being “over-qualified” for a number of lower end jobs, holders of Ph.D.'s in environmental science should be competitive for a large number of influential positions, particularly within the research-dominated fields. While a Ph.D. primarily prepares you for a career as a professor, there are a number of other career options open as well, particularly within the research sector.
At the doctoral level, prospective students should gear their institutional searches towards the professors who are currently conducting research they are interested in. Rather than the institution itself, it is the quality of the professor and their work that are the most important factor as doctoral students are often treated more as colleagues than actual students.
Oklahoma State University
Oklahoma State University offers a PhD through their Environmental Science Graduate Program. The six specializations offered are
- Environmental Management
- Environmental Education
- Environmental Policy and Conflict Management
- Environmental Sustainability
- Environmental Chemistry
- Toxicology and Risk Assessment
- Water and Watershed Management
60 minimum credits after the M.S. degree are required.
Ball State University
Ball State University offers a PhD in Environmental Sciences based on a strong foundation of training in the classical sciences of biology, chemistry and geology, and involving lots of hands on training. Students must have a professor willing to be their mentor before being accepted to the program. The program is at least 90 credits with a variety of disciplines covered.
Comparison Table of Degrees
|Years of study||4-5||2-4||4-7|
|Cost (without aid)*||$24,000 - $300,000||$21,000 - 150,000||$35,000 - 350,000|
|Objective for career||Minimum needed for many Environmental positions||Management positions, some specialized fields require more than Bachelor's||Team leader or researcher, University professor|
Is Environmental Science Graduate School for You?
Environmental Science degrees are becoming increasingly popular as colleges and universities add them to their offerings. Although a Bachelor's in Environmental Science is great for many applications, pursuing graduate school can open up more and more professional opportunities. When considering graduate school, thought should be given to choosing between a Master's or a PhD. Time, money, and career post-schooling should all be considered. Certain schools may specialize in one issue over another; wetlands, ocean studies, industrial remediation, agricultural rehabilitation, etc. Additionally, it is important to see if the school you have chosen has a specific breakdown between Environmental Studies, Environmental Policy, or Environmental Management.
Many professionals that begin their careers with a Bachelor's degree may choose to go back to school and receive a Master's or PhD in Environmental Science. What goes into this decision? Perhaps they are looking for greater responsibility, an increase in pay, or to switch their professional roles altogether. They may be in a position where their current employer will pay them to get further education, with an agreement that they will continue to work for that employer upon completion of the degree, or, at least for the duration of the schooling. Their choice may mirror that of their employer; is this individual worth the investment? Do they need additional training or job skills? Will having these make my company (or me, as the individual) more valuable? Will I be eligible to charge more for jobs or receive additional income for work I complete afterwards? Is there some specific reason to get another degree that training alone won't give me? If the answer to any or many of these questions is yes, then it is time to decide between a Master's or a Doctorate (PhD) degree.
Important Notes about Pursuing a Graduate Degree in Environmental Science
- Having experience as an undergraduate through internships and other jobs in your field will aid in your chances of entry to graduate school.
- Graduate degrees in Policy, Law, Affairs, Management, and Professional Sciences are not as likely to provide funding as some of the core science areas.
- Requirements (for admission, degree completion, graduation, etc.) will change from school to school, be sure to familiarize yourself with those where you would like to attend.
- Application deadlines are very real and being late could mean you need to wait a semester, or year, before you are considered.
- Your undergraduate GPA will be taken into consideration. If it was lower than the required entry for a program, they may suggest you take some additional undergraduate science courses and reapply…. Just ask!
- If you do decide to pursue a PhD, remember that most students obtain a “post-doc” position after graduation. They will begin to earn money at this point, but it may not be a lot for awhile.
Online Environmental Science Degree Programs
Online programs are most developed at the bachelor level. There are few accredited institutions that offer purely online courses at the master's or doctoral level due to the heavy research component associated with them. Nonetheless, online programs at the bachelor's level can be highly desirable for a number of reasons, including economic, geographic, or time-related. With a little bit of creativity, online programs will allow students to emerge with a degree under their belts, and significant real world/workforce experience.
At the bachelor's level, classes are often taught by the same instructors that teach in person at the universities. Many schools prefer you transfer into them to complete the Bachelor's program, allowing you to take classes at your local community college or equivalent facility, possibly for less expense to begin.
Learn more about getting an environmental science degree online.
The cost of an education in environmental science varies greatly depending on the education institution, quality of the program, and your geographic location. For traditional four year bachelor's level environmental science programs in the United States, tuition can range from anywhere between $10,000 to $60,000 a year. Within Europe, a number of schools even offer tuition free programs. For online education courses, typically the cost of the program is based on a per credit rate. Within the United States, a typical three-credit course may cost several hundred dollars.
At the graduate school level, funding can often be found for tuition, research expenses, or even living expenses. Doctoral programs general receive much higher funding rates than master's degree programs, although it is possible to secure funding for either. At the same time, online courses at the graduate level are typically more expensive than those at the undergraduate level.
Importance of Accreditation
When deciding on an educational institution to further your studies, it is essential that you choose an institution that is accredited, particularly if you are opting for an unconventional method of instruction such as distance education, online courses or e-learning programs.
Accreditation is more than simply state approval of an educational institution, which merely guarantees that the educational facility has met minimum requirements set by the State in which it operates. Accreditation assures that a college or university meets educational standards that are recognized by similar educational institutions.
If the institution is accredited you have some assurance that you will receive a high standard of education that will be recognized by future employers, as well as by other universities and colleges should you wish to register elsewhere for a postgraduate degree on completion of the undergraduate program. Regionally accreditation is mostly for non-profit schools while national accreditation is traditionally for for-profit schools. Transferring from a nationally accredited (but not regionally accredited) into a regionally accredited school may be difficult.
If you question the accreditation of the school you are interested in attending, you can check with the Department of Education's (DOE) current list of accredited schools. The DOE does not handle accreditation, but rather keeps records of which schools are current and the correlating accrediting agencies. If you are unsure of the accreditation authority of the school which you are interested in attending, you can check which category they are in. Music schools, children's Montessori schools, and theologists are among the differing accreditation types. Obviously you would be looking for one of the major agencies to have accredited your school, but that agency depends on your location. Some of the regional accreditation agencies are Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (covering many East Coast States and Puerto Rico), Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (covering Florida, Alabama, Texas, etc.), and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (covering California, Hawaii, and Pacific Islands).
There are also a few bodies that accredit Environmental Engineering education. One of them is ABET, concentrating on accrediting schools in applied sciences, computing, and engineering to name a few areas. You can check if your prospective school is accredited here.
Another specialty accreditation agency is National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council. It establishes national guidelines for Environmental Health program education in terms of training, faculty, enrollment, and other managerial aspects of a major program.