Green Degrees for Future Environmentalists

By Vicki Salemi
Provided by

"An Inconvenient Truth." The Live Earth concert. "The 11th Hour." The climate project.... When it comes to creating global buzz, nothing speaks louder than a pro-environment movement. But  many educational institutions are going green as well, creating their own stir with programs for future environmentalists. Why focus on these areas of study? Beyond having an interest in environmental causes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that environmental job growth will surge through 2014, due to the need to monitor environmental quality, interpret the impact of human actions on ecosystems, and develop environmental strategies. While BLS says a bachelor's degree is necessary for environmental scientists and hydrologists, master's degrees are becoming necessary as more subsets are created within this sector.

Environmentalists on the rise
Martha Monroe is president of the North American Association for Environmental Education, an organization serving professional environmental educators with networking and resources. In her role as associate professor and extension specialist at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, Monroe reports a recent upswing in enrollments in natural resources and environmental majors. "Current projections of retirements in the federal natural resource agencies suggest that we'll be needing lots of new professionals in a few years."

This enrollment increase is not an anomaly; according to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), enrollment in this field continually rises. In 1985-86, more than 987,000 students earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture and natural resources. Ten years later, that number had jumped to more than 1.1 million and, in 2003-04, almost 1.4 million degree holders.  Plus, this enrollment increase continuously rises for master's degree holders as well. In 1985-1986, approximately 3,801 students earned a master's degree in this field compared to 4,551 a decade later. In 2003-2004, there were approximately 4,783 master's degree holders in this subject matter.

Going green for the greater good
One example of this statistic is Caren Mintz, the product of green education programs.  After studying biology and environmental studies at Williams College, she worked for three years in public sector environmental consulting before earning her master's degree in environmental management from Yale University.

As an associate at GreenOrder, a sustainability and marketing firm, Mintz works on a variety of client engagements, such as managing projects, writing proposals, and implementing strategy workshops. Combining her education with working in a boutique firm gives Mintz the opportunity to function in a small dynamic company while earning a salary that is "not a given in environmental work."

She is currently finishing a project with Duke University where they established goals to expand environmental actions across the university. Mintz also works frequently on sustainability issues such as climate change or conservation of natural resources, land or water, for example . "One day I'll be developing strategy and metrics for an emerging climate change non-profit, and the next day I will be verifying environmental claims made by one of the world's largest conglomerates. I love going home feeling good about what I do."

For Mintz, work satisfaction comes from making a positive impact in the world. She is also pleased with her education, which has been instrumental in all of her jobs. "I don't often use facts learned in a class lecture, but the way I learned to think is crucial to my work," Mintz admits. "My science training enables me to manipulate and understand technical data and approach problems in a systematic way." She also notes that her liberal arts education at Williams gave her the ability to learn new things quickly and communicate effectively, critical skills necessary to bridge the gap between the environmental community and business world.

Saving the world isn't easy
While an advanced degree may be required for certain jobs, it varies depending on the position being sought. Senior-level spots in management often require advanced degrees but other jobs such as policy analysts or outreach coordinators rely more on professional experience. Mintz recommends fully exploring the green field. "Take relevant classes, join environmental student organizations, volunteer, do an internship, etc. Saving the world is not easy, nor is it a profession that will likely make you rich, so you should make sure you have a strong passion for the work." According to BLS, a median salary for environmental scientists in 2004 was $51,080; salaries differ by the type of organization and scope of work, ranging from nonprofit organizations to state and local government to consulting firms.

"If you don't pursue environmental issues professionally, you can still lead your life in a sustainable manner according to your passions and values," adds Mintz. David de Rothschild, author of The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook, and founder of Adventure Ecology, an independent initiative focused on environmental awareness and action through education, agrees. "While a formal education is certainly instrumental in this field, everyone can try to prevent climate change in small ways," he says. "Even shutting off your air conditioning while you're outside all day will help."

Bridging the green gap
To some educators, environmentalism has always been en vogue. Philip S. Stevens, Ph.D. is the director of Ph.D. programs in environmental science and associate professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University. He says a degree in environmental science and/or policy is important to navigate exceedingly complex current environmental problems such as natural resource management. "A degree in environmental science gives students a depth of the science behind environmental problems that is difficult to obtain through traditional programs in the natural sciences."  Courses in environmental science also offer hands-on field experience such as wetlands biology and regulation, forest ecology and management, stream ecology, and environmental chemistry.

A growing trend within graduate programs is to offer dual degrees to bridge the gap between environmental scientists and policymakers.  At Indiana, there are options such as a joint master's of public affairs/master's of science in environmental science (MPA/MSES) or a joint JD (juris doctor)/MSES degree. "Although many students obtain entry-level positions with a bachelor's degree, many employers prefer a master's degree. Students interested in a career in environmental research or teaching at the college level should pursue a Ph.D," Stevens advises.

According to Michael P. Vandenbergh, professor of law and co-director of the regulatory program at Vanderbilt University Law School, another possible path is environmental law focusing on how government induces private firms to change their behavior. He explains, "The work and classes on private environmental contracting will have
immediate practical relevance to law students. In one study, we found that the top law firms which have an environmental practice also have environmental lawyers who negotiate and enforce environmental contracts."

While many law students go on to work in law firms, they also work in environmental non-government and government agencies. "Regardless of where they are heading, I try to prepare students to hit the ground running when they arrive at their first employer.  I also know that many of them will go on to become policymakers and business managers during the course of their careers and I try to help them think about the big picture while they are in law school so they will be a step ahead when they are in a management position down the road," says Vandenbergh.

Go Green
Regardless of their chosen program, Stevens notes that, at the completion of their degree, students in environmental programs are usually employed by local and state government agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmental consulting firms and non-government organizations. Students who obtain a law degree to work in environmental law typically understand both the science and policy implications of environmental science. "These skills are going to become even more valuable as the push for sustainable development, alternative energy, and the new 'green' economy grows," says Stevens.

Monroe adds, "The challenges that we are facing today are not going to be solved by natural resource managers or energy companies. All of us are needed. And what is more exciting is that we can't even imagine all the ways that we can help. There is room for all of us to explore, create, and work on better strategies for all people to have richly satisfying lives within our environmental means."

Vicki Salemi, a frequent contributor to, Online Degrees Magazine, and The CollegeBound Network, writes regularly about education and career issues and blogs about workplace issues on She is also the author of "The ABC's of College Life."