“Creating a sustainable economy and society requires a complex mix of ecological content knowledge, political ability, legal savvy, financial understanding and managerial skill,” says Kevin Doyle, national director of program development for the Environmental Careers Organization (ECO), a national nonprofit group offering paid internships and fellowships since 1972.
In other words, it takes a well-stocked village of educated professionals to create and sustain a healthy environment. While some have a very specific knowledge-set, many environmental jobs require a broader knowledge base, says Lisa Yee-Litzenberg, a career counselor to more than 350 graduate students at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment.
According to Yee-Litzenberg, “It’s important to have a well-rounded skill-set,” including:
- Teamwork Skills: An ability to work with multidisciplinary teams composed of scientists, policy leaders, business leaders, etc.
- Strong Communication Skills: An ability to convey complex or technical issues to the general public. Experience with TV, radio and print media is helpful, too.
- Creative Problem-Solving Skills: When something goes wrong (and it can), you need to be able to switch gears quickly and creatively.
- Bridge-Building Skills: A demonstrated ability to build effective working relationships with partner organizations -- including unlikely allies.
- Time-Management Skills: An ability to successfully manage multiple projects.
- Project-Management Skills: Developing and implementing a project plan, managing and motivating staff, fundraising and experience developing a budget are key skills.
- A Capacity for Vision: This refers to both short- and long-term organizational vision.
- Leadership Skills: Past experience serving in leadership roles inspires confidence in your ability to take on new leadership roles.
- Technical Skills: A relevant set of technical skills (such as GIS mapping, ecological design, watershed planning, plant identification, life-cycle analysis, etc.) through your educational background and professional training.
Graduate Degrees for Green
“Fortunately, many universities have developed interdisciplinary, professionally focused master’s programs to educate professionals and leaders who can create sustainability results in the real world," says Doyle.
Doyle specifically mentions four master’s programs that earn high marks from leading employers:
“No matter which school you select, do yourself a favor and check out the curriculum and structure of these professionally oriented degree programs,” Doyle advises.
What About an MBA?
Another rapidly emerging possibility for aspiring sustainability leaders is a green MBA. Business schools throughout the nation are adding green classes and professional tracks, according to ECO.
Doyle notes that a few leaders at the master’s level include Stanford, Notre Dame, George Washington, Michigan, North Carolina, Cornell, Wake Forest and UC Berkeley. “But things are changing for the better so quickly that it’s really hard to create a meaningful ranking,” he adds. No matter which B-school you choose, all serious students who want to pursue environmental careers should get involved with the campus chapter of Net Impact, a nonprofit networking group aimed at helping business students, professors and schools go green.
For those with a more focused interest in fields like fisheries, wildlife management and ecology, Doyle urges students to check out the rapidly growing field of conservation biology -- either as a separate field or as focus within a traditional disciplinary degree program.
If you’re interested in undergraduate environmental studies programs, the best ones are all members of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD).
Find Your Career Focus
What are you going to do with your degree once you have it? How can you connect the dots between what you studied and a paycheck?
Yee-Litzenberg recommends students follow their passion and then narrow their interest area based on their experience and skills. For example, she likes to hear students be as specific as possible about their career goals, articulating: “I would like to work for a nonprofit organization in California doing advocacy work to protect endangered species” or “I would like to use my business background to work for a global environmental consulting firm to create energy efficiency solutions.”
Yee-Litzenberg also suggests you identify three or four organizations that fit your search criteria, and then create the means to get your foot in the door, whether it be through an internship, alumni contact, event or application for a specific job. It may be helpful to identify a staff person within the organization and then set up a 20- to 30-minute informational interview, either in person or on the phone, to learn more about the organization and the person’s specific role. Yee-Litzenberg advises you stay in touch with these contacts, adding them to your network to make sure they know about your career interests and how to get in touch with you should a job opportunity become available.
Finally, you’ll need to customize your resume and cover letters for each position you want to apply for, highlighting your most relevant skills and experiences.
“It’s very exciting to see the environmental field opening up so many possible career choices,” says Yee-Litzenberg. “Today, we are seeing environmental careers in many different disciplines, including science, policy, law, business and more. If you have a passion for the environment, follow your heart and you can find a rewarding career in this field.”
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