Educational Pathways to an Environmental Science Career

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High School Preparation

In the environmental sciences, people make daily use of the skills they learned in high school. A mechanical engineer uses calculus formulas to design a drinking water delivery system; chemists refer back to basic biology when analyzing enzyme mutations; air quality specialists use their computer skills when monitoring smokestack discharges, and a forester recalls the fundamentals of ecology when describing the effects that a proposed land-use plan will have on a local ecosystem. There is simply no substitute for the educational basics of a public or private high school education. Further, a firm grasp of the basic subjects taught in junior high and high school will make your college experience easier and more rewarding. Success in later life is directly related to a successful high school education. Those with the best post secondary educational experiences, in terms of not only grades but also the development of a healthy self-esteem and intellectual curiosity, will surely stand out among the job-seeking crowd.

The three Rs-reading, writing and arithmetic-together are the key that opens the door to the power of learning. First, a solid grasp of math and science is an absolute necessity for a career in the environmental sciences. Mathematics is the foundation of all the sciences and is an indispensable skill for any career-minded environmentalist. You should take a full four years of high school math with two years of algebra, one year of geometry and trigonometry, and at least one year of calculus. Next, you should take the full complement of science classes. Courses in biology, the earth sciences, physics, and chemistry are a good start. Besides helping you understand complex issues like hazardous waste problems, global warming, and ozone depletion, these courses will prepare you for similar but much more challenging college classes. Computer science and programming classes are also a must for anyone interested in the sciences. In most jobs you will be required to enter, analyze, and manipulate information using a computer. In careers like engineering, architecture, and geology, professionals often design their own custom software programs for specific tasks.

English skills, particularly writing and communication, are equally as important. No matter what you later choose as a field of study or occupation, it cannot be overstressed that English skills are an essential part of the formula for professional success. The principal of an environmental services firm summarized a recent trend in hiring new engineers with strong technical communication skills, "We look for fresh graduates who not only have demonstrated academic excellence, but who also possess the ability to share and explain their information to colleagues and non-scientists alike. One bright and well-spoken engineer is worth three who know their stuff but lack the verbal skills."

Your College Education: Toward a Technical or Professional Career

The two distinct career paths in the environmental sciences can be most easily classified by two criteria: educational training and the nature of the work. Environmental science professionals are those who have completed at least a bachelor of science (BS) degree in majors like engineering, biology, chemistry, forestry, geology, physics, or meteorology. Entry-level professionals are usually asked to perform work that is directly related to their scientific training and do administrative or managerial tasks as well. As they gain seniority, these professionals tend to perform less technical work and take on greater managerial responsibilities. Environmental science specialists or technicians possess a certificate of training or a two-year degree from a technical school or community college and sometimes a four-year bachelor of science degree. They are heavily oriented to hands-on work, especially field or laboratory work. For every one environmental science professional, there are four specialists or technicians. These are the people who bridge the gap between the theoretical knowledge of an engineer and the skill of a precision mechanic. This path is for those who like to work with their hands and spend time outdoors.

School Accreditation

National professional and technical associations accredit academic programs that meet their educational standards. There are, for example, 55 forestry programs in the United States, and 45 have been accredited by the Society of American Foresters. An accredited program is not necessarily superior to a non-accredited program, but depending on the reputation of the accrediting association, it may later be a slight career advantage to attend a program that has been accredited. When researching potential schools, find out if the pro-gram you're interested in has some type of accreditation and, more importantly, how well recent graduates have fared in finding a job.


Two-year colleges are a convenient, affordable, and rewarding way to continue your education and are often a direct conduit to an environmental job. The term "two-year school" is an umbrella term for junior and community colleges, private occupational schools, area vocational schools, adult education centers, and correspondence schools. These schools enroll more than 6 million students per year or 40 percent of all college students. The reason for this high enrollment rate is quite simple: Our technological society demands a large number of highly skilled workers to keep it functioning. For every one professional job in the environmental sciences, for example, four technicians are employed.

These schools differ from four-year liberal arts colleges primarily in that they are oriented to teach students specific skills that are directly related to employment opportunities. Two-year schools are also a good choice for those who don't feet that an academic program at a four-year college is quite right for them. For example, high school students who are absorbed in one subject like science, mechanics, or the arts, returning students who are seeking further training or a certification for a specific job, or individuals looking to be retrained in order to change careers are all well suited for this type of education.
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