Learn About Career Tracks

Environmental science is a cross-disciplinary field that utilizes knowledge from various disciplines including biology, chemistry, ecology, forestry, geoscience, statistics, computer science, health sciences, law, agriculture, engineering, economics, anthropology and more. Environmental professionals are engaged in predicting, identifying, investigating, preventing and solving major environmental issues our society face.

The job outlook for environmental scientists is excellent.A career in environmental science could be spent in an office, in a laboratory, in nature or traveling the world, often a combination. Jobs in environmental sciences can be found in all sectors including academic, business, government and nongovernmental organizations.

Academic Sector

This career track might be the easiest to envision when pursuing a degree in environmental science. A Master of Science (MSc) degree is needed to qualify as an academic research lab technician or manager, while a Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) is typically a pre-requisite for a university-level teaching or research position.

Reasons why SETAC members have chosen a career in academics:

  • Satisfaction of mentoring student development
  • Research flexibility and the joy of discovery
  • Autonomy and less rigid daily schedule

Potential disadvantages:

  • Tough competition for academic researcher positions and no clear path for career development
  • Not-so-fun responsibilities such as grading papers or being required to serve on some administrative committees

Business or Private Sector

A business is typically defined as an organization that is for profit, whether private or publicly held. Businesses are required to comply with environmental laws, which requires the expertise of environmental scientists. Further, a growing number of companies are engaging in sustainability efforts and are therefore looking for environmental experts. Within the business sector there are two major subgroups:

  • Industrial operations can be broadly categorized as upstream resource extraction operations (pulp and paper, mining, drilling operations), mid-stream manufacturing (refining, chemical manufacturing) and downstream manufacturing (product manufacturing).
  • Consulting firms typically help business or government clients solve complex challenges and ensure compliance with regulations.

Environmental scientists who are working for companies safeguard the integrity of environmental conditions at the site of operations and ensure operations are in compliance with environmental laws and regulations (planning, permitting, monitoring, remediation, management may be some keywords in such job descriptions). They may also be involved in ensuring that products and manufactures meet registration standards (product stewardship is a way to describe this role).

Reasons why SETAC members have chosen a career in the private sector:

  • Diverse projects and lots of opportunities
  • Clear structure that allows for career advancement
  • Flexibility in calendar schedule

Potential disadvantages:

  • May come with fierce competition internally and externally
  • Periods of time where longer hours might be necessary

Government Sector

Government environmental science jobs vary slightly at the federal, state/provincial and local levels. Governments can have research facilities that may be similar to research facilities at academic or private institutions and are involved in method development, improvement and standardization. They also have regulatory arms and enforcement factions, where employees write and enforce environmental laws.

Reasons why SETAC members have chosen a career in the government sector:

  • Public service mission
  • Stability and job security
  • Set working hours that can help with work–life balance

Potential disadvantages:

  • Funding and scientific outlook could be impacted by changing political leadership
  • Can involve frustrating bureaucracy

Nongovernmental Organizations

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are non-profit, mission-driven organizations that pursue goals that relate to the environmental welfare (e.g., United Nations Environment Programme). NGOs also include associations like SETAC that provide services to their members. Typically, in environmental sciences the mission of nonprofits is promoting science, stewardship and advocacy. An environmental scientist within an NGO may conduct research to provide input into policy development, act as a partner with governments to help shape policy and programs, communication to create government and public awareness about environmental issues, and work to mobilize public support.

Reasons why SETAC members have chosen a career in the NGO sector:

  • Making a difference
  • Working alongside passionate and engaged people with shared objectives
  • Varied projects and skill development opportunities

Potential disadvantages:

  • Stability reliant on grants, membership, donations or fundraising
  • Can be complicated with bureaucracy

Bringing Together All Sectors

Depending on the sector, environmental scientists can focus on the same complex problems but with different perspectives and goals. One of SETAC’s founding principle is to bring together the best possible scientists and practitioners from all sectors to advance scientific discourse and find solutions to these complex environmental issues. SETAC achieves this through events, publications, education and certification programs.