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March 10, 2009

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The field of environmental careers is broad, but one generalization can be made: a background in science is often necessary, and always helpful. In the fields of scientific research, engineering, technical consulting, hazardous waste remediation, habitat restoration and other technical areas, a science or technical degree is desirable. For people interested in working for a nonprofit organization or in the fields of education or community outreach in government or private industry, an undergraduate liberal arts degree is common. However, many of these workers have also pursued formal or informal training in science, through graduate degrees, internships, volunteerism, training or classes.

Education

The amount of education that is required depends on the position that one is applying for. A bachelor's degree in the natural or physical sciences is required to continue in the scientific fields in government and private industry. A bachelor's degree in the humanities or sciences is common in nonprofit workers and environmental lawyers. The college or university name matters mainly for competitive jobs with a large pool of qualified applicants.

Advanced degrees (Ph.D) are required for a career in academia, while master's degrees are most common in government, NGOs, and private industry.

The road to policy work: Masters' programs in environmental science and environmental studies

Masters' Degrees are offered in Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Environmental Planning, Public Policy and other related fields. Leading programs include the University of Michigan, Evergreen State College, University of Montana, and Yale University. As the environmental field has grown more popular, more colleges and universities have added programs. Each program is unique and turns out graduates who tend to work in similar fields. For example, Evergreen State College graduates tend to work in government jobs in natural resource management, while the University of Montana focuses on advocacy, community organizing, environmental writing and educations. The University of Michigan and Yale University are more science-based and some graduates continue on to pursue Ph.Ds and academic careers.

These programs generally require that in addition to coursework, students complete internships with NGOs, government or industry. The coursework is interdisciplinary, with requirements in several areas that may include science, policy, law, philosophy and ethics, and education.

Internships

Internships are usually unpaid, "on the job" training. These internships are often a required part of the master's program. A certain number of hours of internship must be completed in order to earn a diploma. A typical internship project for an NGO would be to prepare a research report that provides an overview of an environmental problem and provides policy recommendations for the staff to consider. One University of Montana graduate student said of his internship, "I wrote a paper for the Oregon Natural Resources Council on how to protect desert springs and wetlands using the Clean Water Act and I was thrilled to hear from my mentor there that the group was using my recommendations to drive policy."

Other internships for NGOs involve grassroots organizing, interviewing parties on all sides of an issue, and helping to organize a conference or strategy meeting.

Experience

More important than education, often, is direct experience and contacts in the field. Many environmental professionals in the nonprofit world began by volunteering or doing an internship. Internships allow you to showcase your skills, get to know an organization and its staff, many of whom have contacts throughout the field. Top internships can be hard to get, and require an almost job-like application and hiring process. The same is true in the private sector. Prior experience with a company or contacts makes getting hired easier.

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