Posted in GreenBiz
March 23, 2022

Looking for post-undergraduate sustainability education? Pick your path


So you’ve decided you want to work in sustainability and maybe have even graduated with a environmental or sustainability degree. Now what?

Prior to joining the sustainability profession full-time, my first role was as a college adviser at a North Carolina high school. In a meeting with one of my students they jokingly asked, “Do you hug trees? You majored in Environmental Studies? What are you going to do with that?” And it was in that moment that I realized I didn’t really have an answer. I’d spent all this time helping my students develop their post-high school plans, but as for my plans? All I knew was that graduate school was a possibility and I just assumed the rest would work itself out.

That day, I gave myself homework, much like the ones I gave the students I advised: Take out a piece of paper and think concretely about your path. Write down anything that comes to mind. What are you interested in? What tools do you want to add to your metaphorical toolbox? What ways can you get there? I dug in and did as many internet searches, campus visits and informational interviews I could until I chose to go to graduate school full-time the next year in a Masters of Environmental Management program.

During that process, my two years in graduate school and now my nearly 5 years in the field, I have learned that there’s no right or wrong way to craft a career in sustainability. Nearly everyone you talk to in the profession has a different, and often non-linear, path to entry into the field. Some experienced sustainability practitioners will tell you that a specific education in environmental science, social impact, or business is needed to enter the field. That can be a way to gather subject matter expertise or pivot into another area, but it isn’t always needed.

So, what are some post-graduate education pathways to a sustainability career?

Confident you want to tackle business: Consider an MBA

Like myself, many sustainability practitioners are working within the private sector at businesses and companies across the globe. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that most of the earth’s emissions and natural resource use is comes from within the private sector.  If you think you want to tackle this challenge, getting a master’s in business administration (MBA) could be the best route for you. With an MBA you’ll gain deep knowledge of how business truly works, developing skills like marketing, finance, operations management and strategy that can provide a leg up when entering the ever-changing business environment.

I suspect that there are pathways out there that I haven’t even heard about yet, and new ones being developed. They key here is knowing how you want to make a difference.

Many MBA programs have concentrations or specialties, like entrepreneurship, which could be ideal if you are thinking of starting your own venture, or international business, if you want to take your talents across the global. Importantly, sustainability is becoming a popular specialization for MBA programs to offer. Choosing sustainability as a specialization would allow you to have the fundamentals of an MBA but the ability to explore topics like sustainable investing, ESG and energy.

Looking for subject matter expertise: Look at a masters or environmental management programs

While an MBA will give you the business fundamental with a side of another topic, getting a specialty degree in the environment will likely be the best way to drive deep into the sustainability subject matter. Popular programs for sustainability practitioners in the field are traditional Master of Science Degrees (MS) or specialty Master of Environmental Management (MEM) degrees. Alumni of these program often also enter the private sector, but there are also paths into academia, nonprofit and government sectors as well.

Most MS or MEM programs offer some sort of thesis, research or capstone project that can help you dig into one specific area of interest. This could be great if you want that more in-depth study of a specific sustainability topic and likely be tailored to your unique interests. If you already have a topic like, energy, ecology, the oceans or climate change, that you want to tackle, going for a science or management-based specialty could be right up your alley.

Want to get involved in government: Check out public policy or administration

Another popular destination for those entering the sustainability field is working in public service organizations like the government, international development or nonprofit organizations. Many of these individuals work to embed sustainability into various aspects of policy. Many local, state and national government agencies and offices now have sustainability and environmental offices. A Masters in Public Policy (MPP) or Public Administration (MPA) can help provide you a mix of the skills needed to analyze the current landscape and implement policies and programs to address societal imperatives. This could be a great path if you’re interested in policy analysis or helping lead and manage a more public-oriented organization.

Need a smaller bite: Consider a certificate program

Alternatively, you might decide that jumping into the long-term time and financial commitment of a full master’s degree program isn’t for you. Maybe you already have a post-grad degree or just want to level up your skills.  In that case, certificate programs can be a shorter, less expensive way to delve into a certain subject area and gain new, marketable skills.

Don’t know where to start when looking for a certificate program? Check out the list Trish Kenlon put together for GreenBiz last year on ‘The 33 sustainability certifications you need to know’.

The pathways above are in no way all the possible options to landing a career in the sustainability field. I suspect that there are pathways out there that I haven’t even heard about yet, and new ones being developed. They key here is knowing how you want to make a difference.

For example, if teaching about the environment is the way you want to change the world, investigate a teaching career or program. We’ll need you to teach the next generation! If you are passionate about the regulatory aspects of the environment, perhaps law school with a focus on environmental law is perfect for you. If you want to write about environmental and social justice issues, consider sharpening your communications or journalism skills.

If you’re considering more education to join or improve the sustainability field, we are happy to have you join us.

March 23, 2022 at 03:24PM

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