A man wearing a fishing hat sitting in a grassy area

An environmental scientist could...

Conduct experiments with dyes to see how chemicals might disperse during a toxic spill. An environmental scientist standing in a river filled with orange dye Create maps and graphs showing air pollutants over time to help politicians make informed decisions. Map of the United States color-coded by air quality
Evaluate how increasing human populations influence interactions between wildlife and people. A raccoon holding a plastic bag of trash Monitor water quality at beaches, lakes, and rivers to detect contaminants and keep people safe. Two environmental scientists collect water samples at a beach
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Have you ever noticed that for people with asthma it can sometimes be especially hard to breathe in the middle of a busy city? One reason for this is the exhaust from vehicles. Cars, buses, and motorcycles add pollution to our air, which affects our health. But can pollution impact more than our health? Cutting down trees, or deforestation, can contribute to erosion, which carries off valuable topsoil. But can erosion alter more than the condition of the soil? How does an oil spill harm fish and aquatic plants? How does a population of animals interact with its environment? These are questions that environmental scientists study and try to find answers to. They conduct research or perform investigations to identify and eliminate the sources of pollution or hazards that damage either the environment or human and animal health. Environmental scientists are the stewards of our environment and are committed to keeping it safe for future generations.
Key Requirements Curiosity, persistence, logical and analytical thinking, good verbal and written skills, concern for the environment, love of outdoors
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, calculus; if available, environmental science, statistics
Median Salary
Environmental Scientist
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Average (7% to 13%)
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Source: O*Net

Education and Training

A bachelor's degree in an earth science is adequate for entry-level positions, although many companies prefer to hire environmental scientists with a master's degree in environmental science or a related natural science. A doctoral degree generally is necessary only for college teaching and some research positions. Some environmental scientists and specialists have a degree in environmental science, but many earn degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, or the geosciences and then apply their education to the study of the environment. They often need research or work experience related to environmental science.

A bachelor's degree in environmental science offers an interdisciplinary approach to the natural sciences, with an emphasis on biology, chemistry, and geology. Undergraduate environmental science majors typically focus on data analysis and physical geography, which are particularly useful in studying pollution abatement, water resources, or ecosystem protection, restoration, and management. Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds is becoming increasingly important in developing remediation goals. Students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields, either in environmental consulting firms or for federal or state governments, should take courses in hydrology, hazardous-waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging, which is the gathering of geologic data. An understanding of environmental regulations and government permit issues also is valuable.

For environmental scientists and specialists who consult, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training with other disciplines such as engineering or business qualifies these scientists for the widest range of jobs.

Other Qualifications

Computer skills are essential for prospective environmental scientists. Students who have some experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and geographic information systems (GIS) will be the most prepared to enter the job market.

Environmental scientists and specialists usually work as part of a team with other scientists, engineers, and technicians, and they must often write technical reports and research proposals that communicate their research results or ideas to company managers, regulators, and the public. Environmental health specialists also work closely with the public, providing and collecting information on public health risks. As a result, strong oral and written communication skills are essential.

Nature of the Work

Environmental scientists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment by identifying problems and finding solutions that minimize hazards to the health of the environment and the population. They analyze measurements or observations of air, food, water, and soil to determine ways to clean and preserve the environment. Understanding the issues involved in protecting the environment—degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment—is central to the work of environmental scientists. They often use this understanding to design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water. They also draft risk assessments, describing the likely effect of construction and other environmental changes, write technical proposals, and give presentations to managers and regulators.

Many environmental scientists work for local, state, and federal governments, ensuring that environmental regulations are followed to limit the impact of human activity on the environment. Others monitor environmental impacts on the health of the population, checking for risks of disease and providing information about health hazards. Environmental scientists also work with private companies to help them comply with environmental regulations and policies. They are usually hired by consulting firms to solve problems.

Many environmental scientists have jobs and training similar to other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues. Many specialize in subfields such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Specialties affect the specific activities that environmental scientists perform, although recent understandings of the interconnectedness of life processes have blurred some traditional classifications. For example, environmental ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environments and the effects on both by factors such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude. They may collect, study, and report data on air, soil, and water using their knowledge of various scientific disciplines. Ecological modelers study ecosystems, pollution control, and resource management using mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques. Environmental chemists study the toxicity of various chemicals—that is, how those chemicals harm plants, animals, and people.

Work Environment

Many entry-level environmental scientists and specialists spend a significant amount of time in the field, while experienced workers generally devote more time to office or laboratory work. Some environmental scientists, such as environmental ecologists and environmental chemists, often take field trips that involve physical activity. Environmental scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. Travel often is required to meet with prospective clients.

On the Job

  • Collect, synthesize, analyze, manage, and report environmental data, such as pollution emission measurements, atmospheric monitoring measurements, meteorological and mineralogical information, and soil or water samples.
  • Analyze data to determine validity, quality, and scientific significance, and to interpret correlations between human activities and environmental effects.
  • Communicate scientific and technical information to the public, organizations, or internal audiences through oral briefings, written documents, workshops, conferences, training sessions, or public hearings.
  • Provide scientific and technical guidance, support, coordination, and oversight to governmental agencies, environmental programs, industry, or the public.
  • Process and review environmental permits, licenses, and related materials.
  • Review and implement environmental technical standards, guidelines, policies, and formal regulations that meet all appropriate requirements.
  • Prepare charts or graphs from data samples, providing summary information on the environmental relevance of the data.
  • Determine data collection methods to be employed in research projects and surveys.
  • Investigate and report on accidents affecting the environment.
  • Research sources of pollution to determine their effects on the environment and to develop theories or methods of pollution abatement or control.

Companies That Hire Environmental Scientists

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