Environmental Scientists and Specialists - What They Do
Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment by identifying problems and finding solutions that minimize hazards to the health of the environment and the population. They analyze measurements or observations of air, food, water, and soil to determine the way to clean and preserve the environment. Understanding the issues involved in protecting the environment—degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment—is central to the work of environmental scientists. They often use this understanding to design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water. They also write risk assessments, describing the likely affect of construction and other environmental changes; write technical proposals; and give presentations to managers and regulators.
The Federal Government and most State and local governments enact regulations to ensure that there is clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and no hazardous materials in the soil. The regulations also place limits on development, particularly near sensitive parts of the ecosystem, such as wetlands. Many environmental scientists and specialists work for the government, ensuring that these regulations are followed and limiting the impact of human activity on the environment. Others monitor environmental impacts on the health of the population, checking for risks of disease and providing information about health hazards.
Environmental scientists also work with private companies to help them comply with environmental regulations and policies. They are usually hired by consulting firms to solve problems. Most consulting firms fall into two categories—large multidisciplinary engineering companies, the largest of which may employ thousands of workers, and small niche firms that may employ only a few workers. When looking for jobs, environmental scientists should consider the type of firm and the scope of the projects it undertakes. In larger firms, environmental scientists are more likely to engage in large, long-term projects in which they will work with people in other scientific disciplines. In smaller specialty firms, however, they work more often with business professionals and clients in government and the private sector.
Environmental scientists who work on policy formation may help identify ways that human behavior can be modified in the future to avoid such problems as ground-water contamination and depletion of the ozone layer. Some environmental scientists work in managerial positions, usually after spending some time performing research or learning about environmental laws and regulations.
Many environmental scientists do work and have training that is similar to other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues. Many specialize in subfields such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Specialties affect the specific activities that environmental scientists perform, although recent understandings of the interconnectedness of life processes have blurred some traditional classifications. For example, environmental ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environments and the effects of factors such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude, on both. They may collect, study, and report data on air, soil, and water using their knowledge of various scientific disciplines. Ecological modelers study ecosystems, pollution control, and resource management using mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques. Environmental chemists study the toxicity of various chemicals, that is, how those chemicals affect plants, animals, and people.
Environmental scientists in research positions with the Federal Government or in colleges and universities often have to find funding for their work by writing grant proposals. Consultants face similar pressures to market their skills and write proposals so that they will have steady work.
Many entry-level environmental scientists and specialists spend a significant amount of time in the field, while more experienced workers generally devote more time to office or laboratory work. Some environmental scientists, such as environmental ecologists and environmental chemists, often take field trips that involve physical activity. Environmental scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. Travel often is required to meet with prospective clients.
Researchers and consultants might face stress when looking for funding. Occasionally, those who write technical reports to business clients and regulators may be under pressure to meet deadlines and thus have to work long hours.
A bachelor's degree in an earth science is adequate for entry-level positions, although many companies prefer to hire environmental scientists with a master's degree in environmental science or a related natural science. A doctoral degree generally is necessary only for college teaching and some research positions. Some environmental scientists and specialists have a degree in environmental science, but many earn degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, or the geosciences and then apply their education to the environment. They often need research or work experience related to environmental science.
A bachelor's degree in environmental science offers an interdisciplinary approach to the natural sciences, with an emphasis on biology, chemistry, and geology. Undergraduate environmental science majors typically focus on data analysis and physical geography, which are particularly useful in studying pollution abatement, water resources, or ecosystem protection, restoration, and management. Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds is becoming increasingly important in developing remediation goals. Students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields, either in environmental consulting firms or for Federal or State governments, should take courses in hydrology, hazardous-waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging, which is the gathering of geologic data. An understanding of environmental regulations and government permit issues also is valuable.
For environmental scientists and specialists who consult, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training with other disciplines such as engineering or business, qualifies these scientists for the widest range of jobs.
Computer skills are essential for prospective environmental scientists. Students who have some experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will be the most prepared to enter the job market.
Environmental scientists and specialists usually work as part of a team with other scientists, engineers, and technicians, and they must often write technical reports and research proposals that communicate their research results or ideas to company managers, regulators, and the public. Environmental health specialists also work closely with the public, providing and collecting information on public health risks. As a result, strong oral and written communication skills are essential.