Recently the trend towards “green careers”, those focused on the environment, has gained prominence. In fact, both Business Week (“Switching to Green-Collar Jobs,” Business Week, January 10, 2008) and Fortune (“Great Green Careers,” Fortune, April 17, 2008) have recently published articles about how to make money with a green career. Environmental careers are hard to distinguish, as each one varies by field. In general, environmental careers are careers that have an environmentally focused specialty within a specific field. Environmentalists encompass a variety of different duties, but in general, whether through research, political activism, etc., they aim to help the public learn the best way to make use of the earth’s limited resources. Environmentalists “do research, produce reports, write articles, lecture, issue press releases, lobby congress, fundraise, and campaign. The daily routine depends on the specialty. Environmental researchers measure decay and its pace and patterns…Policy-determining environmentalists determine how behavior can be modified in the future to avoid these problems. Other environmental positions involve office work, policy analysis, lab work, or computer analysis. Some companies sell ‘environmentally friendly’ goods and services such as recyclable products or products with recycled content.”1
Most environmentalist careers focus on a specific area within environmentalism, rather than the entire issue. The most common focus areas include land and wildlife, air and climate, water issues including oceans, rivers and watersheds, energy, and health. Regardless of this diversity, what unites all environmentalists is their dedication in those careers to issues related to the environment.
Environmentalists focus on a variety of issues in their work. Some of these include air quality, chemical safety, climate change strategies, endangered species protection, environmentally preferable paper and packaging, genetically modified products, global warming, pollution prevention, transportation, as well as many others.
People in environmental careers tend to work in smaller work environments, as over 50 percent of the non-profit environmental companies have fewer than ten employees. In addition, over 50 percent of companies in the environmental field rely on non-guaranteed sources of income such as federal grants, private donations, or corporate sponsorship, resulting in sometimes severely underfunded work situations.2
Who They Serve:
In recent years, the popularity of environmentally focused, or so-called “Green Jobs” has grown. Careers related to the environment exist in all sectors: government, non-profit, academic and business. Not-for-profit organizations account for 70 percent of the industry. Their work, aimed at aggressively educating the public about environmental causes, is often done on college campuses, where much of the scientific work is done.3
Environmental careers cover a wide range of career fields. Some concern policy, advocacy, and changing behaviors of individuals and groups related to environmental and ecological issues. Others involve scientific research aimed at developing technologies and processes to study aspects of the environment. For example, at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than half of all employees are engineers, scientists, and policy analysts. A large number of other environmental employees are legal, public affairs, financial, information management and computer specialists.4
Environmental Administrators help to run environmental agencies and serve as insightful and dynamic leaders in order to make each organization more effective. These professionals have a broad understanding of environmental issues, as well as knowledge of economic, social, and political forces that impact the environment. Many have experience working in various types of organizations, as well as a Bachelors degree in environmental studies. A Masters degree is not required in the field, but is helpful.5
Environmental Scientists and Hydrologists:
These professionals perform “investigations for the purpose of abating or eliminating pollutants or hazards that affect the environment or plants, animals, and humans. Many other occupations deal with preserving or researching the natural environment, including conservation scientists and foresters, atmospheric scientists, and some biological scientists, science technicians, and engineering technicians. Environmental scientists and hydrologists have extensive training in physical sciences, and may apply their knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics to the study of the Earth.”6
Environmental engineers are responsible for designing, planning, or performing engineering duties in order to prevent, control and remediate environmental health hazards by utilizing various engineering disciplines.7 The major fields for environmental engineers include air pollution control, industrial hygiene, radiation protection, hazardous waste management, toxic materials control, water supply, wastewater management, storm water management, solid waste disposal, public health and land management. Environmental engineering requires a B.S degree in engineering, most likely in civil, chemical, mechanical, or environmental engineering. Many have a Masters degree in environmental engineering. A background in both science and humanities is important, for it is necessary for engineers to understand how people and societies function.8
Persons in this career focus on designing “schemes, programs and methods to design for future and present use of space and resources.” Environmental planning encompasses a variety of fields such a comprehensive planner, an air quality planner, aviation planner, building or zoning inspector, current planner, growth management planner, recreation planner, water resources planner, or landscape architect, as well as many others. Environmental planners usually have a college degree with an advanced degree in planning.9
Environmental Education and Communication:
These professionals aim to help people to appreciate and understand the natural world around them. They may serve as a community affairs manager, a community activist, an environmental policy analyst, a teacher, environmental journalist, eco-therapist, or museum education staff member, as well as many other careers. People in this field have college degree as well as a background in sciences and communication skills.10
Environmental Health Specialists:
“Environmental health specialists use a broad background of scientific, technical, and behavioral knowledge and skills to investigate, evaluate and eliminate environmental conditions that may be harmful to people or communities. After studying the health problems and needs of the community, they plan and implement control programs in a variety of areas including ambient and indoor air quality, food, water and wastewater, noise, hazardous substances, solid wastes, land use, pests, and housing.” Most environmental health specialists have a Bachelor’s degree.11
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians:
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians perform “laboratory and field tests to monitor the environment and investigate sources of pollution, including those that affect health.” These professionals collect samples of gases, soil, water, and other materials for testing and take corrective actions as assigned. They are usually under the direction of an environmental scientist or specialist.12 This is a common entry-level position in the environmental fields.
Environmental Policy and Advocacy:
“Today’s environmental managers and policy makers are focused on pollution prevention and integration of environmental considerations into economic and social decision-making.”13 In general, they are focusing on how social institutions and structures impinge on the environment, and subsequently research and develop new policies and legislation to help rectify the situation.14 Professionals in this field are involved in policy and scientific research, environmental education and advocacy, regulatory and legislative design, technical assistance to government agencies for planning and management, regulatory compliance and enforcement, and entrepreneurial development in environmental products and services.
Entry-level positions in this field can be found in government, private, international, research, nonprofit and non-governmental organizations. In most cases, a graduate degree is required in this field, but programs in public policy, environmental management, and public health or law can provide some of the necessary skills.15 Environmental advocates work to “influence public policy in social, economic, political, and cultural spheres in order to bring about justice and positive change in human rights and environmental issues.”16
What Employers Want:
A must have for any environmental career in whichever sector is an understanding of the issues involved in environmentalism, such as degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment. While an academic background is not always required, it is definitely preferred. Some employers look to employ those who have focused their studies on environmental science.17 Those who wish to go into careers focused on research and technology tend to have backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, or math. Those who wish to have a career focused on policy, education, outreach, or advocacy have varied backgrounds in things such as economics, law, social science, humanities, and public health. Employers look for people who have been involved in environmental projects, whether through research, classes, internships, or volunteer work. Nearly all environmentalists profess that a desire to better the world is a key characteristic in becoming an environmentalist. Many say that if their job did not pay, they would do the work regardless. This dedication to the issues and the job is important to employers in the environmental field.
What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:
As stated above, most undergraduates are hired as environmental technicians or other positions that do not require an advanced degree, such as an environmental educator, administrator, and other fields. Entry-level positions in environmental careers are usually highly competitive and require a rigorous set of interviews in order to assure the employer that they are hiring people who can fill a number of roles and who are dedicated to hard work. Entry-level employees use many skills, “from interviewing and writing, to organizing events or mailings to raising funds, to scientific testing in a laboratory environment.”
It is generally expected that entry-level employees will continue their education. Employees beginning their work in an environmental career usually tend to paperwork and phone calls. “New environmentalist learn the specific concerns of their companies, acquire contacts needed to get information quickly and accurately, and assist in the ongoing educational process. Specialization happens right away.” As environmentalists continue in their careers, their responsibilities increase, and by ten years into the career many have attained the title of vice president or its equivalent or have moved on to other industries.18
Maya Sathyanadhan Engineer II - Brown and Caldwell, Environmental Engineering,Class of 2006 (BS), 2007 (MSE)
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - I came into Hopkins as an undecided engineering major. I wanted to work in the aerospace field and figured that engineering would allow me to work in an industry that was indirectly connected to my true passion, astronomy (however I did not want to work as an astronomer). I decided my freshmen year that I didn’t want my interest in space to become my career but rather continue as a hobby. Thus I looked within the engineering school for a new career; I made appointments with the chairs of several departments and chose the major from the presentation I liked best, which ended up being Environmental Engineering.
- What was your career path? What did you do as an undergraduate and as a graduate student to get to your current job? Was this a direct route, or a circuitous one? - After I chose my major, I had several options within the field to pursue as a career (i.e. focus on energy, solid waste, or water issues). From my undergraduate classes, research, and a few internships I realized that I wanted to focus on water/sanitation issues. I also got involved with a student group (Engineers without Borders) that would help me gain more experience in this field. No matter what industry you’re in, it is very important to get involved with professional organizations while you’re still a student.
- What is your typical day/week like? - Typical of most entry-level engineers, I am in the office for the most part but get to do the occasional yet exciting field work. 40+ hours is almost standard.
- What's most rewarding about your industry and/or job? What's most challenging? - I get to work on the plants that treat water and wastewater and get satisfaction out of knowing how important, yet discrete, it is to society’s everyday life. Most people don’t realize where their water comes from or where it goes after they’ve used it, yet there is a lot of planning behind its treatment and infrastructure.
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - A suggestion I have to any entry-level person in any field is to always aim to please your boss. As you prove your work ethic, you will get more responsibility and work on more exciting projects with time.
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Clean water is becoming a precious resource in a lot of parts of the country, i.e., we have come to a point where we need to reuse our wastewater to meet our water demand. Internationally, water and sanitation is one of the world’s most basic problems that shouldn’t be. There is obviously lots of work to be done in this field and has exponential potential for growth.
- What skills and out-of-class experiences (i.e. internships, co-curricular activities, volunteering, etc.) are ideal for entering your industry / career field? Were there specific experiences you had as an undergraduate that helped you enter the field? - In the environmental field, I think internships in both the government and private companies give a good idea of how the industry works to get things done. As I mentioned earlier, I worked on campus with Engineers without Borders, which gave me tremendous technical and professional skills for my field.
- Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - In my specific field, either Engineers without Borders (EWB) or Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) are both good organizations that work on sustainable engineering. Hopkins has student chapters of both.
Additional Alumni Profiles
Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.
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Industry / Professional Organizations:
Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.
Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.
If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.