Entering the Environmental Field: Laying the Groundwork (Graduate Programs)
Broad graduate programs
There are many environmental careers that can be pursued without a graduate degree. But for some careers, a graduate degree is an absolute necessity. For example, you’ll never make it as an environmental lawyer unless you attend law school. And if you hope to become a university professor specializing in marine biology, a PhD might be in your future.
there are other careers where graduate school paths are less clearly
defined. For example, many people
working in nonprofits hold graduate degrees—in anything from public policy to
environmental studies to business administration to law—while some enterprising
souls go their entire careers with nothing more than a BA or a BS.
are some tips about the advisability of attending graduate school for various
professions: If you’re interested in strategic sustainability consulting, an
MBA is not necessarily a prerequisite, but it’s a big help if you want to move
up the ladder, according to consultant Polina Feldman. Specialized jobs in resource management in national
parks require graduate degrees, and they can be a boost for other federal
jobs. Chitra Kumar, at the Environmental
Protection Agency, says that while a graduate degree is not absolutely required
to work in her agency, a master’s degree in an environmental subject can give
applicants an edge in the competitive D.C. job market. However, those who don’t have a grad degree
can make up the difference with impressive previous experience in the field, she
good planning jobs require a graduate degree in a planning-related field,
according to Robert Freudenberg, a planner at the nonprofit Regional Plan
Association. Freudenberg himself holds a
master’s in public administration (MPA), focusing on planning. The MPA is a useful degree, says Freudenberg,
because in addition to understanding planning theory, planners must also have a
strong understanding of public policy and government.
Environmental studies programs in particular
programs in environmental science, environmental studies, environmental planning
and related fields are increasingly popular.
They are offered, for example, at the University of Michigan, the
Nicholas School at Duke University, Evergreen State College, the University of
California at Santa Barbara, the University of Montana, and the Yale School of
Forestry & Environmental Studies.
These programs are often interdisciplinary, with courses in areas such
as natural sciences, policy, law, philosophy and ethics, and education. Because each program may have a different
emphasis, it’s advisable to talk to graduates, visit the campus, and carefully
review each program’s website and literature if you’re thinking of applying.
Such programs can be a career boost, according to Peter Otis, director of career development at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. In fact, Otis feels that a master’s degree in an environmental field or in public policy is almost a requirement these days for those who hope to significantly advance in their careers as environmentalists. The master’s degree program at Yale and similar programs at other institutions prepare students for jobs in nonprofits, multinational NGOs, government and the private sector.
If you want to pursue an environmental studies master’s program, you don’t necessarily have to jump into it straight from college. It’s sometimes helpful to join such programs after a few years’ work experience in an environmental field, says Otis, because you’ll have a more focused sense of the skills and knowledge you wish to acquire in graduate school.
And what about going beyond a master’s degree and earning a doctorate in environmental studies? The career benefits here might be somewhat fuzzier. For aspiring professors, a PhD in environmental studies or a similar field can lead to a career in academia, as some universities are eager to hire professors with the multidisciplinary background afforded by environmental studies, says Otis. However, he warns that some academic programs don’t know how to categorize environmental studies professors because they don’t fit into any single, traditional discipline. As a result, it can sometimes be hard for environmental studies professors to find jobs or get tenure.
Accordingly, Professor Scott Herron, at Ferris State University in Michigan, advises aspiring academics to supplement or substitute an interdisciplinary environmental program with a one in a “hard” or well-defined discipline—say, biology, geology, natural resources management, etc. By developing an expertise in a specific discipline, you will increase the number of departments that to which you can apply—you’ll be eligible for jobs in your particular discipline, and also for jobs in multidisciplinary environmental programs, says Professor Herron. A degree in a hard discipline might also offer a useful intensity of focus and training, he points out.
Making a decision
your chosen career falls into the gray area, where a specific kind of grad
degree is not absolutely necessary, how do you decide whether graduate school
is right for you, and which program to choose?
One of the best things you can do is to talk to people knowledgeable
about your chosen field. Talk to your
mentors, professors and career counselors.
can also set up informational interviews with people you’ve never met, friends
of friends, or people whose names you’ve uncovered in your research who work in
your chosen field. Calling, writing to
or emailing people you don’t know can be a little scary, but you’ll be
surprised by how many people are eager to help out a proactive, budding
environmentalist. Polina Feldman,
sustainability consultant at Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting in San
Francisco, suggests that talking to lots of people in a given industry is
enormously helpful when deciding on a career.
“This is the best way to find out if the industry fits your passions and
capabilities,” says Feldman.
you decide to set up informational interviews, conduct yourself politely and
professionally from the get-go.
Introduce yourself and explain how you found his or her name. Ask your contact if he or she would be free
for a few minutes in person, or by phone or email, to answer a few questions
about starting an environmental career.
Once the contacts agree, ask about their jobs. Ask what courses of education were
useful. Also ask which graduate programs
they think highly of. Ask them what they
wish they had known at your stage of life.
Ask them anything that interests you about their education and career
path. If you’re still hungry for
information, ask them if they know others who might be willing to talk with
you. (Do not, however, ask them for a
reference letter, internship or job.
Generally speaking, this is not the time for that, and it might turn
By putting the information you gather together with an appraisal of your own goals, abilities and interests, you can come to a decision about a course of education that’s right for you.