Environmental Science Job Prospects Healthier Than In Other Disciplines

Growing awareness of environmental challenges keeps employment outlook relatively bright in this diverse research area According to experts in this professional market, there is reason for optimism based on a combination of factors--mostly a heightened public concern about environmental threats along with stepped-up vigilance by environment-monitoring governmental agencies. Robert Baillod, professor and head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological Un

Apr 19, 1993
Marcia Clemmitt
Growing awareness of environmental challenges keeps employment outlook relatively bright in this diverse research area

According to experts in this professional market, there is reason for optimism based on a combination of factors--mostly a heightened public concern about environmental threats along with stepped-up vigilance by environment-monitoring governmental agencies.

Robert Baillod, professor and head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, says that while environmental jobs have suffered from a slow economy, the environmental engineers his department trains continue to have an easier time finding positions than do most other engineers and scientists.

"A couple of years ago, 100 percent of our graduates found jobs immediately, while other disciplines may have had 90 percent success at best," Baillod says. "Today, we still have 70 to 80 percent placed right away, while most other disciplines seem to have dropped to around 60 to 70 percent. There's a pretty big demand for those with environmental training."

The demand is a byproduct of the unusual diversity of job opportunities outside of academia for researchers with environmental training, scientists say. Federal and state research and regulatory agencies, such as state fish and wildlife agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Defense, all employ environmental researchers, as do environmental consulting firms and fuel, chemical, and other manufacturing companies. A host of other organizations, including nonprofit environmental groups and international bodies, such as the World Bank, also hire these scientists.

But many observers caution that though the market for environmental researchers will probably stay healthier than most, it, too, is subject to economic and political constraints, which may cause companies and government agencies to redirect the research focus of current staff rather than taking on new hires. These observers also point out that the diversity of employers means a diversity of job requirements, which young scientists would do well to consider before they leap into the field.

Investigators from a variety of disciplines have long pursued environmental topics, such as the physics and chemistry of atmosphere and oceans, the biology of rare plant and animal species, and technologies for cleaning up radioactive and chemical wastes. And while the number of scientists pursuing such research is impossible to determine precisely, it clearly is in the many thousands, with environmental researchers making up all or part of the membership of many scientific societies. Among those are the 6,000-plus-member Ecological Society of America, the 3,000-member Society for Conservation Biology, a large portion of the 12,000-member Soil and Water Conservation Society of America, up to a quarter of the 12,000-member American Meteorological Society, and varying fractions of many other chemical, physical, biological, engineering, and even medical science organizations.

Over the past two decades, expanding knowledge in all areas of environmental research and the advent of computer modeling to study environment systems have fostered heightened awareness of the interconnections among the atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere. Researchers have learned that even an engineer focused on cleaning up a particular chemical at a specific waste site needs an understanding of the large-scale air, soil, water, plant, and animal systems in the area.

This growing recognition of the need for interdisciplinary work in environmental research plus mounting public interest in questions of species extinction; air, soil, and water pollution; and global climate changes are causing a highly diverse group of researchers to enter environmental science.

"It's a new field that's now moving from a hodgepodge to a very professional and unique training," says Orie Loucks, a researcher in applied ecosystems studies at Miami University in Ohio. "Environmental science isn't so much a single research discipline as an approach to knowledge."

Central to that approach, say Loucks and others, is "a ravenous appetite for synthesizing knowledge from your own and related disciplines."

But most of the employment possibilities lie outside academia, scientists say. "A large number of students have an image of being professors at research universities," says Ronald Pulliam, professor and director of the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology in Athens. Pulliam says these expectations are not realistic for most, since university staffs are not expanding.

However, Pulliam says, "the field does have a large number of jobs for those who have broad interests in more applied science areas and have done solid work." According to Pulliam, most of those jobs are in federal and state agencies, international agencies, and private environmental organizations, with a modest but escalating number in environmental consulting companies.

Chemical, fuel, and manufacturing corporations also employ environmental scientists and engineers to develop technologies to treat wastes and emissions and, increasingly, to create new products and production processes that are environmentally safe during manufacture and use.

But while interest in environmental research is intensifying throughout these industries, observers of the field say that focus is unlikely to translate into a great number of industry environmental research jobs in the near future. Many industry officials say their R&D divisions will grow slowly or not at all in the near future, but John Carberry, director of research and development for Wilmington, Del.-based E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., points out that some aspects of corporate restructuring may provide new opportunities for environmental scientists outside corporate labs.

Companies do need to do more environmental research, industry officials say, and many companies are redirecting some of their traditional environmental tasks, such as waste treatment and cleanup, to environmental consulting and engineering firms. That move, says Carberry, is designed to free up internal scientists to concentrate on the environmental aspects of product development and process improvement.

University scientists across the U.S. report that environmental science and engineering consulting firms are hiring more of their Ph.D. graduates. Consulting companies are providing "a continuing rapid expansion in opportunities" for those with environmental training, says Miami University's Loucks. And, to the surprise of some, Loucks says, consulting firm jobs often provide scientists with excellent opportunities to build their research reputations.

"These people have to publish three or four [peer-review-quality] papers a year," Loucks says. Companies that hire environmental consultants are usually seeking to change or clarify a government regulation that covers a broad question and for which scant or no previous data exist, Loucks explains.

"Getting something reviewed [by a regulatory agency] is a function of the credibility of research the consultant can bring to bear. So highly specialized consulting companies are recruiting the best young environmental researchers," Loucks says.

Not only consulting firms but also many private environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., and the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy are expanding their research staffs, scientists say.

Such groups are looking for scientists "with real-world problem- solving skills, field experience, communication skills, leadership, and cross-disciplinary interests," says Susan Jacobson, director of the conservation education and resource management program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who polled environmental organizations on their hiring needs on behalf of a university consortium developing environmental programs.

The Nature Conservancy's director of biological management, Robert Unnasch, says his organization is "definitely still in a growth phase. We do expect to bring in new Ph.D.-level staff."

The Nature Conservancy is an environmental organization whose objective is to locate key areas of land where plant and animal species need protection, acquire that land, and then protect and maintain it.

Unnasch points out that his team of researchers pursues the basic work of managing the conservancy's lands. But his interest extends to potential hires with practical problem-solving interests, field experience, and detailed knowledge of one traditional scientific field along with an interdisciplinary approach, similar to that of other environmental organizations.

"We receive applications from people who got their Ph.D.'s in problem-based research. But when we ask them, `What do you know about plants, about insects?' the answer is often, `Nothing,'" Unnasch says. "Their training is in identifying interesting research questions, and that's inappropriate for us. We're on our hands and knees getting our fingernails dirty. We have insect questions, not general forest questions like `What are the fractal dimensions of forest fragments?'"

Government Agencies Federal and state governments as well as international organizations have employed environmental researchers in increasing numbers over the past two decades. And university environmental science departments report that state environmental agencies are currently stepping up recruitment on their campuses.

Many federal officials say that interest in environmental questions is on the rise in their agencies, though current budget concerns and the uncertainties of life under a new presidential administration make them reluctant to predict how many researchers the government will hire over the next few years.

A spokesman for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., for example, says that environmental questions are "a significant and increasingly important component" of that organization's research and cites examples such as studying the physics and chemistry of droplets to minimize environmental damage from fuel spills and developing remote sensors to detect changes in the ozone layer.

He adds that it's likely that "significant opportunities for new environmental researchers will continue to arise" at NRL.

Robert Van Hooks, director of the environmental sciences division at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., says research agendas currently being put forward at his and other government laboratories "could definitely translate into new opportunities for ecologists and others with environmental training."

In particular, van Hooks sees bright prospects for researchers in environmental risk assessment and for environmental engineers, of whom he says "there are simply not enough coming out of schools."

But, says van Hooks, the government job market for environmental researchers is unpredictable at present since "like every other program in this economy, ours have to stand in line for funding and hope to be seen as a priority."

Environmental researchers say their field will continue to grow in prominence and significance. But there's disagreement about the extent to which that growth will translate into jobs overall.

To some, like Garry Brewer, dean of the school of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, an influx of new jobs and money into environmental research seems imminent. Brewer, whose school is forming research and educational partnerships with the university's business and engineering schools, says corporations are now showing a real commitment to putting money and action into environmental questions. There's "a new understanding that these questions are important and they aren't going to go away," Brewer says.

But others worry that government and industry concern with getting answers to environmental questions may not be strong enough to withstand budget pressures and the stubbornness of researchers who want to protect their established turf.

"It's not that government and business aren't interested. But a lot of businesses have a wait-and-see attitude because there's been erratic enforcement [of environmental regulations]," says Carl White, senior research associate in biology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

"And while the national labs are picking up the words `environment,' `ecology'... it seems to me they're mostly restructuring with regard to [job] titles. In the end, you may find out that people are less concerned with real change than with their own employability."

Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.