Pursuing a Degree in Environmental Studies: Where Will It Lead?

by Carol Ruhl, Environmental Education Specialist
Pursuing a Degree in Environmental Studies: Where Will It Lead?

Biology majors may look forward to becoming Biologists; Environmental Engineering majors are likely to become Environmental Engineers; students with a Marine Science education will often work as Marine Scientists. So, what do those who earn an Environmental Studies degree become? Environmental Study-ists?

In this article, recent ES graduate Carol Ruhl writes about her passion for healing the Earth which led her to pursue an environmental education and career. She uses her own experience as an opportunity to enlighten those who are considering an environmental degree, but aren't quite sure where to take it. For these folks, Environmental Studies may be the right path - or, at least, an important part of it.

Introduction

I've always had a passion for environmental issues. It started out with a love of the natural world and evolved in an elaborate network of beliefs about the importance of environmental equity and of reversing some of the harm that we humans had done to the Earth. I learn more every day about new issues and how they are being resolved in Congress, in the international arena, and in our own backyards. I wanted to pursue a career in the environmental field, and after some research I realized that this would definitely mean attending some kind of higher education institution.

Dozens of entrance essays and a few acceptance letters later, I decided to attend a four-year Environmental Studies program in another state, at the University of Pittsburgh, almost four hours from home. Good grades in high school paid off in the form of a useful scholarship, and I borrowed the rest of the money for my education. Four years later, I have my Bachelor of Arts and I'm out in the working world.

The beginning of my story so far may not be all that different from yours: Students who pursue degrees in environmental disciplines very often have a passion for what they believe in. Kay Fiedler, Admissions Director at Unity College, says that she sees these kinds of wide-eyed and eager young people every year, "Students who want to make a difference in the world, who understand we reside on a fragile planet and seek to be the future stewards of our natural resources."

If you are committed to making a difference in the environmental field, there are dozens of different kinds of environmental programs you can pursue. With a little careful research, you can ensure that your college experience, and the world beyond, will be just what you want it to be. I hope that my experiences along the path to an environmental education and career can help you to make the best decisions for your education.

What is Environmental Studies?

I chose to pursue an Environmental Studies major. I liked the idea of an interdisciplinary program which drew concepts from several different fields. Environmental issues are found in all kinds of fields, from geology and biology to public policy and law, so many colleges also offer Environmental Studies concentrations or minor programs to go with a more traditional scientific or policy-based major. For instance, I could have majored in biology and minored in environmental studies while taking many of the same interesting and insightful classes.

But what exactly is Environmental Studies? According to our website, "Environmental Studies connects key concepts from many disciplines in an environmental context, providing a framework for the study of ecosystems and human interaction with the Earth." Environmental challenges face every business, agency and institution - from the decision of whether to recycle junk mail at the smallest two-person office, to the decision of how to cost-effectively comply with complex environmental regulations in big industry. Part of the idea of majoring in Environmental Studies is to be better prepared for a wide array of challenges.

The environmental profession often requires cooperation and negotiation between very different groups with very different, sometimes conflicting interests (for example, between regulators, the regulated, and citizen watchdogs). It is important to be open-minded and willing to compromise. One valuable tool is to learn to see the other party's perspective, to understand why they are so adamant about a certain point, and to use that understanding to your advantage while solving the issue.

Environmental studies students learn that the various fields of science, technology, and human relations are interrelated on many levels. Decisions made in one field are invariably felt in another. For example, when scientists and policymakers work to pass new environmental legislation, the new laws may raise costs for consumers or the higher cost of complying may mean a loss of jobs - these issues will be taken into consideration when laws are made, and lawmakers will work to "soften the blow" for their constituents. ES students are always "learning about what the issues are, the many causes of each issue, where issues are and what kinds of careers are out there," says Dr. Gail Grabowsky of Chaminade University in Hawaii.

Environmental problems can be found anywhere in the world. In many ways, the so-called developed nations are far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of remediation and prevention of environmental disasters. However, in poorer areas of the world, where the immediate needs of humans often supercede those of the environment, pollution and injustice can run unchecked for decades. Environmental Studies graduates are needed to come up with innovative and effective solutions to these kinds of difficult problems.

Full Responses from Our Interviews

For a full transcript of responses to our questions of the people interviewed, click on the individuals below:

  • Dr. John Callewaert, Director, Institute for Community and Environment, Colby-Sawyer College (NH)
  • Dr. Tim Crews, Professor (Fmr. Director) of Environmental Studies Program, Prescott College (AZ)
  • Ms. Kay Fiedler, Director of Admissions, Unity College (ME)
  • Dr. Gail Grabowsky, Director of Environmental Studies Program, Chaminade University (HI)
  • Dr. Thomas Hudspeth, Professor, Environmental Studies Program, University of Vermont (VT)
  • Dr. Mark McConnell, Program Coordinator, Master of Environmental Studies Program, College of Charleston (SC)
  • Ms. Colleen Wilkins, Environmental Studies Graduate, California State University, Fullerton (CA)

What to Expect as an Environmental Studies Major

When you get to college, you can expect to study many disciplines from the natural sciences to the social sciences to humanities, with the focus on learning to make educated judgments about environmental issues through careful, objective analysis which incorporates knowledge from many fields. Because of the wide range of disciplines studied, there is also often great latitude for students to create their own curriculum and emphasis within the major. Dr. Tom Hudspeth, of the University of Vermont, says that after students have completed basic ES courses, they work with advisors to develop their own curriculum of environmental courses from several different departments.

Additionally, most Environmental Studies programs are found at liberal arts institutions, which can be a definite advantage to getting ahead in the job market. Dr. Tim Crews of Prescott College points out that, "Time and time again, the liberally educated students will stick out and shine in the work environment because they have invested in developing critical thinking skills and have learned how to learn."

Try to take several classes that involve writing about environmental issues. I had writing classes on policy and politics, on environmental journalism and interviewing, on advocacy, and on learning to communicate professionally with a variety of media. Even though writing a ton of papers is kind of a pain, it really helps you to form your opinions, based on research and objective interviews, and learn how to disseminate them to the public. "One [way to get ahead] is to have great communication skills - oral and written communication. Students need to push themselves to get this. The more confidence one can build the more interested potential employers will be. Students should try to take advantage of as many public speaking experiences as they can," advises Dr. John Callewaert of Colby-Sawyer College.

You should also try to get some field experience, through internships or classes, which give you an idea of how people "out in the field" actually work. Dr. Callewaert believes that, to succeed in the job market, "students need to do an internship. This demonstrates that you can do a job in your field. It also gives the student the change to test the waters and see if a particular career field is really where they want to be." My field experience involved leading school children on nature hikes, which was a lot of fun. I also discovered my intense dislike for large, biting insects. Anyway, it was a very worthwhile experience, and I got to meet lots of people involved in environmental education, so I would highly recommend field work.

What Can You Do with an Environmental Studies Degree?

Now for the really important stuff: What can you do with an Environmental Studies degree? What kind of jobs are out there today, and what do you have to do to get them?

Again, research is imperative. Go out and talk to people that have graduated and find out what they do. Your advisor or other instructors (don't overlook the graduate student teaching assistants) can be valuable resources. Start looking early, develop a winning resume, get some good references, and you'll be well on your way to a great job. You should also consider the job market in the area you want to live; are there jobs that you want? Is there anything you can do to tailor your experience to increase your chances of landing a good job?

Environmental issues are found in every kind of workplace. As awareness of these issues grows, the need for people with a blend of science and policy knowledge will also grow. Environmental Studies graduates can expect to find careers as environmental planners, analysts and policy-makers. Of course, you can also work for a corporation, managing their compliance with environmental regulations and conducting audits of internal environmental efficiency (EE). "[W]e're seeing that employers are interested in hiring people who can understand multiple perspectives, who are able to bridge the gap that can exist between scientists and policy makers, and who bring a wide variety of problem solving skills to any situation," says Dr. Mark McConnell of the College of Charleston.

Being flexible is often a critical quality to employers, and ES graduates often have this kind of versatile skills and knowledge. Colleen Wilkins, who received her master's in Environmental Studies from California State University in Fullerton, decided to change from a major in Geology after she lost her job with a major oil company. When she changed majors and took a few classes in Emergency Management, she discovered her true calling was in this field and she's glad she had the courage to switch.

Today, there is a growing need for eloquent voices (in all kinds of media) to communicate environmental messages. Informing the public about environmental issues and what they can do about them is a driving force behind the movement. Businesses and non-profit companies need spokespeople, and if you are a strong communicator with a passion for your issue, this field may be for you. Graduates can also work in the conservation or public sector managing or protecting natural resources. The degree is also a good starting point for an advanced degree. Environmental studies can prepare you for degrees in medicine, law, and graduate studies. Ms. Wilkins says, "pursuing a Masters gave me increased confidence to do training and skills in research." Going for an advanced degree can help you advance to senior positions in your field, such as management, leading research and academics.

Our web site concludes: "The challenge for Environmental Studies majors is not whether they will have jobs, but how to find the jobs and how to market themselves and their training," You have the knowledge, now figure out how best to apply it. Whatever your strengths, there is a job to match them.

Wrap-Up

Overall, I am satisfied with my education. I learned so much about the environment and what people are doing to protect our natural world and public health. I gained the tools I need to be a successful environmental advocate, and I even went on some fun field trips.

With a little careful planning and frequent progress checks along the way, the pursuit of a diploma and a good job will be a worthwhile and fun experience. If you're reading this as an Environmental Studies major; don't despair! There are lots of jobs out there; you just have to be creative. Go fit in some good field work while you still can, or go an extra semester to minor in Geology. Extra experience is valuable in the job market.

After I graduated, I got my job here, with Enviro Education as an "Environmental Education Specialist." I do a lot of writing, talking to schools, and managing our database so you'll find the information that you need when you're looking for environmental schools and programs. It feels good to know that I am helping out the cause of environmental education, by helping students to connect with the best possible program for them. The more information that students have available to them, the better they will be able to make a decision.

Other people I know who graduated with Environmental Studies majors have very different jobs, including wetlands restoration, environmental education, politics, and laboratory work. Many of my fellow graduates went on to graduate school. Whatever you end up doing, I hope that you remember to have fun and stay current on environmental issues.

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