Go Green with Your Degree A Guide to Degrees that Make a Difference

What are Green Degrees?

Green degrees address the market demand for professionals skilled in environmental sciences, engineering and business disciplines. Students across all levels of study can get specialized knowledge in areas ranging from engineering to construction, law to renewable energy while focusing on on major areas of environmental study: sustainability, conservation, climate change, renewable energy, and related business practices.

Benefits of Pursuing Green Degrees

If one wants to be part of the green movement, a socially responsible career is a good choice. Yet, the field of social responsibility (“green careers”) remains new and prospective students may wonder why they should pursue a career in the area. Here are five benefits of pursuing a green degree.

  • Career Diversity

    The term “green” applies to and encompasses nearly every industry and green career opportunities exist in a variety of areas such as sustainability enterprise management, biofuels, urban and land use planning, green architecture and building design, energy systems design, intelligent transportation systems, natural resource conservation, and green technologies manufacturing.

  • Skills and Knowledge that Appeal to Employers

    In these programs, students develop a foundational understanding of sustainability practices and environmental issues, along with a specific skill set in an industry area (e.g. engineering; agriculture; geology; soil science). Armed with a conceptual way of thinking, green degree graduates have technical research skills that can be applied in different business settings. They understand the relationship between business and its environmental impact, are familiar with ecosystems and environmental policy, and know how to assess and solve sustainability problems.

  • Work on Modern Problems

    Students in green degree programs can focus their efforts on critical environmental problems, such as pollution, global warming, natural resource depletion, deforestation, or ocean acidification. They may work in clean technology, devising new approaches to solar power, biofuels and other renewable energy sources. They may work to find ways to make transportation systems more effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly. They may work to create green, resource-efficient buildings and facilities. They may work in ecological restoration, leading projects to reverse industrial contamination in natural habitats.

  • Multiple Paths to a Career

    No singular educational path exists for green occupations. That means prospective professionals and students can gain access to a career through a formal degree program, on-the-job training, trade school, apprenticeships, or even programs sponsored by community or nonprofit organizations.

  • Career potential

    The green economy continues to see significant growth in major industries, particularly in clean energy, environmental protection, and green building. Green degree programs prepare students for career opportunities in an evolving space, one that is still seeing new career paths being created, such as sustainability director. With increasing demand in these evolving markets, graduates of green degree programs can potentially move into well-paying positions. For example, Bloomberg lists some of the top paying green-focused careers, such as paying sustainability director ($103K); LEED-certified construction manager ($81K environmental engineer ($65K); and solar power engineer ($65K).

Plan Your Green Path

Since any career can be turned “green,” students may find the diverse career options appealing. For that reason, prospective may want to spend time exploring their options and how their degree choice can help them make a difference. Below is an overview of some of the popular sustainability programs and related career paths.

Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture teaches concepts and techniques students need to practice and promote farming that is environmentally sustainable while profitable. Students learn skills like crop rotation, irrigation techniques and to analyze soil and choose nutrients. They also learn to market organic produce, learn the impacts of agricultural policies, and find out what it takes to make sure the world has enough to eat.

  • Wilderness
    Park Manager
  • Animal
    Nutritionist
  • Agricultural
    Scientist
Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is a multidisciplinary field of study, one that exists at the intersection of chemistry, mathematics and physics. Broadly, chemical engineering encompasses several disciplines and areas of research, ranging from environmental engineering to energy, bioengineering and biotechnology to advanced materials. Students develop an understanding of the central theories and concepts of the field and may take classes in areas such as applied statistics, chemical engineering processes, materials chemistry, polymer science, and thermodynamics. Chemical engineering address environmental and energy issues by developing more energy-efficient manufacturing processes and design ways to reduce industrial waste.

  • Chemical
    Engineer
  • Environmental
    Engineer
Ecology and Conservation Biology

Students in these programs gain a broad understanding of the multidisciplinary facets of the field, including modern conservation approaches to endangered species protection and the function of ecological systems. Curriculum typically includes a diverse lineup of courses in natural resources, biological diversity, physics, earth science, ecology, soil resource, and evolution. Professionals in the field apply scientific knowledge in a wide range of environmental issues, such as habitat destruction, global climate change, clean water, and ecological restoration.

  • Conservation
    Biologist
  • Botanist
  • Landscape
    Ecologist
Environmental Science

Similar to other green academic programs, environmental science is an interdisciplinary degree track. Combining study from liberal arts, natural sciences, and geo science, environmental science programs are unique forms of environmental education. Students develop a core understanding of life and earth sciences, ecology, geography and—in some programs—economics. They may also specialize their studies in areas such as biological, geological, or geographical science. Environmental science is a widely applicable green academic field, with opportunities in areas such as climate change, environmental education, sustainable resource management, or environmental research.

  • Environmental
    Scientist
  • Ecologist
  • Water Quality
    Scientist
Geological Sciences

Geological sciences draws upon the study of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics, synthesizing the different disciplines into a focused examination of the earth. An extremely diverse academic pursuit, geological sciences encompasses research in areas such as climate dynamics, geophysics, energy geoscience, marine geoscience, and seismology. Students gain an understanding of core geological science concepts ranging from plate tectonics to oceanography, mineral resources to petrology. As a field of study concerned with environmental resources, geology naturally intersects with green interests in energy management, land use, and wildlife protection.

  • Geoscientist
  • Geological Technician
Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is one of the largest engineering disciplines, a discipline that uses the principles of physics in the design, creation, and development of mechanical systems. In these programs, students learn about mechanical components and processes, engineering fundamentals, thermal and fluid systems, and materials and manufacturing. Specialized research opportunities may exist in areas such as industrial engineering, dynamic systems, and biomechanical engineering. Mechanical engineering has broad real-world applications in green industry, such as developing and manufacturing alternative energy sources (e.g. geothermal, solar, hydroelectric) or finding solutions to water conservation problems

  • Mechanical
    Engineer
  • Process
    Engineer
Petroleum Engineering

The study of petroleum engineering focuses on the balance between energy needs and environmental impact. A multifaceted academic program, petroleum engineering not only includes the fundamentals of engineering, but the study of geosystems, physics, geomechanics, thermodynamics, and chemistry. Students also learn about petroleum-specific topics, such as well logging, sedimentary rocks, mechanics of solids, and drilling. As a green field of study, petroleum engineering is concerned with improving the extraction of oil and natural gas while minimizing the extraction processes effect on the environment.

  • Petroleum
    Engineer
  • Petroleum Engineering Technician
  • Reservoir
    Engineer

Sprouting Career Opportunity

There are no set job paths for green careers and no singular definition exists to describe a “green” job. As described above sustainability is quickly becoming ingrained in both the culture of organizations and within careers spanning nearly every industry. In turn, green careers could be considered those that are environmentally or socially oriented and are designed to produce beneficial outputs. Just recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has worked to define green jobs, placing them into five different service categories:

  • Natural resources conservation
  • Energy efficiency
  • Energy from renewable sources
  • Greenhouse gas reduction, pollution reduction and removal, and recycling and reuse
  • Environmental compliance, education and training, and public awareness

Although the definitions may be murky, green professionals concentrate on the management of resources—economically, environmentally, and socially. Climate change, renewable energy, pollution management, and water quality are just a handful of example environmental and resource issues that have spawned entire industries. These industries continue to grow and their related career paths are full of potential because—as Goy points out, we’re trying to figure out how to “do business in a hotter, scarcer, more transparent world.” Below is a list of sustainability careers that have that potential and are projected to grow in the coming decade.

Looking at the Future: Sustainability and Green Jobs

Goy mentions young professionals should be innovative and have a sense of entrepreneurship. A traditional degree in engineering doesn’t simply need to lead to a traditional career in engineering. With a sense of entrepreneurship, students can transform their degrees into green degrees and pursue a specific interest in sustainability. The list below details ten example green jobs in a diverse array of professional areas, such as urban planning, range management, energy production, and engineering.

Urban Planner

Projected Job Growth: 10.3%

Average Salary: $69,010

Education Required: Master’s degree

Urban planners are futurists–that is–they plan for the future use of urban areas. They conduct analyses and research to determine where people can live and where employers can build offices. More importantly, they work closely to ensure urban developments have access to clean water, that proper waste management systems are in place, and energy needs are accounted for in the community.

Fish and Game Warden

Projected Job Growth: 1.2%

Average Salary: $53,260

Education Required: High school diploma

Game wardens are tasked with enforcing wildlife laws and ensuring animals and natural habitats are protected and managed. As law enforcement officials, they may work in a variety of settings, patrolling national parks, beaches, deserts, wetlands, and forests. Roles vary by location and assignment: they may be tasked with preventing poaching, checking fishing licenses, or enforcing hunting laws.

Soil Scientist

Projected Job Growth: 7.5%

Average Salary: $66,870

Education Required: Bachelor’s degree

At its essence, soil science deals with soil as a natural resource and soil scientists are tasked with understanding its properties (physical, biological, and chemical) and how it should be used and managed. Soil scientists rely on their investigative and analytical training to collect and evaluate soil samples and types. In their role, soil scientists may handle a diversity of tasks, such as preparing reports on soil characteristics, or creating a soil management program, writing technical papers, or advising land management professionals.

Civil Engineering Technician

Projected Job Growth: 0.6%

Average Salary: $50,290

Education Required: Associate’s degree

Civil engineering technicians are central to the design, construction, maintenance and repair of infrastructure projects, such as bridges, highways, and land development. Training in the fundamentals of civil engineering, civil engineering technicians work under the supervision of licensed civil engineers. A diverse occupation, individuals in this role traditionally fulfill a variety of tasks, such as conducting site project inspections, reviewing projection plans, creating project cost estimates, and writing project reports.

Hydrologist

Projected Job Growth: 10.4%

Average Salary: $81,930

Education Required: Master’s degree

Hydrology is a science interested in water, from its relationship to the environment to ids distribution and properties. Hydrologists are scientists that apply their training to better understand and solve water problems relating to water availability, water quantity and water quality. Typically, they study either surface water (e.g. rivers, lakes, reservoirs) or groundwater (water from beneath the earth). Examples of their work includes studying the water cycle, conducting research to find ways to reduce water consumption, evaluating water quality, and testing water samples for pollution.

Landscape Architect

Projected Job Growth: 14.3%

Average Salary: $69,530

Education Required: Bachelor’s degree

Landscape architects plan and design land for various uses, including parks, open space, and recreational facilities. Their work goes beyond selecting a location for a bush. Landscape architects seek to strike a balance between the natural and man-made environments. An interdisciplinary profession, landscape architecture draws upon science, art, and ecology. They must take the environment into consideration and their work may include everything from creating green roofs, finding ways to architect landscapes to reduce pollution, and protecting water sources.

Forester

Projected Job Growth: 6.1%

Average Salary: $60,070

Education Required: Bachelor’s degree

Foresters are management professionals that understand the science of the forest. Engaged in conservation, ecological preservation and restoration, foresters are traditionally responsible for the day-to-day activities of protected forestlands. A broad career field, they may work to enforce forestry laws, find ways to cut down on pollution, overseeing harvesting practices, and monitoring the ecological impact of logging. The overall goal of this position is sustainability–maintaining protected areas in forest that visitors (and animals alike) can enjoy.

Geoscientist

Projected Job Growth: 15.8%

Average Salary: $81,320

Education Required: Bachelor’s degree

Geoscientists are stewards of the environment and its resources and systems. They study the Earth and its processes to solve some of the world’s most pressing ecological problems. An extremely diverse occupation, geoscientists may work across a variety of disciplines: engineering geology, economic geology, atmospheric science, geochemistry, meteorology, marine geology, oceanography, and paleontology. They may serve as explorers, looking for new mineral resources. They may work as consultants, helping engineers find new ways to tackle environmental issues. They may work as researchers, conducting research in the lab to enhance agricultural productivity.

Wildlife Biologist

Projected Job Growth: 5.0%

Average Salary: $63,230

Education Required: Master’s degree

Conservation of wildlife is the central calling for the wildlife biologist. They work in multiple areas of conservation, such as habitat preservation, habitat enhancement, and endangered species protection. They help ensure lands are preserved for species to reproduce, control hunting practices, or may mitigate issues where species may be “pests” and impact agriculture production. They must have a unique sense of the intertwined ecological and social relationship between wildlife, the land, and human behavior.

Wind Turbine Technician

Projected Job Growth: 24.5%

Average Salary: $51,970

Education Required: Some college, no degree

An emerging and growing industry, wind power requires the services of wind turbine technicians. These individuals are uniquely trained to understand the workings of wind turbines. In their position, they inspect wind turbines to identify potential or existing problems and devise a plan for repair. This includes testing electrical and hydraulic systems, collecting turbine performance data, servicing various control systems, and replacing turbine components.

Top Paying Green Careers

Once only the purview of activists, environmental protection and sustainability have quickly emerged as a priority that crosses industry interests. Interest in renewable energy and concerns about environmental impact continues to increase, putting a greater demand on jobs that have a “green” focus. This demand has generated a new ecosystem of professionals, professionals that have an opportunity to earn salaries that push $80,000, $90,000 and above six figures. As companies continue to adopt sustainability and green practices, this demand is only expected to increase. Below is a list of five green careers that have the potential to earn more than $100K per year.

Petroleum Engineer

Median: $130,050

75% Percentile: $185,200

90% Percentile: N/A

Petroleum engineers work in the energy industry, responsible for solving issued related to energy production and security. In their role, they are responsible for a range of duties that primarily focus on extracting gas and oil from beneath the earth’s surface. This process includes managing drilling activities, identifying and evaluating potential gas and oil reservoirs, designing and selecting material extraction processes (e.g. shale, tar sands, gas fields), and designing collection facilities. An increasingly technologically focused profession, petroleum engineering draws upon an interdisciplinary knowledge base of civil, chemical and mechanical engineering.

Chemical Engineer

Median: $96,940

75% Percentile: $123,300

90% Percentile: $156,980

Chemical engineers are problem solvers, transforming natural or raw materials into something new. Calling upon their knowledge of chemistry and engineering, chemical engineers work in a variety of industries, ranging from healthcare to manufacturing, food processing to biotechnology. They design new products (e.g. soaps, synthetic fibers) and devise new chemical manufacturing techniques. An extremely complex professional field, chemical engineers often work in sustainability, finding ways to tackle issues such as environmental pollution or energy conservation.

Mining Engineer

Median: $90,160

75% Percentile: $119,580

90% Percentile: $159,010

Mining engineers are involved in mining processes, which–at the top level–includes designing and planning mining construction and managing mining operations. They understand the best practices around extracting mineral deposits in a safe, efficient manner with a focus on environmental conditions. Mining engineers collaborate closely with geologists, earth scientists and engineers to determine the environmental and economic impact of the mine and select the most appropriate suitable mining method. As a diverse career field, mining engineers may also work in different roles, such as mine inspector, mining production superintendent, and minerals processing engineer.

Natural Resource Managers

Median: $120,050

75% Percentile: $165,210

90% Percentile: NA

Natural resource managers are curators of conservation and other environmentally sensitive projects. As decision makers, they take into account the social, environmental, and economic impact of a project. From directing research activities for water use to managing budgets, natural resource managers bring order and processes to projects. Many are former scientists that translate their professional experience into a managerial role and some continue to conduct research in that capacity.

Environmental Engineer

Median: $83,360

75% Percentile: $104,670

90% Percentile: $125,380

Environmental engineers apply principles from multiple disciplines (e.g. biology, chemistry, engineering) to fashion solutions to environmental problems. Example problems include pollution, water quality, public health, and recycling. In their diverse roles, environmental engineers may do everything from design a soil erosion control system or create a better process for disposing waste, monitor air quality control or even serve as an expert witness in a court case.

Industrial Designer

Median: $64,620

75% Percentile: $82,540

90% Percentile: $100,070

Industrial designers develop the concept for manufactured products, such as cars or furniture. As a green career, their creations present opportunities to reduce pollution and save energy through improved recycling of a product or the ability to reuse packaging. Working in collaboration with manufacturers, retailers – and consumers themselves – industrial designers identify the best approach to a product’s use, its production and ultimate disposal.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2015

Q&A with Jon Clift, Center for Energy Environment and Sustainability, Wake Forest University

How can a prospective student determine if a green/sustainable degree/career field is right for them?

We define sustainability as satisfying current needs without sacrificing future well-being through the balanced pursuit of ecological health, economic welfare, and social welfare. Also, the field focus on how humans use the earth’s resources. It is also a field that examines the history of human behavior and existing unsustainable practices and develops the vision and the means to change those practices. We work to create specific outcomes such as a resilient economies, societies, and natural environments. Do you want to work on solving some of the world’s most challenging problems within this definition? Do you see yourself as a thought leader?

If these notions resonate with them perhaps it is the right decision. 

What types of careers could students pursue with a degree in sustainability?

The world is wide open. One important aspect is that the job doesn’t have to have the word “sustainability” in it. You can take skills back to a core business unit or a startup or a nonprofit, etc. Students in our program have worked with non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund; business organizations such as Hanesbrands; government agencies, consulting companies, and even started their own businesses.

Could you describe the trends in green/sustainability degrees at the post-secondary level?

This is inherently a trans-disciplinary field which means a credible program utilizes faculty members from various disciplines to offer the degree and non-degree programs. This is why Wake Forest University is ahead of the curve—our courses are team taught by faculty members from various disciplines; we offer projects that cut across disciplines. Programs within a specific discipline and address sustainability tend to be too narrow and do not offer the breadth of knowledge needed to create the outcomes mentioned in the first question.

In general, could you list some of the top career opportunities in the green/sustainability industry?

The key is skills in this area translate to other disciplines. That’s the nature of sustainability in itself. Example job titles may look like this:

  • Emerging Technology Manager
  • Energy Manager
  • Sustainability Director
  • Outreach Coordinator
What types of students excel in sustainability degree programs?

Students that bring drive, focus, professional aptitude, and the willingness to become change agents.  We tend to prefer students who have some work experience and are focused in their career desires.

How would you describe the ideal candidate to your program?

It really goes back to the last question, we want students that will excel the in the program. We want students who will utilize our program as a mechanism to adding value to their professional endeavors and aim to fill the urgent societal need for leaders in the field of sustainability. They have the intellectual curiosity for this vast area of study and they are see the new areas of study a challenge. We want leaders who will be change agents. Thus, we look for potential in these areas.

Resources

There are various types of resources available to individuals interested in green degrees and subsequent green careers. These resources include environmental organizations, government agencies, and institutions of higher education. Below is an example list of those resources open to those seeking information about training and career paths in sustainability and green practices.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy works in conservation and educational efforts for the trail corridor and provides internship and employment opportunities.

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

The AASHE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing sustainability in higher education.

Audubon Naturalist Society

One of the country’s oldest environmental organizations, the Audubon Naturalist Society works in conservation and environmental education.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

The BLS provides a range of green career information for individuals considering a career in the field.

CareerOneStop

Sponsored by the Department of Labor, CareerOneStop offers different green career resources, including occupational profiles.

Columbia University

Columbia University has a Center for Career Education that provides an overview of green careers and related educational and profession-specific resources.

Greenpeace

An international organization, Greenpeace offers volunteer and career opportunities to individuals seeking to work on global environmental problems.

iSEEK

iSEEK has a diverse collection of green career resources, from advice to job postings, occupation descriptions to educational support.

National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium

The National Association of State Directors has published a reference list of sustainability and green career resources for individuals and educators.

National Park Foundation

Founded in 1916, the National park Foundation manages more than 400 parks throughout the country.

Orion Magazine

The magazine has a searchable database of green careers.

Santa Clara University

The Career Center provides a range of green career resources, including job and internship opportunities.

Seattle University

The university’s College of Arts and Sciences has a robust list of environmental studies and career-related resources, including job boards and community organizations.

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club publishes Sierra, an official magazine, that includes information about the latest environmental issues, lifestyle, and provides internship and employment opportunities.

Texas A&M University

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences provides a comprehensive job board for environmental-related positions across the country.

The Student Conservation Association

The SCA has a mission of developing the next generation of environmental leaders by connecting them to hands-on natural resource conservation projects.

The USDA National Agroforestry Center

The USDA National Agroforestry Center collaborates with national partners to conduct research and provide training to natural resource professionals.

Tufts University

The university’s Office of Sustainability has a sustainability newsletter and connects individuals to green resources, including job boards, training, and scholarships.

University of Minnesota

The university’s career resources department connects individuals interested in working or interning in green careers to opportunities in the field.

US Department of Agriculture

The USDA sponsors the Natural Resources Conservation Service that helps forest landowners, farmers and ranchers conserve natural resources, such as water and soil.

US Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is the central agency in charge of protecting Americans from human health and environmental hazards and enforcing related laws.

US Forest Service

The US Forest Service protects the country’s national forests and is one of the world’s biggest forestry research organizations.

Virginia Tech

The Division of Student Affairs offers a list of green-career related resources and links to eco-focused job sites.

Volunteer.gov

An online portal that includes volunteer opportunities in ecological, natural resource and environmentally centered positions with government organizations.

WorkforWater.org

Created in collaboration between the Water Environment Foundation and the American Water Works Association, WorkforWater.org is a resource site for individuals and students interested in careers in public health and the environment.