Environmental Science Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Class Info

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

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field of study that can lead to a variety of careers in governmental agencies, consulting firms, private industry, nonprofit organizations, hazardous waste management firms and more. Undergraduate degree programs can prepare you for jobs in environmental policy, planning, communication, administration and advocacy. You may do environmental testing in a lab, help industry comply with environmental regulations or implement strategies to safeguard natural resources.

Concentrations, electives and internships during your studies can help develop specific job skills in one of these areas. The number of job opportunities was expected to vary widely among jobs in this field in the coming years. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted a faster-than-average 24% increase in jobs for environmental science and protection technicians from 2010-2020; meanwhile, it predicted job growth for conservation scientists and foresters to rise slowly, with an increase of only five percent (www.bls.gov).

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Students who want to work as technicians in environmental science, gathering samples or working in a laboratory Students who want to acquire broad field knowledge, as well as specific career skills
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Environmental science and protection technicians ($45,000)*
- Occupational health and safety technicians ($48,000)*
- Environmental scientists and specialists ($69,000)*
- Conservation scientists ($62,000)*
- Foresters ($56,000)*
- Occupational health and safety specialists ($67,000)*
Time to Completion Two years full-time Four years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements None beyond the degree's required coursework - Internship
- Senior thesis and/or research project
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent
Online Availability Yes Yes

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

Associate's Degree in Environmental Science

An associate's degree program in environmental science can give you the skills you need to gather, analyze and record environmental data. The curricula are based in math and sciences, but you may also explore the social, political and economic factors related to environmental issues. Outdoor projects could involve taking soil samples, assessing water quality and observing environmental changes through analyses of lake sediment. Associate's degree programs tend to focus on development of technical skills. You're likely to need to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree if you're more interested in careers that involve environmental policy, advocacy or administration.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Associate's degree programs are short - usually about two years
  • Environmental science internships or cooperative education opportunities are available at some schools
  • Can prepare you for work in a wide variety of settings, including government environmental agencies and laboratories

Cons

  • Because many programs focus on technical skills, you may not receive a well-rounded environmental studies education
  • Some jobs involve working with hazardous materials or exposure to radiation
  • A bachelor's degree may be required for career advancement
  • Some jobs in this field, like hazardous materials removal, can be obtained without formal training

Courses and Requirements

In this program, you'll learn to sample and record environmental data and evaluate potential health risks for humans. You can expect to take general courses in college algebra or pre-calculus, biology, chemistry and sometimes statistics, organic chemistry and physics. Many of these courses require substantial lab work. In some programs, you focus on earth systems, studying topics like geology, soil science and hydrology. In others, you focus more on measuring and preventing specific environmental risks, taking courses in radiation science, hazardous materials and toxicology.

Some environmental science courses at the associate's degree level are:

  • Environmental ethics
  • Ecology
  • Water quality
  • Air quality
  • Environmental law

Additional courses offered as requirements or electives can help you develop jobs skills for specific environmental science careers. For example, some schools offer courses in geographic information system (GIS) or global positioning system (GPS) technology, forest resources, industrial hygiene, waste management and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Online Degree Options

Associate's degree programs in environmental science are available online. Online program curricula typically include some of the same general math and science courses, like college algebra and biology; however, online programs may de-emphasize science courses with detailed lab work in favor of ecology, resource management or social science courses, like environmental history or politics. Your course of study may be available completely online, or you may be required to make some campus visits to complete lab work.

Stand Out With This Degree

Whether you plan to transfer to a bachelor's degree program in environmental science or enter the job market after graduation, defining your specific academic and career goals in this broad field is essential. Here are some additional actions you can take while earning your degree to stand out from the competition:

  • Get work experience in your area of interest. Taking advantage of internship or cooperative education opportunities with zoos, fisheries, government environmental agencies and other employers can help you define your career goals, as well as impress future employers.
  • Become a student member of a professional organization. Student membership in a professional organization like the Air and Waste Management Association can provide you with opportunities to win scholarships, attend professional conferences and enter student competitions.
  • Develop your computer skills. Many employers seek candidates who can use office software applications to organize and present the environmental data they collect.
  • Earn a professional certification. Certification can be viewed as a mark of distinction by employers. Select the certification-granting professional organization based on your specific career goals. For example, you can become a Certified Environmental and Safety Compliance Officer through the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.

Degree Alternatives

If you're more interested in working with machinery developed to clean up environmental pollution, you may consider training for a career as an environmental engineering technician. You test, modify and operate equipment designed by environmental engineers in this job. In an associate's degree program in environmental engineering technology, you may take engineering courses related to topics like water resources, in addition to other environmental studies courses. The BLS predicted environmental engineering technicians to experience a faster-than-average increase of 24% in job opportunities from 2010-2020 and estimated that they earned an average wage of about $49,000 in May 2011.

Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science

In addition to a broad foundation in sciences and environmental issues, programs at the bachelor's degree level encourage you to develop career skills in a specific area of environmental science. Depending on the school, you may achieve this through completing a mandatory minor, a concentration, a double major or an individualized degree plan. Your plan of study may involve taking courses in several different departments. Because so many options exist in this interdisciplinary field, some programs require students to meet with academic advisers to ensure program objectives are met.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • As society grows more concerned about the environmental impact of the growing population, demand for environmental scientists and specialists will increase (19% increase in job growth from 2010-2020)*
  • A bachelor's degree program in environmental science allows for a higher level of specialization than does an associate's degree program
  • You may have opportunities to participate in faculty-led research projects
  • Many programs provide valuable internship programs and job search help

Cons

  • Career specialization study options vary widely from program to program, and developing an individualized interdepartmental program that addresses your specific career goals can require significant planning
  • The breadth of some programs may not be ideal if you're primarily interested in developing specific, advanced technical skills
  • Not all people with an interest in science and the environment are interested in acquiring the understanding of increasingly complex environmental laws and regulations required for many related jobs
  • Though an undergraduate degree in environmental science can be helpful for getting a job in environmental policy, you will likely need a master's degree in public policy or a related field

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

In addition to the types of core environmental science courses you might take at the associate's degree level, you will take courses unique to your area of focus. Schools offer a wide range of career-focused specializations that can include environmental engineering, soil science, sustainable forest management and wildlife conservation.

A sampling of the diverse courses you may encounter in this major include:

  • Soil ecology
  • Environmental politics and policy
  • Urban forestry
  • Watershed management
  • Environmental geophysics
  • Public health

You may also be required to do an internship and complete a senior thesis, portfolio and/or research project in a bachelor's degree program in environmental science. Approved internship options may be available with a nonprofit environmental organization, an advocacy agency or governmental agency.

Online Degree Options

Online bachelor's degree programs in environmental science aren't numerous. The coursework for these programs is similar to the coursework required by traditional programs, and some online programs allow for specializations within the field of environmental science. You may be required to complete some courses, like biology, in person. Even when a program's classes are primarily available online, you'll most likely need to make campus visits to complete lab work.

Stand Out With This Degree

Environmental scientists need strong written and verbal communication, analytical, problem-solving and interpersonal skills, which you may develop while pursuing your degree. Some additional ways you can set yourself apart from the competition include:

  • Develop your technical skills. According to the BLS, environmental scientists and specialists with experience in data modeling and geographic information systems are better positioned to enter the job market than candidates who lack these skills. You may wish to take electives in these topics.
  • Stay in the loop. Some environmental science programs offer students the opportunity to participate in on-line and on-campus groups to stay up-to-date about opportunities to pursue internships or volunteer positions, engage in research or apply for scholarships.
  • Get research experience. Participating in research projects on campus or through an internship provides you with the hands-on experience that can help you stand out with potential employers.

Degree Alternatives

Geosciences

Though employment opportunities are available for graduates from geosciences program in natural resource exploration, you may also work as a geoscientist to safeguard the environment. Engineering geologists, for example, are geoscientists who may help in environmental cleanup or land reclamation projects. A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for entry-level jobs. In a geosciences bachelor's degree program, you may take courses in environmental geology, hydrology, mineralogy, structural geology, astronomy and physics. The BLS predicted faster-than-average job growth of 21% for geoscientists as a whole and estimated that they earned an average salary of $98,000 in May 2011.

Environmental Engineering

If you want to put your problem-solving skills to work designing projects and equipment to improve water quality, recycling, air pollution and waste disposal, you may consider a bachelor's degree program in environmental engineering. The BLS predicted environmental engineers to experience a 22% increase in employment between 2010 and 2020, which is slightly faster than the job growth predicted for environmental scientists and specialists. The estimated average salary for environmental engineers in May 2011 was about $83,000, higher than the average salary of about $69,000 earned by environmental scientists and specialists. You can improve your job prospects by obtaining a professional engineering (PE) license.

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