Are you searching for a major that’s dynamic and flexible, that connects you to the world around you, and gives you a sense of being a part of the solution to many of the Earth’s problems? You might want to think about becoming an environmental science major.
The good news is that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in environmental science are projected to grow 11% over the next ten years. Furthermore, the median income for environmental science-related fields in the United States is $71,130 per year, more than double the overall median US salary of $31,561.
In other words, there’s a lot of opportunity for you to take your love of the environment and turn it into a lucrative career!
An environmental science degree can be a good tool for breaking into an environmental field. That’s why we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the environmental science degree into this handy article. We’ll teach you what to expect from an environmental science major, go over the top programs in the nation, then show you what you can do with your environmental science degree after graduation.
We’ve got a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it!
What Is an Environmental Science Degree?
Environmental science is a fairly recently-created field that combines biology, chemistry, and earth sciences (such as biology and geography), as well as the social sciences (such as law and economics). As you can see, environmental science combines multiple different fields. If you’re interested in researching how all the various systems of the world work together, this would be an excellent major for you!
Since environmental science is a fairly new major, not all universities offer it. You’ll have to do your homework before you start applying to schools to make sure that your chosen universities offer environmental science as a full-blown major rather than a minor or concentration. The schools that do offer an environmental science degree, however, consider it a four-year degree. That means it will take you a standard four years to earn your diploma.
The environmental science degree is considered both interdisciplinary and generalist. It is an interdisciplinary degree in that it is a combination of several different areas of research across various fields and departments. It is a generalist degree in that it provides you with a skill set that is useful in many different situations. When you major in environmental science, you’ll be prepared to tackle a variety of jobs from city planning to creating environmental policies.
When you study environmental science, you’ll be expected to learn about how the environment works in relationship to many different fields. You’ll probably find yourself taking classes and electives in different departments across campus. Knowing how the environment intersects with science, history, politics, and even social science will help you solve tricky problems when you get into the real world. That means environmental science majors have to be people who are comfortable doing everything from field experiments to writing papers—so flexibility and curiosity is a must!
Many environmental science departments offer concentrations within the major where students will be able to dig deeper into topics that interest them or are important to their future career goals. For example, the University of California — Irvine offers students a concentration in Geosciences Education, which will certify them to teach geology in a K-12 program once they graduate. Because UC Irvine offers that specific concentration, it would be a great school for anyone interested in becoming a teacher! Keep in mind that all environmental science programs (and their concentrations) are unique, so it’s critical that you research each school’s individual programs.
The environmental sciences are very rigorous and demanding, and a lot will be expected of you—but you can do it!
What Does an Environmental Science Major Study?
Basically, environmental science majors study how humans and animals affect the environment and each other. Does that sound like a lot? It’s probably because it is—when you start thinking about that description, you’ll realize it incorporates almost anything you can imagine.
Here is a short list of some of the topics you might study as an environmental science major:
- Atmospheric Science
- Behavioral Science
- Environmental Policy
See what we mean? Typically, when you are an environmental science major, you start very general with surveys and overviews in all or most of the above, and then as you progress through your program of study, you become more and more concentrated in a specific area based on your career goals. Often, your undergraduate degree is completed by participating in field research, sometimes even on year-long projects.
Then, if you continue on to get a MS and/or PhD, you’ll specialize even more, becoming an expert in your own focused intersection of the above topics.
Stanford University in Palo Alto, California has one of the best environmental science programs in the United States
The Top 8 Environmental Science Programs in the United States
If you’ve decided environmental science is the right major for you, then it’s time to start applying to programs. Luckily for you, we’ve compiled a list of the top eight environmental science schools in the United States.
While program rankings can vary from source to source, we evaluated each program based on the following criteria:
- The accreditation of the program
- The variety of the program’s offerings
- The quality of the university
- The job placement rate for graduates
As we mentioned before, environmental studies programs are pretty unique, so you’ll need to take a close look at each one to see if it’s right for you. Doing a little research now can save you a lot of headache in the future!
- Location: Palo Alto, CA
If you look up twenty lists of best environmental science universities, you can count on almost all of them having Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences near the top. This school has a large faculty with robust research interests, which makes it a good school for passionate students who aren’t quite sure what field they want to work in after graduation. There are courses ranging from park services to conservation to oceanography, and faculty advisors work with students to create a program of study suited to their individual needs.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of an undergraduate BS in environmental science from Stanford University, particularly if you are considering continuing to a graduate degree, is their flexible range of degree programs that include:
- Four-year undergraduate programs leading to the degree of Bachelor of Science (B.S.)
- Five-year programs leading to the coterminal Bachelor of Science and Master of Science (M.S.)
- Five-year programs leading to the coterminal Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts (M.A.)
The School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences has four different undergraduate degree programs: Earth Systems, Energy Resources Engineering, Geological Sciences, and Geophysics. (You can view a list of environmental science courses offered at Stanford University here.) Because Stanford offers so many programs at such a high level, we’ve awarded it the top spot on our list.
- Location: Berkeley, CA
UC Berkeley is not only one of the best universities in the United States, it also boasts one of the best environmental science programs in the nation. UC Berkeley’s environmental science program allows you to choose one of three specializations: Biological Science, Physical Science, or Social Science, based on your career goals and research interests.
Then, after meeting with your advisor(s), a specific suite of courses relevant to your individual interests is planned, culminating in a capstone year-long research project that will allow you to “formulate testable hypotheses about biological, physical, or social patterns and processes associated with an existing or potential environmental problem, collect data to evaluate their hypotheses, and present their results in a professional manner.” While that’s a mouthful, it boils down to this: if you go to UC Berkeley, you’ll be conducting original research while working closely with some of the best professors in the field.
An added perk of UC Berkeley’s environmental science program is that students have many outside learning opportunities. Along with study abroad opportunities, UC Berkeley offers unique programs like Forestry Camp. This eight-week summer session offers students a hands-on learning experience in the Sierra Nevadas...and awards participants a forestry minor! If you’re interested in unique learning propositions and a great jumping-off point for environmental studies jobs, then UC Berkeley would be a great school for you.
- Location: Cambridge, MA
Harvard’s reputation hardly needs repeating here. It’s quite frequently considered the top university in the US, and it has a rigorous program of study for environmental science, too. The undergraduate Program in Environmental Science and Engineering in the John Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which offers both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science track, is considered one of the premier environmental engineering programs in the world. It’s important to note that the program specifically focuses on human-caused environmental change, so if you’re passionate about curtailing climate change, this program would be an especially good fit!
Harvard also offers a multidisciplinary concentration in Environmental Science and Public Policy, in which students are taught “the underlying scientific and technical issues and an appreciation for the relevant economic, political, legal, historical and ethical dimensions.” This is the more generalist track and allows students to learn how the environment intersects with other fields like chemistry and economics. (You can see a full course listing here.)
If you'd like to go to a smaller university, Colorado College might be the perfect school for you!
(Mark Lee / Wikimedia)
- Location: Colorado Springs, CO
Colorado College is a small liberal arts college with an undergraduate enrollment of about 2,000 students. They offer both Environmental Science and Environmental Studies programs, with an available disciplinary track in Environmental Chemistry, and an Environmental Issues minor. If you’re looking for a smaller school that will give you more personalized attention, then Colorado College is an excellent pick for you!
Like many of the other schools on this list, Colorado College takes a generalist approach to the environmental science degree. That means students take courses on topics ranging from meteorology all the way to ecofeminism. The most unique feature of Colorado College is that classes are scheduled in three-week blocks of four per semester—meaning you only take one class at a time! This allows you to immerse yourself in each topic without feeling overwhelmed by juggling three to five courses simultaneously. It also gives students a more streamlined approach to their education, which helps minimize outside stresses that come from juggling classes and studying for multiple tests at once.
- Location: Syracuse, NY
SUNY-ESF is a small college that’s part of the larger SUNY university system that has campuses all over the state of New York. SUNY-ESF is notable because its Syracuse campus (along with 25,000 acres of land scattered across the state of New York) is dedicated entirely to environmental science. They have 27 undergraduate programs and 54 graduate programs, making this one of the most robust environmental science programs in the United States.
Additionally, SUNY-ESF takes its commitment to the environment seriously and makes environmentalism a key component of students’ lives both inside and outside the classroom. Students are encouraged to engage in community outreach, and as a result, enrolled students logged more than 70,000 service hours last year. The campus embraces the mission of a more sustainable world in terms of its own carbon footprint, too. In fact, the school has been named one of the top ten most sustainable campuses in the US and a Top Green Campus by Princeton Review.
Even the UC Irvine mascot wears flip-flops. A true SoCal icon. Brian Sterling/Flickr
- Location: Irvine, CA
UCI’s Earth System Science program is consistently touted as one of the top environmental science programs in the US, and their faculty are very highly awarded. That means you’ll be learning from professors who are doing innovative research on important topics in the field. If you want to get a taste of what environmental science classes at UC Irvine are like, you can check out the department’s YouTube page where they’ve posted lectures by the department’s faculty.
UC Irvine also offers quite a few degree options for environmental science students. Degrees offered on the undergraduate level are: Bachelor of Science in Earth System Science, Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Science and Policy, Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Science, and a Minor in Earth and Atmospheric Science. Like we mentioned earlier, these degrees tend to be pretty research focused, especially since UC Irvine’s environmental science labs are among the most advanced in the nation. If you’re looking to work in a research-heavy career once you graduate, a degree from UC Irvine could put you on the fast track to success.
- Location: New Haven, CT
Yale is one of the best universities in the United States, so it’s not surprising that they also have a top-tier environmental studies program, too. Yale offers both a bachelors of arts and a bachelors of science in environmental studies, though all students have to take prerequisites in chemistry, biology, math and statistics. Undergraduates in environmental studies at Yale also have their choice of several concentrations, with the option of either sticking with the established concentrations, or creating their own. This creates one of the most flexible curricula of any environmental studies program on this list.
One of the most unique aspects of Yale’s environmental science department is its peer mentorship program. The department chooses four upperclassmen to help freshmen and sophomores as they start their environmental science degree courses. Not only can they offer advice on what classes to take and how to succeed in them, they also host community-building events, too.
- South Bend, IN
Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment offers three programs of study: Earth & Ocean Sciences, Environmental Sciences, and Marine Science and Conservation. Additionally, the department offers students three different certificate programs in leadership, energy, and sustainability. These certificates further prepare students for their transition into the workforce after graduation. That’s partly why these programs have extremely impressive job placement numbers: 96% of graduates gain employment within the first six months after graduation, and 94% of all graduates are working within field-related careers.
What Can You Do With an Environmental Science Degree?
What are the best jobs for environmental science majors? Choosing to be an environmental science major is just one step in your collegiate journey. You’ll also need to think about what career you’d like to enter once you graduate. Luckily for you, the flexibility of environmental science degree jobs can set you up for success in a wide variety of fields.
Just take a look at this list that Portland State University compiled of employers who were specifically looking for environmental science majors! There’s a lot—and we mean a lot—of variety here: everything from selling windmills to monitoring water quality for industrial sites. This list includes jobs ranging from cartography (or mapmaking) to becoming a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management.
There are so many job opportunities for environmental science majors that it might be tough trying to narrow down the field. That’s why we’ve created a list of some of the best jobs you can get with environmental degrees.
Environmental Science Job #1: Environmental Scientist
- Median Salary: $69,400
Sure, this one is a bit obvious: an environmental science degree prepares you for a career as an environmental scientist. But what is an environmental scientist, and what does an environmental scientist do?
The simplest answer is that an environmental scientist uses science to improve the quality of the relationship between humans and the environment. That means environmental scientists work in a variety of fields and do all sorts of science, ranging from field research all the way to engineering. Basically, if you pick a science that interests you and an aspect of the environment interests you, you’ll probably find an environmental scientist job that connects the two.
Environmental Science Job #2: Environmental Consultant
- Median Salary: $54,747
Imagine a contractor is clearing undeveloped land and encounters an endangered animal. What do they do? What legal and ethical responsibilities do they have toward protecting that species’ habitat? And is there a way for them to continue development in a way that’s eco-conscious and cost effective?
When a company has these sorts of questions, they turn to an environmental consultant. An environmental consultant is an expert-for-hire who can help companies and organizations navigate environmental matters. Consequently, environmental consultants have to know a lot about all sorts of industries and have a strong grasp of environmental solutions. For example, in the scenario above, an environmental consultant would need to know about the endangered species, the laws protecting them, habitat preservation, and environmentally-friendly construction solutions.
If you love accumulating knowledge and the idea of examining a complex problem and finding a solution for it appeals to you, this would be an excellent career path!
Environmental Science Job #3: Environmental Lawyer
- Median Salary: $63,193
Environmental attorneys work in law firms that specialize in policy that regulates environmental matters. This may be related to the energy industry (oil, coal, wind, etc.) or to agriculture (farming, livestock), or it might be related to the regulation of land development. Regardless, US policy is often shaped through the legal system, so environmental lawyers have an important job!
Environmental lawyers can work for corporations or government organizations, but there are also law firms that specialize in environmental legal issues. Additionally, environmental law allows people to work in sectors that align with their passions. For example, environmental lawyers can be lobbyists for big industries attempting to ease regulations that affect their profits, or they can be public-interest nonprofits who are fighting to conserve land and wildlife.
If you have an interest in law and a passion for environmental regulation (either for or against), this could be a good career choice for you!
Environmental policy analysts look at data to help shape pro-environment legislation!
Environmental Science Job #4: Sustainability Specialist
- Median Salary: $53,842
Sustainability relates to the long-term goal of maintaining an ecological balance that can help a company survive. A sustainability specialist works with a company or organization to develop efficient best practices that also have the benefit of helping the environment. Sustainability specialists...well, specialize in helping make industries better for the environment.
For example, imagine a bottling facility that produces healthy juice drinks and has been around for a hundred years. For the first eighty years, they bottled their product in glass bottles, but then in the 1980s they switched to plastics, which could be sourced much more cheaply. Eventually the wastefulness of single-use plastics becomes unpopular and their sales start to decline. What do they do?
One thing they could do is to employ a sustainability specialist who might find a supply of juice boxes that are sourced from a cardboard recycler and cost less than the plastic bottles they’ve been using. That means sustainability specialists need to be problem solvers who are quick on their feet. If you like innovating and thinking outside of the box, you should consider a career as a sustainability specialist.
Environmental Science Job #5: Policy Analyst
- Median Salary: $65,090
Environmental policy analysts research, compile, collate, and, well, analyze environmental data in order to determine how legal policy affects the environment. They can then provide their analyses to other parties—like lobbyists, nonprofits, and even politicians—as a means to enacting or changing existing legislation. They can also summarize and interpret information for legislators who are drafting bills or other policy. As you can imagine, this can give them a lot of power when it comes to the environment, as the legislators (who are likely laymen on environmental matters) build policy based on analysts' reports.
Policy analysts can work for the government, for private commercial entities, for nonprofits, or even for the media. Basically, they are the link that translates complex interaction between legislative policy, the environment, and the public at large—all of whom affect each other in a complicated and dynamic manner. If you enjoy research, politics, and writing, then policy analytics might be for you.
Environmental Science Job #6: City & Regional Planner
- Median Salary: $73,050
Cities are growing! Currently 55% of the world lives in urban areas, and that is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. In 2018, 82% of North America was urban. So with increasing populations and rapidly developing cities, urban planning is more important than ever if we are to sustain our delicate ecological balance.
City and regional planners work with local, state, and federal governments to provide consultation and oversight over the layout and infrastructure of urban areas. Careers in urban planner can be related to the design of green spaces, to the layout of streets and highways, to zoning and expansion—basically they oversee all aspects of how a city grows and breathes.
If the idea of sustainable cities excites you and you like working toward future goals, then you would be very happy in a career in city and regional planning!
Fish and wildlife management wardens help make sure wild animals (like this coyote!) are healthy and safe.
Environmental Science Job #7: Public Relations Specialist
- Median Salary: $58,360
While analyzing and implementing scientific systems in regards to the environment is extremely important, it’s often invisible to the public at large and difficult to explain. That’s where the environmental public relations specialist steps in. Basically, the public relations specialist takes the ideas of environmental science and broadcast them to a larger audience. This can be done via marketing and branding, lobbying, fundraising, press releases, long-form articles, and media appearances. We live in a consumer-driven society, and being able to “sell” an idea like the environment is an important way to convince people to care about it.
In general, public relations is a great field for people who like communicating, are able to spin ideas in a positive light, and don’t mind working on a larger team. If you have the sort of passion for the environment that makes you an excellent cheerleader for ideas you believe in, this would be an excellent choice for you.
Environmental Science Job #8: Fish and Wildlife Management
- Median Salary: About $60,000
Fish and wildlife management wardens work to maintain the health of animal populations, either in the wild or in agricultural settings. They research and oversee the food supplies available to animals, and they help to develop sustainable hunting practices so that ecosystems don’t get depleted. They also write essays and reports that inform environmental consultancy. Often, they serve as educators. Basically, fish and wildlife managers perform a variety of tasks that keep all our animal friends safe and in good health.
Wildlife management is one of the environmental studies jobs that often involves people spending most of their time outdoors. Many wildlife management officials are employed by the government, and they often spend their time patrolling state and national parks. They also have to be good with people, since they spend time educating children and adults about good environmental management practices. If working outdoors and teaching sound good to you, then you should look into a career in fish and wildlife management.
Environmental Science Job #9: None of the Above
- Median Salary: Varies
This is the most exciting aspect of the field of environmental science: it is fairly new and growing at a very healthy rate. There is an increasing public curiosity about and concern for the environment that is feeding its growth, and industry is increasingly seeing the benefit of engaging with environmental concerns (even if it’s just for good public relations). It’s also a very complex, varied, and flexible field, that allows you to pursue a number of different paths. People with widely varied goals and backgrounds come into environmental science, and each of them expands the field in their own way. There are many environmental studies jobs, and this allows for the potential of you being able to forge your own path quite successfully. As the world changes and new challenges emerge, the field can only grow from where it is now!
Once you pick your major, it’s time to start applying to colleges. The college application process can be scary, but we’re here to help. First, get an overview of how to apply to college. Then check out our guides to the coalition app and the common app, which many schools use.
It’s important that you make your college applications stand out from the crowd. Creating a versatile application can help you do this for every school you apply to...without spending every waking hour working on your application packets!
Once you apply to schools, it's time to think about how to pay for them. Check out this article to learn more about financial aid, then be sure to check out our blog for more resources on scholarships.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.