We Need Environmental Science Grads, But What Do You Need? 13 Career Options We Think You’ll Love
You might be the kid who loved being outdoors, exploring the nearby woods and collecting bugs in a jar or taking samples from the local pond to look at under your most prized possession: a microscope (you know, the one you’d never let your little brother so much as breathe near). Or maybe you were that, umm, let’s say spirited, high school volunteer who led an effort to clean up a state park after you realized what all that litter was doing to the poor animals. Perhaps you watched in horror—in person or on TV—as a wildfire consumed a West Coast town or as Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, killing so many that we still don’t have an exact death toll.
Whatever drove you to study—or consider studying—environmental science, you’re well aware that the world needs you right now. Environmental science majors are prepared to take on our climate crisis, conserve natural resources and environments, lead the charge on renewable energy, and—not to be dramatic—literally save the planet.
But as you’re sitting in class, doing your labs, and trying to imagine your next steps, you might start to feel overwhelmed. “Can I really make a difference in a world that’s burning and melting and only getting worse?” you might wonder. “There’s so much to do, where would I even start?” The great thing is: There are so many options open to environmental science majors. But the problem is: There are so many options open to environmental science majors.
You don’t need a list of 734 possible jobs. But what you probably could use is a tailored list that digs into a few particularly promising career options—and maybe a quick look at some of the skills you’ve gained that will help you thrive in the workplace and what types of organizations and industries are looking to hire former amateur pond sleuths like you.
Skills Environmental Science Grads Already Have
Anybody who’s completed college already has valuable skills for the workplace. And “environmental science degrees specifically provide an abundance of transferable skills,” says Alaina G. Levine, a STEM career coach, writer covering environmental science topics, and president of Quantum Success Solutions, LLC, a career consultancy focused on engineering and the sciences. Your degree has prepared you to work in basically any field you’d like, Levine says, whether you want to pursue a career related to environmental science or go in another direction.
Here are a few of the transferable skills you likely gained:
- Communication and storytelling: Throughout your coursework, you learned to communicate by writing research proposals and reports, essays, and emails; discussing information with others in classes or group projects; and giving presentations. Environmental science majors often need to take complex topics and translate them into a compelling story that convinces people they need to care about something and take action, Levine says. You learn how to “mine data and distill it in a way your ‘constituents’ will understand,” whether your constituents are your classmates, teachers, colleagues, managers, executives, policymakers, or the public.
- Marketing: Most environmental science programs won’t mention that you’re learning marketing skills, Levine says, but any time you’re explaining the value of a project or even a natural resource, you’re using marketing skills. “Marketing” might feel like a dirty word in the context of our planet, but it simply means crafting a message that convinces someone to take action. In environmental science, you might be persuading a company to put money or time into a new process that’s more sustainable or writing a grant proposal where you’re communicating the value of your research.
- Leadership: Many employers are looking for leadership skills in employees at all levels. Leadership “isn’t just being appointed or anointed a leader,” Levine says. It’s any time you take ownership or initiative. Individuals have to lead “a team of one every day,” and decide how to do their work productively and efficiently, Levine says. You’ll also have to lead your own initiatives, programs, and/or research even as an early-career employee. You already got practice with these skills whenever you led a group project, coordinated resources to meet deadlines or budgets, or made decisions based on new information or data.
- Research: “Environmental science programs turn out students who are excellent in conducting research,” says Sara Hutchison, a career coach who’s advised environmental science majors and has a degree in sustainable development herself. Students often have to study primary sources, read through compliance and legal documentation, collect their own data in the field, employ the scientific method, and write about their findings, all of which teach them strong research practices, such as how to select reliable sources and data. Even if you’re not working in a research setting, these skills help you collect the information you need to solve problems. Speaking of which...
- Problem-solving: In addition to gathering the data they need and making autonomous decisions, environmental science students learn how to look at a problem from multiple perspectives, which “is an extremely valuable asset, both in scientific careers and less ‘traditional’ careers,” says Dr. Gemma Cassidy, who’s hired and advised environmental science majors and is currently Senior Journals Publishing Manager for Wiley, a large scientific-publishing company. For example, they may need to look at how an issue with air quality might be affecting different parts of an ecosystem and evaluate the economic costs of various solutions. Or in a very different context, they might consider how proposed upgrades to a software product might affect users.
- Risk assessment/management: Since environmental science students often need to conduct field research, they’re practiced in risk assessment and management, Levine says. They may have to shift priorities or adjust plans either before going out in the field or on the fly due to risks like weather, wildlife, environmental conditions, or even other humans. For example, a dangerous storm may compromise your ability to safely collect water samples, so maybe you have to analyze the nearby soil instead or adjust your research timelines. You may also specifically study the possible risks to a certain population of frogs as the climate changes, for example. Risk assessment and management is useful whenever you’re evaluating the best course of action for a given project or initiative.
- Computer skills: Like most fields, environmental science is increasingly relying on technology. During your coursework, you likely learned the computing skills needed to analyze and visualize data, build models or projections to predict outcomes, and possibly utilize AI and machine learning. These computer skills are highly sought after both inside and outside of the environmental science field.
“As a final point, graduates from an environmental sciences background likely have a passion for our planet, and how best to protect it,” Cassidy says. Employers are always looking for workers who care deeply and are knowledgeable about what they’ll be doing—and many organizations are hiring workers to help fight the climate crisis in particular.
Where Can Environmental Science Majors Work?
When you’re deciding where you’d like to work—whether that’s a type of organization or a certain industry—Levine suggests thinking about your values and what drives you. “Do you want to protect the coastlines because you grew up in a seaside area?” Levine asks. Or would you like to help decrease the negative effects big companies have on our environment? Are there certain animals or plant life you want to protect? Are you interested in maintaining and improving public health? Do you want to directly affect policy?
Here are some of the common industries and types of organizations where environmental science majors work:
- Local, city, state, and federal government
- Municipalities and utilities
- Nonprofit organizations
- Energy (both renewable energy companies and traditional fossil fuels companies looking to decrease their environmental impact)
- Manufacturing and safety
- Food production
- Real estate development
- Publishing and media
- Public health
- Zoos, aquariums, national parks, and other conservation centers
But this list is far from exhaustive. More and more organizations are prioritizing sustainability in their day-to-day operations, Cassidy says. As a result, those with environmental science degrees are needed “across the board.” Many environmental science careers might feel “hidden,” Levine says, but you can find them through networking and environmental professional organizations such as the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP).
Even if you don’t want a career in environmental science, “The degree you pick to complete in college does not define the career you will pursue,” Hutchison says. So don’t feel boxed in.
13 Jobs and Careers for Environmental Science Majors
Below you’ll find 13 jobs and careers you can pursue with an environmental science degree (and you can click on the links to search for current openings on The Muse). Many of these jobs can be found in multiple or all of the above industries or types of organizations and you can specialize according to your area of focus or interest. For example, you can be an environmental science technician for a real estate company that studies the effects different developments may have on the water in a local ecosystem or you might be an environmental consultant who specializes in helping manufacturers decrease the air pollutants produced by their work.
Unless otherwise noted, all salary information is from PayScale.com. (Note that PayScale’s database is updated nightly; the numbers below reflect the latest figures as of November 2021.)
1. Environmental Educator or Environmental Science Teacher
Average educator salary: $51,316
Environmental educators come in multiple forms. You may choose to become a secondary school teacher in either environmental science or a smaller subset of the subject such as oceanography, or you might work for a museum, national park, zoo, or other conservation center or program.
Regardless, environmental educators teach others about the environment and issues facing it—plus how they as individuals can help. For example, Hutchison once worked as a tour guide for a local cavern. “Sharing my passion for the environment with children and tourists was amazing,” Hutchison says. “I loved how it opened their eyes to why they should clean up their pet waste or not pollute waters because all that goes downstream into a cave like ours.”
The qualifications you’ll need to be an environmental educator depend on exactly where you’d like to work. If you’d like to be a secondary school teacher, you may need to take education classes or obtain a master’s degree depending on which state you’d like to teach in.
2. Environmental Engineer or Environmental Engineering Technician
Environmental engineers design, plan, and build systems that improve or monitor the environment. They also collect and/or analyze scientific data and conduct quality control tests to inform or adjust their plans. For example an environmental engineer may be responsible for designing a new water treatment center, equipment that reduces the pollution a factory releases, a sustainable recreational attraction, or a building that minimally disrupts the environment. Meanwhile, environmental engineering technicians and technologists carry out the plans that environmental engineers create.
“If you really like building things, deploying applications, and seeing the work you do transform people’s lives directly,” you might consider one of these careers, Levine says.
If you haven’t already completed substantial engineering coursework alongside or as part of your major, you may need to complete a master’s in engineering—but it depends where you’d like to work. However, engineering technician jobs often don’t require engineering-specific degrees (though you may still need an OSHA certification).
3. Environmental Scientist and Environmental Science and Protection Technicians
These professionals conduct research, experiments, field work, and tests to monitor or discover more about the environment. Environmental scientists may propose new research and design experiments with the goal of evaluating, preventing, controlling, or fixing environmental problems.
Environmental science and protection technicians are often responsible for conducting tests in the field and reporting findings to a scientist, municipality, or any other entity that’s monitoring environmental conditions. For example, you may be responsible for gathering and testing water samples to make sure a nearby company is not compromising the ecosystem or you might work for a city government, continuously monitoring air quality.
You can focus in a myriad of areas in environmental science such as microbiology, ecology, oceanography, or geology. In order to become an environmental scientist, you’ll need a master’s degree or PhD in your chosen area of focus, but technicians can often land jobs with bachelor’s degrees in environmental science.
4. Wildlife Biologist
Average salary: $50,186
Wildlife biologists are a subset of environmental scientists that focus specifically on animals and other wildlife and how they interact with their environments. They may conduct studies on animals in their natural habitat or in zoo or sanctuary environments and/or monitor threats to populations and come up with ways to mitigate them. Wildlife biologists often focus on specific types of animals or plants.
Depending on where you’d like to work, you can often find an entry-level position with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, but to advance and/or conduct independent research you’ll need to obtain a PhD.
5. Environmental Health and Safety Specialist
Average salary: $64,210
Environmental health and safety (EHS) specialists study how different environmental conditions affect human health, protect the health and safety of individuals and ecosystems by setting regulations and guidelines, and ensure compliance with these regulations and guidelines. They may work for governments or other oversight organizations to set and enforce safety and environmental standards for geographic areas or industries, or they might work for individual companies to ensure the safety of work processes and the company’s overall sustainability.
You can often get these jobs with a bachelor’s degree, though some employers will require that you obtain relevant safety certifications for their industry.
6. Conservation Officer
Average salary: $44,667
Conservation officers, also known as park rangers, manage state and national parks, forests, and other wildlife areas. They are responsible for the safety of guests and wildlife as well as the conservation of the area. Conservation officers may also maintain campgrounds, trails, and other facilities; manage programs for the public; answer questions; and address and correct possible risks to the environment or guests.
If you love being outside and interacting with the public, this could be the job for you. You can land a job as a conservation officer with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
7. Recycling Coordinator
Average salary (according to Salary.com): $53,705
Recycling coordinators and officers oversee the way recyclables are handled by an organization or municipality. For smaller companies or schools, this might be part of a broader role, but for larger entities, overseeing recycling efforts could be your full-time job.
“It’s no longer about making signs for the recycling cans,” says Hutchison, who was previously a recycling coordinator for a university. “It’s about waste trucks, dumpster pulls, procurement of containers, writing [requests for proposals to] vendors, endless spreadsheets on waste to create baselines for reduction goals, and hosting field trips for the local classrooms.” Basically, you need to make sure all the recycling gets sorted properly, picked up, and transferred to the appropriate facility so that the material can be reused, all while advocating for the program and encouraging individuals to participate.
If you’re super organized and want to help decrease the amount of waste going to landfills, this could be a job for you. Hutchison snagged her role right out of college—so there are entry-level opportunities.
8. Environmental Consultant
Average salary: $58,387
In general, consultants evaluate client companies and their departments and processes; analyze their findings; and propose solutions to solve problems, save money, or increase efficiency. Environmental consultants specifically focus on sustainability and environmental impact. For example, they might suggest ways for companies to reduce their carbon footprints or advise them on how to better use and dispose of hazardous materials.
Consultants often work for consultancies or as freelancers. If you want to help companies increase their sustainability and curb emissions or waste, this career could be a great fit. You can often get these jobs with a bachelor’s degree.
9. Environmental Policy Analyst
Average policy analyst salary: $60,216
Environmental policy analysts research, analyze, and evaluate the effects an existing or proposed law, regulation, or program will have on the environment, people, wildlife, or any other facet of society. These jobs involve “packaging research in a way that can be used in policy to make laws and regulations that will make a difference,” Levine says. So if you want to have a direct effect on what companies and individuals need to do to curb climate change, for example, a career in environmental policy may be for you.
You may be able to find an entry-level position with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science (look for federal, state, and local government fellowships and programs specifically designed for this)—but you could need further education to progress in your career.
10. Science Editor
Average salary (according to Salary.com): $60,499
Science editors put together academic journals or textbooks consisting of science information and new discoveries, research, and studies. Depending on your role and career level, you may be responsible for copyediting and formatting articles, assigning and editing articles or book sections, or assessing original research and coordinating peer reviews of it. Scientific publishing “is a great career for those who feel passionately about the science but want to step away from being the ones doing the research themselves,” Cassidy says. “Working on academic journals gives you a front-row seat to new, cutting-edge research, and working with editors and academic societies can be very inspiring.”
While an environmental science degree will give you the scientific background you need to understand the research, you’ll also need strong writing and editing skills to pursue this career.
11. Science Communications Specialist
While this might sound like a similar role to science editor, science communicators work across industries and mediums. No matter what your focus is, though, all science communications specialists have the same goal: sharing often complex information about science (or the environment) in a way that the intended audience understands it, cares about it, and knows what to do about it. Depending on where you work, you may write press releases, website or social copy, TV, radio, or online video scripts, or reported and researched articles; create infographics, videos, pamphlets, and other presentations; or produce educational materials for schools, museums, and other programs.
Your background in environmental science will give you the technical know-how you’ll need and lend you credibility, Levine says. You may also need strong writing skills, social media savvy, video production knowledge, or graphic design chops, depending on the roles you’d like to pursue. You may find jobs for science or environmental nonprofits, departments, or organizations labeled “communications specialist,” “communications coordinator,” or similar, but you should also search for roles that describe the specific work you’d like to do, such as “copywriter,” “video editor,” or “social media manager” at companies that focus on an area of the environment or science you’re passionate about.
12. Data Analyst
Average salary: $61,881
Data analysts collect, organize, and interpret large amounts of information in order to solve problems or make recommendations. They may also be responsible for creating projections, models, or data visualisations.
You can find these roles at companies across many industries, so if you’d like to work for a company focused on some aspect of the environment, you can. For example, you might analyze the data from a large number of water samples taken along a coastline to look for patterns for a clean water–focused nonprofit.
But as an environmental science graduate, you likely have the data knowledge you need to seek a position in a different field entirely—particularly if you can demonstrate coding experience, which employers are increasingly looking for in data professionals. You can also take online classes or look into a data science bootcamp to boost your skills. A bachelor’s degree is usually the only education requirement for entry-level roles, but you may need a master’s degree for more senior roles.
13. Marketing Analyst
Average salary: $57,134
Marketing analysts evaluate data, prices, markets, strategies, and customer bases to answer marketing questions or solve issues either for the company they work for or for a client company. If you have an environmental science degree but you’re interested in something outside of that field, marketing analysts are needed in every industry. For example, you could find a marketing analyst job for a renewable energy company that sells solar panels to individual homes or you can find a position for a tech company working on a productivity app.
With the storytelling, data analysis, research, and marketing skills you gained from your coursework, you can likely find an entry-level marketing analyst job right out of undergrad.