An estimated 67 million tons of air pollutants were emitted in the U.S. during 2021 alone.1 About 99% of the entire global population breathes air that is polluted beyond the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline threshold,2 and this contributes to 11.65% of all deaths worldwide.3 Those statistics do not even include other major types of pollution (e.g., water and land), nor do they consider non-human-related impacts of pollution.
In short, pollution and other environmental hazards are a significant concern for all of humanity. If you’re passionate about working toward solving the monumental environmental problems facing humanity today, you might consider pursuing careers in environmental protection. In this career guide, you’ll learn what an environmental protection specialist does and what a typical career pathway might look like.
In This Article:
- What Is an Environmental Protection Specialist?
- Where Do Environmental Protection Specialists Work?
- Are There Environmental Protection Specialties Available?
- Pursuing Careers in Environmental Protection
- Essential Skills and Characteristics of Environmental Science Professionals
- Are Environmental Protection Specialists in Demand?
What Is an Environmental Protection Specialist?
Pollution can affect virtually everything in the natural world, including flora, fauna and humanity. Pollution often has a ripple effect, as well. For instance, if snails in a heavily polluted area die as a result of pollutants, then the mice that feed on the snails will have a reduced food source. This ripple effect will travel up the food chain — from snails to mice to owls, and so forth.
Environmental protection specialists understand that the natural world is deeply interconnected and intricate. What affects one component can affect many others. These professionals work to identify and assess environmental hazards, mitigate existing hazards, prevent future problems and inform policymakers and company executives about necessary protections. Their work not only helps to protect wild animals and plants, but also the humans who co-exist with them.
Environmental protection specialists are focused on both preventing environmental hazards and fixing existing ones. To that end, they may do any of the following tasks:
- Use scientific data collection methods to conduct investigations, surveys and research projects
- Collect samples for scientific analysis (e.g., air, water and soil)
- Analyze and interpret environmental data
- Develop remediation blueprints to address air, water or land pollution
- Develop plans aimed at controlling and/or preventing environmental pollution
- Distribute information to the public, business owners and government officials regarding environmental problems and their related risks to human health
- Prepare and publish technical reports detailing their research, findings and recommendations
Where Do Environmental Protection Specialists Work?
Environmental protection specialists often work for local, state and federal governmental agencies. Others work for engineering firms, and some work as consultants to corporations.
This type of job often requires travel. An environmental protection specialist will typically work in an office, laboratory and in the field. Fieldwork can be challenging, as professionals may need to work in adverse weather conditions and travel over difficult terrain to monitor environmental conditions and collect samples.
Sometimes, these professionals will travel to professional conferences, where they can stay on top of the latest research and trends in the field, network with other specialists and present their own findings. Travel may also be required when consulting with clients.
Are There Environmental Protection Specialties Available?
It’s not uncommon for environmental protection specialists to choose a subspecialty within this field. Some specialists focus on air pollution, while others gain an expert understanding of water pollution, for instance. Here’s a look at a few types of environmental protection specialties:
- Climate change analysts: Climate specialists explore how climate change is affecting various ecosystems.
- Environmental restoration planners: These professionals specialize in evaluating heavily polluted sites, such as Superfund sites, and developing a plan for remediation.
- Industrial ecologists: An industrial consultant works with business owners to help them understand the effects of business operations on the environment and help implement steps to reduce those hazards.
- Environmental chemists: These professionals specialize in studying how various chemicals can affect different environments.
Pursuing Careers in Environmental Protection
If you’re passionate about pursuing careers in environmental protection and you’re still in high school, consider speaking with your guidance counselor. Discuss your career ambitions and ask whether you can add any relevant courses that may help you prepare for your future. All types of science and math courses may prove useful, particularly classes such as ecology, biology, chemistry and environmental science. Consider taking a communications course as well — strong verbal and written communication skills will be an asset for you.
After high school, you will need to plan on earning a baccalaureate environmental science degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science with an Emphasis in Environmental Chemistry degree. Depending on the school you choose, this type of program should lean heavily on science competencies, but also offer a look at environmental law and risk assessments. During or after college, it can also be beneficial to apply to an internship.
Aspiring environmental protection specialists can also enhance their job qualifications by pursuing a professional certification. Professional certifications are available from various professional organizations, such as the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management and the Ecological Society of America.
Earn Your Environmental Science Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of pursuing careers in environmental protection is to earn your bachelor’s degree. While working toward your environmental science degree, you’ll explore the assessment, remediation and management of environmental pollutants, as well as the effects of pollutants on ecosystems and their inhabitants, including humans. You’ll also gain fundamental competencies in scientific principles and skills.
Although the specific curriculum will vary from one school and program to the next, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- Biological concepts, including cellular components and functions, relationships and life cycles of organisms
- The roles and interplay of the Earth’s systems, and their importance for human life
- Modern environmental management and sustainability practices
- The concepts, data sources and methodologies that can be applied to human health risk assessment, environmental hazard identification, exposure assessment and risk communication
- Environmental protection laws that cover areas such as air and water quality, toxic and hazardous substances, endangered species and the management of wetlands and coastal areas
- Qualitative, quantitative and instrumental analyses of samples
You may be required to complete a capstone course during your senior year. A capstone course is an opportunity to demonstrate your acquired skills and knowledge, and possibly to pursue a topic that you are particularly passionate about. It will also give you some practice in communicating your findings via an oral presentation and/or written report.
It’s strongly recommended that you pursue internship opportunities, either during college or immediately after graduation. An internship will enable you to practice real-world skills and become familiar with the sophisticated software that environmental protection specialists use. For instance, professionals need to know how to use sophisticated software to create computer models, and they need to know how to use Geographic Information Systems (GISs). Plus, you’ll gain professional connections and can request letters of recommendation.
If you’re curious whether an environmental protection specialist needs a graduate environmental science degree, ultimately the decision is up to you. While it’s not necessary to earn a master’s degree in environmental science to land an entry-level job in this field, it may be necessary for advancement. Not all environmental protection specialists have a master’s degree, and it’s even less common to have a doctoral degree.
Consider Pursuing a Professional Certification
A professional certification might not be a strict requirement for employment (depending on the employer), however, earning one is recommended. Becoming certified may help you pursue advancement opportunities, and it demonstrates your commitment to professional excellence.
The Institute of Hazardous Materials Management (IHMM) offers various certifications for environmental protection specialists and other professionals who need to handle hazardous materials safely. You might also pursue a certification from the Ecological Society of America (ESA). The certification you may qualify for depends on your years of experience.
For instance, you may qualify to pursue an Ecologist in Training certification after earning your bachelor’s degree, before gaining professional work experience. After gaining at least one year of full-time work experience, you might pursue the Associate Ecologist certification. Higher levels of certification require additional work experience and/or a graduate degree.4
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Environmental Science Professionals
A passion for protecting the environment is arguably the most important trait of an environmental science professional. Other essential skills and characteristics include the following:
- Analytical reasoning
- Critical thinking
- Verbal and written communication skills
- Interpersonal skills and a collaborative mindset
- Problem-solving abilities
Are Environmental Protection Specialists in Demand?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates job growth for environmental scientists and specialists (combined) to increase by 5% through 2031. This indicates that employers may hire about 7,800 new environmental scientists and specialists each year through 2031.5 As of May 2021, environmental scientists and specialists have a median annual salary of $76,530, according to the BLS.6
Many of the new job openings are expected to be comprised of positions that become available when existing environmental scientists and specialists retire or transfer to other fields. Part of the demand may also be attributable to an increased demand for environmental sustainability and remediation of environmental hazards.
If you’re passionate about environmental science, you can fuse your passion with purpose at Grand Canyon University. Consider applying for enrollment in the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science with an Emphasis in Environmental Chemistry degree program, which instills foundational competencies in scientific principles, environmental risk assessment, chemical investigations and remediation strategies. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn how you can become a member of our Christian learning community.
1 Retrieved from United States Environmental Protection Agency, Air Quality — National Summary in December 2022.
2 Retrieved from World Health Organization, Air Pollution in December 2022.
3 Retrieved from Our World in Data, Air Pollution in December 2022.
4 Retrieved from the Ecological Society of America, Certification Requirements in December 2022.
5 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on May 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Environmental Scientists and Specialists, retrieved on Jan. 10, 2023.
6 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Environmental Scientists and Specialists as of May 2021, retrieved on Jan. 10, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as environmental scientists and specialists. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
Approved by the assistant professor of chemistry for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Feb. 7, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.