Environmental studies is a field that encompasses the relationship between human activity and the environment. This is an applied field in which professionals strive to find solutions to problems. Environmental studies is also an interdisciplinary major in which students learn and make use of the principles and practices found in the physical sciences, commerce, economics and social sciences in an attempt to solve contemporary ecological issues. Earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies can put you on the path to a fulfilling career promoting environmental conservation and sustainability. Studying and working in the field of environmental studies is a way to help our planet and the people, animal and plant life that inhabit it.
Degree Options for a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies
Not all environmentally focused baccalaureate degrees are the same. Depending on the specific environmental studies degree program you choose, your curriculum could be more liberal arts-based or more science-based. Colleges and universities across the United States offer both Bachelor of Arts (BA) in environmental studies degrees and Bachelor of Science (BS) in environmental studies degrees.
You could also pursue a bachelor of environmental science, which will emphasize the natural and physical sciences and involve less of an emphasis on the social science aspects of history, policy and law. Generally, if you’re looking at these degree options in the order of broadest to narrowest (and most focused on natural and physical science), they go from a BA in environmental studies to a BS in environmental studies and finally a BS in environmental science.
Both BA and BS degree programs in environmental studies often allow students to focus on an area of concentration in which they can build a deeper level of knowledge. Some common areas of specialization in environmental studies programs include environmental policy, environmental law, environmental ethics, geospatial information science and environmental sustainability in the economy.
The Curriculum of a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies
If you major in environmental studies, you will likely take some of the same classes regardless of whether you’re pursuing a BA or BS degree. For example, you may take classes in the following subjects, no matter which type of bachelor’s degree the program awards upon completion:
- Math and statistics: These courses encompass studies in calculus, integers, derivatives, probability and the methods of statistical analysis.
- General biology: Contemporary biology covers the structure of living cells, including the study of creation, disease, molecular structures and genetics. Students majoring in environmental studies should undertake an in-depth introduction and exploration of the study of life from atoms, molecules, and organelles (specialized structures in a cell).
- Environmental science: The scientific study of the natural environment and Earth processes, including not only ecological factors but also human factors and forces, including culture, politics, economics and ethics.
- Sustainability: The theories and methods of developing and implementing environmentally-conscious practices in manufacturing, agriculture, energy generation and other industries.
- Environmental politics and policy: Coursework pertaining to the laws and regulations that affect the environment, how these laws and policies are made and the political trends and factors that go into the development of these policies.
- Global health, public health and/or environmental health: The link between health and the environment is critical. Environmental studies majors will typically take one or more classes pertaining to public or environmental health.
The distinction between a BA and BS degree in environmental studies is a difference of focus and perspective, rather than a big-picture difference in subject matter. A Bachelor of Arts degree is generally a program based upon the study of the liberal arts, which means that this program will place more emphasis on the arts, humanities and social sciences. For BA in environmental studies programs, this means more extensive coursework in politics, philosophy, social issues, economics and law – particularly as they pertain to environmental practices, regulations and business matters.
In a BA in environmental studies program, rather than a BS program, you might take more courses, both within your major coursework and as general education and elective courses, in the arts and humanities, including foreign language courses. Your curriculum will likely include more classes along the lines of the following subjects:
- Peoples and cultures
- Environment and society
- Environmental ethics
- Evolutionary anthropology
- Environmental issues in the media
- Food justice and community development
Classes in a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies Program
Because a BS in environmental studies program more heavily emphasizes science coursework, you’re likely to take more classes like the following when pursuing this degree path:
- Environmental geology: A course that examines global warming, earthquakes, energy resources, volcanoes, sediment deposits, rock formations and natural disasters.
- Earth science: A review of climate, oceans, water, landforms and ecosystems found on the Earth, as well as the effects of human populations on the physical environment.
- Oceanography: The study of the biological and physical properties of the ocean through the lenses of different branches of science, including geography, hydrology, meteorology, climatology, physics, seismology and biology.
- Weather and climate: A course that examines the formation of cyclones, hurricanes, thunderstorms, cloud formations, and precipitation, drawing from the foundations of geography, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and biochemistry.
- Water Resources: A course that explores the properties, storage methods, contamination, pollution, and accessibility of water, particularly potable water sources.
Of course, each school and degree program is unique in its environmental studies curriculum. Some Bachelor of Arts programs encompass more rigorous coursework in science and math than others. Likewise, some Bachelor of Science programs in this major may include more classes in the social sciences and humanities. While each environmental studies degree program from an accredited school will prepare students for some career pertaining to environmental problem-solving, students should look at the curriculum and learning outcomes of each individual school and program to determine which degree program is the best fit for them.
Coursework for an Environmental Science Bachelor’s Degree
Environmental science degree programs are still interdisciplinary in focus, but they primarily blend studies in different branches of natural and physical sciences. For example, the foundation courses in an environmental science degree program commonly include laboratory classes in different areas of biology, including organismal biology, cell biology, ecology, microbiology and genetics, as well as a series of laboratory classes in chemistry and physics. Coursework in general environmental science, earth science, energy, geology, meteorology, hydrology and soil science are part of a typical curriculum. Additionally, students may study the anatomy, physiology, ecology, evolution, diversification and conservation of different types of animals and plants.
Another environmentally focused degree option is environmental engineering. Environmental engineers use the engineering design process, which draws from the principles and techniques of math and science, to develop solutions to environmental problems like climate change, pollution, waste management, water treatment and energy generation and usage.
What Does a Degree in Environmental Science Do?
Whether you end up majoring in environmental or environmental science, you can expect your curriculum to help you develop interdisciplinary knowledge to be used in a capacity that contributes to environmental solutions in some way. The role you will hold as a graduate of an environmental science or environmental studies major may be directly related to making environmental change through scientific and technological innovation or it may be indirect through roles in education, policymaking or consulting.
In any case, you can count on a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or environmental studies to help you make a difference. These degrees look at how humans have altered the Earth and the solutions that can address unfavorable changes and patterns, such as pollution and climate change.
Environmental Studies Degree Careers
With an environmental studies degree, you can develop the knowledge necessary to work in government agencies and regulatory entities, consulting firms, scientific research and development companies, education services and more. Government agencies at all levels combined account for a large portion of employment in this profession. State governments employed 24 percent of environmental scientists and specialists as of 2020, while local governments employed 12 percent of the field and the federal government employed 6 percent of the occupation, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. One-quarter of all environmental scientists and specialists worked in the management, scientific and technical consulting services industry, and 10 percent of this profession worked for the engineering services industry.
Graduates of environmental studies and environmental science degree programs may pursue a wide and diverse set of opportunities in professions involving sustainability, conservation, ecology, global warming and alternative energy sources, including:
- Environmental consultant: Land developers engage consultants in determining if their intended use of the land will affect the wildlife, nearby bodies of water and surrounding soil conditions.
- Policy analyst: Policy analysts use their knowledge of environmental science to develop and evaluate policies, regulations and proposed legislation at the federal, state and local levels that have the potential to affect the environment and the surrounding communities, with the goal of supporting policies that are environmentally beneficial. (Learn more about what degree you need to be a policy analyst.)
- Environmental protection technician: Environmental protection technicians undertake the crucial work of conducting research – in the laboratory and in field tests – that facilitate investigations of environmental issues and potential solutions.
- Environmental health and safety specialist: Environmental health and safety specialists are experts in environmental health risks like water and soil contamination, and they use the scientific method to study these hazards and methods of addressing and mitigating them.
- Environmental educators: Environmental educators work in a variety of venues, from college campuses to private conservation centers, where they speak to and interact with visitors and students.
- Environmental restoration planners: Environmental restoration planners facilitate the cleanup of polluted sites, including identifying the costs of these endeavors and the activities needed to achieve the goal of restoration.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the types of career paths open to graduates of an environmental studies degree program, but rather a sample of possible opportunities to pursue. Other job titles you might wind up holding in this board occupation include environmental analyst, hazardous substances scientist and environmental programs specialist, according to O*NET.
Most environmental scientists and specialists – 70 percent, O*NET reported – have only a bachelor’s degree. Still, over one-quarter of the occupation reported having pursued a master’s degree to help them advance their careers. Depending on your career goals, you might pursue a master’s degree in environmental science, environmental policy, environmental studies, environmental sustainability, environmental management, environmental justice, public health or another field.
Employment With a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies Degree
An environmental scientist’s potential job duties are numerous. Some environmental scientists perform water tests to determine how toxic liquids might flow and permeate the soil in the event of leakage of hazardous materials. Others may create graphs and heat maps that show how air pollution has changed over time, providing valuable information for the policymakers who are in a position to enact and enforce laws to mitigate pollutants.
One of the benefits of this path is that it is highly customizable based on your interests. As a student, you can focus more on the science or the liberal arts aspects of the field and choose an area of concentration. As an adult, you can pursue a career following your passion, whether that’s facilitating pollution management, green energy solutions conservation and protection of natural ecosystems. To break into your intended field, you can start by choosing the academic concentration or elective coursework that fits your goals and seek out opportunities for hands-on fieldwork, such as internships.
How much can you expect to earn with your bachelor’s degree in environmental studies? The BLS reported a 2020 median salary of $73,230 per year for environmental scientists and specialists. Environmental scientists and specialists who work for the federal government are some of the highest-paid professionals in the field, with a median salary of $103,180 as of 2020. However, your exact job title and function may affect your earning potential. For environmental policy analysts, for example, Salary.com reported an average salary of $53,899 for 2021. The average salary for environmental consultants was $70,703 in 2021, according to Salary.com.
The job outlook for environmental scientists and specialists remains favorable. Although the 8 percent rate of anticipated job growth is on par with the average rate of job growth rate across occupations, the BLS has projected that jobs in this occupation will increase by 7,300 between 2020 and 2030, climbing to a total of 94,400 jobs across the United States.