How To Become an Environmental Scientist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 28 November 2022

Published 19 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

An environmental scientist is an individual who studies the Earth and its various ecosystems and tries to understand its various relationships and determine the effects of human activity on it. An environmental scientist may specialise in water treatment, geology, environmental engineering or marine biology. Becoming an environmental scientist usually requires a particular academic background, although there's more than one route into this field. In this article, we explain how to become an environmental scientist, and the various specialisations you can pursue.

What is an environmental scientist?

An environmental scientist is a qualified individual who's been educated to university level or higher. Their work generally focuses on the impact of human activity on the Earth's ecosystems and climate. An environmental scientist's work can also include investigating ways of mitigating the negative effects of human activity, such as water pollution and deforestation. To become an environmental scientist, you would typically hold a bachelor's degree in environmental science or a related field and often pursue postgraduate study in the form of a master's or PhD.

Environmental scientists have different fields of interest and their work can take them to various parts of the world. They may study volcanoes, marine biology, rainforests or the ecosystems at the Earth's poles. An environmental scientist may be primarily concerned with studying and measuring the changes in the Earth's ecosystems and climate, or pursuing solutions to climate problems as an engineer. Their expertise can overlap between biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and even social sciences. Specialisations within environmental science include volcanology, ecology, hydrology, geology, marine biology and microbiology. You can find more information about these specialisations later on in this article.

Related: What does a physical scientist do? Duties, skills and types

How to become an environmental scientist

An environmental scientist usually has a bachelor's degree at the very minimum. Since the work can be very research-intensive, many pursue postgraduate education in the form of master's degrees and PhDs. There's more than one way of becoming an environmental scientist, although a relevant BSc is usually a requirement. Below are the various steps in the educational journey of an environmental scientist, which are going to differ based on the individual and chosen specialisation:

GCSEs and A-levels

If you're going to become an environmental scientist or study a related discipline at university, you ought to have some relevant GCSEs and A-levels. Two A-levels and five GCSEs are a common requirement for entry into these sorts of university courses. Of course, some subjects are more relevant than others, with biology, chemistry, physics, maths, geography and geology being among the most useful.

Bachelor's degree

There are bachelor's degrees in environmental science available to study, although this isn't the only way to become an environmental scientist. In addition to a degree in environmental science, you could study environmental engineering, chemical engineering, marine biology, geology or even an interdisciplinary course of study with an emphasis on social sciences. If your BSc is not strictly related to environmental science, you can pursue postgraduate education to specialise in a more relevant field.

Related: A guide to science degrees: courses, careers and salaries

Postgraduate studies

Those who wish to increase their knowledge and expertise can continue their studies in the form of an MSc or PhD in one of the fields already mentioned. This typically requires a relevant bachelor's degree. Postgraduate qualifications may be necessary based on the particular job you're looking for and may increase your prospects and salary.

Other qualifications

Environmental scientists can also seek membership in certain organisations, such as the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA). This organisation helps its members in their professional careers and promotes sustainability. It also gives evaluations of organisations' efforts to improve their environmental impact and approves environmental training courses.

Related: What you need to know about professional qualifications

Where do environmental scientists work?

An environmental scientist can work at a range of different places, from local government authorities to large companies or research bodies. There are also environmental consultancy companies that employ many scientists, in addition to environmental agencies at both the national and international levels. Environmental scientists can also work at wildlife conservation groups, manufacturing companies and local councils. They can also pursue a research or teaching-focused career and work for a university.

Due to the nature of this field, becoming an environmental scientist can lead you to work all over the globe. Depending on their specialisation and research, an environmental scientist may need to travel to various areas of concern, including deserts, coastal areas, tropical rainforests, areas of high volcanic activity and even the Earth's poles. Conversely, they may work in a lab at a research institute or a university, or in an office environment.

Related: 16 conservationist careers (plus salaries and duties)

Specialisations within environmental science

Although there are environmental science degrees that you can study, these are often interdisciplinary in nature. In your efforts to become an environmental scientist, you are going to generally focus on one or a few areas of concern. In the following section, you can read about six different specialisations within environmental science, including their areas of interest, the nature of their work and possible educational requirements:

Ecologist

Ecology is a field within biology that is concerned with the relationships between biological organisms and the surrounding environment. An ecologist, therefore, studies biological relationships within the natural world, including animals, plants and humans. An ecologist can work in the field or at an academic institution. Their work can involve measuring the effects of certain actions on biological ecosystems and assessing the ecological impact of certain plans or proposals.

An ecologist's focus is primarily on biology, and in addition to a bachelor's degree in ecology, you can become an ecologist by studying zoology, marine biology, environmental science or ecological science.

Related: How to become an ecologist

Marine biologist

As the name suggests, a marine biologist is someone who studies the organisms in the world's marine environments, usually in the seas and oceans. You can think of them as ecologists with a focus on marine ecosystems. A marine biologist can further specialise in areas such as fishery data management, marine biotechnology, reef restoration or environmental engineering. Marine biologists may be required to travel to various parts of the globe, and often must be capable divers.

In addition to a bachelor's degree in marine biology or environmental science, you can become a marine biologist by studying oceanography, coastal ecology or marine science. If you've already pursued undergraduate studies in other related fields, such as microbiology or biochemistry, you can pursue a marine-focused postgraduate qualification.

Related: What does a marine biologist do? (With specialisations)

Geologist

Geology, also known as geoscience, is the study of the Earth itself in terms of its structure, dynamics and natural resources. A geologist can be a geotechnical engineer, a wellsite geologist, a hydrographic surveyor, an engineering geologist or a geophysicist. Their focus on the study of the Earth means that geologists often work in groundwater management, the petroleum sector and with construction and civil engineering companies, in addition to environmental agencies, government bodies and research institutes.

At the bachelor's level, if you want to become a geologist you can pursue a BSc in geology, geoscience or Earth science. Some courses of study may be more closely linked to certain industries, whereas others are more general in scope.

Related: Complete guide: What can you do with a geology degree?

Microbiologist

The field of microbiology is concerned with the world's micro-organisms, such as algae, fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses. Microbiologists can work in the fields of medicine, research, healthcare, agriculture and the broader environment. Employers include pharmaceutical companies, governments, healthcare providers and research bodies.

Degrees that you can pursue to become a microbiologist include microbiology, molecular biology, biology, microbial sciences, biomedical sciences and applied biology.

Related: 17 jobs for microbiologists with primary duties and salaries

Volcanologist

Volcanology is the study of the planet's volcanoes and their impact on the environment, including the atmosphere and oceans. A big part of their work involves trying to understand volcanoes to better predict eruptions, which can save lives. Their work is often on-site or uses satellite imagery to measure volcanic activity, including the use of computer modelling.

In addition to a degree in volcanology, you can become a volcanologist by studying geology, geoscience, geophysics, physics or even mathematics. The work of a volcanologist can vary between acquiring relevant data, processing these findings and then interpreting them.

Related: How to become a volcanologist (with steps and skills)

Hydrologist

Hydrologists are primarily concerned with the Earth's freshwater resources and their management and conservation. This includes studying rivers, lakes, glaciers, aquifers and rainfall. Hydrologists often work with computer modelling packages to analyse data and determine water management best practices. Their work can include flood risk assessment, water resource planning, drainage and water quality management.

To become a hydrologist, you can pursue a bachelor's degree in geology, soil science, environmental sciences, ecology, environmental management or even civil and environmental engineering.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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