Why an Environmental Chemistry Degree?
Environmental Chemistry is a multifaceted field that focuses on the chemical processes, their impacts, the cycling and motility influencing the composition and chemical makeup of air, water and soils. The field of Environmental Chemistry has been evolving for years, especially since we became aware of the damage being done to the environment through chemical production and disposal, the usage of fertilizers and pesticides, fuel development and transport, and other major industrial advances. The field truly deals with chemistry in the environment, and the natural phenomena that may transport them or affect their retention, mobility, or alteration such as ground water contamination, acid rain, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. Environmental chemistry also deals with processes that affect the bioavailability of pollutants and toxicity in the natural ecosystems.
Similar to other Environmental Science programs, Environmental Chemistry may be a “new” major at a school, it may be a dual major program in Chemistry and Environmental Science, or it may have another title, such as Atmospheric Chemistry, Marine Chemistry, or Geochemistry, to name a few. Typical coursework includes both advanced chemistry classes as well as other environmental specialty classes. Generally a student takes enough chemistry classes to earn a major in chemistry independently of other sciences, then additional courses. This other coursework depends on what your specialty is, whether remediation, biochemistry, geochemistry, marine chemistry, etc.
Job Prospects with a Degree in Environmental Chemistry
Your career in Environmental Chemistry can be working for the government at a local, state, or federal level, within private industry, in a classroom instructing, as an environmental consultant, or any other numerous areas. Environmental Chemists working for the government may be based anywhere from Alaska to Antarctica. Their careers will be spent working with either natural or anthropogenic chemical processes. They may specialize in aquatic chemistry or sediment chemistry, these closely related fields often lead to careers with The Army Corp of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Park Service, and many other agencies. Private contractors may use their services in a variety of ways as well; in the laboratory, designing field work, or compiling and interpreting research results.
Common Divisions/Specialties within Environmental Chemistry
- Atmospheric Chemistry
- Environmental Remediation
- Marine Chemistry
- Sustainable Agriculture
Environmental Chemistry Degrees and Overviews
Bachelor's Degrees in Environmental Chemistry
Most schools require a letter of intent, SAT scores, letters of recommendation, a small application fee, and high school transcripts.
Like other sciences, Environmental Chemistry requires a certain level of math, physics, and some general education requirements. Often enough chemistry is taken to complete a major in chemistry, and the rest of the required classes will be from carefully designated environmental disciplines.
Undergraduate environmental chemistry degrees lend themselves towards working in laboratory environments well. Technicians are needed that can run samples, maintain or repair equipment, and produce quality results. Careers in sales or in the field in other ways may also be available. Companies looking for loyal employees may handpick undergraduate Environmental Chemistry majors, and then send them back to school as they recognize the individual's need to grow. This can lead to staff beginning with a starting degree and ending up with a Master's or PhD and leading others. Government agencies and the military are also likely to hire graduates with a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Chemistry.
Colorado School of Mines
The Colorado School of Mines - Chemistry & Geochemistry department offers a degree with an “Environmental Geochemistry Track”. Their Bachelor's of Science program includes over 130 credits. They have laboratories equipped with numerous state-of-the-art research instruments so students have access to equipment many students need to wait to use until graduate school.
University of Illinois
The University of Illinois' Chemistry Department offers an Environmental Chemistry Option that allows a graduate to be certified with the American Chemical Society (ACS) in environmental chemistry. Classes in Green Chemistry, Environmental Toxicology, and Environmental Geology are among the course offerings beyond Chemistry classes. A Chemistry student may also pursue a minor in Environmental Studies, if they want to take more than the required classes for the Environmental Chemistry option.
Master's Degrees in Environmental Chemistry
A Master's degree is often necessary to become a supervisor or project manager for many specialties in Environmental Chemistry. It may be a step on the way to a Doctorate degree, or it may be the highest degree someone desires to earn. A Master's distinguishes a student from a Bachelor's degree by proving that they are capable of independent research to at least the degree necessary to complete their thesis.
Most schools require a letter of intent, GRE scores, letter(s) of recommendation, a small application fee, and transcripts. There may be certain science and math requirements beyond just the scope of certain Bachelor's degrees. There are often more opportunities for funding if a student chooses to help their advisor in research. Most schools will require the approval of a particular faculty member before acceptance to a program.
Master's degrees may be either mostly coursework or a combination of research and classroom efforts. Classes will generally include a range of offerings at the environmental level, but will vary with faculty and school specialties.
Students pursuing a Master's degree in Environmental Chemistry should be able to look forward to lucrative careers in laboratory management, independent consulting, or as staff working on field projects in remote places. They may be able to pursue teaching at the elementary or secondary levels.
The University of California at Davis has an Agriculture and Environmental Chemistry Graduate Group. More than 55 faculty and over 50 graduate students are in the group. Students can choose to specialize in one of four areas: environmental chemistry, biological & toxicological chemistry, analytical chemistry, and food, fiber & polymer chemistry. Students are required to take placement exams in core chemistry disciplines upon arrival at the school, especially if they want to act as a teaching assistant (TA).
University of Maryland
University of Maryland - The Marine Estuarine Environmental Science program within the University offers an Area of Specialization in Environmental Chemistry. Students entering the program must have two semesters of calculus, physics, general chemistry, biology, and advanced chemistry. Students can use facilities and modern instrumentation at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to complete their research.
Ph.D. Degrees in Environmental Chemistry
PhDs may be for those who wish to enhance their realm of expertise or change their working concentration. They may have earned a Master's degree in another subject, such as Ecology, and want to take a practical approach to applying it. Environmental Chemistry often has an appeal to students who began in a life science and realized through experience that there is a great deal of practical work done under the umbrella of chemistry.
Either a Bachelor's or Master's degree is generally required before acceptance, with core math and science courses completed. They may also require the usual items for an application; three letters of recommendation, small fee to apply, GREs, transcripts, and a well written letter of intent. Most require a faculty member to agree to be your advisor before entrance as well.
Much of a PhD program is practical work. There is coursework, especially if a student doesn't have a Master's before entry. A researched thesis is generally required, as well as testing by department members. Usually this is a two step process; a student may be a PhD student, but not eligible to receive a degree until they have passed qualifying exams.
PhDs in Environmental Chemistry have the ability to be supervisors, or leaders in their firms. They may go on to teach in university settings, or gain promotions within their own agencies. They may be even more competitive as independent contractors. They should be able to apply their intricate knowledge of the movement and cycling of chemical compounds in the environment at the highest levels.
Florida International University
Florida International University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry offers a PhD with a track in Environmental Chemistry. Choosing this major allows you to work with faculty in Environmental Sciences as well as Chemistry. A few of the core courses offered are classes in Atmospheric Chemistry, Aquatic Chemistry, Environmental Organic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Chemical Oceanography, and Environmental Chemistry of Trace Elements.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Alaska Fairbanks offers a doctorate degree in Environmental Chemistry. When looking through the faculty page, it is clear that many are professors in Chemistry, as well as quite a few in the fields of marine sciences, atmospheric sciences, microbiology, and geochemistry. The University has designed its program to ensure that there is core training in analytical, physical, organic and inorganic chemistry in order to gain an understanding of how these disciplines apply to the complex environmental systems in the real world.
Your Career after Graduation in Environmental Chemistry
Environmental chemists can lead truly exciting careers studying many aspects of the natural and chemical world. Whether they are researching Arctic frost decline for the National Science Foundation, working on global issues for the National Institute of Standards and Measurements, or working on alternative or traditional energy sources, environmental chemists are well educated in both chemistry and ecological principles. A slight change in career path after graduation could lead to researching compounds derived from various corners of the world for the pharmaceutical industry. Graduates in Environmental Chemistry may be working to solve pollution issues, help with environmental remediation efforts, or work within sustainable and ecologically friendly agriculture. A few other professions that may be grouped under Environmental Chemistry are meteorologist, aquarium specialist, petro-chemist, or chemical oceanographer.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, the median pay for Chemists and Materials Scientists was $80,680/yr, Geoscientists earned $93,580/yr, Biochemists and Biophysicists earned $94,270, and Environmental Scientists earned $73,230. Due to being somewhat of a cross-over field between physical and life sciences, Environmental Chemists can also be great educators. Your degree level helps determine your teaching eligibility. In order to teach at the college or university level, a PhD is either required or recommended.
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for Environmental Scientists and Specialists, Chemists and Materials Scientists, Geoscientists and Biochemists and Biophysicists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.
Schools vary largely in costs, and residency makes a difference as well. Colorado School of Mines, one of the schools covered for an undergraduate degree in Environmental Chemistry costs approximately $31,500/ year for an in-state resident and nearly $50,000 for an out-of-state resident for the year. This figure includes room and board and other costs. When comparing multiple schools, make sure you are comparing them the same way, one may list tuition only, or by semester only, and come across as less expensive. Scholarships may be available for all degree programs, and research assistantships may be available in upper level programs. In general, Bachelor's will take 4-5 years, Master's will take 2-3, and PhDs will take 2-3 (or skipping a Master's will take 5-6). Check with other students, if possible, on average length students attend because some schools and programs, and specific faculty, can be notorious for keeping students longer to get more work from them. A Master's degree shouldn't take 5 years of school! Also look closely at the costs of your chosen school. It may be worth establishing residency before enrolling in order to lower your expenses.
Importance of Accreditation
Schools that allow you to be a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS), or are part of a certified program can help jump start your career. Making sure you attend a school that is accredited is imperative if you would like to transfer your credits someday. It is also important as it can go a long way in the image of the school and program for future employers. You should be able to find out if your potential school is accredited on their website. Any questions about ACS could be addressed to the Chemistry, or Environmental Sciences departments.