September 14, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
University of Minnesota
Penn State Behrend
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Indiana University Bloomington
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
University of Minnesota, Morris
Point Loma Nazarene University
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Colorado Mountain College
University of South Dakota
Yale University professor
University of Minnesota
Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering
Erin Surdo Ph.D.: Students with strong oral communication and project management skills and technical background in material balances and fluid mechanics often succeed in environmental engineering careers.
Environmental Science Department
Logan Brenner Ph.D.: It is really impressive to see some type of research experience outlined on a resume and related output, such as a presentation or poster at a conference or some other public venue or an article. It is important that you clearly explain the research project on the resume or CV to highlight its relevance to whatever job you are applying for. Maybe the content is relevant, or instead, it is the skills that you learned. Honestly, it is becoming much more commonplace to see a research project on a resume, so I would almost say that it is a critical component. Conducting research indicates that you can work independently and/or in a team, solve problems, and think creatively and critically. Summarizing your findings in a conference presentation or a write-up shows that you can distill and communicate your most important and compelling conclusions and that you can finish a project.
Logan Brenner Ph.D.: It is rare that someone will solve a problem, answer a research question, or make a discovery on their own. As is the case in many science fields, collaboration is key, so working in a team is critical. To do this effectively, you must collaborate with people who may have different work styles than you, be comfortable with delegation and self-assigning responsibilities, communicate and resolve conflict, know when to be a leader, and follow someone else's lead, and manage your time. From an environmental science perspective, our world is becoming ever more complex, and the best way to address complex problems is with a group of diverse minds. We need to have an open mind, start approaching problems creatively, and consider the value of having varied educational and professional training and multiple perspectives.
Your science will mean little and have minimal impact if you can't explain it to anyone who asks. As an environmental scientist, you will undoubtedly have to communicate your work to varied audiences ranging from professionals in your field to the general public. Therefore, you need to recognize your audiences and meet them at their level to get your ideas across. What is most impressive is not a lecture full of unnecessary jargon that obscures your point but instead a few succinct and eloquent sentences using universally understood language.
Logan Brenner Ph.D.: Keep in mind the field of environmental science is quite broad, and so the hard or technical skills that are necessary for one specialty may be less important in another. Being able to code and work with big data are two skills that are becoming more important each day. Try to become semi-proficient in at least one coding language, but you will likely have to learn another in the not-so-distant future. While math was never my favorite subject, I admit that many of my classes became relevant in my work. It is hard to know when in your career applying what you learned about partial derivatives will become necessary, but it will, and you will wish you paid better attention in Calculus Class (speaking from experience). Being able to model, often a combination of coding and math, is a complex but valuable skill. When applied, this could mean using or understanding climate models, groundwater flow, population growth, viral spread, or predictions of any kind. Being able to model is a powerful tool.
Logan Brenner Ph.D.: Suppose by earn we are referring to earning money. In that case, you want to hone skills applicable to a wide variety of careers and fields. Many people call these transferrable skills. Being able to code and work with large amounts of data are critical skills to any STEM field and are becoming more relevant in nearly every sector. If you can get experience coding or working with data in a classroom setting, that is great. If you can also get some hands-on experience applying those skills to a research project, independent study, or during an internship, even better. Being comfortable working with numbers, i.e., proficient in math, is also valuable. Numerous soft skills will also help you excel in the workplace, such as being flexible and ready to pivot when your work takes you in a new direction, ease with public speaking and communication, and self-confidence. Believing in yourself will make it easier for others to believe in you. This is much easier said than done, and many successful people struggle with imposter syndrome and managing their own self-confidence. It is totally normal but something that you should prioritize throughout your professional career.
Bard Center for Environmental Policy
Dr. Eban Goodstein: For our MS Policy graduates, the ability to write an interdisciplinary literature review is the foundation for policy formulation and grant writing.
Dr. Eban Goodstein: Networking.
Dr. Eban Goodstein: Solid natural science background, esp ecology, and biogeochemical cycles.
Dr. Eban Goodstein: Data analysis skills.
Dr. Doug Spieles Ph.D.: Cast a wide net. You may have an ideal position and geographic location in mind, but very few people land that dream job immediately. A willingness to pursue various positions and locations can increase your odds of finding an entry-level job. This can help you build skills and networks that will put you in a healthier place for achieving your ultimate goal.
Dr. Doug Spieles Ph.D.: I would place data science and geographic information systems at the top of the list. We live in the information age, which is both exciting and overwhelming. I believe that we will increasingly need scientists who know how to obtain and use data to solve spatially explicit environmental problems.
Dr. Doug Spieles Ph.D.: Chron.com reports the average entry-level annual salary for an environmental scientist at $44,000, with a career median at around $70,000. Salaries will vary by location and level of education and experience.
Deborah Aruguete Ph.D.: Particularly in this time of COVID-19, it is critical to be proactive. More than ever before, a graduate's boss (or prospective employers) are coping with the increased stresses of more home duties, changes in work operations, etc. These senior authority figures will appreciate people who take the initiative. If you have an idea or see an issue at work, before you go to your boss, take the time to look up the information you need. Once you have some information, it is then time to communicate. I cannot emphasize enough, more than ever, the need to communicate regularly and clearly.
The second piece of advice might seem pretty obvious, but here it is: Follow the Instructions, whether it is for a task at work or when applying for a job. Environmental science is interdisciplinary by its very nature, so it is likely in a position that you'll have to learn about new techniques or unfamiliar areas of science. Instructions are there for a reason. It amazes me how so many students do not bother to read instructions. One suggestion I have for people who tend to read too fast and miss steps is to say the instructions aloud. There's something about actually speaking every word that forces people to slow down.
Deborah Aruguete Ph.D.: Anything with databases and associated computing. In the environmental sciences, our issue nowadays is not so much that we cannot get data, but we have so much we don't know what to do with it. For example, one area that environmental scientists handle is land use management. The government and universities collect tons of data, map land, monitor flow rates in streams, etc. The key to making this data useful for your land management questions is the ability to search for what you need and analyze this. Advances are being made with databases all of the time.
Honestly, if I were a student and had the time, I'd want to take a class about information management systems or computer programming.
Deborah Aruguete Ph.D.: Starting salaries vary quite a bit because they are adjusted for the cost-of-living in a given area. I've seen as low as $40k, but in many areas of the country, that's a comfortable salary for a single person. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says, on average, annual pay is $71k. For just having a bachelor's degree, that's pretty strong, and I'd say that reflects how much one can progress. Remember that many positions for environmental scientists are with the federal, state, and local governments. These positions generally have excellent benefits and adequate job security, not reflected in the pay.
Dr. Michael Reiter Ph.D.: Most of what graduates will need are the same things that have been desired for some time: the ability to communicate effectively, write clearly, analyze data correctly, think and reason logically, and adapt what they know for use in changing or unexpected situations. Careers in this field are also considered competitive, so practical work experience or internships related to your ultimate goal are a big plus. However, particularly with our recent experience with the COVID pandemic, our attention is turning more quickly to remote technologies, sustainable lifestyles, and quality of life issues (many of which are impacted directly by environmental factors). As a result, new graduates will probably also need to be comfortable with new technologies, their possible use in problem-solving, and their integration into the chosen field of study or career.
Dr. Michael Reiter Ph.D.: The active areas for environmental issues have traditionally been the more forward-thinking and ecologically concerned cities and states (such as the West Coast, much of New England, large university hubs, etc.). But with the growth of environmental awareness and sustainability concerns over the last decade or two in this country (albeit in fits and starts), there are opportunities almost anywhere in the academic, private, and public sectors. Environmental issues connect to virtually any topic and any region of the country, and they impact all social groups, making opportunities potentially available almost anywhere. So while the traditionally active locations will likely remain active, you won't necessarily have to go far to find a way to use your environmental skills and abilities. Careers in Environmental Science are expected to grow at around 10%, much faster than average, so you can expect many options to become available.
Dr. Michael Reiter Ph.D.: Technology has been impacting the environmental field dramatically for some time. The use of GIS and Remote Sensing, artificial intelligence and fuzzy logic, drones and in situ sensors, complex modeling (such as global climate models and neural networks), and crowdsourcing strategies are all in use now and growing in application and acceptance. There is also a developing focus on data mining to use the existence of large, relatively underutilized datasets. I expect all of these to continue to develop as the environmental issues of concern continue to grow in scale and complexity and as ways are sought to handle such large complex problems without relying on an enormous increase in the workforce.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Public Affairs
Melissa Sullivan: The types of skills vary, depending on the occupational series and position. Information about EPA's career opportunities are located here https://www.epa.gov/careers
Melissa Sullivan: USA Jobs is a place where graduates can find various employment opportunities across the federal government and at EPA. As an example, cyber-security competencies can be found here - https://www.chcoc.gov/content/competency-model-cybersecurity.
Melissa Sullivan: At the EPA, individuals have diverse backgrounds in a full range of career fields and positions. Depending on the position, we're likely to see technology impacting these career fields, over the next five years, in areas such as artificial and geospatial intelligence, IT security skills, cloud service integration, project management, business process design, a virtual workforce, and democratization of technology across the field, enabling broader participation.
Vicky Meretsky Ph.D.: This depends entirely on which workforce they are entering. It's a big field. They all are big fields. They could focus on the science side, focus on the organizational/people skills side, or do both.
Vicky Meretsky Ph.D.: Yes. The public, private, and nonprofit sectors are particularly useful.
Vicky Meretsky Ph.D.: Genomics, miniaturization, satellite technology, drone technology, and personal communication technology, including 5-G technology, will improve various aspects of this field and many others.
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Department of Environmental and Forest Biology
Shannon Farrell Ph.D.: Your career path is not likely to be one step after another in the same prescribed direction. In today's unique circumstances, be prepared to be flexible, open-minded, and alert for new and unexpected opportunities. Be ready to take multiple jobs in sequence - it is exceedingly rare these days that one finds their 'forever' long term job right off the bat and right out of undergrad. Try things, test, experiment - identifying what spheres of work you like and what spheres you don't like is all a valuable part of data gathering and adaptively moving forward.
If it is hard to find a job in your ideal field, find jobs that provide the opportunity for developing crossover skills: technical and field skills, research skills, writing skills, communication, or management skills. Leverage opportunities to improve and display your executive function skills - planning, organizing, managing, leadership, mentorship, etc. These can all be valuable efforts, even when you aren't working in your preferred scientific field. Be your advocate - make contacts, network, ask for advice, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone (it may be uncomfortable, but you will survive!)
Shannon Farrell Ph.D.: This depends, in part, on what aspect of zoology one is interested in. In terrestrial vertebrate ecology or wildlife ecology and management, GIS/geospatial technologies are super important. All students should get proficient! Alongside that would include drones and other remote sensing equipment and tools used for animal detection (tracking tools). And for everyone in the sciences, proficiency in both the theory and the technological means, for statistics is very important and allows one to both conduct and present research, and interpret and apply science to management and policy.
Shannon Farrell Ph.D.: Hard to say because it varies widely between sectors. Working for a state or federal agency, non-profit, NGO, private firm, or other entity means many different things regarding what it takes to be competitive and what salary one might expect. I will say that, increasingly, in most if not all of these sectors, an MS can be an essential criterion for even near-entry level positions.
Ed Brands Ph.D.: Not all of our graduates are "young" or of traditional college age, so perhaps we can call this group "new" graduates? It may seem ironic, given the rapid shift to remote working and learning and using technology nearly always. Still, soft skills such as adaptability, communication (oral and written, and nonverbal--e.g., making eye contact), and teamwork-related skills like active listening and negotiating are becoming more critical. There is, and will continue to be, demand for clear and effective communication, in short, sound-bytes, which is, in part, being driven by the increasing use of remote communication technology (no one likes long webinars or Zoom calls).
Ed Brands Ph.D.: This depends upon what aspects of the "environmental field" a new graduate is focused on. For example, if the desire is to work with public lands somehow, options in the Midwest might be more limited than further west. There are some positions (e.g., related to soil and water conservation) that exist in nearly every county in the U.S. If there is an interest in working with cleaning up hazardous waste sites or studying the impacts on the human population, there are more of those opportunities in industrial or formerly industrial areas. Working on small organic farms is also a popular interest area, and these exist in every state (some more than others). Still, the work tends to be seasonal so being flexible with location or finding a different job over the winter is usually necessary.
It's a good idea to keep an eye on how employers decide to incorporate telecommuting after the pandemic is over--will it be more prevalent than before? For some positions, e.g., those related to advocacy, there could be more flexibility about employment and location.
Ed Brands Ph.D.: As in almost any employment field, proficiency in using essential computer software (word processor, spreadsheet, database) is becoming more critical. Ability with specific software packages, such as desktop geographic information systems (GIS), is excellent and can help you get your foot in the door in many environment-related organizations. However, the most successful people will be able to adapt to using the software in new contexts, collaborate with people who have varying degrees of skill and knowledge, and transition to cloud-based systems.
For people entering jobs with a significant fieldwork component, familiarity in working with desktop and cloud-based applications and hand-held and remote technology is essential. The ability to work with large datasets, quickly make sense of them, and translate the information into everyday, understandable language is another crucial skill that accompanies the rapid proliferation of satellite, airborne, and earth-bound sensors that are continuously collecting data.
Dr. Mike Mooring Ph.D.: It depends on what the student is applying for. If they are applying for an entry-level job after graduating with a BA or BS, a student with good internship experience (or could be volunteer experience) in a related field to the employee would be most eye-catching. If they are applying for a graduate position (MSc or Ph.D.), probably the best resume would highlight undergraduate research experience working with professor mentors.
Dr. Mike Mooring Ph.D.: The attached paper is an excellent resource to answer that question, but I would recommend that they get experience in any of the following nonacademic skills: written and oral communication, project management, leadership, and field biology skills for those careers in which that is important.
Dr. Mike Mooring Ph.D.: The two skill sets that are currently, and will continue to be, most important in the field of environmental science are GIS (Global Information Systems) and R-language computational analysis. Most likely, graduate students or entry-level employees will have to learn one or both of these skills anyway.
Dr. Jolante Wijk Ph.D.: Internship experience and research experience. Internship experience gives a student real-life, professional work experience. Students learn how to apply their academic knowledge to real problems that need to be solved within a professional environment. Research experience provides students with more (hands-on, computational, experimental, field- etc.) analysis tools to solve problems.
Dr. Jolante Wijk Ph.D.: Earth Sciences will become an increasingly sparse/broad data- and computational-driven field. This transition has already started and will likely continue to modify undergraduate curricula in the next decade.
Dr. Jolante Wijk Ph.D.: In my opinion, yes. The current generation of (undergraduate) students will lack at least some of the field- and laboratory experience that we offer in our programs. Students miss at least some networking experience (also among peers), and many internships were canceled in the past summer. Graduating students often find their first position through networking events at their schools or recruitment events; when these are online-only events, spontaneous meetings might occur less frequently.
Philip Halliwell Ph.D.: Graduates are going to need practical skills and versatile skills. These skills can be applied to a variety of jobs in a variety of industries. A sustainability graduate should be able to offer just that. Of course, we are faced with large societal issues that a multitude of industries will need to be involved in solving. Specific skills would include problem-solving and project management. Graduates need to diagnose problems, offer sustainable solutions, and navigate the challenges of implementing such a solution.
Philip Halliwell Ph.D.: I'm not sure there are specific geographic areas that are more suitable than others for sustainability graduates. The field is so broad that graduates are in demand in various industries, from manufacturing, to energy, to transportation and even education. These industries exist all over the country and even globally. Building a sustainable world will require improvements in processes and products everywhere. Further, consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable options. This will force all industries to provide customers with what they are asking for, resulting in more opportunities for graduates.
Philip Halliwell Ph.D.: The energy industry is undergoing massive changes. Implementing new sustainable power sources and managing both the supply and the demand sides of the energy grid will be crucial. Additionally, there is excellent research exploring energy storage (batteries). As batteries applications grow, so will the sustainable energy industry.
Meghann Jarchow Ph.D.: The field of sustainability is broad, and as such, there is a diversity of skillsets that can aid young graduates in finding that first job after graduation. There are many careers within sustainability where there is a growing demand for computer skills, such as programming and geospatial analysis. Environmental and social issues are incredibly complicated and require massive amounts of data to analyze, and computers are an essential tool to help understand these data. Strong interpersonal skills, including teamwork and written and oral communication, are incredibly crucial in other fields.
Meghann Jarchow Ph.D.: Due to the global nature of environmental issues, sustainability is needed virtually everywhere in both the public and private sectors. Whether you want to stay where you are or fly half-way across the world, graduates can expect to find plenty of opportunities in the field of sustainability.
Meghann Jarchow Ph.D.: Working toward sustainability requires both social change and technological innovations. Technological advancement in the next five years will pave the way for increased use of renewable energy, more efficient resource management, and an increased ability to understand the issues we face.
Dorceta Taylor: Yes, I think there will be enduring impacts. Many work-study opportunities, internships, apprentice programs, study-abroad programs, field courses, and data-collection opportunities have been canceled. By the time some of these are reinstituted, some students will have already graduated without being able to take advantage of these learning opportunities. The lack of exposure to opportunities, like those mentioned above, will make it more difficult for many students to find jobs.
Dorceta Taylor: Traditionally, students have been able to find jobs in the Boston-Northern Virginia corridor, in the Southeast, in urban parts of the Midwest, and in the Pacific region. These areas will continue to be places where environmental jobs are found.
Dorceta Taylor: Technology will influence the ability to teach and work remotely. It will also influence our ability to conduct more complex analyses, assess big data, and simulate environmental problems digitally.