Students entering into environmental fields of study are united by a shared passion. They are deeply concerned about the fate of our planet, its natural resources, and its inhabitants. But even more importantly, they share the drive to do meaningful work that impacts the future of our planet in powerful ways. This often means getting an advanced degree.

Although students considering environmentally-focused master’s programs have shared goals, the educational paths they embark on in pursuit of these goals can be very different. Even at the master’s level, students must choose a course of study that aligns with their passions, experience, and education. But with so many paths available, it can be hard to know which one is right.

A good starting point for making this decision is choosing between a master’s degree in environmental studies or environmental science. Understanding what distinguishes these two very different courses of study can help students clarify which kind of program will best support their passions and their future careers.

Below you’ll learn more about the differences between environmental studies and environmental science so you know which is right for you.

Is Environmental Science the Best Fit for Me?

Students with backgrounds in hard sciences like biology, mathematics, or chemistry are often natural fits for environmental science master’s degree programs. This is because these programs require students to have fundamental knowledge in at least one scientific field.

For example, students entering Unity College’s Master’s program in Wildlife Conservation and Management must have already studied biology, ecology, environmental science, math, or a similar field. This requirement ensures that students entering the program are prepared for focused, rigorous coursework that involves a high level of scientific understanding.

In their classes, environmental science students are specialists. They focus intensively on a specific scientific area and use scientific methods to discover solutions to current environmental challenges. For example, an environmental science student studying water pollution might collect and analyze samples from lakes and streams to discover how pollution impacts these ecosystems. Another student might analyze data gathered by others to quantify how much pollution is created by industrial waste.

While many specific majors fall under the category of environmental sciences, course work typically involves substantial research, lab work, and creating systems for data analysis. But in addition to lab and field work, the best master’s programs offer a transdisciplinary approach where students engage in a variety of academic disciplines. This way, even students who are certain about their career goals within the hard sciences get meaningful, real-world, hands-on experience. In our Sustainable Natural Resource Management program, students engage with sustainable environmental management practices within the context of sustainability science.

Students who graduate with master’s degrees in an environmental science field usually enjoy careers in their area of specialization. Career paths can be various, from working in government, university, or corporate labs to employment as a microbiologist, zoologist, or soil and plant scientist.

When Should I Choose Environmental Studies?

Students who choose environmental studies master’s programs are often impassioned by the myriad ways in which human beings can mobilize to tackle current environmental challenges. Some students entering environmental studies programs have backgrounds in the hard sciences and want to expand their careers beyond the lab. Others are passionate about sustainability but come from a non-scientific academic or career background such as international studies, community development, or political science.

Because programs in the environmental studies field are often interdisciplinary, there are paths for students with a variety of interests. A good example of this kind of program is our online Sustainable Master of Business Administration program. Many of our students have studied or had careers in business, but are equally passionate about sustainability and want to learn how business owners can be better stewards for our planet. In our program, they take courses in economics, accountability, and leadership as they learn how and why to integrate sustainable business practices. They also learn about the “science side” of sustainability and discover ways to create businesses that are not only profitable, but also have a positive environmental impact.

In general, environmental studies programs are ideal for students who don’t want to specialize within a specific, research-based scientific field. Environmental studies programs also offer a lot of flexibility for students who are committed to contributing to environmental protection, but are not yet certain which career is ideal for them. There are usually more electives, which means students can focus on related areas of interest like economics, foreign languages, and more.

People who graduate with environmental studies degree often take on a wide range of career paths. They may become teachers or community educators, consultants, lawyers, business owners, policy makers, and more.

How a Master’s Degree Can Help

Careers in both environmental sciences and environmental studies fields are growing very quickly, especially for students with advanced degrees. This is due in large part to increased public knowledge about the serious issues our planet is facing. Businesses, governments, and educational institutions are all beginning to understand that they must not only act quickly to solve these problems, but that they also need the guidance of experts in both science and studies fields to help them.

The objective of a master’s program in either of these tracks is to train students as passionate thinkers who solve some of the world’s most complex environmental challenges. Whether a student chooses an environmental science or an environmental studies path at Unity College, they will engage with a broad spectrum of academic disciplines. More and more, today’s employers are seeking out employees who come from well-rounded, transdisciplinary educational backgrounds and are prepared to solve the future’s problems in creative ways.

Are you ready to take your career to the next level and make an even greater impact on the environment?

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