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Environmental Scientist Career Guide

What is an environmental scientist?

An environmental scientist helps protect the environment. They study how nature works and how people’s actions can affect it. They look for ways to stop pollution and help keep our planet healthy.

Duties and responsibilities

These scientists do research and tests on things like soil, water, and air to understand pollution. They use this info to guess what might happen in the future and to come up with plans to fix problems. They also write reports, advise leaders and the public about environmental risks, and make sure rules to protect the environment are followed.

Work environment

Environmental scientists work in different places. They might work inside in offices or labs or outside doing fieldwork in cities, forests, or other areas. They often work with other scientists and people from different jobs to solve environmental problems.

Typical work hours

Most environmental scientists have a regular work week, but sometimes they have to work extra, especially if they have to meet deadlines or if they’re doing fieldwork. They might also need to work at odd hours or on weekends if there’s an emergency like an environmental disaster. If they work in a school or do research, they might have a more flexible schedule.

How to become an environmental scientist

If you’re interested in becoming an environmental scientist, here’s a step-by-step guide you can follow to get started:

Step 1: Get a high school diploma

Start with finishing high school. Take classes like biology, chemistry, physics, geography, statistics, and computer science. These subjects give you a basic understanding of science and math.

Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Next, go for a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a related field like biology, chemistry, or geology. In college, you’ll learn both in the classroom and through hands-on research.

Step 3: Gain practical experience

Experience is key. Do an internship or fieldwork to apply what you’ve learned and build connections. This kind of real-world experience is really valuable and can sometimes lead to job offers.

Step 4: Consider advanced degrees

If you want to do more specialized work or research, think about getting a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. in environmental science. These programs focus more on specific areas and involve a lot of research.

Step 5: Get certifications or licenses

Some environmental science jobs require specific certifications or licenses. Groups like the Environmental Health & Safety Institute offer certifications that usually require passing an exam and continuing education.

Step 6: Start your job search

With a degree and any needed certifications, start looking for jobs. Use your university’s career center, your internship contacts, online job boards, and networking events to find job openings.

Step 7: Keep learning

Even after you get a job, keep learning. Stay up to date with new things in environmental science by going to conferences, taking more classes, and reading professional journals. This will help you grow in your career and maybe even specialize in something new.

How much do environmental scientists make?

Compensation for environmental scientists varies by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Certain factors, like specializing in a specific field of environmental science and advanced degrees, can significantly influence their salary.

Highest paying industries

  • Oil and Gas Extraction: $97,100
  • Federal Executive Branch: $96,730
  • Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution: $88,230
  • Architectural and Engineering: $87,500
  • Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services: $83,520

Highest paying states

  • Virginia: $108,020
  • California: $99,660
  • New Jersey: $96,520
  • Massachusetts: $96,130
  • Alaska: $95,240

Browse environmental scientist salary data by market

Types of environmental scientists

Environmental science offers a variety of career paths, each focusing on different aspects of the environment.

  • Conservation scientist: Conservation scientists work to protect natural resources like soil and water. They often work in parks, forests, or with conservation groups, and their goal is to manage these resources in a way that’s good for the environment.
  • Climate change analyst: These analysts study the weather and climate. They predict how the climate will change, consider what those changes could mean for people and the environment, and devise plans to deal with them.
  • Environmental health specialist: If you’re an environmental health specialist, you focus on keeping people safe from environmental health risks. This could mean checking for pollution, making sure food is safe, or managing waste and water pollution.
  • Environmental restoration planner: These planners work with governments, construction companies, and nonprofits to fix damaged environments. They figure out what’s wrong with a polluted area and plan how to make it healthy again. 
  • Industrial ecologist: Industrial ecologists help businesses be more eco-friendly. They give advice on reducing pollution, saving resources, and managing waste. 

Top skills for environmental scientists

  • Strong scientific knowledge: A solid understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics helps you understand ecosystems, spot environmental threats, and find ways to fix them.
  • Research skills: Environmental scientists need to collect and analyze data, do experiments, and study both in the lab and out in the field.
  • Problem-solving abilities: You’ll face different environmental issues, so being a great problem-solver is key. You need to think of smart solutions and put them into action.
  • Communication skills: You should be able to explain your findings well to others, whether scientists, government officials, or the public. This means being clear in both speaking and writing.
  • Analytical thinking: You must look at data carefully, understand what it means, and use it to tackle real environmental problems. It’s also about effectively using statistical tools and software.

Environmental scientist career path options

Each of these paths allows you to use your skills and knowledge to make a difference in environmental science, whether through research, teaching, policy-making, or helping businesses become more sustainable.

  • Start as technicians or research assistants: Many environmental scientists begin their careers in entry-level roles like technicians or research assistants. These positions provide foundational experience and a chance to learn hands-on skills.
  • Project leader or manager: With experience, you can move up to become a project leader or manager. You’ll oversee entire projects, manage teams, and ensure successful outcomes. 
  • Specialization: Specializing in ecology, toxicology, or oceanography can open doors to research scientist or consultant roles. Specialists often provide expert advice and analysis to governments, corporations, or nonprofits.
  • Academia and teaching: If you’re passionate about teaching and research, academia might be your path. This usually requires a Ph.D. and involves educating future scientists and conducting original research. 
  • Policy analyst and consultant: If you want to influence environmental laws and policy, consider becoming a policy analyst or consultant. These roles involve working with government officials to shape regulations and strategies using your scientific expertise.
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) roles: There’s a growing need for environmental preservation and sustainability in the corporate world. CSR roles focus on helping companies reduce their environmental impact and meet standards. 

The field of environmental science is growing rapidly, influenced by major global issues and technological advancements.

  • Global environmental challenges: Environmental scientists are in greater demand than ever because of big problems like climate change, the need for conservation, pollution control, and resource management.
  • Diverse employment opportunities: Big companies, government agencies, nonprofits, and research institutions all need people skilled in tackling environmental issues. There’s an increasing trend for these scientists to work with urban planners, construction firms, and policymakers. 
  • Technology’s growing role: Today’s scientists use advanced tools like remote sensing devices, GIS (Geographical Information Systems), and simulation software. If you’re into technology or have skills in these areas, you might find even more job opportunities.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 5 percent through 2031. High public interest in the hazards facing the environment and the increasing demands placed on the environment by population growth are expected to spur demand for these scientists.

Environmental scientist career tips

Understand a wide range of environmental issues

Go beyond just knowing a few environmental topics. Keep up with various issues like pollution, biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable practices. Knowing these issues’ economic, social, and political aspects helps you apply your knowledge better and makes you a well-rounded expert.

    Pursue certifications and advanced degrees

    Continuous learning is crucial. Advanced degrees and certifications can set you apart. Look into:

    • Professional Wetland Scientist certification
    • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification
    • Master’s or doctoral degrees in related fields

    Build a professional network

    Networking opens doors to new opportunities and connections. Get involved in groups like:

    • National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP)
    • Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI)
    • American Geosciences Institute (AGI)
    • Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)

    Stay updated with technology

    Technology is key in this field. Regularly use tools like GIS for environmental data analysis. Keeping up with the latest technologies ensures you’re always improving your skills.

    Communicate effectively

    You’ll often need to explain complex scientific ideas to different audiences. Work on your communication skills, like writing, creating presentations, and public speaking. Being able to clearly convey your findings and ideas is essential.

    Where the environmental scientist jobs are

    Top employers

    • Environmental Protection Agency
    • Natural Resources Defense Council
    • The Nature Conservancy
    • Environmental Defense Fund
    • Sierra Club

    Top states

    • California
    • Washington
    • Oregon
    • Alaska
    • Montana

    Top job sites

    • zengig
    • Indeed
    • LinkedIn
    • CareerBuilder
    • Conservation Job Board


    What skills are required to become an environmental scientist?

    They should have strong analytical, deductive reasoning, and communication skills. Teamwork and interpersonal skills are also essential.

    What types of problems do environmental scientists solve?

    They solve a wide variety of problems related to environmental conservation and sustainability, including climate change mitigation, pollution control, biodiversity conservation, and natural resource management.

    What does a typical day look like for an environmental scientist?

    On a normal day, they might spend time in the lab analyzing data, in the field collecting samples, or at the office preparing reports. They might also meet with other scientists, policymakers, or stakeholders to discuss their findings and propose solutions. Their specific activities might vary depending on the area of specialization and whether they are involved in research, consulting, or advocacy.

    What educational qualifications are needed to be an environmental scientist?

    The minimum educational qualification is typically a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, ecology, or a related field. However, many roles may require a master’s degree or Ph.D., particularly those in academia or high-level research.

    What professional development opportunities are available for environmental scientists?

    Scientists commonly attend conferences, workshops, and training programs to stay updated. Professional development can also come from earning advanced degrees or certifications from recognized environmental or scientific institutions. Additionally, publishing research findings in scientific journals can contribute to their reputation and career progression.

    What kind of industries hire environmental scientists?

    They are employed in various industries, including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms, advocacy groups, and businesses in sectors like energy, manufacturing, and transportation. They can also work at educational or research institutions. Any industry or organization that needs to assess and manage its environmental impact can hire them.

    What are some areas of specialization within environmental science?

    Environmental science is a vast field with many areas of specialization, including environmental chemistry, conservation biology, ecotoxicology, environmental engineering, and environmental policy and management.

    How do environmental scientists contribute to society?

    They help to understand and solve crucial environmental issues such as climate change, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. Their research provides the scientific basis for environmental policies and regulations, protecting public health and ecosystems. They also educate the public and decision-makers about environmental challenges and sustainable practices.

    Are there any specific software or tools that environmental scientists need to be familiar with?

    They frequently use specialized software for data analysis and modeling. This might include GIS for studying environmental patterns and changes, statistical software for analyzing data, and simulation software for creating environmental processes and scenario models. Knowing how to use laboratory equipment and field devices for sample collection and testing is also often required.

    How can I stand out and advance in the field of environmental science?

    To stand out in environmental science, one could pursue advanced degrees or earn specialized certifications. Involvement in impactful research, presenting at scientific conferences, and publishing in reputable journals can also enhance professional visibility. Developing a solid network within the scientific community, staying updated with the latest developments in the field, and demonstrating the ability to apply scientific knowledge in practical, problem-solving contexts are also important for advancement.