What is an Environmental Science Degree?

Are you passionate about sustainability and conservation? Are you fascinated by the world's natural environments?

If so, a degree in environmental science might for you. This wide-ranging field combines aspects of biology, physics, chemistry, and geography to better understand the environment and the challenges facing it. Typical coursework includes subjects such as ecology, environmental chemistry, geosciences, and atmospheric sciences. This interdisciplinary approach provides the broad understanding needed to tackle the complex problems that exemplify today's environmental sector.

But this degree involves more than just coursework. Environmental science students also take part in extensive fieldwork, exploring different ecosystems and their inner workings. They gain laboratory experience, testing, analyzing, and interpreting environmental samples of all kinds. Many supplement this formal training by gaining volunteer or work experience during their studies to increase their career prospects after graduation.

If you think environmental science might be the degree for you, read on. In this article, we'll look at:

  • What kinds of environmental science degrees are there?
  • What sets environmental science apart from related degrees, like environmental studies, ecology, or environmental geography?
  • What skills do you learn in an environmental science degree?
  • What can you do with an environmental science degree?

Program Options

When it comes to environmental science, there are lots of different educational paths to choose from. Here are a few of the most common ones:

Associate Degree in Environmental Science
These two-year programs provide a broad introduction to environmental science. Students learn basic environmental science concepts and techniques, while also taking fundamental courses in science, math, English composition, and humanities. Many students complete this degree in hopes of finding an entry-level environmental science job. Others continue studying, transferring their credits into a four-year bachelor program.

Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science
Baccalaureate-level environmental science programs solidify and expand upon the fundamental knowledge covered during an associate degree. These four-year programs cover subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, geography, and economics. Students usually compliment this broad science training with courses in a specialization of their choosing, and may also gain hands-on experience in the lab and the field. Career options after a bachelor's are competitive, but demand is growing as sustainability issues become more pressing.

Master's Degree in Environmental Science
Approximately one in five Bachelor of Environmental Science students go on to pursue a postgraduate degree. Master's programs in environmental science are one popular option. Typically taking about two years to complete, these degrees are more extended research-intensive and skills-focused than undergraduate programs. Students typically conduct fieldwork, participate in seminar courses, and write a thesis. They graduate with the broad, multi-disciplinary knowledge needed to pursue a career in environmental protection, management, policy, consulting, or research.

Doctoral Degree in Environmental Science
Doctoral degrees in environmental science are extremely specialized. Spanning anywhere from three to five years (or more), these programs prepare students for advanced industry careers or academic positions. Students spend their first year enrolled in courses, then take their comprehensive exams and begin conducting research in a single topic. Along they way, they develop strong analytical, investigative, and communication skills, as well as a deeper appreciation of their specialization of choice.

Degrees Similar to Environmental Science

Because of its interdisciplinary nature, it can be difficult to know the difference between environmental sciences and similar degrees. But although this field shares common features with environmental studies, ecology, and environmental geography, it is distinct in several key ways.

Environmental Studies
Like environmental sciences, environmental studies explores the natural world and the problems that face it. However, it takes an even broader approach to the subject, incorporating aspects of society, policy, and law. For this reason, environmental studies programs typically belong within the Faculty of Arts, while environmental sciences are usually found within the Faculty of Sciences.

Ecology
Ecology is a subfield of earth sciences and biology, focused on the relationships between organisms and their environment. Although it touches on some similar issues and topics as environmental sciences, it tends to take a more narrow view. While environmental sciences looks at the Earth's natural systems from a broad perspective, ecology is more concerned with specific organisms or ecosystems.

Environmental Geography
Environmental geography is the branch of geography concerned with the natural world and, often, the way humans impact it. It overlaps with environmental sciences and involves many similar courses, but differs in key ways. Environmental geography is unique in that it examines environmental issues through the lens of space and time, exploring how natural processes and systems change and interact with each other. It is also less science-focused than environmental sciences, incorporating social perspectives as well as scientific ones.

Skills You'll Learn

What do you learn in an environmental science degree? In addition to developing a broad understanding of core subject matter, you'll also gain strong skills in:

  • research, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • project management, planning, and organization
  • numeracy and IT
  • statistics and measurement
  • data collection, analysis, and interpretation
  • written and verbal communication
  • and more.

What Can You Do with an Environmental Science Degree?

Although competition for many jobs is still high, the environmental sector is growing rapidly. Demand for qualified environmental engineers, scientists, and consultants continues to rise, and new career opportunities are emerging every year. As a result, environmental science students can pursue a wide range of professional paths. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Research
Environmental researchers, scientists, and analysts are now found in both government and industry organizations. Professionals in this area use their research skills to analyze environmental problems like pollution, public health challenges, and environmental hazards. They also develop innovative solutions for preventing, minimizing, or resolving these issues.

Resource Management
The resource management industry is focused on monitoring and preserving the Earth's forests, parks, lakes, and other natural resources. Jobs in this area are found in government agencies, social advocacy groups, and private businesses. They typically center around enforcing habitat protection or government regulations for land use. A degree in environmental science or a related field is great training for many of these careers.

Education
Helping future generations understand the complex environmental issues facing our world is top of mind for many environmental science students. Education careers in environmental science are available through private enterprises as well as in the public sector. Environmental science graduates can find work in science centers, high school science classrooms, or university lecture halls. Additional experience and training is required for some of these careers, but for the right student, it can be a natural fit.

Environmental Planning
Environmental planning careers are concerned with developing short- and long-term strategies for land use. These positions balance environmental considerations with social and economic issues, a task that often involves collecting and analyzing data about environmental impact. Environmental science graduates are well-suited to the task.

Environmental Policy
Developing realistic, impactful environmental policy requires a deep knowledge of the science behind the natural world. Jobs in this sector often involve researching pressing environmental issues, crafting recommendations for how to prevent or resolve them, and communicating those recommendations in a compelling way.

Sustainability Consulting
As more and more businesses aspire to decrease their environmental impact, sustainability professionals are in high demand. Consulting jobs in the environmental sector typically involve a mix of research, assessment, and communication, as well as an understanding of environmental policy and science. Environmental science graduates possess all of these qualities and more.

Environmental Law
For students interested in the legal aspects of the environment, a law degree is often a perfect next step. Legal careers in this area pair scientific knowledge about conservation, sustainability, and environmental degradation with a strong understanding of the law. Although these careers usually involve additional education, the payoff can be well-worth it. Positions in environmental law are growing, and often offer opportunities to make a real difference for the future of our planet.

Environmental Advocacy and Communication
Environmental journalist, social media manager, "science communicator", public outreach coordinator—these are just some of the fascinating communication-oriented roles available to an environmental science graduate. Careers in this area focus spreading messages about the pressing environmental issues of the day. By informing the public about new discoveries, challenges, and solutions, environmental advocates and communicators can effect real change.

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