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Online Environmental Science Degrees

These days, thinking about the health of the environment is more than just a pastime for tree-hugging hikers and conservation biologists. We've become much more of an eco-conscious nation than we once were, and environmental scientists are one of the main lines of defense we have against the degradation of our natural world.

Training as an environmental scientist can give you the skills, tools and knowledge you need to be a part of the thin green line that separates natural resources from natural disaster. Here's a table that shows how many schools offer an environmental science degree either online or in a traditional classroom as of 2015, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Region No. of schools offering environmental science degrees No. of schools with at least one environmental science degree online
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 93 1
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 23 1
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 61 6
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 53 0
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 110 4
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 100 2
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 115 2
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 60 0
Total (all 50 states) 615 16

Entry-level environmental science degrees

Degrees in environmental science are available at varying depths of study, designed for the simply curious as well as the dedicated eco-warrior. Take a look at this quick detail of what you can expect from environmental science degrees online and on campus at the undergraduate level:

  • Associate degrees - Environmental science programs at the associate level work to introduce students to the fundamentals of scientific inquiry and analysis through the lens of biology, chemistry, geology and other earth and life sciences. Associate degrees typically require two years of full-time study to complete, and some schools may give students the opportunity to choose an environmental specialty such as water resource management, renewable energy or sustainability.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Four-year degrees in environmental science continue along the same path that's begun during associate degree study, bringing in additional courses in specialized ecological concepts like air quality, natural disasters, urban ecology and environmental influences on human health. Bachelor's programs also typically include quantitative training in data gathering, statistical analysis, research methods and use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology. A wider range of specializations, including aquatic biology, environmental policy and sustainable agriculture, may also be available.
  • Non-degree study - Students looking to train in a particular branch of environmental science can find certificate programs at the undergraduate level that focus on specific environmental issues or capabilities of ecological practice. These certificates may include such subjects as fish and wildlife management, public lands management, sustainability, erosion control, hazardous waste management and regional and community planning, to name a few. Certificates in environmental science technology can also be found, for students hoping to find jobs as assistants in environmental science operations.

Science disciplines that have laboratory or fieldwork components can be difficult to translate into the virtual classroom, but there are a few programs out there that allow you to earn an environmental science degree online. Some may require that you take laboratory sections on campus or at an affiliated learning center, while others may feature virtual lab facilities or concentrate on the data processing side of scientific analysis.

Advanced-degree environmental science programs

For students who want to go the extra mile in training to preserve and protect the environment, graduate and post-graduate degrees in environmental studies take the skills learned in a bachelor's program to the next level. Here's some info about programs that lead to advanced environmental science degrees online and in the traditional classroom:

  • Master's degree programs - Master's degrees in the environmental sciences tend to take one of two forms. Academically oriented degrees are targeted at students who plan to use their knowledge to conduct research or teach classes in the discipline, while professional environmental science degrees are designed to combine advanced environmental science skills with career-relevant business, communication and management concepts. Specializations are often available at the master's level as well — air quality, water quality, urban agriculture and environmental science education are just a few examples.
  • Doctorate programs - Numerous institutions offer post-graduate study of environmental science, with programs typically leading to a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Most Ph.D. programs take an interdisciplinary approach to the discipline, combining high-level study of various specialties to encourage complex reasoning about broad-spectrum issues in ecology and the environment. Most programs take anywhere from three to six years to complete and culminate in the defense of a written dissertation.
  • Graduate certificates - Many environmental science graduate certificates are organized in similar way to their undergraduate counterparts, taking a tight focus on specific areas of the discipline such as hazardous waste management, environmental health and geospatial analysis. Some certificate plans at this level may instead take a more comprehensive approach, giving students fundamental instruction in a range of areas that includes site assessment, renewable energy, environmental remediation and more.

Environmental science online degrees may not be exceedingly common, but the ones that are out there work to provide an option to study in this vital field without taking undue time away from the work and family responsibilities you already have. If you're thinking about making a career change into environmental science, online degree plans can allow you to continue working at your current job while getting the training you need for your new field.

Q&A with experts

Karen C. Auld, principal consultant for sustainability consulting firm Environmental Resource Management (ERM)

What are the most common educational paths for students seeking an environmental science career?

Many universities offer environmental science degrees. There is also environmental policy and environmental engineering.

Is a dedicated bachelor's degree in environmental science necessary to get started in the field after graduation? What other subjects of study can get a grad's foot in the door of the environmental science field?

Chemical engineers are often a great fit for environmental consulting firms because they've been taught how to think through a process. This comes in handy when working on air permitting and wastewater requirements. Environmental consulting firms are also always looking for geology majors to assist in contaminated site remediation.

Dr. Luz Claudio, environmental scientist and instructor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Dr. Luz Claudio, environmental scientist and instructor at Mount Sinai School of MedicineWhy would you encourage someone to consider an environmental science degree?

Environmental issues are very interesting problems that can be approached from many different angles and require the best and most creative minds. For students who want to use their best abilities to tackle an important problem, I think the environmental sciences are a great place to put your abilities to work.

What surprised you the most about environmental science once you got started in the field?

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me has been how multidisciplinary almost every project that I have been involved in has been. For example, in one project having to do with the contamination of the Hudson River I worked closely with community leaders, a biochemist, a physicist, several epidemiologists and a team of biostatisticians.

Types of environmental science careers

Environmental science graduates may find themselves qualified for a fairly wide variety of positions within the ecology and environmental management spheres. Here's some data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics about the employment outlook and average salary figures for a handful of jobs in the field:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2014)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Environmental science and protection technician $45,910 9 percent 36,200 Associate degree
Environmental scientist $72,050 11 percent 94,600 Bachelor's degree
Agricultural scientist $66,250 5 percent 36,100 Bachelor's degree
Conservation scientist $64,420 7 percent 36,500 Bachelor's degree
Geoscientist $105,390 10 percent 36,400 Bachelor's degree
Hydrologist $81,930 7 percent 7,000 Bachelor's degree
Natural sciences manager $136,450 3 percent 55,100 Bachelor's degree

Common misconceptions about environmental science degrees

Dedicated degrees in environmental science are relatively new on the academic calendar at many institutions, so it's understandable that there are a few factual inaccuracies being passed around about them in the halls. Make sure you're not laboring under one of these common misconceptions if you're looking into an environmental science online degree:

Misconception: The job market is small for environmental science graduates.

  • Fact: An increasing number of environmental regulations being placed on manufacturers, resource extraction companies and other private businesses has made it practically mandatory that environmental science professionals be included in the creation and execution of business plans. If you're concerned about the workplace value of your environmental science degree, mixing in some computer science training or a few marketing courses could make you a more attractive candidate to a regulation-conscious business enterprise.

Misconception: Concentrating your study the medical field is the only way to contribute to human health.

  • Fact: While physical therapy training or a nursing degree may be more obvious routes to helping people live healthier lives, environmental science programs often include courses that cover ways to improve overall human health by addressing the environment in which people live and breathe. Environmental approaches to health may be a long-term strategy, which can be short on immediately observable results, but in the long run you have the chance to improve the health of hundreds of thousands of people at once.

Misconception: You have to like wading in muck and collecting soil samples to work in environmental science.

  • Fact: Many environmental science careers do include a fair amount of field work, but collecting samples of water, air and soil aren't all that environmental professionals do. Environmental science education is one dirt-free option; mixing some dedicated ecological training with an early childhood education degree may allow you to carve out a career teaching kids how to care for the planet.

How can I enroll in an online environmental science degree program?

If you're passionate about natural beauty and preserving the ecosystems of the planet for generations to come, earning an environmental science degree online or on campus could set you up to start a career you're passionate about. Take a look at our school listings below, choose an institution or two and get in touch to find out how you can learn to save the world for a living.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 28, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. School pages, accessed January 28, 2016: Environmental Science - Associate Degree in Science Program, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, http://www.anokaramsey.edu/classes/Two-Year%20Degree%20Programs/ASDegree/EnvScienceASDeg.aspx; Environmental Science Technology A.S. Degree, St. Petersburg College, www.spcollege.edu/Environmental_Science_Technology_AS_Degree/; Environmental Science, Associate in Science Degree, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, https://www.eicc.edu/future-students/our-programs/as-env-sci.aspx; Associate in Applied Science in Environmental Science, Essex County College, http://www.essex.edu/onlinecatalog/environmental-science/; Environmental Sciences, Oregon State University Ecampus, http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/online-degrees/undergraduate/es/; Curriculum, Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies Online, Northeastern University, http://www.northeastern.edu/online/degrees/bachelors-environmental-studies/curriculum.php; Major in Environmental Science, Indiana University Bloomington, https://spea.indiana.edu/undergraduate/majors-minors-certificates/environmental-science.html; Online Degrees and Certificates in Environmental Science, American Public University, http://www.apu.apus.edu/lp2/environmental-science/index.htm; Environmental Science & Technology, Austin Community College District, http://www.austincc.edu/info/environmental; Environmental Sciences Gragduate Program, Oregon State University, http://envsci.science.oregonstate.edu/graduate; MS in Environmental Science, American University, http://www.american.edu/cas/environmental/MS-ENSC.cfm; Speclialization Options, MS in Environmental Sciences, http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/CLAS/Departments/ges/Programs/MasterofScience/Pages/Specialization.aspx; Online Master's Program in Environmental Sciences, Montana State University, http://btc.montana.edu/courses/aspx/degrees/lres.aspx; Degree Requirements for Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, http://eesc.columbia.edu/programs/graduate/phd/requirements-phd; PhD Program, Environmental Sciences, Oregon State University, http://envsci.science.oregonstate.edu/graduate/current/doctorate; Environmental Science, PhD, University of Massachusetts Boston, https://www.umb.edu/academics/environment/grad/environmental_science/es_phd;The Ph.D. Program, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, https://ourenvironment.berkeley.edu/graduate-programs/degrees/the-phd-program; Advanced Graduate Certificate Program in Environmental Management, Stony Brook University, http://www.stonybrook.edu/spd/graduate/environmental.html; Graduate Certificate in Environmental Science, Texas A&M University Commerce, http://www.tamuc.edu/academics/colleges/scienceengineeringagriculture/departments/biologicalEnvironmentalSciences/graduate/certificateEnvScience.aspx; Environmental Sciences Graduate Certificate, University of Colorado, http://catalog.ucdenver.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=6&poid=1175&returnto=579;
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 28, 2016: Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-science-and-protection-technicians.htm; Environmental Scientists and Specialists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm; Agricultural and Food Scientists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/agricultural-and-food-scientists.htm; Conservation Scientists and Foresters, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/conservation-scientists.htm; Geoscientists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/geoscientists.htm; Hydrologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/hydrologists.htm; Natural Sciences Managers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/natural-sciences-managers.htm;
  4. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 28, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
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