What Is an Environmental Scientist?

Get the Facts About This Green Career

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An environmental scientist identifies hazards to the environment or to the health of the earth's inhabitants, such as pollution. He or she then performs research to find ways to eliminate these hazards, or at least decrease their harmful effects.

The job includes duties such as deciding which data collection methods to use, collecting water, soil, and food samples, and performing analyses on collected samples.

Quick Facts

  • In 2017, an environmental scientist's median annual salary was $69,400.
  • Almost 89,500 people worked in this occupation in 2016.
  • The primary employers of environmental scientists were consulting firms and state and local governments.
  • Jobs in this field are usually full time, but often include working more than 40 hours a week.
  • Environmental scientists work in offices and laboratories; some do fieldwork outdoors.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment to grow at 11 percent through 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

Roles and Responsibilities of Environmental Scientists

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for environmental scientist positions found on Indeed.com:

  • "Conduct field work under the direction of a senior scientist to investigate the nature and extent of soil, sediment, groundwater, and other media contamination"
  • "Observe and log soil explorations via soil boring equipment, Geoprobe, and test pit excavations"
  • "Evaluate and apply local, state, and federal air regulations to determine requirements for permit modifications"
  • "Perform program research, planning and development, permitting, compliance monitoring, inspections/enforcement, and technical support services in relation to air, water, waste, federal facilities, corrective action, mining, biology, and other environmental programs"
  • "Manage budgets, evaluate budget vs. plan, and analyze cost control efficiencies"
  • "Write reports, develop plans, and implement steps to move projects toward closure in the most cost-effective manner"
  • "Utilize communications skills to interact with both internal and external clients"

How to Become an Environmental Scientist

You should be able to get an entry-level job with a bachelor's degree in environmental science but to advance in this field, a master's degree is required. Alternatively, you can begin your career with an undergraduate degree in biology, engineering, chemistry, or physics.

Environmental scientists who work with hazardous waste removal may be required to have the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) Certification.

Other professional certifications are voluntary and vary by area of expertise. They can help increase your career advancement opportunities. They include CPESC (Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control) and Certified Wetland Delineator.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

To work as an environmental scientist, you will need certain soft skills in addition to the technical skills you will learn in school:

  • Communication Skills: Excellent verbal communicationlistening, and writing skills will allow you to share research findings with your colleagues.
  • Critical Thinking Skills: To solve problems you will need the ability to weigh the merits of possible solutions.
  • Reading Comprehension: You will have to be able to understand colleagues' research findings.
  • Self Discipline: You will frequently have to work independently which will require you to be very focused and motivated.

Difference Between an Environmental Scientist and Environmental Engineer

Environmental scientists and engineers collaborate with one another to solve problems in the environment and prevent future ones. Scientists take an interdisciplinary approach that brings together principles from chemistry, biology, and geology. Engineers use engineering principles to help mitigate the adverse impact industry has on the environment.

 

What Employers Expect From You

What do employers look for when they hire new environmental scientists? These are requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

  • "Ability to multi-task, plan and execute projects and reports in an organized and timely manner"
  • "Must be able to work independently with minimal supervision, analyze and define requirements, establish courses of action and schedules, and manage personal workload"
  • "Ability to work well with others and comprehend instructions quickly"
  • "Must be highly motivated, customer focused and work well in a team environment"
  • "Proficiency with computer programs such as Microsoft Office Suite, etc."
  • "Ability to lift and move items and equipment up to 50 lbs."

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

These jobs are a good fit for people with the following characteristics, according to popular professional personality-profiling tests:

You can also find out by taking this quiz: Should You Become an Environmental Scientist?

Related Occupations 

 DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2017)Minimum Required Education/Training
ConservationistHelps landowners and governments find ways to use natural resources without harming them.

$61,480

Bachelor's degree in forestry, agronomy, agricultural science, biology or environmental science.
Environmental EconomistEvaluates and quantifies the costs and benefits of alternative environmental protection options. $101,050Ph.D. or Master's degree in economics
HydrologistStudies the circulation, distribution and physical properties of bodies of water.$79,990Master's degree in geoscience, environmental science or engineering, with a concentration in hydrology
Environmental TechnicianPerforms laboratory and field tests to monitor the environment. Works under an environmental scientist's supervision. $45,490Associate degree in applied science or science-related technology

 

Sources:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited September 8, 2018).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online 
The College Board, "Career: Environmental Engineers."
The College Board, "Career: Environmental Scientists."
EnvironmentalScience.org. "Environmental Science Careers."

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