Earning an online master's degree in sustainability can open exciting career opportunities at the intersection of industry and environmental management. In a society increasingly concerned about humans' effects on the natural world, sustainability professionals can earn a solid salary and engage with cutting-edge issues of science and policy.
This page provides a comprehensive overview of an online master's in sustainability, including program coursework, specializations, final projects, and information about career options for sustainability graduates. You can even learn about professional organizations in the field and discover helpful ways to pay for a master's in sustainability degree.
What to Know About Online Master's in Sustainability Coursework
An online master's degree in sustainability explores ways to apply new environmentally and economically sustainable solutions to problems of energy, governance, transportation, and food production. By studying a mix of science, technology, economics, and public policy, learners examine sustainable practices and apply them in an array of settings. Most graduate sustainability programs require learners to complete 30-36 credits, which most online learners can accomplish in 18-24 months.
The biggest difference between an online sustainability program and one offered on a brick-and-mortar campus lies in local application. A brick-and-mortar school determines its faculty, internship opportunities, and field work sites based on the bioregional priorities specific to its area. An online program, by contrast, encourages students to take what they learn in textbooks and internet-based courses and apply it in their own communities.
What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Sustainability Program?
The curriculum for an online master's degree in sustainability varies by program and can depend on an institution's focus and faculty experience. However, most sustainability degrees include a blend of coursework in science, technology, and the liberal arts. The list of courses below is a representative sample that students might take.
- Urban Sustainability
This course explores questions of human health, economic prosperity, and natural resource management in the context of a rapidly urbanizing world. By drawing examples from cities around the world and throughout history, students consider topics such as diversity, transportation, connectivity, mapping, citizen engagement, collaboration source tracing, and regenerative and integrative design.
- Perspectives on Sustainability
Students in this course consider a variety of cultural, political, and economic perspectives on sustainability. These perspectives include the indigenous point of view, the human development perspective, and the industrial-economic view. The course may include a discussion of the gaps and trends in the relationship between sustainability and other disciplines and professions.
- Environmental Sustainability
This course provides a fundamental overview of sustainability studies along with a review of how humans have coped with resource deprivation, climate change, and environmental upheaval throughout history. Topics may include energy, agriculture, ecosystems, ethics, population, global change, water, and environmental economics and policy. Students also explore motivations for sustainability and basic solutions to environmental problems.
- Environmental Sociology
This course examines why and how people come together to preserve and protect the environment. Learners consider the motivations behind a community's efforts to clear up a polluted stream, establish a community garden, or plant new trees. Environmental sociology students also consider the nature of neighborhood revitalization, community actions in limited-resource settings, and civic ecology.
- Sustainable Development Practices in Post-Capitalist Settings
Learners in this course explore the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as how countries and communities seek to realize the SDGs amidst a laissez faire-style capitalistic and wealth-driven world order. The course explores how sustainability becomes a policy and economic priority, and it covers topics such as education, financing, market economics, international trade, and gender equality.
What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Sustainability Program?
Many online master's in sustainability degrees offer areas of specialization, giving students a chance to focus their studies on the academic or professional track that most interests them. Not every institution provides specializations, but those that do can provide students specific learning experiences key to their interests and professional goals. Some of the more common specializations appear below.
- Business and the Environment
Learners with a clear vision to work as business sustainability professionals can take courses such as business and the case for sustainability, enterprise marketing and social accountability, and social entrepreneurship and scaling social innovation. A business and the environment concentration can lead to careers in policy analysis, environmental engineering, sustainability management, or consulting.
- Climate Change Science and Solutions
The climate change science and solutions specialization combines professional training in organizational management with coursework in climate science and sustainability. Courses include the economics of natural resources and climate change and sustainability practices. Students interested in the scientific, technological, and political ramifications of a changing climate can pursue a professional career in climate management.
- Water Resource Science and Management
Students pursuing a concentration in water resource science and management learn the problem-solving skills to manage water-related ecology in an increasingly complex natural and political environment. Courses in this specialization may include wetland ecology and management, fisheries management, and groundwater-flow and water-quality modeling. Water resource graduates may pursue careers in government or industry.
What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?
Learners pursuing an online master's degree in sustainability conclude their curriculum with a final project such as a capstone, thesis, or research experience. Some schools require their students to complete a field research project, craft a paper based on what they learn, and then present that paper for peer review.
Other schools require their students to conclude the program with an internship or an applied research project. In these instances, learners apply their classroom-based knowledge about sustainability in an urban, engineering, agricultural, or other industrial setting, and then they draft a paper or presentation on their experience.
How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Sustainability Program?
Selecting a trustworthy online master's in sustainability signals to employers that you are well-prepared to perform the job. Most prospective students begin vetting their top choices by first ensuring that the schools hold appropriate accreditation. Prioritize institutions that hold regional or national accreditation; however, note that most consider regional accreditation as the gold standard in educational quality.
Some institutions may also hold programmatic accreditation with a specialized body such as the North American Association for Environmental Education. Prospective students should avoid unaccredited schools.
Once you have determined that your top choices hold the right accreditation, the focus shifts to program quality. Several key quantitative factors mark the top programs: the graduation rate, year-over-year retention rate, and employment rate within six months of graduation. Students should also look at the schools where faculty members earned their most recent degrees.
Career Opportunities With a Master's in Sustainability Degree
Earning an online master's degree in sustainability provides graduates with a diverse set of career opportunities in fields such as farming and food technology or geography and environmental education. The increased interest — and urgency — of environmental management should mean plenty of career options for sustainability graduates in the years to come.
While earning a degree does not guarantee a career, the list of professions below represents just a few of the possibilities for a sustainability studies graduate. Some careers may require additional certification or licensure, in addition to a master's in sustainability.
- Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers
Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers oversee the farms that produce livestock, dairy products, or crops. These professionals may work on factory farms and sell products to agribusiness corporations, or they may serve as small farmers who maintain environmentally friendly, sustainable farming practices. Nearly three out of every four farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers work for themselves. The remainder work in aquaculture or crop and animal production. Farmers with advanced education can specialize in farming practices that minimize environmental impact and maximize financial gain.
- Median Salary: $67,950 per year
- Currently Employed: 1,028,700
- Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: -1%
- Agricultural and Food Scientists
Agriculture and food scientists oversee and improve food and farm safety and efficiency. These professionals may specialize in animal science, food technology, plant science, or soil science. About 15% of agriculture and food scientists work in food manufacturing, while the remainder serve at higher education institutions, work in research and development, staff government agencies, or consult on technology and management. Agriculture and food scientists often need an advanced degree to grow in their professions, such as an online master's degree in sustainability.
- Median Salary: $64,020 per year
- Currently Employed: 43,000
- Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +7%
- Conservation Scientists and Foresters
Serving primarily in state and federal government agencies, conservation scientists and foresters help manage natural resources and preserve land quality in state and national properties such as parks, forests, and rangelands. Conservation scientists typically make sure the organizations and companies that use federal or state land remain in compliance with environmental regulations. Foresters may supervise land regeneration activities, logging, forest fire suppression, or clearing land for new trees. Foresters may also work in procurement, urban forestry, or conservation education.
- Median Salary: $61,340 per year
- Currently Employed: 34,600
- Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +6%
Geographers study the earth, including its topographical features, its inhabitants, and its land and water. They may focus on political or cultural geography, or they might concentrate their work on physical or human geography. A geographer's work might emphasize small-scale models or large-scale ones. More than half the geographers in the U.S. work for the federal government while many others work for architectural firms or in-state agencies. Entry-level jobs in geography typically require a bachelor's degree while advanced profession demand a master's degree.
- Median Salary: $80,300 per year
- Currently Employed: 1,500
- Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +7%
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
Working in state and local government, for engineering firms, or in scientific consulting offices, environmental scientists and specialists apply their skills and knowledge to help protect and support human health and the natural environment. Typically, these professionals create plans for waste reduction, pollution cleanup, or environmental policy. Their plans rest on solid data collection and analysis, which they may also oversee. Environmental scientists and specialists can focus on industrial ecology, climate change, environmental restoration, or health and safety.
- Median Salary: $71,130 per year
- Currently Employed: 89,500
- Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +11%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2019
What's the Expected Job Growth for Sustainability Careers?
As environmental problems such as climate change, plastic pollution, and trash disposal earn greater public attention, jobs in sustainability are projected to increase in both number and value. The social, scientific, political, and economic ramifications of sustainability will likely create new jobs in this career field for a long time to come. The BLS anticipates the market for environmental scientists and specialists to grow by 11% over ten years. Moreover, these professionals can expect to earn a median annual salary of $71,130, almost double the median pay for all occupations.
Professional Organizations for Careers in Sustainability
Joining a professional organization can give students a chance to network with experienced environmental practitioners along with opportunities to read the latest research, participate in online forums, and attend global conferences. Professionals can use their membership to publish their own research on sustainability or to present their thoughts in lectures and panels at industry events.
Working in cities, companies, and campuses, Net Impact hosts conferences, supports programs and events, and connects professionals interested in meeting the world's most pressing challenges. Net Impact maintains 400 chapters in 40 countries.
ISSP brings together sustainability practitioners for community engagement, capacity development, and professional standardization. Members can take online courses, study for credentialing exams, and attend events such as the Global Congress of Sustainability & Climate Change Professionals.
ASEH serves the academic and environmental community by offering publications, conferences, awards, scholarships, and teaching and research opportunities in environmental history. The organization maintains an international and interdisciplinary membership.
SWCS brings professionals together for the preservation of natural resources. The organization's 3,000 members serve in state and university chapters by combining education, research, partnership, and advocacy activities.
Composed of both private and public sector employees, NAEP sets and maintains standards of ethics for environmental professionals. The organization also offers awards, scholarships, conferences, and publications for members.
How to Pay for a Master's in Sustainability Degree
Students have numerous options to pay for their online master's degree in sustainability, including private funds, federal support, and scholarships. Most students can also access low-cost loans through the U.S. Department of Education, along with private funds provided through companies, professional associations, and general scholarship endowments. Graduate students may apply for additional scholarships unique to their own campus.
Federal Financial Aid
The U.S. government provides support for graduate students through loans and other programs designed to make higher education affordable. To receive federal support, students must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is available online. Many private scholarship providers also require applicants to submit the FAFSA to receive consideration for funding.
American Society for Enology and Viticulture Scholarship Program
Professional organizations support future scholars and practitioners by providing scholarships and grants. The American Society for Enology and Viticulture offers prospective students in sustainability a chance to receive its support. Students should also explore other professional associations — such as those listed on this page — for chances to compete for educational funding.
Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarships
Graduate learners in environmental studies, sustainability, and related subjects can request support from for-profit companies committed to sustainability. For example, Annie's Homegrown makes funds available to students, but applicants should review the websites of any other corporations they know committed to sustainable practices. They can also browse scholarship databases for leads.
Department of Natural Resources' Environmental Education Scholarship
Students pursuing an online master's degree in sustainability can apply for federally funded scholarship funds such as the environmental education scholarship available throughout the Department of Natural Resources. Typically, these scholarships vary in amounts and requirements, so prospective students should thoroughly review relevant federal agencies' websites for the most up-to-date information.