Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Which Is the Right Career for Me?

Choosing between a career in environmental engineering and environmental science can take some careful consideration, especially if you’re focused on pursuing a career that protects the environment. Understanding the differences and similarities between these disciplines is essential for making an informed decision about your future career path. 

Environmental engineering focuses on applying engineering principles to solve environmental problems, while environmental science emphasizes the study of the natural world and the impact of human activities on it. 

Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Definitions, Similarities, and Differences

Environmental engineering and environmental science are closely related fields that often work together to address environmental challenges. However, they have distinct focuses and methodologies.

What Is Environmental Engineering?

Environmental engineering is the application of engineering principles to improve and maintain the environment for the protection of human health and ecosystems. Environmental engineers design systems and technologies to control pollution, manage waste, and remediate contaminated sites. They work on a variety of projects, such as:

  • Designing wastewater treatment plants to ensure clean water supply
  • Developing air pollution control systems to reduce emissions from industrial sources
  • Creating sustainable waste management systems, including recycling and composting programs
  • Remediating contaminated soil and groundwater to restore ecosystems and protect public health

Environmental engineers often collaborate with other professionals, including scientists, urban planners, and policymakers, to develop comprehensive solutions to environmental problems.

What Is Environmental Science?

Environmental science is the study of the natural environment and the effects of human activities on it. Environmental scientists research and analyze environmental issues to understand the complex interactions within ecosystems and develop strategies for conservation and sustainability. Their work includes:

  • Conducting field studies to collect data on air, water, and soil quality
  • Analyzing the impact of pollutants on ecosystems and human health
  • Developing models to predict environmental changes and assess risks
  • Advising policymakers on environmental regulations and conservation efforts

Environmental scientists work in a variety of settings, including laboratories, offices, and field sites. They often collaborate with engineers, ecologists, and other specialists to address environmental challenges.

Key Similarities

Despite their different focuses, environmental engineering and environmental science share several similarities:

  • Interdisciplinary nature: Both fields combine knowledge from multiple disciplines, such as chemistry, biology, geology, and physics, to address environmental issues.
  • Common goals: Environmental engineers and scientists aim to protect and improve the environment, promote sustainability, and ensure public health and safety.
  • Collaborative work: Professionals in both fields often work together on projects, combining their expertise to develop effective solutions to complex environmental problems.

Key Differences

While environmental engineering and environmental science have overlapping areas, there are key differences in their approaches and responsibilities:

  • Focus areas: Environmental engineering focuses on designing and implementing technical solutions to environmental problems, while environmental science emphasizes research and analysis to understand and mitigate the impact of human activities on the environment.
  • Types of work: Environmental engineers typically engage in practical, hands-on work, such as designing systems and managing projects. Environmental scientists, on the other hand, often conduct fieldwork and laboratory research, analyzing data to inform environmental policies and practices.
  • Required skill sets: Environmental engineering requires strong mathematical, technical, and problem-solving skills, as well as knowledge of engineering principles. Environmental science requires strong analytical and research skills, along with a deep understanding of ecological and biological processes.

Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Pros and Cons

Choosing between a career in environmental engineering and environmental science involves weighing the pros and cons of each field. Understanding these elements can help you decide which path aligns best with your interests, strengths, and career goals.

Pros of Environmental Engineering

  • Hands-on problem-solving: Environmental engineers directly address environmental issues by designing and implementing technical solutions.
  • Direct impact: Their work often leads to tangible improvements in public health, safety, and environmental quality.
  • High demand: Environmental engineers are needed in various industries, including construction, manufacturing, and government agencies.
  • Competitive salaries: Environmental engineering generally offers higher starting salaries compared to many other fields within the environmental sector.

Cons of Environmental Engineering

  • Technical requirements: This field requires strong skills in mathematics, physics, and engineering principles, which can be challenging for some.
  • Physical demands: Some projects may involve fieldwork in challenging environments, such as construction sites or contaminated areas.
  • Regulatory challenges: Navigating environmental regulations and compliance can be complex and time-consuming.

Pros of Environmental Science

  • Research and analysis: Environmental scientists focus on studying and understanding environmental issues, which can be intellectually fulfilling.
  • Diverse opportunities: Careers in environmental science span academia, government, nonprofits, and the private sector, offering a variety of paths.
  • Flexibility: Environmental science offers opportunities to specialize in numerous areas, such as conservation, ecology, and environmental policy.
  • Fieldwork: Many environmental scientists enjoy working outdoors, conducting field studies in natural settings.

Cons of Environmental Science

  • Fieldwork challenges: While fieldwork can be rewarding, it can also be physically demanding and require long hours in various weather conditions.
  • Competitive job market: Certain areas within environmental science may have a higher number of qualified candidates than available positions.
  • Variable salaries: Starting salaries for environmental scientists can be lower compared to those in engineering, especially in entry-level positions.

Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Salary and Job Outlook

Environmental engineering and environmental science both offer promising career prospects, with opportunities to make significant contributions to environmental protection and sustainability. Careers associated with the fields have various salary ranges, which can be impacted by factors such as location, experience, and industry.

Environmental Engineering Salary

As of May 2023, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual salary for environmental engineers was $100,090. Here’s a breakdown of the salary range:

  • Median annual salary: $100,090
  • Top 10% earners: More than $156,530
  • Bottom 10% earners: Less than $63,370

Environmental Science Salary

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for environmental scientists and specialists as of May 2023 was $78,980. Here’s a breakdown of the salary range:

  • Median annual salary: $78,980
  • Top 10% earners: More than $133,660
  • Bottom 10% earners: Less than $48,580

Environmental Engineering Job Outlook

The job outlook for environmental engineers is positive, with the BLS projecting a 6% growth rate from 2022 to 2032, which is faster than the average for all occupations (3%). This growth is driven by the need for engineers who can help address complex environmental issues and develop sustainable solutions. 

Key factors influencing job growth include demand for the following services:

  • Infrastructure project design: Environmental engineers upgrade and maintain water and waste treatment systems.
  • Regulatory compliance oversight: They ensure industries meet environmental regulations and standards.
  • Sustainability initiatives: They help organizations increase their focus on green technologies and sustainable practices.

Environmental Science Job Outlook

The BLS projects a 6% growth rate for environmental scientists and specialists from 2022 to 2032. 

Demand for environmental scientists is expected to be driven by several factors:

  • Environmental protection: Environmental scientists study environmental hazards so that they can be addressed or avoided.
  • Policy development: They provide scientific data to inform environmental policies and regulations.
  • Climate change research: They study the impacts of climate change and help develop mitigation strategies.

Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Education and Curriculum

Educational requirements and curriculum differ significantly between environmental engineering and environmental science. Each field has specific degree paths and coursework that prepare students for their respective careers.

What Degree Do I Need to Become an Environmental Engineer?

To become an environmental engineer, most professionals begin with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering or a related engineering discipline. Advanced degrees, such as a master’s in environmental engineering or a doctorate in environmental engineering, can enhance career prospects and open up specialized roles.

Environmental Engineering Curriculum

The curriculum for environmental engineering typically includes courses such as the following:

  • Core courses:
    • Environmental Chemistry
    • Fluid Mechanics
    • Hydrology
    • Environmental Microbiology
    • Air Pollution Control
    • Solid and Hazardous Waste Management
  • Electives and specializations:
    • Sustainable Design
    • Renewable Energy Systems
    • Climate Change Mitigation
  • Hands-on projects:
    • Design and implementation of environmental systems
    • Laboratory work involving water and air quality analysis
    • Internships with engineering firms or government agencies

What Degree Do I Need to Become an Environmental Scientist?

To pursue a career in environmental science, a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science is the most common starting point. Advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate, are often required for higher-level research positions or academic roles.

Environmental Science Curriculum

The curriculum for environmental science usually includes courses such as the following:

  • Core Courses:
    • Ecology
    • Environmental Policy
    • Geology
    • Environmental Chemistry
    • Statistics and Data Analysis
    • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Electives and Areas of Focus:
    • Conservation Biology
    • Marine Science
    • Environmental Toxicology
  • Fieldwork and Research Opportunities:
    • Conducting field studies in various ecosystems
    • Laboratory analysis of environmental samples
    • Research projects addressing current environmental issues

Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science: Accreditation

Accreditation is an important consideration for both environmental engineering and environmental science programs. It ensures that the education provided meets certain standards of quality and relevance to the profession.

Environmental Engineering Accreditation

For environmental engineering programs, accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is crucial. ABET accreditation signifies that a program meets the high standards required for engineering education.

  • Importance of ABET accreditation: Graduating from an ABET-accredited program is often a prerequisite for obtaining a professional engineer (PE) license.
  • Recognized accrediting bodies:
    • ABET
    • Accreditation agencies recognized by local engineering societies (in countries outside the U.S.)

Environmental Science Accreditation

Environmental science programs may seek accreditation from various accrediting bodies that focus on the sciences and interdisciplinary studies.

  • Importance of program accreditation: Accreditation ensures that the program meets educational standards and prepares students for professional work or advanced studies.
  • Recognized accrediting bodies:
    • National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC)
    • Regional accrediting bodies such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) or Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

Licensure for Environmental Engineers and Environmental Scientists

Licensure and certification are important for career advancement and professional recognition in both environmental engineering and environmental science. The requirements and processes for obtaining licensure differ between these fields.

Licensure for Environmental Engineers

For environmental engineers, professional licensure is often required for certain positions, especially those involving public safety and major project responsibilities.

  • Fundamentals of engineering (FE) exam: The first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer (PE) is passing the FE exam, which can be taken upon graduation from an ABET-accredited program.
  • Professional engineer (PE) exam: After gaining relevant work experience (typically four years), engineers can sit for the PE exam. Passing this exam grants the PE license, which is necessary for signing off on projects and offering services to the public.
  • Continuing education: Many states require licensed engineers to participate in continuing education to maintain their licensure, ensuring they stay current with advancements in the field.

Certification for Environmental Scientists

While licensure is not typically required for environmental scientists, various certifications can enhance a scientist’s qualifications and career opportunities.

  • Certified environmental scientist (CES): Offered by the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP), this certification demonstrates expertise and commitment to the field.
  • Certified ecologist (CE): Provided by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), this certification recognizes proficiency in ecological principles and practices.
  • Continuing education and professional development: Obtaining certifications often requires ongoing education and professional development, ensuring that environmental scientists remain knowledgeable about the latest scientific and regulatory developments.

Career Options for Environmental Engineers and Environmental Scientists

Both environmental engineers and environmental scientists have diverse career options across various industries and sectors. Understanding the different career paths can help you decide which field aligns better with your interests and goals.

Environmental Engineering Careers

Environmental engineers work in numerous settings, including private companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Common job titles and roles include the following:

  • Water resource engineer: Designing and managing water supply and wastewater treatment systems
  • Air quality engineer: Developing technologies and strategies to reduce air pollution
  • Environmental health and safety engineer: Ensuring compliance with environmental regulations and promoting workplace safety
  • Sustainability consultant: Advising companies on sustainable practices and environmental impact reduction

Industries employing environmental engineers include construction, manufacturing, consulting firms, and governmental bodies at the local, state, and federal levels.

Environmental Science Careers

Environmental scientists also find employment in a wide range of sectors, including research institutions, government agencies, and private companies. Common job titles and roles include the following:

  • Environmental consultant: Assessing environmental impact and compliance for various projects
  • Ecologist: Studying ecosystems and the interactions between organisms and their environments
  • Environmental health specialist: Monitoring and managing public health risks related to environmental factors
  • Conservation scientist: Working on the preservation and management of natural resources

Environmental scientists often work in settings such as laboratories, field sites, research institutions, and policy-making organizations. Their roles can be highly interdisciplinary, involving collaboration with other scientists, engineers, and policymakers.

Understanding these career options can help you determine which path aligns best with your interests, strengths, and long-term professional goals.

Tips for Choosing Between Environmental Engineering and Environmental Science

Choosing the right career path between environmental engineering and environmental science involves considering various factors, including your interests, strengths, career goals, and educational preferences. Here are some tips to help you make an informed decision:

  • Assess your interests: Reflect on whether you are more interested in hands-on problem-solving and technical design (environmental engineering) or research, data analysis, and fieldwork (environmental science).
  • Evaluate your skills: Consider your strengths in areas like mathematics and physics (important for engineering) versus biology, chemistry, and analytical skills (crucial for science).
  • Consider career goals: Think about your long-term career aspirations, such as working on infrastructure projects, developing new technologies (engineering), conducting environmental research, or shaping environmental policies (science).
  • Research job opportunities: Look into job postings and career prospects in both fields. Identify the types of roles and industries that interest you the most.
  • Seek advice from professionals: Talk to professionals working in environmental engineering and environmental science. Ask about their career paths, daily responsibilities, and what they find most rewarding and challenging about their work.
  • Review educational programs: Compare the curricula of environmental engineering and environmental science programs at various institutions. Consider the types of courses, hands-on experiences, and specializations offered.
  • Think about work environment: Consider whether you prefer working in offices and labs (science), on-site at construction projects, or in industrial settings (engineering).

By carefully evaluating these factors, you can make a well-informed decision about which career path is right for you.


There are numerous resources available to help you explore and pursue careers in environmental engineering and environmental science. These resources can provide valuable information on education, professional development, job opportunities, and networking.

  • Professional organizations:
  • Educational resources:
  • Job boards and career services:
    • EnvironmentalCareer.com: Job postings and career resources for environmental professionals
    • EcoJobs.com: Job board dedicated to environmental science and engineering positions
    • USAJOBS.gov: The U.S. government’s official job board, featuring opportunities in various federal agencies
  • Networking and mentorship:
    • LinkedIn: Professional groups related to environmental engineering and environmental science to connect with professionals and stay updated on industry trends
    • Conferences and workshops: Industry conferences and workshops to network, learn about the latest research, and find job opportunities
  • Reading and research:
    • Journals and publications: Journals like the Journal of Environmental Engineering and Environmental Science & Technology for the latest research and developments in the field
    • Books and textbooks: Foundational texts and the latest publications to deepen your understanding of your chosen field

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