Environmental Science Graduate Programs are interdisciplinary programs that allow students to expand their expertise in topics such as environmental policy, food science, ecology, renewable energy, and more. Graduate programs in environmental science integrate physical, biological and information sciences to help students better understand the environment and identify solutions to today's greatest challenges.
Many environmental science graduate programs take a practical approach and often include analysis and research. Programs may also include field work, preparing graduates to develop and implement environmental policies and practices in the public and private sector.
written by Rana Waxman
Environmental Science Graduate Programs may offer masters or doctorate degrees. For those who want to study at the graduate level but are not ready for another degree, a certificate may be an alternative. Each level and type of program may cover advanced topics in environmental science, but will vary in area of emphasis, program length and requirements.
True to most science-focused degrees, graduate programs in environmental science often require significant field work, lab work, or other data-oriented studies. Students interested in environmental science grad schools may therefore need a strong background in the more traditional sciences: biology, physics, chemistry, geography, ecology, and even biotechnology.
|Ecology||University of California - Davis||PhD|
|Marine Science||California State University, Sacramento||MMA|
|Extension Education – (M.Ext.Ed.)||Colorado State University||N/A|
|Master of Science in Environmental Sciences and Policy||Johns Hopkins University||MS|
|Graduate Certificate in Renewable and Sustainable Energy||University of Colorado - Boulder||N/A|
DID YOU KNOW?
When surveyed, 26% of Environmental Analysts reported they had a Masters degree and 2% a Professional degree.i
That said, there are two main questions to consider when you search for a graduate program in environmental science: (1) Do you want a generalist program? (2) Are your interests more specific?
Environmental Science (ES) is the study of the effects of the physical components of the planet, and natural and unnatural processes on the environment. It is often thought of as the entire scope of scientific studies that includes ecosystems, biology, physics, chemistry, zoology, soil science, geology and beyond.
In a generalist program, students may take a quantitative approach to understand things such as earth processes, alternative energy, pollution control, and the effects of climate change. Then, students may learn to use various analytic and ecological tools to help address issues in these areas.
Environmental engineering is another aspect of the environmental sciences. It tackles the design and technology that could be used to improve environmental quality in its many facets.
In addition to traditional environmental science graduate programs, students may also explore social science aspects of the field. These types of graduate programs in environmental science typically fall in one of three categories: (1) environmental studies, (2) environmental policy, and (3) environmental management.
Environmental studies bring in the social sciences such as economics, business, law or sociology to discuss matters of the environment. As a discipline, it grapples with things such as human relationships, perceptions and policies towards the environment. Then, it may use the humanities (e.g. history, environmental policy) to address related issues.
If this draws your interest, environmental studies graduate programs that zoom in on society, food systems, leadership, policy or health administration might be up your alley.
Environmental policy graduate programs often combine core science, ethics and technology courses with principles of environmental sustainability and change. Students could how the sciences overlap with and inform policy. They might also develop insight into how policy is put into action and the ways specific policies might affect environmental outcomes.
Environmental management graduate programs might focus primarily on the balance among economic, environmental, and social interest aspects of natural resources. In some programs, students could develop business and leadership skills as they study areas such as healthcare operations, population health management, or ecology.
Either way, a focus in environmental management typically discusses specific natural environmental processes and how they interact with human systems.
Environmental Science Masters programs are interdisciplinary programs that may help students develop a deeper grasp of today’s environmental problems. Students might study issues such as habitat loss, global climate change, water and air pollution, ozone depletion, species invasions, loss of biodiversity, and the buildup of toxic wastes. Then, they may work to identify solutions and create environmental policies to address these problems.
Most Masters in Environmental Science programs award an MS degree. A Master of Science in Environmental Science (MSES) is typically a broad-based program where students must complete between 34-36 credit hours of required courses and electives. Full-time students may earn their Environmental Science masters degree after 2 years of study.
Though less common, MA and Professional Science Masters (PSM) environmental science masters programs may also be available. The differences between these programs may be found in the approach to subject matter or focus. PSM degrees, for example, mirror the MS but also emphasize workplace skills. In other cases, differences may be negligible. Follow up with individual schools to learn more.
Students in a Master in Environmental Science program might examine the causes of environmental issues, and how decisions and policies might balance environmental conservation, human well-being, and economic development.
While course names vary, below are some sample Masters Environmental Science topics. (Refer to individual schools for exact details.)
Within their courses, students may participate in field work or laboratory study. Environmental Science Masters students may also need to propose, conduct, and report on an original research thesis or capstone project.
Non-thesis Masters in Environmental Science programs may also be available. Contact individual schools to learn what you might expect.
Students who pursue a Masters in Environmental Science may, in some universities, focus their studies through an area of emphasis. This is where a series of courses forms around a set theme that might match career goals or an area you wish to research. Examples follow, but be sure to refer to individual schools to see what is available from each.
Environmental Monitoring and Analysis: A focus in environmental monitoring and analysis could zoom in on issues such as how to identify, assess, monitor and quantify environmental problems. With an eye toward solutions, students might take courses in measurement and could learn analytical techniques.
Ecological Management: A focus on ecological management stresses the direction of natural resources within an ecological context. Students might study to understand specific ecosystems (e.g. forestry) as well as broader issues within the ecological sciences that apply to various systems.
Environmental Planning: A focus on environmental planning might discuss how to implement solutions to environmental problems in specific situations. Students might explore, for instance, how development interacts with the natural environment. Coursework could delve into ways to reduce impacts and restore quality of both the natural environment and human settlements.
Sustainability Science: A focus in sustainability science may have a global and multi-disciplinary viewpoint. Often it is structured to help student learn to analyze and explain local, national, and worldwide efforts at sustainability. Students might develop their grasp of how natural, economic, and social systems interact to create, prevent or constrain sustainability. Coursework might therefore cover topics such as policy and legal frameworks, environmental institutions, ecological systems, property rights, food and energy security, and culture.
Energy and Climate: A focus in energy and climate could discuss environmental issues and the socioeconomic and cultural aspect of climate change. Coursework could expand on topics such as how the energy sector—whether oil and gas, renewables or utilities—contend with the issues that surround climate change.
Applicants to a MS in environmental science program may need a bachelors degree, earned from an accredited university or college in environmental science, biological science, or a related discipline. Aside from official transcripts and references, candidates may need a cumulative GPA of 3.0 (or equivalent) overall and in math/science. Further required material might include a personal essay that details the applicant’s research and project interests, career goals, and why they feel the program is suitable for them. Requirements vary, so contact individual environmental science masters programs to be sure you know
A PhD in Environmental Science is a terminal, research-focused degree. Typically, an Environmental Science PhD Program requires the completion of core and elective coursework, original research, a dissertation, and a comprehensive exam. In some schools, this amounts to about 61 credits, which generally takes a full-time student between 3 to 6 years to complete. That said, there are many variables, such as prior education level, program, and research topic.
Usually, the curriculum in a PhD in Environmental Science is interdisciplinary in order to allow students to develop the breadth of knowledge needed to address their area of interest through critical analysis and independent inquiry.
In terms of research, students might choose to focus their research on a variety of areas such as energy, sustainability, marine studies, environmental resource management, biology and chemistry, forestry, or botany.
Applicants to Environmental Science PhD Programs may need either a Bachelors or Masters degree in a biological science to qualify for a Biology program. Or, a Bachelor's or Master's degree in science, mathematics, engineering, or environmental science for a Chemistry program.
Some environmental science schools expect candidates for specific programs to have a GPA of 3.5 or above, and may ask for GRE scores of at least 300 (quantitative and verbal), and 3.5 (analytical writing).
Additionally, a graduate faculty member sometimes must agree to direct a student’s doctoral program, and financial support must have been identified for a stipend and for research needs. Contact schools to learn more.
A graduate certificate in environmental science is typically a shorter program that explores a single topic in detail through a series of graduate-level courses. Due to the focused coursework, some certificate in environmental science programs may be completed in as little as a year. Be aware that programs vary.
The curriculum for each certificate program is tied to the area of emphasis. For instance, a graduate program in renewable energy might delve into the technologies, policies and business areas that form the cornerstones of the sustainable energy industry. Students might need to take 3 required courses to earn their certificate, or a total of nine credits.
Another type of certificate, the MicroMasters, might entail a series of credit-eligible courses that students take to first earn a “verified certificate”. Then, for those who want to take their studies to a new level, it may be possible to transfer credits and apply into the related Masters program.
Applicants typically need a Bachelors degree to apply, although admission requirements could vary somewhat. Post-graduate certificates may require a master's degree or higher.
Interested in a more focused PhD or Masters in Environmental Science program? Because of the scope of ES, graduate students might concentrate their studies on a select area, and therefore may need related prerequisites. Five of the specialties within environmental graduate programs are as follows.
Agricultural Science and Agronomy Graduate programs could focus on areas such as horticulture, food science, animals, soil, or plants. Agriculture and food scientists research the methods used to improve the efficiency and safety of agricultural establishments and products.ii Agronomists more specifically study plant science and crop production.
Botany and Plant Science Graduate Programs could focus on ways to improve crop yields and may study techniques that enhance production as well as control pests and weeds. ii Botanists typically study plants from all aspects—such as growth, diseases and structure.
Conservation Biology Graduate programs could highlight areas such as forestry, land use, and environmental protection. Conservation scientists and foresters manage the overall land quality of forests, parks, rangelands, and other natural resources. Students might choose to target a specific aspect of conservation such as soil and water, urban life, resource management, or wildlife.iii
Ecology Graduate Programs could focus on how to minimize society’s impact on the ecosystem. For instance, an environmental chemist might study how acid rain impacts plant life. Some of the areas that might be addressed could include climate change, environmental health, restoration, and industrial ecology.iv
Marine Science Graduate Programs might focus on topics such as water pollution and its effects on fish populations as well as on the other wildlife species that inhabit the oceans. Some programs might include coursework in advanced computer software such as geographic information systems (GIS) and modeling software.v
Graduate programs in environmental science may be available as on-campus or online degree programs. Environmental Science schools may allow students to study and research in person with a faculty mentor.
Meanwhile, online environmental science degrees allow students to conveniently study from anywhere they have internet connectivity. Because they often appeal to at-work professionals, some online programs may allow students to complete any practical component at an approved locale in their own community. Whatever your preference, be sure to follow up with an advisor to determine what might be expected.
[i] onetonline.org/link/summary/19-2041.00 | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/agricultural-and-food-scientists.htm#tab-2 | [iii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/conservation-scientists.htm#tab-2 | [iv] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm#tab-2 | [v] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/zoologists-and-wildlife-biologists.htm#tab-4