Earning a Master’s in Sustainability Online

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Sustainability encompasses business, science, engineering, and social justice. Professionals in this field conduct environmental research, educate their communities about environmental issues, and promote the growth of companies without compromising natural resources or the environment. As the international community learns more about the far-reaching challenges of climate change, companies continue to look to skilled specialists who can help them develop and implement sustainable programs at all levels. In a 2014 survey, McKinsey Global Institute reported that 43% of executives wanted to align sustainability with organizational goals and practices; this represented a 30% increase from 2012.

An online sustainability master's program provides the advanced training students need to occupy emerging positions in the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. This guide provides in-depth information about degree options, admission procedures, and financial aid. Prospective learners can also gain insight into career opportunities and learn about a variety of professional development resources.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Sustainability?

Sustainability represents a diverse field that can create value for any student who wants to integrate environmental concepts and sustainable practices into their skill set. The typical online sustainability master's degree candidate holds undergraduate credentials in a complementary area, such as business, design, engineering, or leadership.

Distance education offers additional flexibility that often appeals to working professionals seeking to return to school to bolster their salary potential and/or cultivate career longevity. Although graduate certificate programs can also provide specialized training, a full master's track offers more advanced coursework and greater opportunities for networking and experiential learning.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Sustainability?

Pursuing Specialization

In addition to broad training in the discipline, online master's in sustainability programs often offer specializations that allow students to align coursework with their academic interests and professional goals. Options differ based on the type of degree program. For example, MBA programs may offer tracks in sustainable enterprise or sustainability management. Sustainable engineering and design represent other common program choices. Distance learners can also opt to earn highly specialized degrees, such as a master of natural resource sustainability or a master of renewable energy and sustainable systems.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Students who earn an online sustainability master's degree can look forward to more job opportunities and better pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), graduate degree holders earn about $12,000 more each year than professionals who possess only a baccalaureate degree. They also enjoy significantly lower unemployment rates. Furthermore, many industry organizations, such as the Project Management Institute, require candidates to hold a master's degree to sit for high-level licensure and certification exams.

Online Learning Technology

Online conferencing tools and course management platforms, like Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire2Learn, often power distance education. Due to the interactive nature of graduate training, online students develop multimedia communication skills that are valued by employers in a variety of areas. Additionally, master's programs typically focus on research methodologies and practical applications. As such, candidates learn to use information technology systems to gather, interpret, and apply data to make cogent and actionable decisions. These skills are particularly useful for students who want to pursue doctoral degrees.

Prerequisites for Online Sustainability Programs

Although admission criteria vary depending on the online sustainability master's program, many schools share common requirements, such as standardized test results, prerequisite coursework, and professional experience. Prospective students should always confirm program requirements with academic counselors before pursuing enrollment.

    • Work Experience: Colleges and universities often require that applicants to MBA or executive graduate programs hold at least two years of relevant work experience. If a school does not require work experience, students may be able to earn transfer credits based on previous career accomplishments.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Graduate programs increasingly eschew standardized test results, opting for a more holistic evaluation process. However, some online master's in sustainability programs still require candidates to submit GRE or GMAT scores. If an institution does not require these results, students can submit their scores to bolster their overall application strength and access merit-based scholarships, grants, and graduate fellowships. The Princeton Review reported that the average GRE scores for graduate students enrolled in the 2017-2018 academic year were 149.97, 152.57, and 3.48 for the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing portions, respectively.
    • Coursework: Depending on their school, graduate students may need to complete prerequisite classes. These topics differ depending on the field of study. Candidates enrolled in a business-focused sustainability program generally need to demonstrate training in economics, finance, and statistics. Alternatively, students pursuing an engineering degree can expect prerequisite requirements in areas such as chemistry and calculus-based physics. Learners who did not complete relevant classes as part of their undergraduate training may need to complete a bridge program before taking graduate-level courses.
    • Recommendations: Prospective students should prepare 2-3 recommendation letters. These documents usually come from academic or professional sources who can speak to a candidate's character, achievements, and work ethic. However, some universities -- particularly institutions that operate executive business programs -- require recommendations from former or current employers. In lieu of sealed letters, some schools prefer to contact references directly. Students should give recommenders enough time to craft detailed letters.
    • Essays: Personal essays allow students to elaborate on their professional accomplishments and academic interests. These 1-2-page statements also let candidates differentiate themselves from the applicant pool by creating a narrative that reflects their personality, ethics, and overall worldview. Some online sustainability master's programs give students a fairly general prompt, while others require learners to answer specific essay questions.
    • Interviews: While less common than other admission requirements, some colleges ask prospective students to submit to in-person or virtual interviews. An interview lets schools get to know applicants better, confirming that they possess the skills and personal attributes needed to effectively collaborate and communicate with peers and instructors. To prepare for an interview, students can consult various online resources, such as this guide published by the Princeton Review. Interviews may also be important when applying for scholarships, assistantships, or other forms of financial aid.
    • International Students: In addition to conventional admission requirements, international students must demonstrate English language proficiency by submitting adequate IELTS or TOEFL scores. Candidates who reside outside the U.S. must also apply for the F1 student visa; this process begins after an individual has received an acceptance letter to their school. Students should note that some graduate programs do not facilitate the visa process.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Sustainability?

Because sustainability specialists can work across multiple fields, their pay potential varies greatly based on their industry, employer, location, and individual qualifications. The BLS reports that professionals working in the business and financial sectors earn $38,130 (10th percentile) to $123,640 (90th percentile). Alternatively, architects and engineers can expect salaries ranging from $44,360 to $139,320. Beyond industry-specific competencies, master's programs teach students cross-sector skills that enable them to occupy high-paying management positions.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Sustainability Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Sustainability Manager

Median Salary: $71,000

Job Growth: 18%

These business leaders help companies sustain organizational growth while alleviating negative impacts made on the environment. Sustainability managers conduct evaluations to discern what areas of a company's operations should shift to reduce waste and greenhouse emissions. Managers also oversee employee conduct and training concerning designated sustainability policies.

Sustainability Consultant

Median Salary: $63,000

Job Growth: 11%

Sustainability consultants may work as freelancers or for a consulting firm. They help client organizations enact environmentally friendly practices. For example, when assisting a manufacturer, consultants may devise and implement programs that cut the harmful by-products created in plants and/or during shipping operations. These specialists may also bolster a company's image through public relations and community outreach campaigns.

Project Manager

Median Salary: $73,000

Job Growth: 10%

Project managers oversee every step of a project cycle, including the initial conception, planning and development, implementation, and post-project evaluation. Professionals who specialize in sustainability lead efforts to reduce or negate harmful environmental effects caused by industry and production. When working for an environmental group or nonprofit organization, project managers might facilitate research or educational programming that focuses on climate change.

Sustainability Coordinator

Median Salary: $49,000

Job Growth: 11%

Under the guidance of sustainability managers, coordinators oversee certain aspects of an organization's environmental campaign. For example, they may work with researchers to identify and assess the impact a company's operations has on the environment. Sustainability coordinators can also collaborate with PR specialists to develop a more favorable public image and educate communities about a company's green projects.

Source: BLS

Nontraditional Careers for Sustainability Graduates

While earning an online sustainability master's degree, students gain hard skills in information technology/data analysis, communication, and project management. They can apply these competencies in a multitude of fields. The following table highlights less conventional jobs for sustainability professionals. Depending on the position, candidates may need to pursue additional college education or professional training through licensure/certification programs.

Careers Stats Description

Environmental Scientist

Median Salary: $71,130

Job Growth: 11%

Skills Overlapped: Advanced research methodologies, project planning and implementation, professional communication, scientific expertise

These scientists research environmental issues and develop solutions to related challenges. They may work as industry consultants, helping client organizations reduce waste. Environmental scientists can also act as educators and advisers, urging communities and governments to adopt more sustainable policies. Furthermore, environmental scientists often work in the field to clean devastated areas or prevent water and land pollution.

Technical Writer

Median Salary: $71,850

Job Growth: 11%

Skills Overlapped: Advanced research methodologies, professional communication, stakeholder engagement, community outreach and education

Technical writers research and communicate complex issues often related to a particular industry. Writers who work in the sustainability field may report on environmental topics like soil erosion, industrial waste, corporate land use, and climate change. If they work for a single company, technical writers may create official reports and employee manuals about organizational sustainability efforts.

Conservation Scientist and Forester

Median Salary: $61,340

Job Growth: 6%

Skills Overlapped: Advanced research methodologies, program planning and implementation, professional communication, personnel management

These sustainability specialists protect the overall quality of natural landscapes, including parks, forests, and rangelands. Conservation scientists ensure farmers, landowners, and private companies adopt and maintain government environmental policies. They may also establish contracts for land use and resource extraction. Foresters work with conservationists to manage timber removal. They also direct forest fire suppression plans and implement land regeneration practices.

Source: Payscale

Paying for an Online Master’s in Sustainability

Even with relatively affordable tuition rates that may disregard residency status, students usually invest substantial amounts of money to obtain an online sustainability master's degree. Fortunately, graduate candidates can apply for need-based grants and low-interest loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Federal Student Aid office also facilitates loan forgiveness programs for learners who pursue public teaching and civil service professions. The list below contains a few scholarship opportunities for students in this field.

Scholarships for Online Sustainability Master's Students

In addition to government and institutional aid, master's degree candidates can take advantage of private scholarship opportunities. These awards may come from nonprofits, community organizations, and professional associations. Criteria vary depending on the award but generally focus on a student's career goals, academic performance, and identity characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity, sexuality, military status, and/or religious affiliation).

What to Expect from a Master’s-level Online Sustainability Program

Students enrolled in online sustainability master's programs complete at least 30 credits of coursework, which typically takes about two years. Accelerated tracks enable full-time candidates with relevant career and/or graduate-level experience to earn their credentials in roughly 12 months. Most colleges and universities offer flexible scheduling and asynchronous classes to meet the needs of working professionals. However, some schools operate hybrid and/or cohort learning structures that emphasize networking and peer-to-peer learning; these formats may slow a program's pace and reduce its flexibility.

Major Milestones

  1. Practicum

    Students typically engage in internships, field studies, and/or international trips to gain hands-on training and develop relationships with industry experts and potential employers. Universities may facilitate practicums through partner organizations. Alternatively, depending on their line of work, students may fulfill this requirement through their current employer.

  2. Capstone Requirement

    As part of their culminating assessment, students may complete a senior seminar or thesis research and defense. Capstone experiences may also come in the form of an applied project with a client organization. In each of these instances, students work with faculty advisers to apply accumulated knowledge and research skills to tackle pertinent environmental and sustainability challenges.

  3. Comprehensive Examination

    In addition to a capstone experience, online sustainability master's programs often require students to pass a comprehensive exam. This test may contain written and oral portions designed to evaluate a student's ability to apply degree competencies. Distance learners usually take exams through a university-approved proctor.

  4. Professional Certification or Licensure

    Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the sustainability field, students may pursue professional certificates or licenses related to their specific occupation. Even if a position does not require certification/licensure, earning optional credentials can demonstrate skill mastery and dedication.

  5. Continuing Education

    Students who want to become dedicated researchers and environmental scientists typically go on to earn their doctoral degrees. For other sustainability professionals, continuing education may be required to earn and/or maintain certificates and industry-specific licenses. Furthermore, noncredit continuing education represents a popular way for professionals to keep abreast of policy changes and emerging environmental challenges.

Coursework

In this field of study, core classes may cover renewable energy systems; energy markets, policy, and regulation; and ethical dimensions of sustainability systems. Students can usually individualize their degree plans through electives and concentrations. The list below describes a few more classes commonly encountered by learners in online master's in sustainability programs.

Climate Change, Adaptation, and Resilience

This fundamental course introduces students to the causes of climate change and its ability to reduce economic growth, degrade environmental functions, and harm human health. Students examine major and alternative responses to climate change, including government policies and global adaptation strategies.

Environmental Protection Law

This course covers the purposes, contexts, and implications of government regulations like the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Students gain an overview of the U.S. legal system and how different branches and agencies shape environmental law.

Water and Food Sustainability

In this class, students examine the social, economic, and environmental implications of water resource and usage regulations. Participants also analyze how food and farming systems affect communities and ecosystems. This is an especially important class for professionals working in agriculture and conservation.

Leading Sustainable Organizations

A crucial topic for managers and consultants, this class offers a macro-level perspective of organizational change and program implementation. Students learn to tackle environmental challenges while achieving a company's goals and satisfying the interests of stakeholders. Learners also train in situational leadership and conflict resolution styles.

Green Building

This course may be offered in online master's in sustainable development programs. Students learn about sustainable tools and strategies, including the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system. Specific topics may include optimal construction materials and designs that improve power and water consumption.

Degree Timelines

Many online sustainability master's programs deliver flexible degree plans that allow students to better accommodate their work schedules and meet academic and professional objectives. The following table details three different program formats and how they affect graduation timelines, coursework, and financial aid.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

3-5 years

Part-time students take one class at a time and graduate in roughly six semesters. This timeline may appeal to students who want to maintain a full work schedule. It also gives new professionals and career changers the time to cultivate practical experiences. However, colleges and universities may not offer financial aid to part-time learners.

Full-Time

2 years

In this standard timeline, students take 2-3 courses each semester. Due to the flexibility of asynchronous classes, full-time students often keep part-time jobs while pursuing their credentials. Students who enroll full time can access a variety of institutional scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Most external and private awards also require full-time status as a student.

Accelerated

12-18 months

Accelerated tracks often let students take 3-5 classes per semester and graduate in one year. These intensive programs usually require candidates to hold relevant work experience, which may fulfil some prerequisite and core requirements. Students in these programs enjoy full financial aid opportunities and can save money on tuition and fees.

Licenses and Certifications

The majority of sustainability professionals do not need to obtain industry certification or government licensure to work in their fields. However, optional credentials provide opportunities to display specialized skills and highly technical knowledge.

For example, environmental scientists can earn industry and board certification through the National Registry of Environmental Professionals and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists. Professionals with MBAs in sustainable management can pursue certification in project management and information technology from organizations like the Center for Sustainability and Excellence. The following list contains three additional training opportunities available to professionals in this field.

    • ISSP Sustainability Professional Certification: The International Society of Sustainability Professionals offers this credential at the associate and certified professional levels. Candidates who pursue the latter program must possess 3-5 years of relevant career experience. Exam takers demonstrate proficiency in six areas, including core sustainability concepts and stakeholder interests.
    • Certified Sustainable Development Professional: Facilitated by the Association of Energy Engineers, this certificate reflects a professional's expertise in areas such as sustainable transportation, alternative energy and carbon reduction, and sustainability program development. Participants attend a training seminar and sit for an open-book exam. Candidates need to meet criteria related to education and experience.
    • LEED Professional Credential: The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program targets students, product developers, and real estate contractors who want to highlight their green building skills and experiences. The two-hour exam contains 100 multiple-choice questions. U.S. Green Building Council members pay $200, college students pay $100, and nonmembers pay $250 to sit for the exam.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Online sustainability master's programs provide the practical training and research experience students need to pursue career entry and advancement. However, candidates can further expand their career opportunities by joining professional organizations. While membership usually requires an annual fee, benefits include networking events, including local chapter meetings and national/international conferences. Members can also access academic scholarships and project grants. Furthermore, many organizations provide professional development resources, such as the online classes facilitated by the American Planning Association.

  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists Founded in 1973, AAEES strengthens professional leadership in the sustainability field. The academy offers student-specific resources like campus organizations and the Young Professionals Program. Members can access job listings, award competitions, and a digital lecture series.
  • American Planning Association APA advocates for urban planners at all levels of the government. The association supports members by offering scholarships and comprehensive career guidance. Additional benefits include student mentorship programs, networking events, and an online knowledge center.
  • International Society of Sustainability Professionals ISSP boasts more than 1,000 members who collaborate through local and regional learning networks. The society operates a career center and certification programs. Members can also access professional development resources, including self-study courses, webinars, and live training events.
  • National Association of Environmental Professionals NAEP is a multidisciplinary organization that establishes best practices and ethical standards for the sustainability field. Members gain access to job listings, career development resources, and financial assistance. The association also hosts webinars, annual conferences, and research publications.
  • Society for Conservation Biology SCB supports more than 4,000 members worldwide through policy advocacy, education programs, and sustainability research initiatives. Members can access a job board, student awards, and the Smith Fellowship Program. The society connects professionals with working groups and local chapters.
  • Association of Christian Sustainability Professionals ACSP was founded in 2011 to support Christian students, practitioners, and advocates engaged in sustainability education and projects. The association provides training opportunities and a forum for networking and collaboration. ACSP also operates a network of member colleges and universities called the Creation Care Covenant.
  • Society of Women Environmental Professionals Formed in 1995, SWEP supports women in the field by providing leadership training and national networking events. The society also provides job listings, academic scholarships, and an achievement-based Touchstone Award.
  • U.S. Green Building Council Established in 1993, USGBC works to develop more sustainable architectural design and construction practices. In addition to the LEED certification program, the council offers comprehensive educational resources like curriculum plans, online courses, and on-site training seminars.
  • World Resources Institute WRI is a nonprofit research organization with branches in more than 60 countries. The institute conducts research and advocates for environmental policies. Students and working professionals can access career development and volunteer opportunities.
  • Young Professionals for Agricultural Development YPARD connects students and experts working to strengthen sustainable and equitable food systems. The network offers project funding and career opportunities all over the world. Students benefit from a mentorship program and can collaborate with peers by attending local meetings and national conferences.