What Is Environmental Science?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

Female Biology Researcher Examining Water of a Stream
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With significant and growing challenges related to earth's environment and natural resources, college environmental science programs have been growing in popularity and number. The details of programs, however, can vary significantly from college to college. This is largely because of how complex and nebulous the concept of the "environment" is.

Key Takeaways: Environmental Science

  • Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field that can draw on physics, geology, chemistry, and math, and some schools also explore the public policy side of the field.
  • Environmental scientists find jobs doing field research, teaching, working for a government agencies, and conducting research for industries.
  • Job growth in the field is projected to be strong, and salaries tend to be in the high five figures.

Some programs are very strongly grounded in STEM fields and include an interdisciplinary mix of physics, biology, chemistry, and geology courses. Other programs are focused on the idea that environmental issues can't be separated from their social, political, ethical, and economic contexts, so programs will include a broad mix of courses in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Such programs are sometimes, but not always, offered as Environmental Studies rather than Environmental Science majors. Programs may offer a bachelor of arts degree, a bachelor of science degree, or both options. A BS will tend to have a stronger STEM focus and a BA will often cross diverse disciplines.

To make matters more complicated, environmental science isn't always called environmental science. Many chemists, biologists, and physicists are, in fact, environmental scientists. Geology, hydrology, planetary science, atmospheric science, and many other specialized fields overlap with environmental science.

Careers in Environmental Science

Because environmental science is such an interdisciplinary field, a major can lead to a diverse range of careers. Some majors do field research, while others work on public policy. Some work for government agencies; others find jobs in industry, education, or non-profit organizations. Below are just a few of the many career options for an environmental science major.

  • Environmental Scientist: This is a broad job description that can encompass some of the more specialized jobs listed below. In general, an environmental scientist
  • Teacher: Many high schools offer courses in environmental science, and Advanced Placement has an exam on the subject. An undergraduate degree in environmental science can also be good training for becoming an earth science teacher. To teach at the college level, a PhD will typically be required.
  • Wildlife Biologist: An environmental science degree can be good preparation for studying animals and organisms in their natural habitat to asses the effect of environmental disruptions on their populations.
  • Environmental Consultant: In this growing field, the consultant helps clients assess and mitigate environmental risks. They may provide guidance for reducing pollution and carbon emissions.
  • Environmental Lawyer: This profession requires three more years of schooling to earn a JD, but an undergraduate environmental studies degree would provide a valuable background for anyone interested in practicing environmental law. As an environmental lawyer, you might use the legal system to enforce compliance with laws designed to protect the environment.
  • Hydrologist: As the name suggests, hydrologists specialize in water. They are experts on water cycles, water reserves, water usage, and the sustainability of water resources.
  • Park Ranger: Although an environmental science degree is not required to become a park ranger, it can provide excellent preparation for understanding the wildlife and ecosystems they protect. An environmental science background can also prove valuable when educating park visitors.
  • Sustainability Analyst: Sustainability analysts typical work with a business or organization to balance environmental impacts with economic issues. Sustainability in this context relates to both protection of the environment and the fiscal health of the company.

College Coursework in Environmental Science

No two environmental science programs will have the same graduation requirements, but all will have a range of courses in different STEM fields. They may also have requirements in the social sciences and humanities. This will be particularly true for environmental studies programs.

For core courses, Environmental Science and Environmental Studies majors will take general courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and geology. Majors will often take math classes including statistics and calculus, and both organic and inorganic chemistry classes. Since many majors will go on to conduct field research, the curriculum will typically include classes with a significant laboratory or field work component.

Other required courses are likely to include some of the following:

  • Introduction to Environmental Studies
  • Principles of Ecology
  • Physical or Environmental Geology
  • Energy Resources
  • Introduction to GIS

At the upper level, Environmental Studies majors will often have a choice of electives, and they can chose courses based on their interests and career goals. This list presents some of the options students may have:

  • Biostatistics
  • Stream Ecology
  • Forest Ecosystems and Management
  • Biodiversity
  • Environmental Hydrology
  • Ornithology
  • Energy and the Environment
  • River Environments
  • Marine Ecology

Other courses, especially for Environmental Studies majors, might be offered outside of the sciences. Such courses put environmental issues within their historical, political, social, and economic contexts. Course offerings might include some of the following:

  • Literature of Nature
  • Natural Resources Policy
  • Environmental Law
  • Environmental Economics
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Sustainable Business

Best Schools for Environmental Science

A good environmental science program will have excellent laboratory facilities, a range of field stations, and dedicated faculty members who are true specialists in studying the environment. The schools below are often ranked among the best in the country for studying environmental science:

  • Cornell University: Located in Ithaca, New York, Cornell students can conduct research in the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Cornell Biological Field Station on Oneida Lake, and Little Moose Field Station in the Adirondack Mountains. Students in the Environment and Sustainability major will receive challenging coursework and a wealth of research opportunities.
  • Duke University: Along with the main campus in Durham, North Carolina, Duke has a 7,000-acre forest where students can study the stewardship of natural resources, and a marine lab in the Outer Banks. Duke students can choose from three majors focused on the environment: Earth & Ocean Sciences, Environmental Sciences & Policy, and Marine Science & Conservation.
  • Stanford University: Stanford's School of Earth, Energy, & Environmental Sciences houses several majors related to the environment, and students and faculty conduct research on all of the world's seven continents. The school places a significant focus on data sciences. Standford students will find numerous opportunities for both directed and independent research, and the school has many grants to support projects both small and large.
  • University of California Berkeley: Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management offers five majors: Environmental Sciences, Conservation and Resource Studies, Molecular Environmental Biology, Forestry and Natural Resources, and Society and Environment. Students who participate in the Cal Energy Corps conduct a 12-week summer internship with a partner organization.
  • University of California Davis: The study and protection of the environment is in the lifeblood of UC Davis, and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences offers majors in Environmental Science and Management, Environmental Horticulture and Urban Forestry, Sustainable Environmental Design, Environmental Toxicology, Hydrology, Marine and Coastal Science, and others.
  • University of Washington: UW's College of the Environment offers eight majors: Environmental Studies, Oceanography, Environmental Sciences and Terrestrial Resource Management,Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Bioresources and Engineering, Earth and Space Sciences, and Marine Biology. The school is particularly strong in fields related to the oceans, and the university has three research vessels and numerous small boats as well as a research facility on San Juan Island.

Average Salaries for Environmental Scientists

For students who earn a degree in environmental science, salaries will obviously vary significantly based on career choices. Like most STEM fields, however, graduates tend to have incomes that are higher than the national average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental scientists and specialists had a median pay of $71,360 in 2019, and the job outlook is projected to be much better than average. Pay for hydrologists is about $10,000 higher than for environmental scientists, while pay for foresters is about $10,000 lower. PayScale.com reports that the average early career pay for an environmental science major is $46,500, and the average mid-career pay is $82,800. Note that engineers often earn a bit more than scientists, and PayScale reports the average early career pay for environmental engineering majors to be $59,500, and the average mid-career pay is $101,300.

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Grove, Allen. "What Is Environmental Science?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-environmental-science-courses-jobs-salaries-5085333. Grove, Allen. (2021, January 29). What Is Environmental Science? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-environmental-science-courses-jobs-salaries-5085333 Grove, Allen. "What Is Environmental Science?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-environmental-science-courses-jobs-salaries-5085333 (accessed May 14, 2021).