Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment and human health. They may clean up polluted areas, advise policy makers, or work with industry to reduce waste.
Environmental scientists and specialists typically do the following:
- Determine data collection methods for research projects, investigations, and surveys
- Collect and compile environmental data from samples of air, soil, water, food, and other materials for scientific analysis
- Analyze samples, surveys, and other information to identify and assess threats to the environment
- Develop plans to prevent, control, or fix environmental problems, such as land or water pollution
- Provide information and guidance to government officials, businesses, and the general public on possible environmental hazards and health risks
- Prepare technical reports and presentations that explain their research and findings
Environmental scientists and specialists analyze environmental problems and develop solutions. For example, many environmental scientists and specialists work to reclaim lands and waters that have been contaminated by pollution. Others assess the risks that new construction projects pose to the environment and make recommendations to governments and businesses on how to minimize the environmental impact of these projects. Environmental scientists and specialists may do research and provide advice on manufacturing practices, such as advising against the use of chemicals that are known to harm the environment.
The federal government and many state and local governments have regulations to ensure that there is clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and no hazardous materials in the soil. The regulations also place limits on development, particularly near sensitive ecosystems such as wetlands. Many environmental scientists and specialists work for the government to ensure that these regulations are followed. Other environmental scientists and specialists work for consulting firms that help companies comply with regulations and policies.
Some environmental scientists and specialists focus on environmental regulations that are designed to protect people’s health, while others focus on regulations designed to minimize society’s impact on the ecosystem. The following are examples of types of specialists:
Climate change analysts study effects on ecosystems caused by the changing climate. They may do outreach education activities and grant writing typical of scientists.
Environmental health specialists study how environmental factors impact human health. They investigate potential environmental health risks. For example, they may investigate and address issues arising from soil and water contamination caused by nuclear weapons manufacturing. They also educate the public about potential health risks present in the environment.
Environmental restoration planners assess polluted sites and determine the cost and activities necessary to clean up the area.
Industrial ecologists work with industry to increase the efficiency of their operations and thereby limit the impacts these activities have on the environment. They analyze costs and benefits of various programs, as well as their impacts on ecosystems.
Other environmental scientists do work and receive training that is similar to that of other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues. Environmental chemists are an example.
Environmental chemists study the effects that various chemicals have on ecosystems. For example, they look at how acids affect plants, animals, and people. Some areas in which they work include waste management and the remediation of contaminated soils, water, and air.
Environmental scientists and specialists held about 90,000 jobs in 2012. Most environmental scientists and specialists work for federal, state, or local governments or private consulting firms that may work with government or private industry.
The industries that employed the most environmental scientists and specialists in 2012 were as follows:
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||22%|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||21|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||14|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||7|
Environmental scientists and specialists work in offices and laboratories. Some may spend time in the field gathering data and monitoring environmental conditions firsthand, but this work is much more likely to be done by environmental science and protection technicians. Fieldwork can be physically demanding, and environmental scientists and specialists may work in all types of weather. Environmental scientists and specialists may have to travel to meet with clients or present research at conferences.
Most consulting firms fall into one of two categories: large multidisciplinary engineering companies that employ thousands of workers, or small specialty firms that employ only a few workers. Larger firms are more likely to engage in large-scale, long-term projects in which environmental scientists work with scientists and engineers in other disciplines. In smaller specialty firms, environmental scientists work directly with small businesses and clients in government and the private sector.
Most environmental scientists and specialists work full time. They may have to work long or irregular hours when working in the field.
For most jobs, environmental scientists and specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science.
For most entry-level jobs, environmental scientists and specialists must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a science-related field, such as biology, chemistry, physics, geosciences, or engineering. However, a master’s degree may be needed for advancement. Environmental scientists and specialists who have a doctoral degree make up a small percentage of the occupation, and this level of training is typically needed only for the relatively few postsecondary teaching and basic research positions.
A bachelor’s degree in environmental science offers a broad approach to the natural sciences. Students typically take courses in biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Students often take specialized courses in hydrology, waste management, and fluid mechanics as part of their degree as well. Classes in environmental policy and regulation are also beneficial. Students who want to reach the Ph.D. level and have a career in academia or as an environmental scientist doing basic research may find it advantageous to major in a more specific natural science such as chemistry, biology, physics, or geology, rather than the broader environmental science degrees.
Students should look for opportunities, such as classes and internships, that allow for work with computer modeling, data analysis, and geographic information systems. Students with experience in these programs will be the best prepared to enter the job market.
Analytical skills. Environmental scientists and specialists base their conclusions on careful analysis of scientific data. They must consider all possible methods and solutions in their analyses.
Communication skills. Environmental scientists and specialists may need to present and explain their findings and write technical reports.
Interpersonal skills. Environmental scientists and specialists typically work on teams with scientists, engineers, and technicians. Team members must be able to work together effectively to achieve their goals.
Problem-solving skills. Environmental scientists and specialists try to find the best possible solution to problems that affect the environment and people’s health.
Self-discipline. Environmental scientists and specialists may spend a lot of time working alone. They need to be able to stay motivated and get their work done without supervision.
Environmental scientists and specialists often begin their careers as field analysts, research assistants, or technicians in laboratories and offices. As they gain experience, they earn more responsibilities and autonomy and may supervise the work of technicians or other scientists. Eventually, they may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or other management or research position.
Other environmental scientists and specialists go on to work as researchers or faculty at colleges and universities.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Some environmental scientists and specialists begin their careers as scientists in related occupations, such as hydrology or engineering, and then move into the more interdisciplinary field of environmental science.
The median annual wage for environmental scientists and specialists was $63,570 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,570, and the top 10 percent earned more than $109,970.
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$95,460|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||64,940|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||60,280|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||56,640|
Most environmental scientists and specialists work full time. They may have to work long or irregular hours if they work in the field.
Employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Heightened public interest in the hazards facing the environment, as well as the increasing demands placed on the environment by population growth, is projected to spur demand for environmental scientists and specialists.
Most employment growth for environmental scientists and specialists is projected to be in private consulting firms that help clients monitor and manage environmental concerns and comply with regulations. However, most jobs will remain concentrated in the various levels of government and closely related industries, such as publicly funded universities, hospitals, and national research facilities.
More businesses are expected to consult with environmental scientists and specialists in the future to help them minimize the impact their operations have on the environment. For example, environmental consultants help businesses to develop practices that minimize waste, prevent pollution, and conserve resources. Other environmental scientists and specialists are expected to be needed to help planners develop and construct buildings, utilities, and transportation systems that protect natural resources and limit damage to the land.
Environmental scientists and specialists should have good job opportunities. In addition to growth, many job openings will be created by scientists who retire, advance to management positions, or change careers.