The Path to a Sustainability Career

Despite the term’s popularity, “sustainability” can often have an ambiguous meaning. People may use it to refer to new business practices, environmentally responsible social policies, sustainable biological systems and more. Given its broad range of implications, it is difficult to know exactly how to define sustainability.

Sustainability encompasses practices and ideologies that preserve the overall well-being of our environment and society. The concept is often discussed in terms of the responsible use of natural resources. Sustainability and sustainability careers are becoming increasingly important, as decreasing biodiversity, a rapidly growing world population, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the reliance on nonrenewable energy resources continue to harm the planet.

The current strain on our planet’s resources can be seen in a few alarming facts from the University of Utah’s College of Architecture:

  • The average American adult throws away 600 times their weight in garbage over the course of their life, equal to approximately 90,000 lbs of garbage in a lifetime.
  • The cost of dealing with America’s waste is over $100 billion each year.
  • Everyday, Americans create enough garbage to fill 63,000 dump trucks.

sustainable_career_plantThis staggering wastefulness highlights the need to create a more sustainable economy and culture through sustainability internships, jobs, and careers, as well as through personal habits. Sustainability does not simply save the Earth; sustainable practices dramatically improve personal health. For instance, choosing to ride a bike to work both reduces fuel emissions and affords you an opportunity to exercise. Sustainable practices don’t simply protect trees and endangered species—they also help all of us lead healthier and longer lives.

Fortunately, a number of groups are working to change our collective approach to sustainability. Colleges across the country are at the forefront of this struggle, and the trend is hardly surprising: the core concepts of sustainability rely upon specific academic disciplines such as biology, ecology, meteorology, and chemistry. Sustainability, in short, depend upon not only ethical sensibility, but also on a firm understanding of the natural sciences. Additionally, college courses in disciplines from economics to sociology are tailored to address the growing need for sustainability. It’s now possible to take an architecture class that trains students to use sustainable building methods, a formerly rare option.

Benefits of an Online Sustainability Degree

As with other programs, earning your sustainability degree online can save both time and money. Online degrees allow you to maintain a flexible schedule, and are especially beneficial for parents and working professionals who are unable to attend class on campus. The programs listed below are just a few examples of the variety of sustainability programs offered across the country. Use them as a starting point in your search for the right degree program.

Schools With Online Sustainability Programs


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Program: Online Masters of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Science
Description: The MS in Natural Resources and Environmental Science is a state-of-the-art program offering synchronous learning. Certain electives give students the option to travel for hands-on field work experience, thus offering a blend of remote and on-site study. Students are allowed to take up to 12 free credit hours before applying to the program to ensure that it will be an appropriate fit.
Cost: $452 per credit hour (about $14,464 total)
Length of Program: 32 credit hours


Harvard University

Program: Master in Sustainability and Environmental Management
Description: Harvard’s sustainability program provides a diverse educational experience, exposing students to everything from environmental science to socially-based courses. Coursework covers everything from the principles of marine biology to environmental economics, providing graduates of the program with versatile and highly employable skills. While the bulk of the program is available online, students are required to take a least one class on campus. An option to combine the degree with a specialized professional certificate, such as the Green building and Community Sustainability Certificate, is available.
Cost: $2,400 per course (about $24,000-$28,000 total)
Length: Nine courses and a thesis, or 11 courses and a capstone project; must be completed within five years


Duke University

Program: Master of Environmental Management
Description: This interdisciplinary program offers students a foundation in policy, business, engineering, and environmental science. While the program incorporates some “place-based learning” (short seminars and conferences held at a physical location), most of the program is delivered online. Additionally, there is a unique leadership focus supplemented by a short conference in Washington, D.C.
Cost: About $34,750 per academic year
Length: Two years (four semesters, 30 credits)


American Military University

Program: Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science
Description: This all-encompassing program helps undergraduates understand the science of sustainability, as well as the social, legal, moral, political, and economic contexts behind it. Students are able to choose different sustainability concentrations, focusing on niches like environmental technology and management or regional and community environmental planning. Several core requirements, such as history and literature classes, ensure that students earn a well-rounded and balanced education.
Cost: $270 per credit hours ($32,940 total)
Length: 122 credit hours


Other Degree & Program Options

Every school’s sustainability program is unique, and the listings below represent just a fraction of the choices you’ll encounter. When searching for the ideal sustainability degree, be sure to check with a school counselor or advisor to ensure that you choose a program that suits your interests.

Degree Options:

Environmental Engineering Degree
Environmental Science Degree
Environmental Policy Degree
Sustainable Architecture & Design Degree
Sustainable Business Degree
Sustainable Public Policy Degree
Sustainable Technology Degree

Program Options:

Associate of Applied Science in Sustainable Development
Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability
Master of Arts in Sustainability
Master of Science in Sustainability
Doctor of Philosophy in Sustainability

Certificates Options:

Certificate in Sustainable Management
Certificate in Sustainable Business Operations
Certificate in Sustainable Business Best Practices
Certificate in Environmental Sustainability

There are plenty of scholarships and grants available to students interested in sustainability careers, jobs, and internships. The entries below are not exhaustive, so be sure to look around for more financial opportunities.


Brower Youth Awards

This prize honors six young leaders for their contribution to sustainability. Winners receive a cash prize, a short film made about their work for environmental change, and a week-long trip to San Francisco designed to connect them with mentors, resources, and career opportunities.
Amount: $3,000
Eligibility:

  • Must be 13-22
  • Must live in North America

International Interior Design Association Student Sustainable Design Competition

This competition honors interior design and architecture students whose unique projects positively impact the environment and the local community.
Amount: First place: $1,500; Second place: $1,000
Eligibility:

  • Open to graduate or undergraduate students
  • Must be enrolled in an interior design or architecture program
  • Open to individual competitors or teams of two to four

Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge

In this challenge, graduate students seek to harness the power and influence of finance to facilitate positive social and environmental change. Competitors design, pitch, and defend financial models that seek capital and financial gain with sustainability improvements in areas such as water conservation, food production, and climate change. The competition develops future financial leaders committed to sustainable practices.
Amount: First place: $10,000; Runner-up: $5,000
Eligibility:

  • Must be a graduate student (can be an international student)
  • Teams must consist of no more than four graduate students and cannot include more than one Executive MBA candidate
  • Prospecti can be no more than two pages
  • Teammates may attend different graduate schools

Annie’s Sustainable Agriculture Scholarships

Sponsored by the Annie’s organic food company (best known for its bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese), this scholarship supports both undergraduate and graduate students studying sustainable and organic agriculture.
Amount: $10,000 or $2,500
Eligibility:

  • Must be either an undergraduate or graduate student

Udall Undergraduate Scholarship

This scholarship supports American Indians and Alaskan Natives interested in working in the tribal policy or native health care sectors, as well as any undergraduate interested in conservation and the environment.
Amount: 60 scholarships of $7,000 each
Eligibility:

  • Applicants must be undergraduates working to alleviate the many challenges, social and environmental, facing American Indians
  • Applicants must demonstrate a record of public service
  • Must have a strong academic record and a commitment to leadership

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Educational Program

Focusing on students from schools that serve minority populations, this scholarship supports sophomores or juniors who are interested in studying atmospheric or environmental science. In addition to their scholarship, students receive funding for travel and conferences, and they can participate in paid summer internships.
Amount: $45,000
Eligibility:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen enrolled as either a sophomore or junior at an accredited U.S. college or university
  • Must be majoring or planning to study in fields that relate to NOAA’s agenda (generally STEM programs)
  • Must maintain at least a 3.2 GPA

NEWH Sustainable Hospitality Design Competition

To compete for this prize, students must create an innovative interior design that addresses energy conservation, water efficiency, or indoor environment quality. The finished structure must not only be designed sustainably, but also must encourage sustainable living habits, such as recycling or water conservation.
Amount: Two $5,000 awards (one awarded to an undergraduate student and one
awarded to a graduate student)
Eligibility:

  • Participants must be undergraduate or graduate interior design students
  • Undergraduate students must be juniors or seniors

National Environmental Health Association Scholarship

This program supports students committed to working in environmental health. The award is partially need-based.
Amount: One $2,000 award to a graduate student, and three $1,000 awards to
undergraduate students
Eligibility:

Undergraduate Scholarship

  • Must be enrolled at a college or university that is either accredited by the Environmental Health Accreditation Council, or is an NEHA Educational or Sustaining Member School
  • Must have at least one academic school year remaining

Graduate Scholarship

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  • Must be enrolled as a graduate student at a college with environmental health curriculum
  • Must have at least one semester of coursework remaining
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    Schools Actively Practicing Sustainability on Campus

    Water Conservation

    Georgia Tech
    A leading proponent of water conservation since the 1990s, Georgia Tech has saved water by installing rain gardens, low-flow fixtures, and cisterns on campus. According to Green Buzz, Georgia Tech currently “has the largest cistern on a U.S. college campus, capable of storing 1.4 million gallons of water.” As such, it is hardly surprising that from 2007-09, Georgia Tech not only reduced its total water usage by more than 20%, but also decreased potable water use by nearly a third.

    Energy and Climate Change

    Williams College
    In a response to student activism, WIlliams College recently promised to invest as much as $50 million to cut energy use on campus and reduce its carbon footprint. Williams hopes to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to about two-thirds of 1990 levels through investing in solar power and other renewable energy sources. The college plans to hit its energy benchmarks by 2020.

    Transportation

    Stanford University
    Boasting one of the nation’s greenest campuses, Stanford’s commitment to sustainable transportation is commendable. The notable Marguerite shuttle system uses nearly 80 electric, biodiesel, or electric-diesel hybrid buses to transport Stanford students and staff throughout campus and to surrounding areas for free. As of 2014, more than two million riders used the system.

    Biodiversity, Land and Ecosystems

    Evergreen State College
    Located on nearly 1,000 acres of pine forest and less than half a mile from a saltwater beach on the Puget Sound, Evergreen State College strives to protect its incredible amount of biodiversity. Both the forest and the beach are home to wildlife, and students are free to explore both habitats at their leisure. Additionally, the college houses a five-acre area organic farm that functions as an educational center for students interested in learning about sustainable farming practices.

    Waste and Recycling

    American University
    American pledged to be a “zero-waste” campus in 2010, and the school is well on its way. AU composts and recycles extensively, focusing especially on kitchen waste and paper towel use across campus. Estimates suggest that American University recycled nearly 50 percent of its solid waste in 2009, helping them earn a reputation as one of the country’s greenest campuses.

    Schools with Sustainability Programs


    Arizona State University – School of Sustainability

    ASU offers a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral sustainability degree, the first program of its kind. By teaching students about sustainability using a wide array of topics—including water quality, ecosystems, and food systems—the program prepares students for sustainability internships, jobs, and careers across a variety of fields. Additionally, students have the opportunity to pair their degree with a term in the Peace Corps.

    Programs Offered:
    BA in Sustainability, BS in Sustainability, Undergraduate Minor in Sustainability, Certificate in Energy and Sustainability, Certificate in Food System Sustainability


    UC Santa Barbara – The Bren School of Environmental Science and Management

    UC Santa Barbara provides graduate students with a strong interdisciplinary education, incorporating elements of science, economics, law, management, and policy. Located amidst an ecologically diverse environment populated with seals, whales, dolphins, and monarch butterflies, the Bren School prepares students for careers in academia, or for professional research in non-academic organizations, such as branches of government or NGOs.

    Programs Offered:
    MA in Environmental Science and Management, PhD in Environmental Science and Management


    Cornell University – College of Human Ecology

    Cornell’s College of Human Ecology researches how to improve human lives by studying natural, social, and manufactured environments. One of the college’s primary concerns is sustainability. They explore the way existing buildings use energy, food, and agricultural systems, as well as the resources employed in wide-scale manufacturing. The goal is to discover how human environments can use resources more efficiently.

    Programs Offered:
    BA/MA in Design and Environmental Analysis, BA/MS/PhD in Fiber Science and Apparel Design, BA/MA/PhD in Global and Public Health Sciences, BA in Human Biology, Health, and Society, BA/MA/PhD in Human Development, BA/MS/PhD in Nutritional Sciences, BS/MHA/MBA/MPA/PhD in Policy Analysis and Management

    What Can You Do?

    Join a sustainability group: Most colleges have a thriving network of clubs and organizations, so it should be easy to find a group focused on sustainability. Additionally, many colleges have some kind of green engineering club, such as Cornell’s Engineers for a Sustainable World club, that encourages green design practices.

    Volunteer: Volunteering is a great way to improve sustainability practices while giving back to your community. You should find plenty of neighborhood organizations committed to improving the local environment. The Friends of Trees, for instance, is a Portland organization committed to planting trees all over the city. It relies on volunteers, many of whom are local college students, to facilitate this process.

    Develop a student-led sustainability project: These rewarding projects are for those who are truly passionate about sustainability. Students can start gardens or recycling programs, or spearhead campaigns spreading awareness about energy use on campus. For example, Stanford’s annual Energy and Water Wars are student-led competitions that encourage dorms to save resources through friendly competition.

    Pursue international sustainability outreach programs: Traveling abroad and learning about different sustainability organizations can increase your awareness of sustainability jobs around the world. Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program supports short-term volunteer residential building projects around the world, allowing students to strengthen communities while affording them the opportunity to travel.

    Enter a sustainability competition/contest: Competing with your college buddies is always fun, so why not incorporate sustainability too? Sustainability-based contests are a proven and effective way of inspiring students to save the planet. Campus Conservation Nationals Poster Contest, for example, is a competition that encourages student groups to develop posters that advertise on-campus sustainability campaigns and general sustainability advice.

    Quick Tips To Be Sustainable

    • Bike or walk instead of driving: Instead of driving, walk or bike to class. This reduces your carbon footprint and improves your physical health.
    • Use metal water bottles: Metal water bottles reduce the demand for plastic water bottles, a highly wasteful product. They’re also relatively inexpensive.
    • Use laptop instead of desktop: On average, laptops use about half as much energy as desktops.
    • Use LED light bulbs: LED light bulbs use ⅓ to 1/30 of the energy used by incandescent bulbs. Even better, they last 50 times longer.
    • Recycle: Recycling reuses precious resources and limits the amount of waste flowing into landfills. Many commonly thrown away items, such as aluminum and glass, can be recycled an infinite number of times .

    The number of sustainability careers and jobs are growing rapidly in many economic sectors. Because sustainability careers rely upon interdisciplinary skills, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the market for sustainability jobs to continue growing throughout the decade.

    Due to the required proficiency in a variety of disciplines, especially science, earning a college degree is important for a career in sustainability. Sustainability jobs also typically require prior work experience, particularly a sustainability internship, to get ahead.

    Internships

    To help enter the job market as a new graduate, you should try to take at least one or two sustainability internships while attending college. The following list provides a few examples of good sustainability internships. Be sure to check out local organizations for specific opportunities, and talk to professors and academic advisors about local positions. You should also look at the job offerings in your school’s career center or online job board.

    Company Program Description
    ACORE Acore Internship Program ACORE is a nonprofit focused on building awareness of renewable energy. Its internship program mentors college seniors, graduate students, and recent graduates pursuing careers in renewable energy.
    EOS Energy
    Storage
    Business Development Intern EOS provides cheap and clean methods of energy storage. The business development intern’s responsibility is to help the management team in aspects of marketing, financial analysis, and research.
    Council on Environmental Equality CEQ Internship Program This Washington, D.C. organization develops national environmental policies. The CEQ intern will complete research, attend official meetings, and write memos in support of the organization’s work.
    The Department
    of Energy
    Student Internships The Department of Energy offers a variety of student sustainability internships in many fields, including scientific research, business, and administration. These sustainability internships provide stipends and take place over 12 weeks during the summer.
    Environmental Protection Agency Student Internships Sustainability internships with the EPA empower students to protect the nation’s environment through administrative, life science, policy analysis, and engineering positions.
    Renewable
    Northwest
    Multiple Internships This Portland, OR based group aims to expand clean and environmentally friendly energy use. Renewable Northwest offers many different sustainability internships with many different institutions, including advocacy, research, and energy organizations.
    Student Conservation Association Service Programs This organization’s goal is to teach youth about key conservation issues. They offer many different service opportunities, from trail building to habitat restoration, to high school and college students.
    Green String
    Institute
    Sustainable Farming Internship Participants of this sustainability internship live, work, and learn on a sustainable farm in preparation for becoming practitioners of responsible agriculture. Tuition, room and board, and a stipend are included.
    Tesla Motors Multiple Internships Tesla takes on teams of students for varying lengths of time to help develop more sustainable vehicles. Students will work in areas such as manufacturing, and electrical and mechanical engineering.
    U.S. Green Building Council Multiple Internships The USGBC aims to facilitate more environmentally friendly buildings through sustainable design. Students can participate in a variety of sustainability internships in many fields, such as communications relations, data analysis, conferences and events, and advocacy.

    Careers

    Careers in sustainability are growing. As of 2010, there were already over three million green jobs in the country. Most sustainability careers are in predictable industries, such as environmental science, engineering, architecture, technical consulting, transportation, recycling and waste, energy generation, and government administration. Though, as the field grows, it is proving useful in areas where it was never considered before. Sustainability careers are accessible and require a range of skills, which makes a sustainability degree a wise investment.

    Below, you’ll find a few of the highest paying sustainability jobs:

    Job Salary Years Experience
    Chief Sustainability Executive $166,910 10+
    Natural Sciences Manager $114,770 5+
    General and Operations Manager $95,150 5+
    Chemical Engineers $92,930 0+
    Atmospheric and Space Scientist $89,790 0+
    Industrial Production Manager $88,190 5+
    Materials Scientist $84,600 0+
    Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Manager $80,860 5+
    Biochemist/Biophysicist $79,230 0+
    Environmental Engineer $77,050 0+

    Landing a Job in Sustainability

    Tip 1: Have a Sustainability Background

    • Experience, whether it’s professional, academic, or both, proves that you have the practical skills to match your passion for sustainability.
    • Internships and group projects are good as gold for students coming out of college.

    Tip 2: Complete sustainability internships

    • Sustainability internships will teach you both key sustainability concepts while providing you with practical job experience.
    • Sustainability internships prove your ability to apply classroom concepts in practical settings, giving you an edge over job candidates with no professional experience.

    Tip 3: Complete a class project

    • Like sustainability internships, a class project on sustainability shows that you can creatively apply key academic concepts to real sustainability issues.
    • Projects are another example of your academic prowess, giving you an edge over students who might rely on grades alone as a measure of their value to a company.

    Tip 4: Conduct an independent study

    • Creating independent studies illustrates your ability to be self-directed and focused.
    • Independent studies display creativity and initiative, highlighting your desire to pursue unique interests. In short, you’ll set yourself apart from other students by showing yourself to be a leader, rather than a follower.

    The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)
    A nonprofit organization, AASHE empowers college faculty and students to be agents of change for sustainability in ecology, human health, social justice, and more.

    Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive
    CoFED seeks to create strong, sustainable food economies by giving college campuses the tools they need to construct a thriving food co-op culture.

    Energy Action Coalition
    A collection of youth-run organizations committed to environmental justice, this institution helps young adults create a healthier environment by promoting clean energy.

    Engineers for a Sustainable World
    This organization works with college students and faculty, as well as engineering professionals, to infuse college curriculums with sustainable concepts and promote the development of sustainable engineering projects both on college campuses and in surrounding communities.

    National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program
    This program works with schools to protect natural habitats, aiming to improve the sustainability of college campuses and the quality of environmentally friendly education.

    Roots and Shoots
    Launched by Jane Goodall, this program empowers young people to identify sustainability issues in their community, and then work to fix those problems.

    Sierra Student Coalition
    A youth-run organization that helps both high school and college students seek social, climate, and environmental justice.

    SustainUS
    A nonprofit that helps youth to advocate nationally and internationally for key sustainability issues, climate change, poverty, and the loss of biodiversity.

    Net Impact
    A wide-reaching organization that works to overcome sustainability issues, such as climate change, food quality, and transportation.