Entering the Environmental Field: Laying the Groundwork
Environmental careers come in many flavors. Because they are so varied, there is no “one-size-fits-all” advice about how to prepare for them. A passion for some aspect of the environment, of course, is useful—and this can be evidenced in everything from your choice of undergraduate major to your weekend volunteer activities to the subject of your master’s thesis. Beyond this, how you lay the groundwork for your career will depend on your individual interests and on which career, in particular, you are shooting for.
A future green tech entrepreneur, for example, might first major in history or business or biology, then find a position in a consulting firm, working there for a few years, and subsequently return to school for an MBA, following which, she might join a couple of friends with science backgrounds and venture capital connections to start a business selling technologies pertaining to building wind farms.
An up-and-coming executive in a nonprofit, by contrast, might start by majoring in anything from environmental studies to political science to English. She might then land an entry-level job in a local bicycling advocacy group, helping to organize local campaigns for bike lanes. After a few years there, she might decide to move over to a group in Washington, D.C., lobbying for transportation policy changes at the national level. Before making the job switch, she might take a couple of years to get a master’s degree in public policy, both to deepen her knowledge and to make her more competitive for high-level positions.
An aspiring ranger at a national park might parlay a lifelong love of camping and the outdoors into a career by starting out as an intern, volunteer or summer employee clearing hiking paths or working in a visitor’s center. After college, she might continue as a seasonal employee, working in a northern park in the summer and southern park in the winter. After a few years of this, she could move into a permanent ranger position.
Because the paths are so many, the best general advice is to follow your passion. Find people who do what you would love to do and ask them how they got there. Pay attention to your particular interests and individual strengths. If you study the subjects that most intrigue you, and apply for the internships, jobs and experiences that most excite you, you’ll find a path to an environmental career that is uniquely your own.
Again, the type and extent of education you pursue depends on your interests and the kinds of jobs toward which you want to angle. Many, but not all, environmental careers require a college degree. Water treatment plant operators, for example, need only complete a training certificate. And if you want to work as a ranger in the National Park Service, a college degree is not strictly required—although it will certainly put you at an advantage, according to Park Ranger Joshua Boles, and a graduate degree opens the door to yet more specialized National Park jobs.
For those who go to college, various courses of study can eventually lead to an environmental career. One way is to major in environmental studies. Many colleges and universities now offer such a major, which may cover both scientific and public policy issues relating to the environment, presenting courses in such areas as climate science, botany and biology, as well as, say, the history of the conservation movement, nature writing, planning and political science.
While majoring in environmental studies or environmental sciences can be great for preparing for an environmental career, it is far from the only way. For a student with a little creativity, almost any college major offers an angle to explore environmental issues. An English major might study literary responses to environmental change; engineering majors can find opportunities to evaluate green building techniques; students of biology might explore the effects of pollution on animal physiology; a history major could write about the historical effects of coal mining; while enterprising photography majors may set out to document the visible effects of climate change.
When choosing a major in college, follow your enthusiasms and curiosities. Don’t feel that you necessarily have to submerge some part of yourself to pursue a career in an environmental field. Rob Freudenberg, a planner at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, encourages future environmentalists to follow their own particular interests, and then see how those interests can be related to their desired career. For example, Freudenberg majored in environmental biology in college—not a traditional background for a planner. He later pursued a planning-related master’s degree, but his science background now comes in handy when he works on watershed projects. And Park Ranger Joshua Boles points out that even a humanities degree can lead to a job at the National Park Service, so long as you can demonstrate an interest in the field.
If you have a strong interest in philosophy, as a further example, you don’t necessarily have to abandon it because you feel it’s incompatible with an environmental career. You might instead find ways to express your concern for the environment through your love of philosophy, by studying philosophers who have written about ecology, for example. Such a philosophy student might eventually pursue a career in environmental education, environmental law or environmental writing, to name a few possibilities.
In thinking about undergraduate studies, remember that your goal is to find a path to an environmental career that does justice to your unique set of talents and interests, a path that maximizes your chance of gaining personal fulfillment, as well as making a distinct and valuable contribution to the world.
On a nuts and bolts level, also be aware of the requirements for any graduate program you might eventually want to enroll in. If you’re thinking of getting a master’s degree in forestry or a PhD in geology, or an MBA or a law degree, make certain you investigate any prerequisites such graduate programs tend to look for, and be sure to work with a few professors closely enough that they can write you solid recommendation letters. Of course, keep your grades up if you hope to get accepted in a competitive graduate program.
What you study in class is not the only thing that will prepare you for an environmental career. In fact, even if you never study a single subject related to the environment, or if you develop an interest in environmental issues after you’ve irrevocably settled on a different course of study, there are still ways to begin exploring the subject and laying the groundwork for a career.
Chitra Kumar, a policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., says that in her agency, supervisors tend to seek applicants with an interest in public service, as well as an interest in environmental protection. While these interests can be demonstrated through one’s choice of academic major, they can also be demonstrated through pertinent extracurricular, volunteer activities, internships or other initiatives, according to Kumar. (The EPA also values good written and oral communication skills, and a “can-do” attitude, Kumar adds.)
Many colleges sponsor student groups that tackle environmental projects. Some students might organize letter-writing campaigns on behalf of activist groups; others might work on a local organic farm, or help to bring locally grown produce to their college cafeteria. Those who enjoy hiking might lead their fellow students on organized camping trips. Students with literary interests might organize informal reading groups covering environmental subjects ignored by the college curriculum. Still others might get involved in local politics, helping to push for cleaner rivers or safer bike lanes; or petitioning the student council to use recycled products at campus events, or to subsidize bicycles for students who would otherwise have to drive cars.
The possibilities really are endless. And if you don’t find an existing student group pursuing projects that interest you, consider starting your own. This is a great way to find like-minded classmates, and to demonstrate to future employers that you have leadership skills, drive and initiative.
In another part, we will explore opportunities offered by graduate programs.