Best PhD & Master's in Environmental Science Graduate Programs

An online Environmental Science degree could enable students to conveniently earn a Masters or PhD while keeping their work life up and running as well. Environmental Science (ES) is an interdisciplinary academic field that is, essentially, all about how science could be applied to study man-made and natural environments. The goals of ES are to solve environmental problems, manage natural resources, and examine the ways humans interact with their environment.i

written by Rana Waxman

Online Environmental Science Degree: Overview

An online environmental science degree program could be either generalized or more narrowly focused in its content. Generalist programs could include instruction in the following seven topics.i

  1. Biology
  2. Chemistry
  3. Physics
  4. Geosciences
  5. Climatology
  6. Statistics
  7. Mathematical Modeling

Subsets of environmental science might provide a narrower context of study. These areas include but are not limited to, agriculture, plant science, conservation biology, ecology or marine life.

Either way, online learners might discuss some of today’s key issues in addition to theories and methods of analysis. This might mean in-depth discussion of sustainability, pollution, renewable energy, policy, urban planning and development. Certainly, as a dynamic field of study, students could look for an environmental science degree online that appeals to their current interests as well as their future career goals.

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Key Branches of Environmental Science

Within the larger scope of environmental science are three distinct branches that could anchor a student’s research or academic focus: (1) environmental studies, (2) environmental management, and (3) environmental policy.

  • Environmental studies incorporate more social science and humanities course work to explore the ways humans interact with their environment.
  • Environmental management zooms in on the business, economics and managerial aspects of natural resources, although students often need a baseline grasp of natural science.
  • Environmental policy focuses on regulations, legislation, and governance or natural and man-made environments

Online Environmental Science Masters Programs: The Basics 

An online Masters in Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary program that might suit students with a broad range of interests and aims. They are often designed for seasoned professionals as much as for career changers or those with limited previous science coursework.


While universities vary with respect to credit demands, some programs may be designed to be completed in two years of full-time study. A curriculum may depend on program emphasis, although students could reasonably expect core courses, electives, and some independent research. Core courses are usually required by all students in the program as they often present the foundational science concepts and theories to students. Electives add curricular flexibility to allow students to tailor academic studies to suit personal aims and interests.


Significantly, a Master of Science (MS) in Environmental Science might require the completion of a thesis. Online students might therefore take several classes devoted to ‘independent research seminars’ in which s/he devotes time to their research project.

The thesis is usually a well-documented piece of original written work that synthesizes a student’s inquiry and might be published by the student at the end of their program. Consequently, some students might want to pair with a professor or mentor who could guide them through the research process. Or, search for a program where the current research interests of faculty matches up with that of the student.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary between universities and programs. Applicants to some Master of Science programs need a bachelors degree from a regionally accredited university or college, in any major. Candidates may need some undergraduate courses in statistics, chemistry and biology along with some volunteer or paid work experience. 

Online Environmental Science Masters Programs: The Choices

Variations of the MS degree may be offered by multiple universities. Each program may differ in format, courses, degree and admissions requirements.

Environmental Sciences and Policy

An online MS in Environmental Sciences and Policy (MS in ESP) could help students understand two main concepts: (1) where the sciences overlap and inform policy, and (2) how policy is implemented and affects environmental outcomes.

Students might therefore study how environmental policy is created, updated, regulated, communicated and enforced, and the effects of these processes on the environment. Individuals who pursue the MS in ESP with no extra area of emphasis might study ecology, geology, hydrology and atmospheric processes. A course in environmental policymaking and policy analysis could cover political and legal frameworks as well as statutes such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Those who do want to select an area of emphasis might have several options. These may include:

Environmental Monitoring and Analysis: A focus in Environmental Monitoring and Analysis might explore environmental issues through measurement and analysis. Course work could include topics such as geospatial data modeling, epidemiology, and risk management.

Ecological Management: A focus in Ecological Management could help students understand specific ecosystems and broader issues in the ecological sciences. Course topics could include natural resource management, GIS, biodiversity and wildlife conservation.

Environmental Management: A focus in Environmental Management could discuss the balance between economic, environmental, and social issues. Associated course topics could include radioactive waste management, nonprofits, cost-benefit analysis and climate change.

Environmental Planning: A focus in Environmental Planning might examine the interaction of the built environment and the natural environment. Students might study how to reduce the negative impacts on the environment and restore the quality of both the natural environment and human settlements.

Natural Resource Stewardship 

An online Master of Natural Resource Stewardship could provide a well-rounded course of study. Students might study natural environmental processes and how they interact with human systems, as well as how subsystems affect one another. Other topics might include degraded landscape restoration principles and a study of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and how to ensure compliance.

Students enrolled in this program might choose an area of emphasis.

Ecological Restoration: A focus in ecological restoration might help students learn how to influence the type of vegetation that re-establishes itself and the speed with which recovery occurs. Required courses could cover topics such as natural resources inventory, wetland ecology, and restoration and fire ecology.

Forest Sciences: A focus in forest sciences might explore the resource management challenges related to forests around the world. Students could study the economics of forests, restoration and fire, ecology of disturbed lands and fire ecology.

Rangeland Ecology and Management: A focus in rangeland ecology and management could explore the links between bio-physical and human systems to ensure sustainable practices. Related courses could cover rangeland herbivore ecology and the ecology of grasslands.

Earning an Online PhD Programs in Environmental Science

Online PhD programs in environmental science approach research from a multi-disciplinary point of view. Students enrolled in an online PhD program might engage with courses and seminars as well as substantive independent research. Breadth of knowledge could be fostered through classes in ecology, comparative ecological analysis, global environmental change, political economy, sustainability, and environmental history. 

ES PhD students must also conduct research and write a dissertation. The topic is often approved in advance, and to earn their degree, candidates must defend his or her work before a committee. Graduates from a PhD in environmental science program might pursue a career in academia or research, thus students may have to put in some time as assistant teachers.ii

Universities with online PHD in ES programs may require applicants to have a Bachelors or Masters degree in a related field, however each school’s admissions process may differ.


When surveyed, 79% of Senior Policy Analyst reported they had earned a Masters degree, 4% answered they had earned a graduate certificate.iii

Online Environmental Science Certificates

Students who want to pursue graduate studies might pursue an environmental studies certificate online. An online environmental science certificate typically covers a singular theme through a short series of courses. These programs are often available as stand-alone certificates or as part of a graduate degree program. Students might need to complete 3 or more courses, and may have some flexibility to choose their course of study from an approved list of core topics.

Applicants typically need a minimum of a Bachelors degree, and some schools require candidates to fill out a graduate application form.

A certificate could be a great way to refine skills or study to gain an overview of an area such as horticulture or sustainable and renewable energy.

Horticulture: An online advanced horticulture graduate certificate could provide a broad overview of horticultural production. Curriculum might include nursery, greenhouse, edible food crop production and course work in horticultural business management.

Renewable and Sustainable Energy: An online graduate certificate in renewable energy could cover technology, policy and the business of renewable energy.

Grassland Management: An online graduate certificate in grassland management could cover grassland fire ecology, monitoring, assessment and plant identification. Students might be able to choose electives in topics such as watershed management or ecology of invasive species.

Earning an Environmental Science Degree Online

In some universities, environmental science online degree courses are taught by faculty in an interactive style that follows a semester format, and may have a cap on class size that is the same as on-site courses.

Structure and Format

In terms of the way course lectures are delivered, it is often asynchronous. This means that students have the flexibility to log in when and from wherever they are if there are no lectures to attend at a certain time. There are, however, due dates for tests and assignments, and these are usually clearly posted online.

Virtual Classroom

Typically, online Environmental Science degree course content is delivered to learners via a course management system (Blackboard is one example). Therefore, it might come with a substantial media portfolio. This could consist of course material and narrated PowerPoint presentations, problem sets, discussion threads, short-paper assignments, and various other means to engage online learners. Students could also interact with each other as well as the instructor through this platform.


While a school may offer a program that has a strong online presence which students could complete from a distance, there may be a brief residency as well. This could take the form of an onsite of in-person field study course that is offered in an intense (compressed) format.

Take the Next Step

Narrow your search for an online environmental science degree next. Filter by program level to obtain a list of sponsored online Masters, PhD and environmental studies certificates. Then, fill out the on-page form to contact online schools for environmental science directly!

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