Online Master's Programs in Environmental Science

Online environmental science master's programs prepare graduates for a variety of environmental careers. A multidisciplinary field, environmental science incorporates natural sciences like ecology, chemistry, and biology with disciplines like law, philosophy, and anthropology. As the global community faces increasing uncertainty about the future of the environment, the demand for skilled environmental science professionals should continue to increase.

Graduates of online environmental science master's degree programs can find rewarding careers with government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. This guide discusses what prospective students can expect when earning their degrees, how to choose high-quality programs, and various career opportunities available after graduation.

What to Know About Online Master's in Environmental Science Coursework

Students who earn an online environmental science master's degree gain in-depth knowledge of the fundamental theories and practices of environmental science. They also can specialize in a more narrow area of interest, like climate science, wildlife conservation, or environmental education. Learners gain critical thinking, communication, analytical, research, leadership, and interpersonal skills while earning their degrees.

Most online environmental science master's programs require about 30 credits and take two full-time years of study to complete. Students who want to graduate more quickly can look into accelerated programs. Alternatively, learners who plan to work full time or maintain other personal commitments while earning their degree part time may take three or more years to graduate.

Students do not typically encounter significant differences between online and on-campus environmental science master's programs. The curriculum and program requirements tend to be quite similar or identical.

Common Courses

What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Environmental Science Program?

Online environmental science master's programs offer courses that cover natural sciences, environmental science research methods, and environmental law and policy. Many online environmental science degree master's students must complete a thesis, capstone project, or internship, in addition to coursework. Available courses differ by school, although the sample classes described below provide an idea of what students can expect to encounter.

  • Environmental Impact Assessment: This class explores the process of conducting an environmental impact assessment. Coursework covers legal, economic, and procedural issues. Students learn about accepted methodologies and criteria for compliance with different environmental legal policies and regulations.
  • Conservation Biology: Students learn about foundational theories and concepts related to conservation. They explore issues like genetics, population biology, preservation of biodiversity, restoration ecology, captive propagation, and the design of small nature reserves. Learners pay special attention to the role of human activity on ecosystems, communities, and species.
  • Human Health and Environmental Pollution: This class explores the impact of environmental pollutants on the health of individuals and communities. Students explore issues like environmental regulation of air, water, and hazardous waste pollution. Coursework also examines reproductive hazards and occupational cancer.
  • Introduction to Environmental Engineering: Learners receive a broad, systems-based introduction to the theory and practice of environmental engineering. They learn about the principles behind transport, pollutant, abatement, and control in wastewater, atmospheric, and subsurface systems.
  • Applied Environmental Biology: This class investigates relationships between the environment and organisms. Students gain a foundational understanding of evolutionary, population, and whole organism biology. The course also examines the impact of humans on organisms in the environment and ecosystems as a whole.

What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Environmental Science Program?

Many online master's in environmental science programs offer multiple areas of specialization. Specializations let students develop expertise in areas like environmental science, allowing them to pursue personal interests relevant to their career goals. Concentration areas differ depending on the school, but the list below describes a few common options.

  • Climate Change: A climate change specialization lets students focus on climate impacts and processes. Participants explore the effects of climate change and variability on species and ecosystems. This concentration may include the option to further specialize in one of the following areas: aquatic, marine, atmospheric, or terrestrial systems.
  • Environmental Education: A concentration in environmental education prepares students for careers explaining and communicating scientific and environmental issues to others. Learners develop communication, pedagogical, and research skills. Students may take classes like methods of teaching in math and science, topics in science education, and teaching and learning statistics and probability.
  • Water Resources: This specialization explores the relationship between environmental issues and water resources. Students examine the roles of biological, chemical, physical, and social processes that affect water systems. This concentration may include courses like stream ecology, water quality dynamics, and applied hydrology.

What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?

Online master's in environmental science programs typically require students to complete a research or capstone project to graduate. Some master's students in environmental science may need to complete a more intensive thesis project. Specific details and program requirements vary by school.

Research and capstone projects take place during the final one or two semesters of a program. Students completing a research project address an original research question in depth under the supervision of a faculty member. Learners develop strong research skills, write a professional paper, and give a presentation. A capstone project is usually less research intensive and more practice oriented than a research project. Capstone projects may explore an issue relevant to environmental science in a more creative or collaborative manner.

How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Environmental Science Program?

When looking for environmental science master's programs online, prospective students should make sure to only consider schools that hold institutional accreditation. Colleges and universities may hold regional or national accreditation, and regional accreditation is typically viewed as more prestigious.

No subject-specific bodies provide accreditation for general environmental science master's programs. However, the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council does provide accreditation to environmental health science and protection programs.

Students should evaluate the quality of environmental science programs themselves. Some criteria that may indicate trustworthiness and quality include pertinent course content, high graduation rates, experienced faculty, and high job placement rates. Students should avoid colleges that lack institutional accreditation. Another red flag includes programs that lack specific information about what to expect or student learning outcomes.

Career Opportunities With a Master's in Environmental Science Degree

Graduates of online environmental science master's programs can pursue careers in fields related to conservation, forestry, wildlife, health, and education. Individuals can find roles as environmental scientists, conservation scientists, and high school teachers. Environmental science master's holders work for schools, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. The following section describes some potential careers in the environmental science field.

Career Profiles

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Environmental scientists and specialists use their expertise to help protect the environment and human health. They may specialize in an area like climate change, industrial ecology, environmental health and safety, or environmental restoration planning. These workers collect environmental data, analyze threats to the environment, develop plans, provide guidance to policymakers, and prepare reports and presentations.

  • Median Salary: $71,130 per year
  • Currently Employed: 89,500
  • Expected Job Growth From 2016-2026: +11%

Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Conservation scientists and foresters manage forests, rangelands, parks, and other natural resources. A specialization in forestry or conservation can help graduates qualify for these types of jobs. These individuals oversee conservation activities, create plans for managing forests, collaborate with stakeholders, and determine how to minimize environmental damage.

  • Median Salary: $61,340 per year
  • Currently Employed: 34,600
  • Expected Job Growth From 2016-2026: +6%

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study the interaction between ecosystems and animals. They research animal behavior and human impacts on animals and their habitats. These workers may conduct studies, collect data, manage wildlife populations, and develop conservation plans. Students interested in this career path may want to add a specialization in biology.

  • Median Salary: $63,420 per year
  • Currently Employed: 19,400
  • Expected Job Growth From 2016-2026: +8%

High School Teachers

Some graduates of environmental science master's programs go on to work as high school teachers. A specialization in environmental education can help students gain the skills needed to teach at the secondary level. These teachers plan and deliver lessons, assess student learning, grade assignments, and communicate with students' families. Most states also require high school teachers in public schools to obtain licensure.

  • Median Salary: $60,320 per year
  • Currently Employed: 1,018,700
  • Expected Job Growth From 2016-2026: +8%

Environmental Health and Safety Specialists

Environmental health and safety specialists identify potential environmental hazards to individuals and organizations. They also create strategies to minimize risks and assess organizational policies for environmental friendliness. A concentration in environmental health can help students land jobs in this area.

  • Median Salary: $62,000 per year

What's the Expected Job Growth for Environmental Science Careers?

Environmental science professionals can expect faster-than-average job growth in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) attributes this projected increase to heightened public interest in the environment. Pressure on the environment caused by population growth may also contribute to more opportunities in this field.

Professional Organizations for Careers in Environmental Science

Joining a professional organization for environmental scientists can provide many benefits to current students and recent graduates of environmental science master's programs. Members often gain access to job boards, networking opportunities, discounted annual conferences and workshops, and mentoring and other career services. Most groups offer students and recent graduates membership discounts.

  • Ecological Society of America: The 9,000 members of ESA receive benefits like online access to ESA publications, the chance to network with a regional chapter or special interest sections, discounts on ESA professional certification, and publishing grants.
  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists: AAEES offers board certification to environmental engineering and environmental science professionals. The academy also provides continuing education opportunities, helps coordinate accreditation for universities, and mentors students and young professionals.
  • North American Association for Environmental Education: NAAEE promotes environmental education and advocates for the profession. The association boasts more than 16,000 members around the world who gain access to NAAEE publications, a job board, and a discounted annual conference.
  • National Association of Environmental Professionals: An interdisciplinary organization, NAEP offers members the opportunity to take advantage of career development resources, a scholarship and awards program, conferences and webinars, and networking events.
  • International Society for Industrial Ecology: The ISIE brings together scientists, policymakers, engineers, and advocates to promote the use of industrial ecology in research, policy, education, and industrial practices. Members gain access to a job board, webinars, conferences, publications, and special sections.

How to Pay for a Master's in Environmental Science Degree

Online environmental science master's students pay for their degrees the same way that on-campus learners do. Most qualify for some type of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and/or student loans. To offset tuition costs, many students also work while pursuing their degrees. Some programs offer graduate students assistantships, research positions, and fellowships that include tuition reimbursements or waivers.

Federal Financial Aid

The federal government offers a variety of financial aid opportunities to graduate students. One of the biggest federal funding sources for graduate students includes Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans. Master's students may also qualify for work-study programs. Students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to find out if they qualify for any financial assistance from the government.

Scholarships from Professional Organizations

Many environmental science professional organizations coordinate scholarship programs to help students pay for their degrees. Students who want to apply for an environmental science scholarship can see if they qualify for the Jim Roberts Scholarship offered by NAEP.

Assistantships/Research Positions/Fellowships

Many environmental science master's programs offer students assistantships, research positions, and fellowships. By completing some work for the department or school while pursuing a degree, students can offset tuition costs. For example, Duke University's School of the Environment offers fellowships and assistantships to incoming master of environmental management students.

Program Scholarships

Many online environmental science master's programs offer their own scholarships to support students. For example, the University of Illinois at Springfield boasts several scholarships for environmental science graduate students, including a $500 Environmental Studies Alumni Award.