What is an Environmental Scientist?

Get the Facts About This Green Career

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An environmental scientist conducts research to identify, decrease the harmful effects of, or eliminate pollutants and hazards to the environment or the health of the earth's population. His or her goal is to protect the environment.

Quick Facts

  • In 2015, an environmental scientist's median annual salary was $67,460.
  • There were almost 95,000 people employed in this occupation in 2014.
  • Consulting firms and state and local governments were the primary employers.
  • Jobs are usually full time, but often include working more than 40 hours a week.
  • Environmental scientists work in offices and laboratories; some do fieldwork outdoors.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2024.

How to Become an Environmental Scientist

To get an entry-level job, you will need a bachelor's degree in environmental science. Alternatively, you can earn an undergraduate degree in biology, engineering, chemistry or physics. If you hope to advance in this field, you will need a master's degree.

Environmental scientists who work with hazardous waste removal may be required to have the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) Certification. Other professional certifications are voluntary and vary by area of expertise. They can help increase your career advancement opportunities.

They include CPESC (Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control) and Certified Wetland Delineator .

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

To work as an environmental scientist you will need certain soft skills in addition to the technical skills you will learn in school:

  • Critical Thinking Skills: To solve problems you will need the ability to weigh the merits of possible solutions.
  • Reading Comprehension: You will have to be able to understand colleagues' research findings.
  • Self Discipline: You will frequently have to work independently which will require you to be very focused and motivated.

Roles and Responsibilities of Environmental Scientists

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for environmental scientist positions found on Indeed.com:

  • "Conduct field work under the direction of a senior scientist to investigate the nature and extent of soil, sediment, groundwater and other media contamination"
  • "Observe and log soil explorations via soil boring equipment, Geoprobe and test pit excavations"
  • "Evaluate and apply local, state and federal air regulations to determine requirements for permit modifications"
  • "Perform program research, planning and development, permitting, compliance monitoring, inspections/enforcement, and technical support services in relation to air, water, waste, federal facilities, corrective action, mining, biology, and other environmental programs"
  • "Manage budgets, evaluate budget vs. plan, and analyze cost control efficiencies"
  • "Write reports, develop plans, and implement steps to move projects toward closure in the most cost effective manner"
  • "Utilize communications skills to interact with both internal and external clients"

What Is the Difference Between an Environmental Scientist and Environmental Engineer

Environmental scientists and engineers collaborate with one another to solve problems in the environment and prevent future ones. Scientists take an interdisciplinary approach that brings together principles from chemistry, biology, and geology. Engineers use engineering principles to help mitigate the adverse impact industry has on the environment. 

What Will Employers Expect From You?

What do employers look for when they hire new environmental scientists? These are requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

  • "Ability to multi-task, plan and execute projects and reports in an organized and timely manner"
  • "Must be able to work independently with minimal supervision, analyze and define requirements, establish courses of action and schedules, and manage personal workload"
  • "Ability to work well with others and comprehend instructions quickly"
  • "Must be highly motivated, customer focused and work well in a team environment"
  • "Proficiency with computer programs such as Microsoft Office Suite, etc."
  • "Ability to lift and move items and equipment up to 50 lbs."

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Related Occupations 

 DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2015)Minimum Required Education/Training
ConservationistHelps landowners and governments find ways to use natural resources without harming them.


Bachelor's degree in forestry, agronomy, agricultural science, biology or environmental science.
Environmental EconomistEvaluates and quantifies the costs and benefits of alternative environmental protection options. $99,180Ph.D. or Master's degree in economics
HydrologistStudies the circulation, distribution and physical properties of bodies of water.$79,550Master's degree in geoscience, environmental science or engineering, with a concentration in hydrology
Environmental TechnicianPerforms laboratory and field tests to monitor the environment. Works under an environmental scientist's supervision. $43,030Associate degree in applied science or science-related technology


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited November 15, 2016 ).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited November 15, 2016).
The College Board, "Career: Environmental Engineers."
The College Board, "Career: Environmental Scientists."
EnvironmentalScience.org. "Environmental Science Careers."

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