Study Environmental Science: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in an environmental science degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctoral degree and potential careers.
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Environmental Science Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Environmental science is the study of protecting the natural environment and finding solutions to environmental problems that impact human health, such as pollution. Graduate programs in environmental science may focus on areas of policy, management or toxicology. Your career goal will likely drive your degree concentration. While a master's degree in environmental science can prepare you for a career in teaching high school or a career in research, a Ph.D. is required for teaching in colleges and for some high-level research careers.

Although job growth for environmental scientists was projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be average, at about 19% between 2010 and 2020, jobs in this industry aren't going anywhere. The BLS says that an increased awareness of environmental problems will drive the demand for jobs in this field.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in working in environmental research or policy People who want to work in academia as professors or in industrial research
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Environmental scientist ($63,000)*
- Conservation scientist ($60,000)*
- Environmental protection specialist ($63,000)*
- Environmental consultant (no data available)
- Environmental science professor ($75,000)*
- Environmental toxicologist (no data available)
- Air quality or water quality specialist (no data available)
Time to Completion 1-2 years, full-time 5-6 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Programs vary, depending on concentration, but most include 18-19 graduate-level courses
- Independent study or group research project
- Programs have optional thesis
- Graduate-level courses (the number of required courses varies and will increase if you enroll without a master's)
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in environmental science or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in environmental science or related field
Online Availability Yes, but lab work must be completed before enrolling None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Environmental Science

Environmental science master's degree programs can be found as professional degree programs designed for career preparation or as preparation for a Ph.D. program in environmental science or a related field. Both a Master of Arts and a Master of Science degree are available with a variety of concentrations.

If you plan to pursue a career in field or laboratory research, or if you plan to continue your studies in a Ph.D. program, you'll likely choose an M.S. program. M.S. programs typically offer concentrations in areas such as ecology, environmental geoscience and environmental health. If you want to pursue a career in environmental policy, management or law, an M.A. program may be the right fit. M.A. programs offer concentrations in management and policy. No matter your concentration, you'll spend time in the classroom, laboratory and in the field.

Many programs will allow you to design your own plan of study so that you can focus on a specific subdiscipline, such as contaminant transport in water, air pollution prevention or health impacts of environmental contaminants.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Available at many U.S. colleges and universities from Alaska to Florida*
  • Variety of career opportunities (including in teaching at high school and community colleges, and research and policy opportunities in government, industry and consulting)**
  • Many environmental scientists and specialists work for federal and state governments, which typically provide benefits and competitive salaries ***

Cons

  • Career opportunities may include physically demanding field work**
  • Must have a bachelor's degree in science to pursue the master's
  • If you choose a specialized focus, be aware that if your degree is too specialized, you may limit your job prospects

Source: *U.S. Department of Education; **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Courses and Requirements

Most graduate programs in environmental science include a broad range of general and specialized science courses along with policy courses in environmental law, economics and politics. Some of the general science courses may include:

  • Ecology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geology
  • Hydrology
  • Microbiology
  • Toxicology

Since jobs in this field vary widely, you should take classes designed to prepare you for the career you plan to pursue. For example, if you would like to become an environmental journalist, you might take elective courses related to journalism. Some programs offer you the option of completing a thesis project or an independent or group research project. Completing a thesis might include a formal thesis proposal and thesis defense. If you choose a research project, you might be required to take an additional course.

Online Degree Options

There are a few online master's degree programs in environmental science, but most require that you have completed basic science and laboratory courses on campus before applying to the online program. Some programs are hybrid programs that allow you to take a mix of both online and on-campus courses. When deciding whether to enroll in an online program, consider your science background. Some highly technical courses may be better presented with classroom demonstration. Consider whether you are comfortable with taking a technical course, such as hydrogeology, online.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

The type of job you would like to pursue is going to determine what you need to do to get ahead. For many environmental science jobs, you can do the following to get a jump on your competition in the job market:

  • Be proficient in the latest technologies used by environmental scientists, such as geographic information systems and global positioning systems. These technologies are often preferred proficiencies in job ads for environmental consultants.
  • Since the BLS says that most jobs in this field are in government or consulting, you can be prepared if you take the necessary steps to pursue a security clearance, which is often required to work in government laboratories.
  • State and federal environmental laws change to keep up with changing environmental issues. Stay abreast of the latest federal environmental regulations and those in the state in which you plan to work.

Degree Alternatives

A master's degree in environmental science can prepare you for a wide variety of careers in the environmental field, but if you can't find a master's degree program that fits your interests, you could complete a master's in a science, such as biology or chemistry, and tailor your classes to focus on environmental issues. A master's degree in environmental studies may suit your interests if you'd like to work on environmental issues but aren't ready to commit to technical science courses.

Ph.D. in Environmental Science

Doctoral programs in environmental science are research-based degrees that can be tailored to your interest. Some schools have developed emphases in particular environmental issues, such as in ecosystem restoration or in environmental management.

In a Ph.D. program, you'll work closely with professors who share your environmental science research interests. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of environmental science, you may work with professors in more than one department and school within a university. Larger schools may have more faculty with expertise in the many subdisciplines of environmental science.

Ph.D. programs in environmental science require some coursework in environmental systems and statistics (approximately 30 credit hours of coursework past the master's degree may be required), but most of your time will be spent researching and preparing your dissertation. In addition to the rigors of research and writing, you have to pass a qualifying exam as well as successfully defend your dissertation in order to earn this degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Opportunities for careers helping to solve major environmental problems
  • Programs available all over the U.S. with a variety of emphases to choose from (for example, policy, sustainability or ecology)*
  • Variety of potential employers (government, academia, industry)**

Cons

  • Most programs will take a minimum of five years to complete on a full-time basis
  • Your school choice may be limited to where you find a faculty mentor with expertise in your field of interest
  • According to The Economist in 2010, a Ph.D. increases pay only about three percent over those with a master's degree

Source: *U.S. Department of Education; **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

The courses you're required to take will depend on whether you've entered the Ph.D. program with a bachelor's or master's degree. In general, you'll take a few required and elective courses and seminars designed to prepare you for your dissertation research. In addition, you'll be required to take a qualifying exam before you begin your dissertation research, prepare a proposal for your dissertation and defend your dissertation once completed. Required courses may include:

  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental statistics
  • Environmental chemistry
  • Environmental law

Online Degree & Course Info

Online Ph.D. programs in environmental science don't exist, but online graduate courses in environmental science can be found at universities that offer online master's degree programs in environmental science or a related subject. Some Ph.D. programs in environmental science will allow you to earn a master's degree before enrolling, and thus you might be able to complete some graduate coursework online to prepare you for a Ph.D. program.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

A Ph.D. in Environmental Science is preparation for a career in academia or in advanced research. To be ready for employment in either sector, you could choose a program with a concentration with growth potential or one that is applicable to many industries. For example, you could choose to concentrate your Ph.D. research in pollution prevention and cleanup. These are growth areas in environmental science, according to the BLS. If you want to go into academia, publishing your research findings in academic journals may help you document your research specialties. Also, become a good public speaker, which is beneficial in classroom teaching and lecturing.

If you are planning on a career in advanced research, you might find a job directing research projects or leading a technical program in an environmental organization or agency. These research jobs could include performing site characterization, which is the analysis of a particular site to determine the type and extent of environmental contamination. Staying up to date on the latest site characterization technologies and related statistical software, such as the latest versions of SCOUT and ProUCL software, may help you be prepared for job opportunities.

Degree Alternatives

Some Ph.D. programs in environmental science combine environmental science and engineering, but most separate these subjects into separate degrees. If you are interested in the application of environmental science, you may want to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering. Environmental engineering programs cover the structures and design of environmental remediation and restoration systems. In April 2012, PayScale.com reported that employees who have earned a doctorate in environmental engineering and have 1-4 years of experience earned a median annual salary of about $68,000. Those with 5-9 years of experience made a median of about $76,000 annually.

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