Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Nearly half of all environmental scientists and specialists are employed by the federal government and by state and local governments, and positions in this field are expected to grow much faster than average in the coming years, particularly at the state and local levels and in private-sector consulting firms.

Much of this growth will be attributed to an increased demand on companies to comply with environmental laws and regulations, as well as demand by the world at large to control environmental degradation caused by the growth of the population and the strain we continue to put on the environment. People in environmental jobs will play a critical role in monitoring the impact of the population on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems as well as restoring any damage to these life systems. Land planners will also continue to turn to environmental scientists and specialists when constructing buildings, transportation corridors, and utilities that protect water resources and use the land in the most efficient manner.

The federal government as well as state and local governments dictate limits on land development and, therefore, work closely with environmental scientists and specialists. These scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment by identifying problems, finding solutions and minimizing hazards to both the human and animal populations; in short, they play an important role in everyday interactions with the environment. This might be through recycling programs, monitoring of landfills, restoration of contaminated land and water, enforcement of government building regulations, or through the writing of technical proposals to secure grant funding to run these programs.

Environmental scientists also work with private companies such as large engineering firms and smaller, privately owned niche firms. In these situations, the scientists often work as consultants to ensure that the firms are following all rules and regulations set forth by government entities. The scope of work done for each of these firms is as different as the firms themselves; in larger firms, scientists often find themselves wrapped up in long-term projects that involve other scientific professionals and may take years to complete, while smaller firms may call on them to work with local governments and business professionals in the private sector.

Subfields abound in this broad topic of study and include environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology and fisheries science. The work that these professionals will perform depends on the subfield they have specialized in; they may find themselves studying the relationships between organisms and their environments or collecting and reporting data on air, soil and water quality.

An individual beginning a career in environmental sciences can expect to spend a large amount of time in the field, and travel is often an expected part of the job; once in the field for some time, scientists may have the opportunity to work in an office or laboratory if they choose to do so.

While a bachelor’s degree in an earth science may open doors to entry-level positions in this field, a master’s degree is preferred; if one wishes to teach, a Ph.D. will be necessary. In addition to earning a degree in environmental science, future professionals may choose to seek a degree in biology, chemistry, physics or the geosciences and should consider taking courses in hydrology, hazardous-waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics and geologic logging. Those who will pursue consulting work are advised to study business, finance and marketing as well.

Today’s environmental scientists and specialists must have computer skills, and those who have experience in computer modeling, geographic information systems, digital mapping and remote sensing will have a competitive edge. In addition to the expected rapid pace of growth in the field, vacancies tied to retirement, advancement and career changes are expected. The median annual income in this profession is just short of $60,000; the average wage earners typically earn between $45,000 and $79,000.