What Does an Environmental Scientist Do?
No matter where you live or what you enjoy doing, your life is directly influenced by your environment — and vice versa. The study of this interaction as well as the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the environment is known as environmental science. In the face of population growth and modern pressures on the environment, environmental scientists are needed now more than ever.
An environmental scientist studies hazards to both the environment and humanity while working toward mutually beneficial solutions. If you’re passionate about protecting the environment and want to learn how to become an environmental scientist, it’s important to learn about the responsibilities and challenges of jobs in this field.
Responsibilities of an Environmental Scientist
The primary responsibility of an environmental scientist is to protect the environment from various risks and protect people from environmental hazards. An environmental scientist focuses specifically on the surrounding environment, such as air, land and water to protect these natural resources and human health.
These professionals apply their knowledge of natural science to identify and monitor hazards, develop restoration plans and monitor this process. Sometimes, these scientists advise lawmakers and other influential figures in public policy on what to do regarding environmental hazards. The ultimate goal is to strengthen existing environmental protections and enact new ones.
Environmental scientists also often work with corporations, providing guidance on minimizing the environmental impact of different businesses and land development. For example, a scientist might work with a factory owner to plan and implement strategies for reducing and safely managing industrial waste.
This role is primarily research-oriented, and scientists may be asked to present their findings at professional conferences. Occasionally, they also may partner with other professionals to conduct outreach programs that aim to educate the public on environmental initiatives. After gaining extensive experience in the field, some scientists later go on to work for universities, where they teach the next generation of environmental scientists.
The Day-to-Day Life of an Environmental Scientist
While the job of an environmental scientist is focused on research, it can be helpful to break down what this research often looks like and detail other tasks these professionals do on a daily basis. While each task can vary with different employers, the job often includes:
- Identifying appropriate data collection methods for environmental surveys and investigations
- Collecting samples of materials such as soil, water, air and food, and analyzing the samples in a lab for contamination
- Developing plans to manage pollution or other environmental hazards based on lab results
- Compiling data results into written technical reports for distribution to policymakers
- Translating scientific findings to non-science stakeholders, such as business owners and the public to raise awareness about environmental issues
- Researching and monitoring environmental protection-based programs
Environmental scientists have a positive impact on the community in many ways. The projects they work on are aimed to ensure the safety of both the environment and the people in the community. They might work on the following types of projects:
- Monitoring the quality of water at a lake to ensure it is a safe destination for beachgoers, swimmers and boaters
- Working to demonstrate the importance of air pollution prevention to policymakers and promoting public health policies
- Testing the distribution patterns of oil after an oil tanker spill in the ocean to develop more effective oil spill cleanup methods and minimize dispersion
- Evaluating the likely environmental impact of a planned development, such as a water park or sports arena
The field of environmental science touches all our lives, even if we aren’t always aware. These scientists work hard to ensure their work is having a positive impact on the community. Some environmental scientists even choose to specialize in a subfield to focus on a specific part of environmental protection.
What Specialization Options Are Available for Environmental Scientists?
Depending on their own interests as well as the needs of their region or employer, some scientists choose to work in a subfield of environmental science. There are many specialization options available, including:
- Environmental health and safety
- Environmental restoration planning
- Climate change analysis and mitigation
- Environmental management
- Environmental policy and regulation
- Geographic information systems
While you’re an undergraduate, choosing a specialization isn’t necessary. Instead, focus on taking a broad range of natural science classes. Your career may naturally lean toward a specialization as you gain work experience and pursue advanced credentials.
Where Do Environmental Scientists Work?
Environmental scientists are versatile professionals who may work in both office and laboratory settings. Many environmental scientists work for state and local governmental agencies. However, a significant portion of them work with private businesses or nonprofit organizations, assisting with the reduction of their impact on the environment.
From time to time, some scientists perform fieldwork that requires travel, during which they make observations, take samples and collect data. However, most fieldwork is performed by environmental science and protection technicians rather than environmental scientists themselves. Even if a scientist does not perform any fieldwork, they might need to travel occasionally to present research at professional conferences or meet with clients.
The Pathway To Becoming an Environmental Scientist
Even if you’re still in high school, it’s not too early to begin working on your career aspirations. Talk to your guidance counselor about your career goals and take as many courses as possible in the sciences — specifically biology, chemistry and earth science. Taking classes in humanities is also important for this profession, as environmental scientists must be skilled communicators who are capable of writing clearly.
All environmental scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree, ideally an environmental science degree. This program will explore multiple branches of the sciences as well as many environmental issues and regulations.
It’s common for new graduates with a bachelor’s degree to enter the field as a research assistant, field analyst or environmental science and protection technician. These professionals focus primarily on data collection and evaluation along with their fieldwork assignments and lab work.
In order to advance in the field past a more entry-level position, you may need to earn a master’s degree. You can complete a master’s degree online while continuing to meet the daily obligations of your job, or you can choose to get a master’s right after earning your undergraduate degree.
While a doctoral degree is not typically a requirement for environmental scientists, some environmental scientists choose to earn one. This terminal degree can pave the way toward pursuing a position as a professor at a college or university.
Environmental Science Certifications
When first beginning to search for a job in environmental science, new graduates can improve their resumes by earning relevant certifications or licenses. Some employers may even require a certain certification. Note that some certifications may require you to have professional work experience before you can apply for them.
One common certification for environmental scientists is the Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM®)1 credential offered by the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management. Earning this credential shows potential employers that you are highly competent in hazardous materials laws and regulations and are dedicated to professional compliance.
In order to acquire the CHMM® credential, you will need four years of relevant work experience and at least a bachelor’s degree. Certification applicants must then pass the CHMM® exam. You will need to renew this certification every five years.
You can also look for credential opportunities through other professional organizations, such as the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Like the CHMM®, the ESA credential requires that you recertify occasionally. In order to recertify, you will need to complete continuing education requirements, which will help you stay on top of the latest trends and emerging knowledge in your field.
Another certifying body to consider is the National Registry of Environmental Professionals® (NREP). This organization offers credentials such as the Certified Environmental Scientist (CES), Registered Environmental Professional® and Registered Environmental Manager.2
If you’re not sure which certifications to pursue, it’s best to speak with your employer about your organization’s preferences, as your organization may require certain credentials for advancement. If you’re unemployed, consider evaluating the requirements listed in job postings for guidance on which certification you may want to obtain.
What to Expect From an Environmental Science Degree Program
If you decide to pursue an environmental science degree, you can expect to be challenged by a rigorous curriculum exploring multiple aspects of natural science. In general, you will explore key areas such as science foundations, scientific communication, professionalism and ethics, environmental health regulations, data mining and statistical modeling.
In addition to environmental science, these degree programs typically have a strong focus on biology, chemistry and ecology. You will take classes regarding:
- The methodologies of human health risk assessment, environmental hazard identification and risk communication
- Environmental management practices and sustainability practices
- The assessment of air, land and water samples for contamination
- The usage of various analytical methods
A well-rounded environmental science degree program will also include an exploration of environmental laws and regulations. You should have a firm understanding of regulations concerning air and water quality, toxic and hazardous substances, endangered species and coastal management.
It’s also ideal for an environmental science degree program to end with a capstone project, as this will provide hands-on experience and an opportunity to apply everything you have learned. Seniors working through a capstone project will typically select a current topic, conduct extensive research and write a scientific report or proposal.
Throughout your studies, you will be challenged to develop and apply your critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. You will learn that, as a scientist, knowing which questions to ask is just as important as figuring out the answers. By the end of your studies, you will have developed a strong sense of professional ethics and an unwavering devotion to abide by them.
If you’re passionate about protecting the environment and conserving the planet’s natural resources, you can begin working toward a rewarding career by earning your Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science degree at Grand Canyon University. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining our dynamic learning community online or on campus.
1Institute of Hazardous Materials Management (IHMM), Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM)® in June 2021
2National Registry of Environmental Professionals® (NREP), Certifications in June 2021
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.
More About GCU