Global warming brings more opportunities in environment studies

Managing the health of our environment is one of the most critical tasks facing governments, corporations and non-governmental agencies throughout the world. Global warming, alternative energy, sustainable manufacturing and other issues are top of mind for policy makers and executives at all levels. One of their biggest challenges when tackling these concerns is to find people with relevant knowledge and skillsets.

Enter the relatively new discipline of environmental sciences and policy, an increasingly popular graduate level course of study at colleges and universities around the country. “The environmental field is now facing a number of what we call ‘wicked problems’ that can only be solved in a global, interdisciplinary manner,” said Jerry Burgess, associate director at Johns Hopkins University’s Master’s in Environmental Science and Policy program.

Attacking from all fronts

A “wicked” problem is one that is extremely difficult to solve due to countless variables, interdependencies and other complexities. Tackling such issues on the environmental front requires solid science, analytical and research skills.

Johns Hopkins University launched its Environmental Sciences and Policy program in the early 1990s. At the time, most of its work was focused on the Chesapeake Bay Superfund site in Baltimore, Maryland. Ultimately, the school migrated its main campus to Washington, D.C., “the nexus of science and policy,” Burgess said. “We still support the Chesapeake Bay initiative but we are much more international and global now.”

JHU PHoto 1
JHU PHoto 1

The JHU program encourages development of a wide range of skills through an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. Ten courses must be completed for the degree. Offerings include Principles & Methods of Ecology, Wetlands Management, Oceanic & Atmospheric Processes and Ecotoxicology. Most students take about two or two-and-a-half years to complete the program, though full-time enrollees can manage it in a year to 18 months.

Burgess estimated that about 98 percent of students in the program hold full-time jobs.

Vanderbilt University offers graduate programs in Earth and Environmental Sciences, where students can earn a master’s or Ph.D. Areas of emphasis include paleoecology, geochemical processes and crustal evolution. The M.S. typically takes two years to complete, while the doctorate features flexible scheduling that takes into account students’ specializations and career goals.

Alumni include a tenured professor at the University of Edinburgh, a post-doctoral fellow at the NASA Lunar Planetary Institute and a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado.

Students who graduate with a master’s in environmental sciences from Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt or other schools will find opportunities in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, as well as the military. Burgess added that many students in his program are working professionals who want “that next step up the ladder.” They come with undergraduate degrees in a variety of areas, including geology, economics and biology.

The master’s degree in environmental sciences and policy prepares them for more advanced forms of research and analysis. “Many of our students have worked on the policy side, but they don’t have the science. This is what we give them,” Burgess said.

Job outlook strong

Average entry level salaries for environmental scientists start at about $45,000, with compensation for mid-career professionals ranging from $70,000 to about $100,000, according to Employment in the industry is expected to grow at 11 percent through 2024 as more than 10,000 new jobs are added, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. That’s faster than the overall rate of job growth for all occupations.

The BLS lists in-demand subspecialties within the environmental sciences:

• Climate change analyst studies the effect of climate change on various ecosystems

• Environmental health specialist examines how environmental factors such as air and water pollution affect health

Environmental restoration planner estimates cost and activities necessary to clean up polluted sites

• Industrial ecologist helps private companies increase operational efficiencies to reduce outflow of pollutants

Environmental chemist studies the effects of various chemicals, such as acids, on humans, plants and wildlife

Advanced skills needed in public and private sectors

The public sector is a particularly strong job market for graduates. The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Transportation are among the agencies that hire advanced degree holders in the environmental sciences.


Job roles range from research on specific pollutants and how to eliminate them to air and water sample analysis, identifying sources of harmful emissions and contributing to policy papers on these and other subjects.

In the private sector, environmental scientists may work for manufacturers looking to reduce their environmental footprint, or for big oil and gas producers who want to more tightly control emissions and meet government standards.

With a master’s degree in the field of environmental sciences, professionals are better equipped to engage with a broad set of stakeholders in the regulatory, legislative and policy areas of environmental management and planning—nationally and globally. “It’s about getting a seat at the table and being able to dialog with all key stakeholders,” Burgess said.

Photo credit: Bill Hilgartner

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