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Global warming, deforestation, water pollution—the environment faces major challenges each day. If you have a love for the outdoors and a desire to protect it, check out these majors in environmental sciences and the careers they lead to and find the right one for you.

PS You can also find colleges and universities that offer environmental science majors here.

Animal Sciences

Animal sciences is the study of the management and the biology of domestic animals. This major is popular among students who would like to work in agricultural business or in leadership positions on farms or ranches. Many students go on to graduate programs in specific areas of interest. This course of study can be good preparation, for example, for veterinary school, especially for those students more interested in large-animal practice. More than a major just for a person that likes working with animals, animal science is a sophisticated scientific major which requires an advanced level of knowledge in biology and chemistry.

Education

Students who major in animal sciences will do so out of the Department of Animal Sciences or perhaps the School of Agriculture at a university. Their course of study will include introductory and advanced work in biology and chemistry, including courses in genetics and reproductive sciences. Students will also take a number of animal science and animal production courses throughout their college years, selecting more specialized classes in the junior and senior years. Given the nature of the major, students are encouraged, if not required, to pursue outside activities in this subject area, either through internships, research projects, livestock judging competitions, or extension work.

Possible careers

•    agribusiness
•    agricultural supplies manager
•    animal production
•    extension education
•    farm/ranch manager
•    international voluntary service
•    livestock manager
•    research
•    research scientist
•    veterinary medicine

Botany, general

Botany is the study of plants, especially their structure and development. This major also concerns the diversity and variety of plant life, evolutionary relationships among plants, the functional systems within plants (physiology), and environmental relationships among plants as well as between plant life and animal life. Botany also may include some background in plant diseases, soil factors, conservation methods, and related topics. This major involves both microscopic and field work.

Education

The plan of study emphasizes topics in biology and chemistry with appropriate laboratory experiences at the lower-division level, as well as stressing the study of mathematics through calculus. At the upper-division level, considerable time is dedicated to such topics as plant anatomy and physiology, genus and species of plants, and the distribution and characteristics of plants by region. Research and supervised study of current topics in botany, as well as an internship experience in a research setting, complete the course of study.

Possible careers

•    agronomist
•    archaeologist
•    botanist
•    college professor
•    ecologist
•    laboratory technician
•    nature conservancy
•    paleontologist
•    pharmaceutical research
•    plant physiologist
•    research scientist
•    soil scientist
•    technical writer

Ecology

Ecology is an in-depth investigation into the basic principles that govern the relationships among plants and animals within their physical and biological environments. It is an interdisciplinary field and draws on biology, chemistry, and mathematics to study, monitor, and theorize in the areas of water quality, wetlands, endangered plant and animal species, and conservation. The goal of this program is to provide new knowledge on the ecological and evolutionary processes that produce and sustain life on Earth and to confront successfully the biological, environmental, and biotechnological challenges of the future.

Education

The plan of study begins with a core curriculum in the natural sciences. Later, advanced courses in biological topics and ecology are supplemented with field studies or ecological research. Externships at field sites also may be required, providing the student with hands-on experience necessary to the pursuit of this career.

Possible careers

•    ecologist
•    embryologist
•    environmental scientist
•    geneticist
•    geochemist
•    geologist
•    lawyer
•    lobbyist
•    microbiologist
•    oceanographer
•    political scientist
•    research scientist

Environmental Science

Environmental science explores the planet’s systems of energy and materials and attempts to understand the effects of human-made systems of technology on the quality of life. By studying the Earth’s resources, it has been recognized that certain substances and conditions of the world must be monitored on a regular basis. Using this information, methods to control the use of technology and more effectively steward the resources of nature, can be developed. Such topics as carbon dioxide levels, toxic chemicals, radioactivity, and endangered species are of interest to this major.

Education

The curriculum must be interdisciplinary, with an emphasis in the experimental sciences such as chemistry, physics, biology, and geology. The focus is on scientific methodology, because the goal of the environmental scientist is to find practical solutions. Current and future problems are examined in a hands-on manner whenever possible.

Possible careers

•    agricultural agent
•    animal scientist
•    biochemist
•    chemical engineer
•    ecologist
•    environmental activist
•    environmental consultant
•    environmental researcher
•    environmental scientist
•    environmental lawyer
•    government regulator
•    microbiologist
•    parasitologist
•    pollution engineer
•    range manager
•    soil scientist
•    toxicologist
•    waste mgt. tech.

Environmental Studies

In environmental studies, students combine insights from natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities to study the effect of human activities on the biosphere of the Earth. This integrated course of study should be distinguished from environmental science, environmental engineering, or environmental design, all of which are more specialized in nature. The goal of most environmental studies programs is to investigate and teach about natural and social systems and train students to assess environmental problems, understand their complexity, and work for solutions to these problems. Many students consider further graduate study in a specific area of interest.

Education

Students will start with an introduction to physical lab sciences, economics, and applied mathematics or calculus. The main body of courses in the major will concentrate on global environmental science, environmental decision making and risk, environmental ethics and the legal system, and political institutions and their role in environmental issues. Students will pick a theme or an area of concentration to cap off their major program with a concentrated research project.

Possible careers

•    environmental educator
•    environmental engineer
•    environmental lobbyist
•    museum curator or naturalist
•    parks ranger or naturalist
•    recycling management
•    waste disposal management

Forestry

Forestry is the art, science, and practice of managing forest ecosystems and wildlife resources. Integral to this major are techniques to maintain forests and their wildlife, to analyze and evaluate lumber and wood requirements, and to protect watersheds and preserve recreational areas. Characteristics of tree growth, topography, drainage, and fire prevention are included. The federal government, all state governments, and a number of private-sector companies involved in the lumber industry employ forestry graduates.

Education

The plan of study is a rigorously scientific one. Course work usually begins with biology, chemistry, calculus, and social science, later moving to more specialized areas such as botany, climatology, silviculture, forest pathology, soils, and geology. Students generally specialize in one area after working through introductory studies. Schools offering forestry as a true major frequently provide dual-major opportunities, such as forestry/biology, forestry/environmental studies, forestry/chemistry, or forestry/resources management. Working in the field is a key component of this major, and starts early in the course of study.

Possible careers

•    arborist
•    ecologist
•    entomologist
•    farmer
•    fisheries manager
•    forest engineer
•    forest pathologist
•    forest ranger
•    forest supervisor
•    park ranger or manager
•    plant physiologist
•    technical writer
•    wildlife manager
•    zoology

Geology

Geology is the study of the processes and events that shape the earth. By studying minerals, rocks, and fossils, as well as rivers, oceans and atmosphere, the geologist seeks to understand the history of the planet, including the evolution of life, the movement and development of continents, and the changing aspects of the oceans. This study of earth materials must occur both in the field and in the laboratory. It depends upon the mastery of sophisticated analytical equipment and the wielding of a rock hammer. Geology has many applications in industry, historical research, environmental careers, and military and strategic planning. Modern technological developments within the science provide the trained geologist with a wide range of career opportunities.

Education

The plan of study begins with extensive course work in biology, chemistry, physics, introductory geography, and advanced mathematics. Further course work includes intermediate and advanced specialized courses in geology, meteorology, physical geology, mineralogy, petrology, and stratigraphy. Field experiences and/or supervised independent research will likely be required.

Possible careers

•    astronomer
•    college professor
•    consultant
•    environmentalist
•    geologist
•    geophysicist
•    meteorologist
•    military officer
•    oceanographer
•    petroleum geologist
•    petrologist
•    physicist
•    research scientist

Health/Physical Education

Health education is the study of factors that maintain a sound body, promote personal hygiene and grooming, enhance interpersonal relations, and contribute to the well-being of the community. Topics such as drug and alcohol abuse, first aid and safety, nutrition and weight control, and some aspects of sex education are among the most important in the health education curriculum. Health education is a mandatory subject in most schools at both the elementary and secondary levels, usually through the physical education department. Many health educators also have physical education training.

Education

The plan of study begins with a liberal arts core curriculum supplemented by electives in the health and physical education department. Upper-division work then moves to individual courses in the topical areas such as health care delivery, stress management, emergency medical services, environmental health. Seminars in current topics and student teaching follow. Certification in physical education, athletics, or health sciences education may be obtained in addition to that of health educator.

Possible careers

•    biologist
•    biostatician
•    chemist
•    college professor
•    disease prevention mgr.
•    drug/alcohol counselor
•    health care administrator
•    health educator
•    health specialist
•    nutritionist
•    physician
•    psychologist
•    public health official
•    sales manager

Marine Biology

Marine biology is the science that investigates the plants and animals of the saltwater environment; it is also known as “marine ecology,” “marine science,” and “biological oceanography.” The major examines the aquatic plant and animal life found in bays, harbors, wetlands, and other ocean and coastal areas. The taxonomy of marine plant and animal groups and their relationships with each other and their environment are also areas of interest. The marine biologist looks at the ocean as a system and examines how well it functions.

Education

The plan of study demands a strong background in the biological sciences and mathematics at the lower-division level. Work within the major maintains an emphasis on marine sciences, with ample time given to field work and laboratory experiences that will assist in current research in ecology or the environment.

Possible careers

•    anthropologist
•    bacteriologist
•    botanist
•    college professor
•    ecologist
•    embryologist
•    fisheries biologist
•    laboratory technician
•    marine biologist
•    microbiologist
•    museum/aquarium staff member
•    oceanographer
•    technical writer
•    zoologist

Oceanography

Oceanography is an area of science concerned with the sea and its inhabitants. It examines how the air, earth beneath the sea, and coastline interact with the sea. Involved in this investigation are the disciplines of physics, biology, chemistry, zoology, geology, and advanced mathematics. The major is most often found as a program of graduate study for career preparation; on the undergraduate level it is seen largely as a preparation for graduate work. Theoretical work in oceanography bears a lot of similarity to physics; in fact, discoveries by ocean/atmosphere scientists have stimulated sub-fields of physics. For example, the science of “chaos,” which involves the complex behavior of seemingly simple physical systems, arose largely from a model of atmospheric circulation.

Education

The plan of study begins with advanced mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics. The actual applications of these sciences to the study of oceanography are then introduced in specific oceanography electives, with an emphasis on research technique. Marine organisms, marine sediments, and ecological considerations are all topics of interest. As with most research-oriented majors, it is wise to seek out a program that offers either a formal internship or a senior research project.

Possible careers

•    chemical engineer
•    chemist
•    college professor
•    ecologist
•    embryologist
•    environmental attorney
•    environmental scientist
•    geophysicist
•    hydrologist
•    marine biologist
•    military officer
•    naval architect
•    oceanographer
•    oceanographic attorney

Natural Resources Management/Policy

Natural resources management is the study of techniques for the intelligent use and orderly replacement of Earth’s resources for the benefit of humanity. The term is a generic one that incorporates several areas of specialization, which may include renewable natural resources, fisheries science, wildlife ecology, range management, natural resources recreation, and watershed management. Colleges that offer any of these as a major must be evaluated carefully to determine how the programs fit a student’s needs.

Education

The plan consists of the intensive study of science in the lower division with biology, chemistry, and physics supplemented by advanced mathematics and a small number of electives in the major. Depending upon the concentration selected, upper-division study consists of intermediate and advanced courses in the area, field experiences of internships in the senior year, and, in some instances, supervised independent research. Nearly all concentrations in the major lead to a B.S. degree.

Possible careers

•    agricultural engineer
•    animal breeder
•    biologist
•    college professor
•    consultant
•    ecologist
•    farmer
•    forester
•    natural resources manager
•    orchardist
•    physicist

Plant Sciences

Plant science is the study of economically important plant species, such as wheat, grain, oats, barley, and soybeans and their growth and reproduction, development and improvement, resistance to disease, environmental interactions, and other features. The plant sciences major will appeal to students with an interest in plant biology and its related areas such as plant ecology, plant physiology, plant pathology, plant molecular biology, soils, and applied plant sciences. There are interesting job possibilities in both research and industry, especially if the student pursues graduate work.

Education

The plan of study begins with course work in the biological and physical sciences, with selected electives in agriculture-related topics. At the upper-division level, advanced specialized course work is supplemented with extensive field study to examine working agricultural systems. Specific crops are also studies; students interested in specific crops should examine programs carefully to find which school offer which specializations.

Possible careers

•    agricultural manager
•    agronomist
•    biochemist
•    botanist
•    college professor
•    commodity grader
•    farm manager
•    forestry management
•    geneticist
•    horticulturist
•    laboratory assistant
•    landscaping
•    parasitologist
•    plant scientist
•    technical writer

Soil Sciences

The undergraduate soil and land resources degree program is for students who want to pursue careers in business, industries, and government agencies associated with soils and farm chemicals. Soil scientists work with the formation, classification, chemistry, physics, and fertility of valuable soil resources. Soil sciences focuses upon the study of the uses of soil, water, air, and other natural resources to promote plant and animal growth. It is an important study in the production of food and the management of natural and urban environments. Found primarily in colleges with a department of agriculture, this major trains students to be managers, using the principles of physical science and engineering and applying them to practical needs. Students more interested in basic research in this vital field will want to seek a Ph.D. in a sub-specialty.

Education

The lower-division plan of study includes chemistry and physics, advanced mathematics and engineering, and electives in botany, geology and biology. The upper-division plan of study includes courses in earth and soil sciences, wherein students can pursue a sub-specialty that interests them. Students seeking certification as soil scientists by the Soil Science Society of America will be required to take additional courses in botany, plant pathology, and silviculture. Students are also encouraged to take courses in computer science, related mathematics, and statistical research.

Possible careers

•    agronomist
•    chemical engineer
•    ecologist
•    environmentalist
•    geophysicist
•    hydrologist
•    laboratory technician
•    oceanographer
•    park ranger
•    research scientist
•    site surveyor
•    soil scientist
•    treatment plant mgr.
•    water chemist

Zoology

Zoology is the study of animals. It is the in-depth investigation of the structure, physiology, behavior, characteristics, development, and evolution of animals. Classification (taxonomy), genetics, and embryology are other areas of interest. It may be pursues individually as a major area, or combined with biology, chemistry, physics, or another life science in a dual-major program. Zoology also may be used as pre-professional preparation for a veterinary medicine program.

Education

The plan of study is designed to immerse the student in life sciences. Specialized topics in animal physiology and structure are emphasized including ornithology, herpetology, and ichthyology. The program is rigorous.

Possible careers

•    anatomist
•    biochemist
•    biologist
•    college professor
•    ecologist
•    entomologist
•    laboratory technician
•    marine biologist
•    paleontologist
•    pest controller
•    veterinarian
•    zoologist

Adapted from Major Decisions: A Guide to College Majors, by Terry Ward. Used with permission from Wintergreen Orchard House, 2012. For the full breakdown of these majors, check out the book, available in paperback and for the Kindle!

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Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese lived with labmate Alessandra Umiltà for 2 years before colleagues figured out they were a couple. "We were pretty good at keeping our private life separate from work," Gallese says. They started dating a year after Umiltà joined Giacomo Rizzolatti’s University of Parma lab, in 1997, to start her Ph.D. on mirror neurons. Eight years her senior, Gallese was an associate professor, also in Rizzolatti’s lab. Spending so much time together "helped us get to know each other quicker," Gallese says. The relationship blossomed.

Gallese and Umiltà, who are married now, both went on to develop successful careers; today, they run independent laboratories in the University of Parma's neuroscience department. Umiltà is now an assistant professor, and Gallese is a full professor.

“When you’re at work, you work. You don’t make love, you don’t kiss each other, you don’t whisper sweet words: You talk about neurons.” —Vittorio Gallese

There are many potential benefits to having your partner working in the same lab, department, or institution. Apart from mutual understanding and moral support, a scientist couple can collaborate and help each other scientifically. But living a romance in the laboratory, as in any other workplace, is complicated. There are rules to follow—but romance rarely follows rules. Whether married or just dating, scientist couples need to be aware of several potential pitfalls, such as workplace gossip, conflicts of interest, and breaches of trust.

Lab etiquette and workplace gossip

Some laboratory couples may be inclined to keep their romance a secret, especially at first. But whether your relationship is public knowledge in the lab or kept private, it's important to remain discreet and professional. Occasional, subtle acknowledgement of your special status may be OK, but you need to keep it on low boil. You may be a couple at home, but in the lab you're colleagues.

"Often people who are in a life partnership may stand closer to their partner, they may touch their partner affectionately on the shoulder or give them a hug. We turn that off in the professional sphere," says Elizabeth Simmons, a theoretical physicist who serves as dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. Simmons and her husband each hold a professorship in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, but they often collaborate on high-energy physics projects and jointly supervise graduate students and postdocs.

Gallese and Umiltà chose to avoid personal discussions in the lab. "We waited until we were in a pub or at home," Gallese says. "When you’re at work, you work. You don’t make love, you don’t kiss each other, you don’t whisper sweet words: You talk about neurons."

Merit and scientific independence

One issue that can be especially damaging to young scientists is the perception by peers that career success is a result of a relationship and not scientific achievements. The risk is especially large when one of the two scientists is more senior, or when the two scientists are hired as a couple—a phenomenon that is particularly common in the United States. Couple hiring across all disciplines in 13 leading U.S. research universities increased from 3% in the 1970s to 13% in the 2000s, and although there may be good reasons behind the increase—it's apparently good for retaining talent and promoting diversity—the practice can be controversial.

Regardless of the merits of the practice, it can be tough going for the less accomplished scientist in a faculty pair. Sometimes, people "do not view the second person in the couple as a true faculty member, but merely as an appendage," Simmons says.

"People can be very unfair and unkind, and they feel free to treat you like a second-class scientist because they think your husband has made things easy for you and done the work for you," writes Heather Viles, a professor of biogeomorphology and heritage conservation at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail to Science Careers. Her husband, Andrew Goudie, who is 14 years her senior and worked in the same department until he retired—is "hugely well known" in her field, Viles says.

This makes it all the more important for couples to make sure that each individual develops—and gets to be seen—as a successful scientist in his or her own right. Of course, the first and most crucial step is to build an independent research portfolio and strong credentials. Viles carved her own niche by developing separate research interests, skills, and networks of colleagues and collaborators. Making yourself visible at seminars by asking questions and joining committees can also help, Simmons says.

Even when both are established, each member of a scientist couple that works closely together should "always keep a project or paper of their own going," Terrie Moffitt writes. Moffitt and her husband, Avshalom Caspi, run a lab together at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, investigating mental health and human development. Both hold named research chairs. Having a project of your own, Moffitt says, "demonstrates to everyone, most vitally yourself, that you are not wholly dependent on your partner for ideas."

Conflicts of interest

Scientist couples need to be aware of the potential for engaging in—or being perceived as engaging in—conflicts of interest. An example: "A senior scientist in a relationship with a junior scientist gets them a good job," says Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia with 15 years’ service on university committees that investigate claims of sexual harassment. Similarly, the senior member should not supervise a partner's thesis or grade their assignments. Such examples are fairly clear—but "there are plenty of less clear-cut situations," Martin says. "What if you had a brief sexual relationship with the applicant that ended amiably a year ago?"

In such cases—as in many cases where conflicts of interest may be perceived—disclosure is a powerful tool. Also, scientists who are concerned about maintaining a relationship at work should discuss any potentially fraught issues with "people who are independent, principled, and wise, such as a friend, a counselor, or an ethics adviser," Martin says. 

Abuse of trust

Martin gives the hypothetical example of a senior person who uses their charisma, stature, and reputation to seduce—then reject—a junior staff member. When the relationship ends unsatisfactorily, the subordinate realizes that the senior person has used status and resources to his or her advantage.

Students—particularly younger students—are especially vulnerable, so some institutions, including Yale University, have barred faculty from sexual relationships with undergraduates. However, the impact of such policies may be limited. In a 2005 survey of U.K. college and university lecturers by the Teacher Support Network, nearly 18% of respondents admitted to having a sexual relationship with a student. However, 40.5% of survey respondents did not know whether having a sexual relationship with a student contradicted their university policy.

Of course, some relationships between senior and junior colleagues work out in the end, however ill-advised they may seem. "Some become long-term marriages," Martin says. "It is difficult for rules to draw a boundary that is both precise and fair when the circumstances are complicated or ambiguous." As a rule of thumb, a supervisor and student who want to become personally involved should discuss "getting another supervisor," Martin says.

Sexual harassment

For a relationship to be a romance, both partners have to be willing participants.

Alice—we've changed her name to protect her identity—was preparing to start her master’s degree program in 1990. She was driving to a field site for 2 days with an adjunct professor who had been hired to teach her data-collection techniques. "Instead of booking a room with two beds, he would book one room with one bed," Alice says. "He had power over me," she says. "I didn’t want him to affect my success at getting my thesis."

Professional travel can be especially problematic because of how it blends living and working. One approach is to "be part of the planning and take as much power as you can, make field arrangements, make travel arrangements," Alice suggests. On site, if you feel at risk, stay in touch with other field scientists, administrative staff members, and even hotel receptionists. "Your networking and connecting with others can be short, subtle, but it’s still an important little lifeline when you’re in trouble."

Familiarize yourself with your institution’s policies, and choose a work environment where people can discuss sexual issues openly, Martin says.

Once the damage has been done, speaking out can be risky for a young scientist’s career, Martin says. And it "may or may not be effective." He recommends that whistleblowers "gather evidence, consider options, seek advice, find out what has worked previously, and only act when ready."

Breaking up

A workplace romance that ends can put great pressure on a career. "To have to face someone every day who you still love, who doesn’t love you, is very difficult, draining, stressful, saddening," says a U.K. graduate student who does not wish to be identified. "It really affects your work; you can’t concentrate."

It can help to make peace with your ex, and to make clear your expectations of how your relationship will operate in the future, the graduate student says. If no agreement can be reached, it might be best to stop working with that person altogether. Also, "make sure at least one person in the lab knows what’s going on so you have immediate support."

Entering a personal relationship at work requires an awareness of the potential pitfalls and a delicate balance of privacy and openness. For those who manage to make it work, the professional and personal rewards are hard to match. "There’s so much you share with a partner," Gallese says. And "the outcome of romance in the lab for us was two marvelous kids."


CREDIT: Redwood Studios/Elizabeth Simmons


doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1300010

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