Earning a Master's in Environmental Science Online

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An interdisciplinary field, environmental science uses biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and computer science to understand and protect our environment. Depending on a graduate's background and interests, earning a master's in environmental science online can lead to employment as a scientist, researcher, engineer, or educator.

Due to an increasing pressure to resolve environmental concerns, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11%-12% job growth for environmental science and protection technicians and environmental scientists and specialists between 2016 and 2026. Read on to learn more about what it takes to earn this degree and how graduating with an online master's in environmental science can help advance your career.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Environmental Science?

A field as diverse as environmental science attracts a variety of prospective students. Among the most obvious candidates for an online master's in environmental science program are bachelor's-level students seeking career advancement opportunities and students pursuing a specialization in the field that requires additional education. Others who might want to look into this degree include those trying to decide between earning a professional certification or a master's, as well as current professionals interested in furthering their career options and salary potential.

The list below details three key motivations that drive prospective students toward a graduate-level education in environmental science.

Pursuing Specialization

Students may pursue a master's in environmental science online in order to find work in a specialization within the field or to branch out into environmental science specializations in related industries. At the graduate level, degrees often feature concentration components geared toward students with a specialization in mind, such as sustainability science, ecological/environmental management, or conservation. Environmental science professionals requiring specialized education may include sustainability specialists, environmental program directors, and environmental health and safety specialists.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Many entry-level jobs in the environmental science field can be pursued by those with a bachelor's degree alone, including environmental science and protection technicians, soil and water conservationists, and water or wastewater engineers. However, an online master's in environmental science can increase one's competitiveness in the workplace, helping workers secure promotions to jobs with more responsibility and higher pay. Graduate-level education is sufficient for careers as an environmental scientist, environmental engineer, or hydrologist.

Online Learning Technology

Whether developed for synchronous or asynchronous delivery, today's online college experience requires extensive use of computer technology to access coursework, complete assignments, and communicate with peers and professors. Environmental science professionals often need excellent communication and technology skills, in addition to advanced academic knowledge. From this perspective, utilizing the latest communication technology and learning management systems to complete a master's degree online can serve as a useful professional development tool.

Prerequisites for Online Environmental Science Programs

In order to pursue a master's in environmental science online, students typically need to meet several prerequisite requirements. These vary by school/program, they but may include the following:

    • Work Experience: Most online master's degrees in environmental science do not require applicants to supply proof of work experience. Assuming other prerequisite requirements are met, students can typically apply to programs as soon as they earn their bachelor's. However, gaining work experience before beginning a graduate track can prove valuable, allowing students to apply practical knowledge to their studies.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Exam and test score requirements vary from school to school. Not every online master's in environmental science program requires standardized test scores. Schools that do require the GRE do not always advertise their minimum score requirements. However, competitive GRE scores generally include 158-162 on the verbal section and 159-162 on the quantitative section. Scores are valid for five years.
    • Coursework: Students interested in earning a master's in environmental science online typically must have a significant undergraduate history and high GPAs in science and mathematics. Specific requirements vary, but applicants should expect to need at least one semester of calculus, statistics, and chemistry. Many schools have designated completion plans available for strong applicants who lack necessary course prerequisites.
    • Recommendations: Requirements for professional references or letters of recommendation vary from school to school. Some graduate programs do not require any at all. Others may request or require 2-3 recommendations. Letters should be provided by either professors or employers who can speak to an applicant's academic ability, work ethic, and/or integrity.
    • Essays: A majority of online master's degrees in environmental science require submission of an essay during the admissions process. Generally, essays should demonstrate an applicant's best writing abilities, show a compelling interest in environmental science, reveal how the degree aligns with an applicant's career goals, and explain what qualities an applicant would bring to the program.
    • Interviews: Generally, applicants do not need to complete interviews when applying to a master's in environmental science online. However, exceptions may occur, especially for extremely popular programs or competitive cohorts. If required to complete an interview with faculty or admissions staff, applicants should be prepared to discuss their academic and employment histories, relevant accomplishments, and future goals.
    • International Students: International students applying to an online master's in environmental science may need to provide proof of English language proficiency, in addition to all of the other prerequisite requirements. The most popular test choices for English language proficiency are the TOEFL and the IELTS. Students with degrees from schools outside of the U.S. should also closely evaluate course equivalencies.

What to Expect From a Master's-level Online Environmental Science Program

Students earning a master's in environmental science online typically take 30-40 credits of advanced coursework and a capstone project. Most programs are designed for completion in 2-3 years of full-time study (longer for part-time students). Online learning involves regular participation and communication with others in a virtual classroom via webcam, chat rooms, discussion boards, and/or email.

The section below breaks down a few major milestones graduate students in environmental science can expect to encounter.

Major Milestones

  1. Core Coursework

    Completion of core coursework requires intensive study, online participation, and independent work. Some programs require students to complete on-campus residencies or other location-based visits for enhanced learning opportunities.

  2. Concentration/Focus

    Completion of electives or concentration courses allows students to delve into their personal and professional interests. Some of these classes may also require in-person attendance.

  3. Internship

    Despite the largely online format, master's students in environmental science often receive the option to complete an on-site internship as an elective or part of their capstone work.

  4. Intent to Graduate

    Required by all students planning to graduate, this form certifies that a learner will have completed all degree requirements on schedule and confirms important diploma information such as a student's name spelling and their mailing address.

  5. Capstone

    The capstone for an online master's in environmental science may require a thesis or an original research project related to the student's academic focus or current employment.

  6. Thesis/Project Presentation

    A master's program may host an on-campus event for thesis and final project presentations; this is often scheduled in conjunction with a commencement ceremony. Attendance may be optional or required.

Master's in Environmental Science Coursework

The curriculum of a master's in environmental science online program includes core and elective courses in science, ethics, law, and related topics. Potential courses you may encounter include:

Environmental Law and Policy

Students study the history, evolution, and frameworks of U.S. environmental law and policy development. Students become familiar with major policies like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Environmental Economics

Students learn to apply fundamental economic theory and concepts to environmental issues. Topics covered may include cost assignment, nonrenewable and renewable resources, and environmental issues associated with economic growth.

Science of Climate Change

Courses on climate change often examine the role that human activity plays in climate change, offering a forum for discussion of related issues. Students gain a comprehensive understanding of current climate science.

Ecosystem Management

Through examination of case studies covering various ecosystems and management challenges, students gain the fundamental scientific knowledge and practical skills required to develop effective ecosystem management plans.

Environmental Restoration

Often field-centered and requiring on-site visits, these courses introduce students to long-term restoration efforts and conservation/mitigation measures. Specific focuses may vary according to the ecosystems local to your university (e.g., rivers, forests, etc.).

Licenses and Certifications

Licensure and certification options vary widely for environmental science professionals, depending heavily on each individual's academic focus, line of work, and state-specific requirements. The three certifications detailed below represent optional credentials that can help bolster a professional's resume on the national or international job market.

    • Registered Environmental Professional®: REP certification — designed for professionals working in environmental project management — requires candidates to hold a relevant master's degree or select environmental licensure. No exam is required. This certification is well-suited for a variety of career pursuits.
    • Certified Environmental Scientist: CES certification confirms a professional's basic knowledge of environmental science concepts. Candidates must possess a relevant bachelor's degree, at least three years of work experience, and pass an exam.
    • Qualified Environmental Professional: The international QEP certification confirms an environmental science professional's interdisciplinary skills and knowledge. Candidates must possess a bachelor's degree, at least five years of work experience, and pass an exam.

How Much Can I Make With a Master's Degree in Environmental Science?

Environmental science professionals can earn salaries ranging from $30,000-$100,000, depending on their area of specialization and level of experience. Earning a college degree does not automatically guarantee a graduate their dream job, but a higher education education does provide advanced industry knowledge and skills, which can help improve a candidate's competitiveness in the job market. Graduates can further improve their job prospects by considering both traditional and less common career opportunities where environmental science skills may come into play.

How Careers for Master's in Environmental Science Graduates Stack Up Against Similar Careers

Environmental Scientist and Specialist

Median Salary: $71,130

Job Growth: 10%-14%

Environmental scientists and specialists conduct research and investigations to identify, reduce, and/or eliminate sources of environmental pollutants. These professionals must possess excellent communication and observational skills, as well as keen knowledge of various software used for scientific, analytical, database, and graphic purposes. Jobs typically require a bachelor's or master's.

Environmental Engineer

Median Salary: $87,620

Job Growth: 5%-9%

Environmental engineers complete various duties in the pursuit of prevention, control, and remediation of environmental hazards. These professionals must understand a variety of software programs and possess extensive knowledge and skills in technology, science, law, and mathematics. Jobs typically require a bachelor's or master's.

Geoscientist

Median Salary: $91,130

Job Growth: 10%-14%

Geoscientists working in environmental science utilize their knowledge of physics, mathematics, and geology for waste disposal and land reclamation projects. These professionals must possess analytical, interpretive, and critical thinking skills, as well as extensive knowledge in math and science. Jobs typically require a bachelor's or master's.

Environmental Science and Protection Technician

Median Salary: $46,170

Job Growth: 10%-14%

Environmental science and protection technicians conduct field and lab tests to monitor the environment and investigate pollution sources. Tasks include recording data, producing reports, and discussing results with customers and/or supervisors. These professionals must possess excellent communication, analytical, and scientific skills. Jobs typically require a bachelor's.

Soil and Water Conservationist

Median Salary: $61,310

Job Growth: 5%-9%

Soil and water conservationists plan and develop coordinated practices to help control soil erosion and to promote water conservation and sound land use. Tasks include monitoring projects, visiting sites, and advising others. These professionals must possess excellent communication, analytical, and scientific skills. Jobs typically require a bachelor's.

Hydrologist

Median Salary: $79,370

Job Growth: 10%-14%

Hydrologists study precipitation and research the distribution, circulation, and properties of water above and below the earth's surface. Tasks include preparing reports, measuring and graphing data, and designing and conducting investigations. These professionals must master skills related to software use, mathematics, and science. Jobs typically require a bachelor's or master's.

Water/Wastewater Engineer

Median Salary: $87,620

Job Growth: 5%-9%

Water/wastewater engineers use problem-solving skills to design and oversee complex projects involving drinking water, wastewater, sewage, and/or prevention of flood damage. These professionals must possess skills related to various software programs and knowledge of construction, mathematics, design, and technology. Jobs typically require a bachelor's.

Environmental Science Teacher, Postsecondary

Median Salary: $79,910

Job Growth: 10%-14%

Postsecondary environmental science teachers lead college-level courses in environmental science. Many also complete complete research tasks outside the classroom. These professionals must possess excellent communication skills and firm knowledge of various disciplines, including science, mathematics, technology, and education. Jobs typically require a doctorate.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET

Paying for an Online Master's in Environmental Science

Earning a college degree typically requires a significant financial investment, but students pursuing a master's in environmental science online can help reduce their overall out-of-pocket costs by planning ahead.

First, seek out programs with tuition rates you can afford. Accelerated or full-time programs may cost less overall than part-time tracks. In addition to exploring federal student aid opportunities, reach out to your school's financial aid department for information about institutional scholarships and other funding opportunities. Many third-party organizations and private parties also provide subject-specific grants and scholarships to college students.

Scholarships for Online Environmental Science Master's Students

Whether need-based or achievement-based, students pursuing a master's in environmental science online can pursue several tailored scholarship opportunities offered by corporations, membership associations, and environmental organizations. Take a look at the five scholarship options listed below to help you get started on your funding search.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Environmental science is a complex, multidisciplinary field undergoing constant development with local, national, and global implications. Environmental science students and working professionals alike can benefit from pursuing membership with a professional organization. Membership associations offer access to current, peer-reviewed research journals; career resources; and online/in-person networking opportunities.

The list below describes environmental science organizations and popular online resources, including a job board and a daily news site.

  • Association for Environmental Health and Sciences Foundation: This nonprofit membership association facilitates communication and cooperation among environmental health and science professionals. Members receive benefits including networking opportunities, journal access, and professional development seminars and workshops.
  • Institution of Environmental Sciences: This charitable organization — based in London — seeks to raise public awareness of environmental science and support professionals in the field. IES represents individuals at all experience levels. Benefits include journal access and national/regional events.
  • Ecological Society of America: Since 1915, this nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has worked to raise public awareness of ecological science, improve professional communication within the field, and increase the resources available to ecology professionals. Membership benefits include access to research publications, advocacy, and career support.
  • Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology: This nonprofit membership association connects multidisciplinary professionals from around the globe and provides international standards, guidelines, and education programs. Membership benefits include access to a career center, journal, and savings opportunities.
  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists: AAEES is a nonprofit organization that provides workshops, seminars, and board certification opportunities to environmental science professionals. Membership benefits include publication access, discounted certification exam fees, and networking opportunities.
  • Environmental Career Opportunities: ECO is a free online job board for environmental science professionals. Job-seekers can search for jobs by state or by category. ECO's free email newsletter delivers weekly job listings to subscribers.
  • Environmental Science and Engineering Magazine: ES&E Magazine is based in Canada but offers useful content to environmental science professionals around the globe. This free digital magazine covers topics including wastewater, air pollution, infrastructure, and remediation.
  • RealClimate: Authored by working climate scientists, RealClimate offers commentary and contextual responses to developing stories on climate change. This nonpartisan site retains a scientific focus, rarely engaging in political or economic discourse.
  • Bioremediation Journal: This peer-reviewed journal provides free, open access to quarterly issues of original research in bioremediation and environmental restoration. Students and professionals can take advantage of its high-quality articles and contributions.
  • ScienceDaily: ScienceDaily gathers daily breaking news from top universities, scientific journals, and research organizations. Visitors can browse news stories from more than 500 topics, including environmental science.