What is an environmental science degree?

Be the next agent in fighting climate change. Earn your environmental science degree and join other professionals in protecting our air, water, and soil.
Written by Tanika Johnson, Contributor

Are you looking to resolve global warming, deforestation, and overpopulation issues? Earn your environmental science degree and embark on a career that influences our culture, economy, and public policy. 

Environmental science has a major impact on society and contributes best practices for conserving our natural resources, ecosystems, and environment. With environmental science, we gain more insight into climate change, air pollution, and waste management.

Consider the following career list to explore your options:

  • Hydrologist
  • Industrial ecologist 
  • Climate change analyst 
  • Environmental engineer
  • Environmental scientist

What is environmental science?

Environmental science is the study of living and nonliving organisms. It incorporates basic and applied sciences to resolve complex environmental issues, along with the scientific study of and urban, woodland, and agricultural lands. 

Throughout your program, you'll engage in scientific research and apply key principles and theories of biology, chemistry, physics, and math. You'll use these subdisciplines together with social sciences, education, and communication. 

After acquiring technical skills and field experience, you'll be prepared to seek environmental science degree jobs.

What do you learn in an environmental science degree program?

As an environmental investigator, you'll learn key technical, practical, and theoretical skills. 

Technical skills 

  • Conduct research and fieldwork of the soil, sediments, and groundwater
  • Develop policies and procedures for preventing and managing environmental issues 
  • Offer guidance on reducing environmental and health risks to public, private, and government agencies

Practical skills

  • Data management and processing 
  • Software skills for basic and applied sciences
  • Communication for collaboration and dissemination

Theoretical skills

  • Scientific method
  • Scientific theory
  • Scientific laws 

Environmental science course examples

Issues in the environment 

Students examine the correlations between people and the environment as well as fundamental societal, political, ethical, and economic considerations. Further studies include the significance of science, technology, and policy. 

Earth and its environments

Students investigate global change and environmental elements along with the impact of volcanoes, earthquakes, and related physical processes shaping Earth.

Ecology of managed systems

In this course, students identify the ecology of ecosystems of managed forests, rangelands and nature reserves, and related plant communities.

Soil conservation and land-use management

Students gain a historical view of soil erosion from a regional and worldwide lens. Learners  apply scientific reasoning for evaluation, define processes and prediction methods, and explore socioeconomic factors and policies of social erosion.

How hard is an environmental science degree?

While pursuing your environmental science degree, you are expected to excel at research, cultivate strong professor and student mentorships, and demonstrate academic excellence with high quality instruction. 

Program faculty observe and evaluate students' analytical and logical communication skills, theoretical understanding of environmental science, and practical application of researching and data collection using science-based computer programs. 

Even with a rigorous curriculum, you can earn your degree. To succeed in your program, apply your critical thinking skills, investigative mindset, and team-oriented approach. 

What kinds of environmental science degrees are there?

Consider the advantages of each degree, coursework, program length, and job prospects. Discover the many environmental science degrees for the next step in your career.

Associate degree in environmental science

Prospective students generally complete an environmental science associate degree in two years. Program coursework includes general chemistry, college algebra, and earth's environment, along with other general education and program specific requirements.

Program coursework:

  • Survey of physics
  • Environmental science
  • Introduction to environmental studies 

An environmental science associate degree prepares students for entry-level positions such as fish and game warden and soil and water conservationist. For career advancement, students can continue their studies and pursue a bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's degree in environmental science

Environmental science bachelor's programs typically take four years to complete. Prospective students combine coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics along with additional natural and physical sciences. 

Students may specialize in natural resources and conservation or data analytics in science and participate in real-world lab experiences. 

Program coursework:

  • Fundamentals of chemistry
  • Ecological principles and field methods
  • Environmental science research methods

With an environmental science bachelor's degree, there are countless occupational opportunities, including marine biologist and wildlife biologist.

Graduate certificate in environmental science

New graduates and working professionals have the option of earning a graduate certificate in environmental health science, environmental and energy policy, or environmental modeling and analysis as well as sustainability, earth observation science, and floriculture and nursery production management. 

Students may take courses in energy and environment, environmental law and regulation, and environmental policy and analysis. Certificate requirements and program length varies with each college and university. Many programs can be completed in a year.

Program coursework:

  • Spatial modeling
  • Integrated environmental issues
  • Multimedia chemical risk assessment

With a graduate certificate, students may work as a public policy analyst or environmental planner. Additional career roles may include a conservation scientist, hydrologist, and environmental engineer. 

Master's degree in environmental science

Courses may include special topics in environmental sciences, advanced topics in geographic information, and sampling and analysis in environmental sciences. 

Students can specialize in geospatial sciences, plant sciences, or natural resources as well as ecology, water resources, and climate change. Master's programs generally take two years to complete.

Program coursework:

  • Environmental chemistry
  • Applied watershed management
  • Remote sensing of the environment 

Graduates may seek a microbiologist or water quality scientist position along with several other environmental science jobs. 

Doctoral degree in environmental science

For degree completion, students must submit a publishable research project to a leading peer-reviewed journal as well as pass a candidacy examination and dissertation oral defense. Students are evaluated for academic achievements and research interests.

Many programs require students to facilitate student seminars, manage teaching labs, and act as a primary instructor. Students may select a concentration in ecology and conservation biology, geoscience, human ecology, toxicology, and science education research. 

The program length is typically three to six years. After graduating, students may seek a positions as a biochemist or college professor.

Program coursework:

  • Principles of evolution
  • Global environmental change
  • General toxicology

Accreditation for environmental science programs

Environmental science programs seek accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards, and the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council. 

Prior to applying, research your program's accreditation status. Accreditation signifies that a college or university has exhibited a rigorous curriculum, met industry standards, and excels in preparing graduates in health and safety, technological developments, and innovative practices.

In conclusion

Environmental science degrees all boil down to protecting our environment. You can make the difference in saving our endangered species, protecting the Amazon Rainforest, and advocating for environmental cleanup. 

If you are inspired by an outdoor career and traveling the world, enroll and join your environmental science colleagues.

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