Environmental engineering is an interdisciplinary field that integrates mathematics, physics, hydrology, chemistry, biology and social science to identify and prevent environmental problems, and finding solutions to minimize hazards to the health of the environment and population. Understanding environmental issues such as degradation, conservation, recycling and replenishment is central to the work of environmental engineers, who use their scientific skills to clean and preserve the environment. They specialize in fields such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology and fisheries science, though the lines between specialties are usually blurred.
Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins focuses on combining the sciences with math, engineering and the principles of engineering design to prepare students for work as environmental engineers or graduate school.
A few areas of active research in the department includes:
- Designing new approaches for providing clean drinking water and purifying wastewater;
- Finding the optimal treatment of contaminated groundwater
- Studying the effects of climate change on vector and waterborne disease
- Modeling multi-objective risk decision tools for managing great lakes ecosystems
- Designing and performing experimental studies of atmospheric/particulate transport
Unfortunately, there is a great and growing need for environmental engineering due to the continued destruction of our environment and depletion of our natural resources. Environmental engineers are needed to monitor the quality of the environment, interpret the impact of human actions on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and develop strategies for restoring them, as well as to help planners develop and construct green buildings, transportation corridors and utilities that protect water resources and reflect efficient and beneficial land use. In fact, environmental engineering is one of today’s fastest growing fields.
The government enacts regulations to ensure clean air, safe water and soil free of hazardous materials, which place limits on development, particularly near sensitive parts of the ecosystem. For this reason, about half of environmental engineers are employed by the government to create the standards for these regulations and to ensure that they are followed, while the other half work in for private employers and universities. A few of the industries in which they work include chemicals, pharmaceuticals, water/waste water treatment, mining, manufacturing, hazardous waste remediation, air pollution control, facilities planning and environmental consulting. These employers include:
- Abbott Laboratories
- Amgen Inc.
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Bristol-Myers Squibb Company
- Dell Computer Corp.
- Department of Energy
- Department of the Interior
- Department of Defense
- Dow Chemical Company
- EA Engineering, Science and Technology, Inc.
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Energy and Resources Laboratory
- Federal Highway Administration
- General Electric-Power Systems
- JHU Applied Physics Laboratory
- Johnson & Johnson
- Merck & Company
- Natural Resources Conservation Service
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- Procter & Gamble Company USDA Forest Service
- Veterans Health Administration
- World Bank
While the environmental engineers employed by the government work on policy formations to prevent problems like ground-water contamination and ozone depletion, private corporations hire environmental engineers as consultants to ensure that they are in compliance with environmental regulations and policies. Eventually, as trends in regulation shifts from pollution cleanup to prevention, environmental engineers will begin to shift their focus more toward public health concerns, and provide additional job opportunities in consulting roles. But it is important to consider that, as with all industries strongly tied to government, jobs in environmental engineering are tied to the politics of the time: governments with looser environmental regulations will cause job loss for environmental engineers, while those with stricter environmental regulations will create jobs.
Entry-level positions for environmental engineers are typically as field analysts and research technicians in laboratories or offices, and as field experience is accumulated, they are promoted to more difficult and autonomous positions such as project leader or program manager.
A bachelor’s degree is generally sufficient for most entry-level positions, though a master’s degree can help provide a competitive edge. A doctorate is usually only necessary for jobs as professors or in research. Employers look for environmental engineering graduates who are creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail oriented with a strong grasp of mathematics, the sciences and computer systems. Because environmental engineers work in teams with other scientists, engineers and technicians, demonstrated teamwork and leadership abilities are paramount. These can be gained through extra-curricular activities, intramural sports and community service. Similarly, environmental engineers are expected to write technical reports and research proposals that communicate their results and ideas to company managers, regulators and the general public, so excellent writing and oral communication skills are particularly important
For students interested in working for the government, courses in hydrology, hazardous waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics and geologic logging should be emphasized, while those interested in becoming consultants should bolster their environmental engineering course load with business, finance, marketing, economics, political science and policy. Combining environmental engineering with business tends to qualify students for the widest range of jobs.
To demonstrate proficiency in academic skills as well as to apply them in a real-world setting, undergraduate research and internships at government agencies and private corporations and consulting firms is a must.
Hopkins Environmental Engineering alumni go into a variety of career fields. The Career Center has surveyed recent graduates about their academic and career plans 6 months after graduation. Here is a summary of their responses.
Listed below are actual job titles that JHU alumni acquired with their degrees in Environmental Engineering:
- Analyst, Management Consulting
- Energy Analyst
- Environmental Consultant
- Environmental Engineer, Environmental Services and Consulting Firm
- Environmental Engineer, City Clean Water Program
- EPA Source Management Director
- Nuclear/Environmental Engineer
- Process Architect
- Project Manager
- Senior Scientist, Environmental Services Firm
Hopkins Alumni with Environmental Engineering Majors
Maya Sathyanadhan- 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.
For more information on what you can do with a Enviromental Engineering Major go to What can I do with a major in Enviromental Studies or What can I do with a major in Engineering.
Want to know more? Read our Hopkins Career Profiles on Environment, Engineering, Consulting, and Law & Paralegal.
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For information on the specific programs, the best people to talk to are the experts in your field you wish to study, faculty members and graduate students in that specific discipline. We strongly encourage you to talk with your advisor and other faculty members with whom you have a good working relationship. This will also help when you request letters of recommendation. The Career Center has a handout to guide you in asking for letters of recommendation.