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How to Become an Environmental Scientist

By Lace Brunsden

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Environmental scientists play a crucial role in safeguarding our planet and addressing the urgent environmental challenges we face today. In this article, we delve into the vital work of environmental scientists, exploring their responsibilities, skills, pay, and the impact they make in creating a more environmentally conscious world.

Career Summary

Environmental Scientist Salary

Environmental Scientist Salary

Your salary as an environmental scientist will depend on the company and the specific project that you are working on.

According to Glassdoor, the most likely range that you can expect is as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$69k)
  • Median Salary (US$87k)
  • Executive Salary (US$110k)

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary across the United States in 2022 is estimated to have been around US$ 61,900. An Environmental Scientist’s salary is relatively high in comparison to this.

What does an Environmental Scientist do?

Environmental scientists study and analyze the environment and its various components, including the air, water, land, and living organisms. Their primary goal is to understand the interactions between these elements and how human activities impact the natural world. They work to identify, assess, and solve environmental problems and develop sustainable solutions for the future.

Environmental Scientist Career Progression

The career progression for environmental scientists can vary depending on the organization and industry that you work in, and your individual qualifications.

However, here is a general outline:

  • Environmental Technician/Field Assistant: You will do fieldwork and data collection under the guidance of senior scientists. Duties may include sampling, monitoring, equipment maintenance, and data entry.
  • Environmental Analyst/Scientist: After gaining some experience, you will begin to analyze collected data, conduct research, and assist in environmental impact assessments.
  • Senior/Lead Environmental Scientist: At this stage, you will take on more responsibility in managing projects, leading research initiatives, and overseeing fieldwork.
  • Environmental Manager/Supervisor: You will develop and implement environmental strategies, ensure compliance with regulations, and coordinate environmental programs. You’ll also manage a team of environmental scientists and technicians.
  • Environmental Director/Executive: In this role, you will work at a higher organizational level, formulating policies, managing budgets, and collaborating with senior management.
  • Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)/Environmental Vice President: In these high-level positions you will drive sustainability strategies and set corporate goals. You will participate in industry initiatives and influence environmental policies and practices at a broader level.
Environmental Scientist Career Progression

Pros:

  • Contributing to Environmental Conservation
  • Variety of Work Environments
  • Solving Complex Problems
  • Continuous Learning and Research
  • Making a Positive Difference in Society

Cons:

  • Exposure to Environmental Hazards
  • Limited Funding and Job Insecurity
  • Balancing Fieldwork and Administrative Tasks
  • Emotional Toll of Environmental Degradation
  • Regulatory and Political Constraints

Useful Skills to Have as an Environmental Scientist

  • Scientific Research and Data Analysis
  • Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  • Effective Communication and Collaboration
  • Environmental Policy and Regulations
  • Adaptability and Continuous Learning

Popular Environmental Scientist Specialties

  • Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
  • Conservation Biology
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Climate Change and Sustainability
  • Environmental Policy and Planning

How to become an Environmental Scientist

Environmental Scientist 6 Steps to Career

In order to become an environmental scientist you will typically need a combination of education, practical experience, and professional development. While specific pathways may vary, here are some common steps to pursue a career as an environmental scientist:

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

You need to start by earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, ecology, biology, chemistry, geology, or a related field. The program should include coursework in environmental science, ecology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and statistics.

Do I Need a Degree to Become an Environmental Scientist?

It is possible to become an environmental scientist without a degree, however, having a formal education in the field greatly enhances your prospects and opportunities.

While it’s technically possible to gain practical experience and knowledge through alternative routes like self-study, online courses, or apprenticeships, the structure and depth of a degree program provide a well-rounded education that is recognized and respected by employers in the field.

It’s important to note that requirements and expectations may vary depending on the specific job, organization, or country, so it’s advisable to research the specific qualifications and credentials needed for the environmental scientist roles you are interested in pursuing.

Why Is It Important to Get a Degree In Environmental Science?

Getting a degree in environmental science is important for several reasons:

  • A degree program in environmental science provides you with a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental concepts, theories, and principles underlying the field. It covers a broad range of topics such as ecology, environmental chemistry, geology, climatology, conservation biology, and sustainability.
  • Environmental science degrees often offer opportunities for specialization or concentration in specific areas of interest. This allows you to develop specialized expertise in fields such as environmental policy, environmental impact assessment, climate change, conservation, or environmental management.
  • Degree programs in environmental science typically incorporate practical components such as laboratory work, field studies, data collection, and analysis. These hands-on experiences enhance your skills in research methodologies, data interpretation, field sampling techniques, GIS (Geographic Information System), and other relevant tools and technologies. These practical skills are essential for conducting environmental assessments, implementing projects, and engaging in scientific research.
  • Employers in the environmental science field often value formal education as it demonstrates a commitment to the field and a certain level of expertise. Having a degree provides you with credibility and recognition among employers, clients, and colleagues.
  • Obtaining a degree in environmental science opens up a wider range of career opportunities and increases your chances of career advancement. Many organizations, including government agencies, environmental consulting firms, research institutions, and non-profit organizations, require a minimum level of education for entry-level and advanced positions.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Degree in Environmental Science?

The time required to complete a degree in environmental science can vary depending on several factors, including the level of the degree, the educational institution’s program structure, and whether you are studying full-time or part-time.

  • Bachelor’s degree: in environmental science typically takes around four years of full-time study to complete. This assumes that you are taking a full course load each semester. However, the duration can vary slightly based on the specific program requirements, credit hours, and any breaks or summer sessions you may take.
  • Master’s Degree: in environmental science usually requires an additional two years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s degree. Some master’s programs might offer accelerated options that can be completed in as little as one year, while others may be part-time or have a thesis requirement that extends the duration.
  • A Ph.D.: in environmental science is a research-focused degree and typically takes around four to six years to complete beyond a bachelor’s degree. The duration can vary based on your research topic, your individual progress, and the time required to complete your dissertation.

How Much Does it Cost to Study Environmental Science at University?

The cost of studying environmental science at a university can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the country, the specific university, the level of degree, and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state/international student. Here are some factors to consider when assessing the cost.

According to College Tuition Compare, tuition for an undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences costs on average US$ 10,462 in-state and US$ 33,509 out-of-state. Tuition for a graduate degree averages at US$ 11, 645 in-state and US$ 24,718 out-of-state.

Can I Become an Environmental Scientist Through Online Education?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a career as an environmental scientist through online education. Just make sure that the online environmental science program you choose is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.

It is also important to note that while some aspects of environmental science education, such as theory and concepts, can be effectively taught online, practical components like laboratory work and field experiences may present challenges. Some online programs may offer virtual lab simulations or require students to complete certain practical components in person, either through on-campus sessions or field-based experiences. Be sure to research how these practical components are incorporated into the online program.

Step 2: Gain Field Experience

Once you have a bachelor’s degree, it is important to seek opportunities to gain practical field experience through internships, research projects, or volunteering. This hands-on experience provides valuable skills in data collection, sampling techniques, and fieldwork methodologies.

What Are Internship Opportunities for an Environmental Scientist?

The availability of internships in environmental science can vary depending on factors such as geographic location, industry focus, and the specific time of year.

However, here are five popular places where you might find internship opportunities in environmental science:

  • Government Agencies: Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state departments of environmental quality or natural resources frequently provide internships focused on environmental research, monitoring, policy development, and conservation.
  • Non-profit Organizations: Non-profit organizations dedicated to environmental conservation, sustainability, and advocacy frequently offer internship programs. Examples include organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and environmental justice organizations. In these internships, you might be involved in fieldwork, research, community outreach, policy analysis, and hands-on conservation projects.
  • Environmental Consulting Firms: Environmental consulting firms often provide internship opportunities for aspiring environmental scientists. These internships can provide you with valuable exposure to a range of projects and clients, including environmental impact assessments, remediation projects, and sustainability planning. Firms such as Tetra Tech, AECOM, and Golder Associates are known for offering internships in environmental consulting.
  • Research Institutions and Universities: Research institutions and universities that have environmental science departments or research programs often have internship opportunities for students. In these internships, you may assist with ongoing research projects, data collection and analysis, laboratory work, or field studies. Contacting professors or research centers in environmental science departments can help you to identify potential internship opportunities.
  • Environmental Education Centers and Nature Reserves: Environmental education centers, nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and botanical gardens often offer internships focused on environmental education, conservation, and research. In these internships, you might be involved with educational programs, conducting ecological surveys, habitat restoration, and wildlife monitoring. Examples include centers such as the Audubon Society, environmental education centers associated with national parks, and local nature reserves.

What Skills Will I Learn as an Environmental Scientist?

As an environmental scientist, you will develop a diverse set of skills that are essential for conducting research, analyzing data, managing projects, and addressing environmental challenges.

Here are some key skills that you can expect to learn and develop:

  • Scientific Research Skills: Environmental scientists are trained to design and conduct scientific research. You will learn how to formulate research questions, develop hypotheses, design experiments or field studies, collect and analyze data, interpret results, and draw evidence-based conclusions. Research skills encompass data collection methods, statistical analysis, data visualization, and scientific writing.
  • Environmental Assessment and Monitoring: Environmental scientists assess and monitor various aspects of the environment, such as air quality, water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystems. You will learn how to use sampling techniques, measurement instruments, and laboratory analysis methods to collect data. You will also develop skills in assessing environmental impacts, identifying potential risks, and evaluating environmental conditions.
  • Data Analysis and Modeling: Environmental scientists work with large datasets and employ analytical techniques to uncover patterns, relationships, and trends. You will learn to use statistical software, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and other tools for data analysis, spatial analysis, and modeling. These skills enable you to interpret complex environmental data, predict future scenarios, and support decision-making processes.
  • Environmental Policy and Regulation: Environmental scientists need a solid understanding of environmental policies, laws, and regulations. You will learn about environmental governance frameworks, regulatory compliance, and the integration of scientific knowledge into policy-making. This includes knowledge of environmental impact assessments, environmental management systems, and sustainable development principles.
  • Environmental Ethics and Sustainability: Environmental scientists are often involved in promoting sustainability and ethical practices. You will gain an understanding of environmental ethics, sustainable development principles, and the social and economic dimensions of environmental issues. This knowledge allows you to integrate ethical considerations and sustainability principles into your work and decision-making processes.

Step 3: Pursue a Master’s Degree (optional)

Consider pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science or a specialized subfield. A master’s degree can enhance your knowledge, research skills, and career prospects, especially if you aim for advanced positions or specialized roles.

Step 4: Obtain Certifications (optional)

Consider obtaining relevant certifications to enhance your professional credentials. Certifications such as the Certified Environmental Professional (CEP) or Certified Environmental Scientist (CES) can demonstrate your expertise and dedication to the field.

Step 5: Continued Professional Development

Stay updated with advancements in environmental science through continuous learning and professional development. Attend workshops, webinars, and training programs to acquire new skills, and knowledge, and stay current with emerging technologies and research.

Web Resources To Keep Up With the Environmental News

There are several web resources available to learn skills and enhance your knowledge as an aspiring environmental scientist.

Here are some reputable websites and platforms that provide valuable resources:

  • National Geographic: National Geographic’s website provides a wealth of resources on environmental science, conservation, and geography. You can access articles, videos, interactive maps, and educational materials that cover various environmental topics and issues.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA website offers extensive information on environmental science, regulations, research, and data. You can access reports, publications, databases, and educational resources related to air and water quality, climate change, environmental policy, and more.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): The UNEP website provides information on global environmental issues, sustainable development, and initiatives. It offers reports, publications, and resources on topics such as biodiversity, pollution, climate change, and environmental governance.
  • Earth Observatory: NASA’s Earth Observatory website provides satellite imagery, articles, and data visualizations related to Earth’s environment, climate, and natural hazards. It’s a valuable resource for understanding global environmental changes and their impacts.

Step 6: Pursue Advanced Degrees (optional)

If interested in research, teaching, or specialized roles, you may consider pursuing a Ph.D. in environmental science or a related field. A Ph.D. can open doors to academic positions, advanced research opportunities, or leadership roles in the field.

What’s the Career Outlook for Environmental Scientist?

The career outlook for environmental scientists in the USA is generally positive, with favorable job prospects and expected growth in the field.

The employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow by 5% from 2021 to 2031, which is as fast as the average for all occupations. This growth is attributed to increased public awareness of environmental issues and the need for organizations to comply with environmental regulations.

Environmental Scientist Popular Career Specialties

What Are the Job Opportunities of an Environmental Scientist?

Environmental scientists have a wide range of job opportunities available to them in various sectors.

Here are some different types of job opportunities that you may find as an environmental scientist:

  • Environmental Consultant: Environmental consultants work with clients in various industries to assess environmental impacts, ensure regulatory compliance, and develop sustainable solutions. They conduct environmental assessments, provide expertise on environmental regulations, manage projects, and offer recommendations for mitigating environmental risks.
  • Environmental Analyst: Environmental analysts collect and analyze environmental data, such as air and water quality measurements, soil samples, and biological data. They also interpret the data, identify trends or issues, and provide insights to inform decision-making processes related to environmental management and policy.
  • Environmental Planner: As an environmental planner you will work on land use and development projects, ensuring that environmental considerations are integrated into planning processes. You will assess the potential environmental impacts of projects, develop strategies for environmental conservation, and help organizations navigate regulatory requirements.
  • Environmental Educator: Environmental educators work in various settings, including schools, nature centers, museums, and non-profit organizations. In this position, you will develop and deliver educational programs, workshops, and interpretive materials to raise awareness about environmental issues, promote conservation, and inspire sustainable behavior.
  • Climate Change Specialist: Climate change specialists focus on understanding and addressing the impacts of climate change. They analyze climate data, conduct vulnerability assessments, develop adaptation and mitigation strategies, and work to enhance resilience to climate-related challenges.
  • Environmental Health and Safety Specialist: Environmental health and safety specialists work to ensure that workplaces comply with environmental and occupational health regulations. As an environmental health and safety specialist, you will be required to assess potential hazards, develop safety protocols, conduct inspections, and provide training to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Conservation Scientist: Conservation scientists work to protect and preserve natural resources and habitats. This is the job for you if you wish to conduct research, develop and implement conservation strategies, collaborate with stakeholders, and monitor the effectiveness of conservation initiatives.
  • Environmental Policy Analyst: Environmental policy analysts study environmental issues and evaluate the impacts of policies and regulations. In this role, you will analyze data, conduct research, assess the effectiveness of policies, and provide recommendations to shape environmental policies and practices.

What Type of Companies Hire an Environmental Scientist?

Environmental scientists are hired by a diverse range of companies and organizations that recognize the importance of environmental stewardship, sustainability, and regulatory compliance.

Here are some types of companies and organizations that commonly hire environmental scientists:

  • Government Agencies: Environmental protection agencies, natural resource management departments, and regulatory bodies at the local, state, and national levels may hire you as an environmental scientist to monitor and assess environmental conditions, enforce regulations, and develop policies related to environmental protection and conservation.
  • Energy and Utility Companies: Energy and utility companies, including those involved in fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear power, often employ environmental scientists to assess and mitigate the environmental impacts of their operations. They may hire environmental scientists like yourself to monitor air and water quality, manage waste and emissions, conduct environmental assessments, and ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Manufacturing and Industrial Companies: Manufacturing and industrial companies hire environmental scientists to manage and minimize the environmental impacts of their operations. In this sector, you may be involved in pollution prevention, waste management, hazardous materials handling, regulatory compliance, and sustainability initiatives.
  • Research Institutions and Universities: Research institutions, universities, and academic institutions hire environmental scientists for research, teaching, and academic positions. When working in these institutions, you may conduct research on various environmental topics, secure research funding, publish scientific papers, and teach environmental science courses.
  • Environmental Education Centers: Environmental education centers, nature reserves, parks, museums, and science centers may hire you to develop and deliver environmental education programs, lead guided tours, conduct research, and engage in public outreach and awareness campaigns.
  • Pharmaceutical and Chemical Companies: Pharmaceutical and chemical companies hire environmental scientists to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and manage potential environmental impacts associated with their operations. In this sector, you may be involved in waste management, chemical safety, environmental risk assessment, and sustainable practices.
  • International Organizations and NGOs: International organizations, such as the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), hire environmental scientists to work on global environmental issues. In these organizations, you may be involved in policy development, providing technical expertise, conducting research, and implementing projects related to climate change, biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, and environmental justice.

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Environmental Scientist?

The work-life balance of an environmental scientist can vary depending on several factors, including the specific job role, organization, and individual preferences.

They often engage in fieldwork activities, which can require longer working hours, travel, and physically demanding tasks. However, the frequency and duration of fieldwork can vary depending on the nature of your job.

Some environmental scientists may have more office-based roles that involve data analysis, report writing, or project management, allowing for a more regular schedule.

Depending on the organization and job arrangement, environmental scientists may have flexibility in their work hours and the ability to work remotely. This can enhance work-life balance by providing more control over their schedule and allowing them to accommodate personal commitments.

Ultimately, it’s worth noting that work-life balance is a subjective concept, and individuals may prioritize different aspects of their lives differently.

Should I become an Environmental Scientist?

Deciding whether to pursue a career as an environmental scientist is a personal choice that requires careful consideration.

Environmental scientists have the power to contribute significantly to the health of our planet and the well-being of future generations. If you possess a passion for the environment, a strong scientific background, and a desire to make a positive difference, a career as an environmental scientist may be a fulfilling path for you.

However, it’s important to recognize the challenges and responsibilities that come with the role. Environmental science can involve demanding fieldwork, complex problem-solving, and the need for continuous learning to stay abreast of evolving environmental issues.

Before embarking on this career path, take the time to reflect on your personal strengths, interests, and values. Consider the necessary educational requirements, career opportunities, and potential for growth in the field. Engage with environmental professionals, seek mentorship, and gain practical experience through internships or volunteer work to gain a deeper understanding of the field.

Remember, being an environmental scientist is not just a job; it’s a commitment to the planet and its inhabitants. It requires resilience, adaptability, and a lifelong dedication to promoting sustainability and environmental stewardship. By becoming an environmental scientist, you have the opportunity to contribute to the collective effort in building a greener, more sustainable future for all.

Careers Related to Environmental Scientist


Lace Brunsden

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