How to Become an Environmental Scientist

Kate Onissiphorou

by Kate Onissiphorou

22nd December 2021

Climate change is clearly a serious problem that the world is facing today. Corporations, nation-states, regional, and international organisations are ramping up their efforts to address this global crisis. That makes climate and environmental scientists more important than ever.

An environmental scientist studies the environment in terms of human impact (e.g. industrial pollutants) and ecological interactions, and creates possible solutions to environmental problems. Environmental science itself is an interdisciplinary field that requires the integration of various areas of knowledge, including physical, biological, social, and information sciences. It also requires a practical and community-based approach in solving environmental problems.

Just like in other careers in science, an environmental scientist can specialise in one academic discipline and use their specialised knowledge to solve environmental problems. Some of the relevant fields of science in which an environmental scientist can specialise are the following:

  • Environmental chemistry
  • Ecology and population dynamics
  • Applied physics
  • Botany
  • Zoology
  • Oceanography
  • Geology
  • Atmospheric science

What Do Environmental Scientists Do?

The specific tasks, methodologies, and equipment of an environmental scientist vary depending on several factors, such as the research subject, area of specialisation, time constraints, and budget. 

Scientists measuring scientific parameters over an ice floe in the Antarctic

Environmental scientists may study glacial ice cores as part of their work

For example, an environmental scientist who is specialising in atmospheric science may collect and study arctic glacial ice cores to determine the historical atmospheric conditions. The research will require a relatively high budget and advanced equipment to explore the arctic.

On the other hand, if the scope of the study is focused only on local urban air quality, a relatively small budget would suffice. Similarly, a standard laboratory might be enough for an environmental chemist who is focusing on a hyperlocal environmental research subject, such as the carrying capacity of a lake based on the pollution level.

Given the budgetary limitations, research subject, and specific technical details of specialisations, environmental scientists generally do the following:

  • Decide on an area of research subject and define the scope: This will largely depend on the specialisation of the scientist. An environmental oceanographer, for example, is not qualified to study nuclear wastes because it would require a nuclear physicist. For every research in a particular area of specialisation, there are also narrow scopes and delimitations of the study. For example, an oceanographer may study only coral bleaching in a particular area of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Identify the environmental problems related to a research subject: Some of the major environmental problems include pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, overpopulation, global warming, and loss of biodiversity. These are interconnected but have underlying sub-problems and causes. For example, soil degradation has detrimental effects on agriculture but it’s also caused by agricultural activities.
  • Form hypotheses that could explain the problems: Once a research topic and the related problems are identified, an environmental scientist must formulate hypotheses to explain the possible underlying causes of the problems. For example, if an environmental scientist is researching a massive fishkill in a lake, factors such as community or industrial pollution must be identified or ruled out as the cause. Other possible explanations might be formulated in the process.
  • Collect relevant data based on the research problems: Data can be collected in the field as environmental samples like soil samples, water samples, air samples, and specimen samples. Data can also be collected based on interviews with the ordinary residents of a community, with public officials, or with the managers of industrial plants. Secondary data might also be available from previous studies and from government institutions. A scientist collecting soil samples in a field
  • Perform experiments and analyses of the data: Field data may be collected based on experiments, such as in the case of experimental fishing or experimental farming. Data can then be analysed using statistical tools such as regression analysis.
  • Interpret the results of the research and make recommendations: Environmental scientists have important roles in public policies. They are sometimes commissioned by private corporations and government agencies to do specific research to serve as the basis of policies and decisions. They may also serve as expert witnesses in litigations or class suits. The research results must be properly validated and correct recommendations must be made.
  • Publish the research in reputable scientific journals for peer reviews: Just like other scientists, environmental scientists must publish their research in reputable scientific journals like the Journal of Environmental Sciences. Once published, other scientists can peer review the research for validity.

What Qualifications Do I Need to Become an Environmental Scientist?

If you want to start a career in environmental science, as long as you have a passion for the subject and earn a university-level degree, there are several career paths you can take. It will all depend on what type of specialisation you want to pursue.

You at least need a bachelor’s degree in science, majoring in ecology or environmental science, to start a career as an environmental scientist. You might be first hired as a research assistant, a laboratory technician, or a field sampling and interview enumerator in an environmental survey project. You can then pursue a master’s degree and, later, a PhD in a specialised field like environmental chemistry, environmental biology, environmental engineering, or materials science.

What Training is Required?

Although environmental science is an interdisciplinary academic field, the research specialisations are focussed on four major aspects: atmospheric sciences, ecology, environmental chemistry, and geosciences. You will gain general knowledge about these various areas while at university. However, you need to find your focus of specialisation.

You will learn the basics, including practical ones such as transecting in flora and fauna surveys. However, you need advanced formal academic training in one of the specialisations in environmental science. Generally, you will need training in laboratory analysis, mathematics (statistics and calculus), field data collection, and social science research.

Environmental issues always have social components that you also need to address as a researcher. For instance, you may need to integrate social attitudes of people in environmental issues like waste management, renewable energy, and clean air. You may also need to know some basic anthropological science and methods.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Environmental Scientist?

At entry-level, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences previously mentioned. You may also specialise in ecology or environmental science, and some universities offer specific environmental science degree programmes. Whichever course you choose, it usually takes three to four years to complete a full-time bachelor’s degree, and longer if you choose part-time study.

If you want a better chance at career advancement, you’ll also need to earn a master’s degree related to environmental science, and then a PhD or a DSci degree in a specialised field, such as environmental chemistry, oceanography, or hydrology. Post-graduate degrees (master’s and doctoral) take between four to six years of academic training and research. Therefore, it would take you at least eight years to earn expert academic status as an environmental scientist.

What is an Environmental Scientist’s Salary?

According to one estimate based on the latest reported salary differences, environmental scientists in the UK have an average base pay of £32,324 per annum. The range slightly varies depending on several factors such as the employer, education, location, and seniority.

Are Environmental Scientists in Demand?

The demand for environmental scientists has never been higher than today. It is expected to grow further in the coming decades as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. Environmental specialists are highly needed in environmental areas and tasks like forest conservation, environmental impact assessments, urban planning, waste management, fishery, agriculture, and sustainable development.

Cubes of pressed waste metal

Environmental scientists are needed to find ways to better manage waste

Both the public and private sectors need environmental experts for a wide range of issues, including renewable energy and corporate efficiency. Aside from universities and government agencies, some of the largest employers of environmental specialists in the UK are private corporations, such as chemical manufacturers, including the following:

  • AB Agri
  • AGCO
  • British Sugar
  • CNH Industrial
  • JCB
  • John Deere
  • KUHN
  • Magnox


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