Science Careers Blog

April 18, 2012

A Chance to be of Service for the Public Good: Rewarding Opportunities in Environmental Science

So new is the field of Environmental Science (ES) that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the first generation of scientists in the field are beginning to reach retirement age -- one reason that some people anticipate growth in the number of available jobs in the field.

ES came into being as a real branch of science in the 1960s and 1970s, answering a need to understand complex environmental problems and deal with a flood of new environmental laws that required specific environmental investigation protocols. The ultimate cause was public awareness and concern about the environment raised by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's exposé Silent Spring, and later reinforced by the energy crisis, global warming, Hurricane Katrina, and the Gulf oil spill, among other changes and events. (1)

The environment's rising profile has led to the emergence of a large number of academic programs. Some of these programs are labeled "environmental studies" while others carry the "environmental science" label. While the use of these terms varies, "environmental studies" is normally the broader field and often encompasses the latter. Here's a good published explanation of the distinction:

The "Studies" version focuses not on training scientists who will go out and study environmental problems directly, but on training citizens who will take an environmental perspective with them in whatever field they end up working.  So, a major in "Studies" will take classes in Environmental Economics, Environment and Society, Environmental Law/Justice, in addition to a few science courses.  The goal is that they will understand how Environmental Science is conducted and what the results mean, but they typically will not be prepared to conduct that science themselves . . . the "Science" version provides students with training to become environmental scientists themselves.  Courses in Ecology, Botany, Zoology, Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, Toxicology, GIS, etc. are the norm. Most "Studies" programs are closely allied with a Biology or Ecology department . . .

Some environmental studies programs have a science track; the thought is that students on the science track could still go on to study science.  Bowdoin College, for example, has a coordinate major in environmental studies where students must also have another major.  

This blog post focuses on Environmental Sciences.

In July 2009, the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued a report, "Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow," that cited the environment and healthcare as the two economic sectors most likely to experience substantially higher than average job growth during the coming decade. The report states, "jobs devoted to environmental improvement grew far faster than other occupations from 2000-2006" and predicted that "jobs in clean energy and environment protection would grow overall by 52% between 2000-2016." (2) The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts growth of 28% for environmental specialists for the 10-year period ending in 2018. The 2010-11 Edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the BLS projects "employment is expected to grow much faster than average for all occupations. Job prospects are expected to be favorable."

Wikipedia describes environmental science as "... An interdisciplinary academic field that integrates physical and biological sciences, (including but not limited to Ecology, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Soil Science, Geology, Atmospheric Science and Geography) to the study of the environment, and the solution of environmental problems." Iowa State University's ES Web site says, "Environmental science provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems."

Not surprisingly, the training programs for environmental scientists, which number in the hundreds in the United States alone, are as varied and complex as ES itself. Students can obtain undergraduate certificates, baccalaureate degrees, master degrees, and PhDs in ES. Among the many well-established and highly regarded programs are the ones at Bowdoin College, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Santa Barbara, Duke University, Yale University, and Middlebury College, to name but a few. At the program I know best, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, notes that "The curricular architectures of these programs almost always reflect the particular histories of a given institution, with environmental studies majors at land-grant universities often looking very different from those at Ivy League schools, and both looking very different from such majors at liberal arts colleges." (3)

The evaluation of UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (named for Gaylord Nelson -former Wisconsin governor, U.S. Senator, and environmental leader who founded Earth Day) was established in 1970 in response to student interest and the needs of state and local government, as well as businesses. Initially, the institute's only undergraduate offering was an Environmental Studies Certificate awarded as an addition to another major after students completed 26 credits essential to environmental studies. After 41 years and more than 1800 certificates, the institute has introduced a new Environmental Studies undergraduate major, which must be taken simultaneously with another undergraduate major, allowing a wide breadth of knowledge.

Like other "studies" programs, the new major is quite broad, with foundation courses in the humanities and social sciences in addition to physical sciences and ecology, and "theme courses" covering most aspects of the field, including not just environmental resources -- land use, water, energy -- but also history and culture. Thirty course credits are required, along with fieldwork and a "capstone" experience. (4)

What kinds of jobs do graduates of this and other environmental science programs do? The Occupational Outlook Handbook says that federal, state, and local governments employ 44% of all of environmental scientists. They enforce regulations, identify problems, and find solutions with regard to air, food, water, and soil to protect the environment. Others work within the private sector, frequently with consulting firms, and are concerned with helping companies comply with environmental regulations and policies. Often the scientists' work resembles that of other physical or life scientists but with a focus on environmental issues.

Institutions such as Duke and the University of California, Santa Barbara, are well known for their programs in environmental policy and management. Their graduates are well trained to develop policies that impact human behavior and prevent future problems, such as groundwater contamination and depletion of the ozone layer. (It is important to keep in mind that while there are policy jobs for people with environmental policy Ph.D.s, most of those in key posts (as in NIEHS) go to senior scientists who have moved into managerial positions.)

While a bachelor's degree is adequate for entry-level positions, a master's degree is often preferred. A Ph.D. is usually necessary for university teaching positions and research. At this level, obtaining grant funding is usually a necessity.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the starting salary for ES graduates is about $40,000. The middle 50% earn between $45,000 and $79,000, and the highest 10% earn more than $102,000; (5) however, the rewards in this field are, in large measure, not economic. Mitman affirms that, for the most part, ES students are idealistic. They want to make a difference in the world and are concerned about their future. They adhere to Gaylord Nelson's well-known philosophy:  "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around."

The author would like to thank Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, for lending his expertise and valuable time to this blog entry.

 1. Proposal for Authorization, Undergraduate Major in Environmental Studies, Nelson Institute
     for Environmental Studies and College of Letters & Science, 2/7/2011, p. 2.
 2. Ibid. 12.
 3. Ibid. 12.
 4. Ibid. 19.
 5. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition.

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