What Environmental Scientists and Specialists Do?

environmental scientist

Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment and human health.

They may clean up polluted areas, advise policymakers, or work with industry to reduce waste.

Environmental Scientist Duties

  • Determine data collection methods for research projects, investigations, and surveys
  • Collect and compile environmental data from samples of air, soil, water, food, and other materials for scientific analysis
  • Analyze samples, surveys, and other information to identify and assess threats to the environment
  • Develop plans to prevent, control, or fix environmental problems, such as land or water pollution
  • Provide information and guidance to government officials, businesses, and the general public on possible environmental hazards and health risks
  • Prepare technical reports and presentations that explain their research and findings

Environmental scientists and specialists analyze environmental problems and develop solutions to them.

For example, many environmental scientists and specialists work to reclaim lands and waters that have been contaminated by pollution.

They Work on Construction Projects

Others assess the risks that new construction projects pose to the environment and make recommendations to governments and businesses on how to minimize the environmental impact of these projects.

Environmental scientists and specialists may do research and provide advice on manufacturing practices, such as advising against the use of chemicals that are known to harm the environment.

Monitor Water, Earth, and Air

The federal government and many state and local governments have regulations to ensure that there is clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, and that there are no hazardous materials in the soil.

The regulations also place limits on development, particularly near sensitive ecosystems, such as wetlands.

Environmental scientists and specialists who work for governments ensure that the regulations are followed.

Other environmental scientists and specialists work for consulting firms that help companies comply with regulations and policies.

Some environmental scientists and specialists focus on environmental regulations that are designed to protect people’s health, while others focus on regulations designed to minimize society’s impact on the ecosystem.

Types of Environmental Scientists

Climate change analysts study effects on ecosystems caused by the changing climate. They may do outreach education activities and grant writing typical of scientists.

Environmental health and safety specialists study how environmental factors affect human health. They investigate potential environmental health risks.

For example, they may investigate and address issues arising from soil and water contamination caused by nuclear weapons manufacturing. They also educate the public about health risks that may be present in the environment.

Environmental restoration planners assess polluted sites and determine the cost and activities necessary to clean up the area.

Industrial ecologists work with industry to increase the efficiency of their operations and thereby limit the impacts these activities have on the environment.

They analyze costs and benefits of various programs, as well as their impacts on ecosystems.

Other environmental scientists and specialists perform work and receive training similar to that of other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues.

For example, environmental chemists study the effects that various chemicals have on ecosystems.

To illustrate, they may study how acids affect plants, animals, and people. Some areas in which they work include waste management and the remediation of contaminated soils, water, and air.

Many people with backgrounds in environmental science become teachers.

Where They Work

Environmental scientists and specialists held about 84,290 jobs as of May 2019. The largest employers of environmental scientists and specialists were:

Industry Employment Hourly Average Wage Annual Average Wage 
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services 20,970$38.29$79,650
State Government20,100$32.62$67,860
Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services 10,960$37.63$78,270
Local Government10,060$34.84$72,460
Federal Executive Branch 4,820$49.96$103,920

Environmental scientists and specialists work in offices and laboratories.

Some may spend time in the field gathering data and monitoring environmental conditions firsthand, but this work is much more likely to be done by environmental science and protection technicians.

Fieldwork can be physically demanding, and environmental scientists and specialists may work in all types of weather.

Environmental scientists and specialists may have to travel to meet with clients or present research at conferences.

Work Schedules

Most environmental scientists and specialists work full time. They may have to work more than 40 hours a week when working in the field.

For most jobs, environmental scientists and specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science.

How to Become an Environmental Scientist

For most entry-level jobs, environmental scientists and specialists must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a science-related field, such as biology, chemistry, physics, geosciences, or engineering.

However, a master’s degree may be needed for advancement.

Environmental scientists and specialists who have a doctoral degree make up a small percentage of the occupation, and this level of training typically is needed only for the relatively few postsecondary teaching and basic research positions.

A bachelor’s degree in environmental science offers a broad approach to the natural sciences.

Students typically take courses in biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Students often take specialized courses in hydrology or waste management as part of their degree as well.

Classes in environmental policy and regulation are also beneficial. Students who want to reach the Ph.D. level may find it advantageous to major in a more specific natural science, such as chemistry, biology, physics, or geology, rather than earn a broader environmental science degree.

Many environmental science programs include an internship, which allows students to gain practical experience.

Prospective scientists also may volunteer for or participate in internships after graduation to develop skills needed for the occupation.

Students should look for classes and internships that include work in computer modeling, data analysis, and Geographic Information Systems (GISs).

Students with experience in these programs will be the best prepared to enter the job market.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) offers several programs to help students broaden their understanding of environmental sciences.


As environmental scientists and specialists gain experience, they earn more responsibilities and autonomy, and may supervise the work of technicians or other scientists.

Eventually, they may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or some other management or research position.

Other environmental scientists and specialists go on to work as researchers or faculty at colleges and universities. For more information, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Environmental scientists and specialists can become Certified Hazardous Materials Managers through the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management.

This certification, which must be renewed every 5 years, shows that an environmental scientist or specialist is staying current with developments relevant to the occupation’s work.

In addition, the Ecological Society of America offers several levels of certification for environmental scientists who wish to demonstrate their proficiency in ecology.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Environmental scientists and specialists often begin their careers as field analysts, research assistants, or environmental science and protection technicians in laboratories and offices.

Some environmental scientists and specialists begin their careers as scientists in related occupations, such as hydrology or engineering, and then move into the more interdisciplinary field of environmental science.


The average salary of an environmental scientist as of May 2019 is $77,940. Half of all workers made more than $71,360 a year.

An Environmental Scientist is a Good Job For

O*NET Interests

investigative job

An environmental scientist career is an investigative career with realistic and conventional as secondary interests. 

Investigative jobs work with ideas, and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.

Realistic jobs include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. 

Conventional jobs follow set procedures and routines. These occupations can include working with data and details more than with ideas. Usually there is a clear line of authority to follow.

Environmental Scientist Personality Type

INFJ personality type

The INFJ personality type is a great fit for an environmental scientist career.

If you don’t know your personality type, this post describes the test at 16personalities.com. It’s based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. The test basically determines which one of 16 personality types you fall into.

The INFJ personality type is labeled as the “Advocate” or the “Idealist.” INFJ personalities are creative, gentle, and caring. 

They can be reserved, but under that cool, confident veneer, they are tuned in to what others are feeling. 

You also want to understand why other people do what they do. You are conscientious and committed to your values. 

You want to work for the common good and are good at making decisions that help you achieve that goal. An environmental scientist works to improve and protect our precious natural resources. This can be very appealing to a more analytical INFJ.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Environmental scientists and specialists base their conclusions on careful analysis of scientific data. They must consider all possible methods and solutions in their analyses.

Communication skills. Environmental scientists and specialists may need to present and explain their findings to audiences of varying backgrounds and write technical reports.

Interpersonal skills. Environmental scientists and specialists typically work on teams along with scientists, engineers, and technicians. Team members must be able to work together effectively to achieve their goals.

Problem-solving skills. Environmental scientists and specialists try to find the best possible solution to problems that affect the environment and people’s health.

Self-discipline. Environmental scientists and specialists may spend a lot of time working alone. They need to stay motivated and get their work done without supervision.

Get More Information About This Career

For more information about environmental scientists and specialists, including training, visit

American Geosciences Institute


For more information about certification as a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, visit

Institute of Hazardous Materials Management

For more information about certification as an ecologist, visit

Ecological Society of America

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Tracey Lamphere

Tracey Lamphere, M.S. IMC is the editor of Job Affirmations, a publication that provides information and ideas to use mindfulness, positive affirmations, and visualizations to transform your career.

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