Environmental engineers apply their skills to major challenges that affect public health and the planet. Their work involves such far-reaching issues as climate change, access to clean water, pollution control, and waste disposal.
If the idea of engineering a more environmentally sustainable world appeals to you, a master’s degree in environmental engineering could be a good education option. Before you decide if this path is right for you, take a look at what you’ll be studying, where to go for school, and what kind of position you can get with a master’s degree in environmental engineering.
Overview for an Online Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering
There are many branches of engineering, but one most directly addresses the environment. Environmental engineering focuses on finding ways to improve processes that affect the environment and public health. For instance, environmental engineers study the quality of air, soil, and water and work on ways to improve it. They also use engineering and general scientific principles to work on important concepts like recycling, climate change and waste disposal.
What can you do with a master’s degree in environmental engineering? At the most basic level, environmental engineers solve problems that threaten the environment. Examples of environmental engineering projects include creating water reclamation centers and developing air quality control techniques.
Environmental engineers can work as consultants in the private sector, advising companies about how to improve their operations and reduce their impact on the environment. Some environmental engineers work as green building specialists, finding construction techniques and materials that are more sustainable. Others work in government roles, creating environmental regulations. A master’s degree in environmental engineering can open the door to many career options.
Why earn an online master’s degree in environmental engineering?
One of the most popular reasons to get an environmental engineering master’s online is an interest in improving the environment and public health at the same time. If you have a passion for helping both people and the planet, this could be a rewarding field of study for you, especially considering the wide variety of environment-based jobs you could get in with this degree once you graduate.
Another reason individuals often earn an engineering master’s degree is to improve their job opportunities and salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for professionals in this industry was $96,820 as of May 2021. This is more than double the median annual wage for all occupations in the US, which is just under $45,760 per year.
Even if you start in an entry-level job and earn around the lowest 10 percent in this field, you’ll still make up to $59,820 per year. As you gain experience or get into a specialty, you could earn $153,200 or more through your master’s degree in environmental engineering, according to the BLS. So, is a master’s degree in environmental engineering worth it? If you’re looking for a wage that’s better than average, it is.
Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering Curriculum and Common Courses
As part of the requirements for a master’s degree in environmental engineering, you typically have to take a wide range of courses that will teach you the principles of this field. Some of the most common courses include:
- Hydrology. Courses in hydrology study the movement, distribution and management of water, including water resources, water cycles and drainage basins. Students may collect and analyze samples to solve problems like natural disasters and environmental pollution.
- Hazardous waste management. These courses focus on minimizing the adverse consequences of hazardous waste disposal. It often deals with the identification of these materials, as well as the early detection and mitigation of leaks.
- Air pollution management. This type of waste management focuses on the contamination of air due to gases and particulate matter that may be hazardous to living organisms. Students also study contaminants that can affect the climate or materials.
- Remediation of contaminated soil. Soil contamination can include artificial chemicals as well as natural alterations to the soil. These courses typically emphasize pollution sources such as petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides and heavy metals.
- Wastewater treatment. Courses in wastewater treatment teach methods for removing contaminants from wastewater, so it can be returned to the water cycle with an acceptable impact on the environment. They also cover the maintenance and operation of wastewater treatment plants.
- Water sampling and analysis. Students in these courses learn methods of assessing the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of water. They also explore the impact of water quality on the ecosystem and options for water supply.
- Environmental engineering research. Graduate-level research topics in environmental engineering often show students how to build treatment facilities and prepare reports on environmental impact. They may also include projects for mitigating pollution at specific locations.
- Microbiology for engineers. Microbiology is generally the study of single-cell organisms. Courses specialized for environmental engineers tend to focus on management of these organisms, whether they’re beneficial or harmful to the environment.
Accreditation for Master’s Programs in Environmental Engineering
It’s crucial to obtain a degree that will have credibility with prospective employers, assuming that you want a job in this occupation or are trying to advance your existing career. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that a degree holder’s education meets certain minimum standards, allowing employers to make informed hiring decisions. Employers are strongly inclined to consider accreditation when filling technical positions like environmental engineers.
There are two general types of accreditation, including program accreditation and institutional accreditation. Program accreditation focuses on the individual degree programs that an institution offers, such as course content and degree requirements. Institutional accreditation applies to the institution itself, exclusive of the degree program. This type of accreditation considers factors such as faculty qualifications, the facilities and the student body.
Accreditation organizations only conduct one type of accreditation review, as they’re completely different processes. Accreditation of a degree program is typically conducted by organizations that promote that particular industry.
In the case of many degree programs in environmental engineering, the Accreditation Board for Engineeringing and Technology (ABET) is one of the best-known accrediting bodies. ABET has many commissions that grant accreditation for programs within their purview, including the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) for environmental engineering. The EAC evaluates both the curriculum and faculty during its accreditation review of environmental engineering programs. For example, it requires courses in mathematics, material and energy balance, laboratory experiments, engineering system design, and concepts of professional practice and project management.
Online Master’s Degree Programs in Environmental Engineering
A master’s degree in environmental engineering qualifies graduates for leadership and management roles, thus increasing their salary potential. These programs also provide students with the tools and credentials they need to advance in this field, especially in the sustainability of natural resources. The following five master’s degree programs are ABET-accredited and taught mostly online, although some specializations require on-campus courses. Students in these online programs pay in-state tuition, regardless of their actual residency status.
1. North Carolina State University – Online Master of Environmental Engineering
North Carolina State University’s online master’s degree program in environmental engineering is intended for students who already hold an undergraduate degree in engineering. It allows students to concentrate in various aspects of environmental engineering that include geoenvironmental engineering, groundwater hydrology, solid waste management, water and water treatment.
This program doesn’t require any on-campus attendance, nor does it require a thesis. Students must complete their degree within six years of enrollment, which should be sufficient for even part-time students. However, students with full-time jobs are only allowed to enroll in two courses per semester. The in-state tuition for this program is about $8,500.
2. University of California-Los Angeles – Online MS in Environmental Engineering
The University of California–Los Angeles offers a highly-rated online Master of Science (MS) in Environmental Engineering, in addition to a graduate certificate in sustainable water engineering. This program is comprehensive and covers topics such as aquatic chemistry, groundwater hydrology and hydro climatology. Students are free to choose electives to suit their career goals, although advisors may recommend certain electives. This program is a particularly good program for students who want to concentrate in water resources. The online tuition is over $11,000.
3. Old Dominion University – Online Master of Environmental Engineering
Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia has online programs for a master’s degree in environmental engineering that’s both comprehensive and broad. These include MS in Environmental Engineering and Master of Engineering (ME) degrees, which cover the same content and have the same admission requirements. The primary difference is that the MS degree requires a thesis, while the ME degree has a final exam or project.
The student may complete the final project for the ME degree at home or on-campus, depending on the instructor. The specific format and coursework also depends on the instructor. The in-state tuition for both of these degrees is over $9,000.
4. University of Wisconsin-Madison – Online Master of Sustainable Systems Engineering
This top program in environmental engineering provides a broad education that’s intended to be accessible by students in many disciplines. It primarily targets undergraduate students from ABET-accredited programs, but it also accepts those from other academic backgrounds. For example, it doesn’t require GRE scores.
The curriculum is generally based on individual study, although students need to join a live session once a week for each class. Topics of study include industrial ecology, microgrids and renewable energy systems. The in-state tuition for this program is $10,000.
5. University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign – Online Master of Science in Environmental Engineering
The online master’s degree in environmental engineering at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign is highly customizable, compared to similar programs from other institutions. Concentrations in construction management, infrastructure, structural engineering and transportation engineering are available entirely online, but some courses from other concentrations require on-campus attendance. Students are also able to create their own cross-disciplinary program as approved by their advisors. The in-state tuition for these degree plans is over $15,000.
What can I do with a master’s degree in environmental engineering?
Environmental engineers with a master’s degree develop solutions to environmental problems based on principles of biology, chemistry, engineering and soil science. They often work in specific communities to improve the environment by controlling air and water pollution, recycling and waste disposal, thus improving public health. Environmental engineers also address global environmental issues like climate change, sustainability and adequate drinking water.
Environmental engineers with advanced degrees conduct studies that evaluate environmental hazards and develop methods for controlling and containing them. They may also research the environmental impact of proposed construction projects, especially systems for water supply and wastewater treatment. In addition, these environmental engineers work in government to develop regulations that protect the environment.
Some environmental engineers study the effects of acid rain, automobile emissions and ozone depletion. They may also collaborate with other environmental specialists such as urban planners, hazardous-waste technicians and legal experts when addressing environmental problems.
The BLS classifies environmental engineers as a specific occupation. Their employment is expected to grow by four percent between 2021 and 2031, which is the predicted average for all occupations during this period. This rate is based on an estimated employment of 44,000 in 2021 to an expected employment of 45,800 in 2031, for an increase of 1,800. The BLS also expects about 34,000 openings for environmental engineers each year during this period. Many of those openings will be workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force entirely.
Future demand for environmental engineers will be driven by the growing public awareness of environmental hazards. For example, the public will expect these workers to design solutions that improve air and water quality despite concerns about pollution and access to drinking water.
The average median salary for an environmental engineer in the U.S. is $96,820 per year as of May 2021, according to the BLS. The bottom 10 percent make less than $59,820 per year, while the top ten percent make over $153,200 annually.
Water Treatment Engineer
Water treatment engineers ensure the water that people use every day is safe, especially drinking water. They’re also closely involved in regulations that ensure clean drinking water, dispose of sewage and wastewater, and prevent or remediate flood damage.
The average annual salary for a water treatment engineer in the U.S. is $77,193 per year as of April 2023, according to Ziprecruiter. The full salary range for this occupation is between $25,500 and $157,500 per year, but most water treatment engineers earn annual salaries between $45,500 and $95,500. The bottom 10 percent make less than $37,500 per year, while the top ten percent make over $124,500 annually.
Air Quality Engineer
Air quality engineers, also known as air pollution control engineers, analyze and control air pollution with methods like monitoring, chemical analysis, statistical analysis and computer modeling. Air quality engineers may also design or modify equipment to control pollution.
The average annual salary for an air quality engineer in the U.S. is $92,928 per year as of April 2023, according to Ziprecruiter. The full salary range for this occupation is about $44,000 to $154,500 per year, but most air quality engineers earn annual salaries between $76,500 and $112,500. The bottom 10 percent make less than $50,000 per year, while the top ten percent make over $134,500 annually.
Sustainability specialists make recommendations for environmentally responsible policy decisions. They conduct research on renewable energy, identify sustainable sources of materials and supplies and perform cost-benefit analyses, and prepare reports on this data. These environmental engineers also set goals for implementing sustainable practices and evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives.
The average annual salary for a sustainability specialist in the U.S. is $67,371 per year as of April 2023, according to Ziprecruiter. The full salary range for this occupation is between $40,000 and $99,000 per year, but most sustainability specialists earn annual salaries between $56,000 and $71,000. The bottom 10 percent make less than $49,000 per year, while the top ten percent make over $98,000 annually.
Hazardous Waste Management Engineer
A hazardous waste management engineer develops methods of waste treatment and disposal. They find ways to limit the environmental impact of waste, such as recycling and drafting environmental regulations. These engineers often specialize in certain areas of waste management, like the safe disposal of specific types of hazardous waste.
The average annual salary for a hazardous waste management engineer in the U.S. is $78,760 per year as of April 2023, according to Ziprecruiter. The full salary range for this occupation is between $19,500 and $157,000 per year, but most hazardous waste management engineers earn annual salaries between $38,000 and $110,000. The bottom 17 percent make less than $32,000 per year, while the top ten percent make over $141,000 annually.
How much do environmental engineers make?
Starting Salary for Environmental Engineers
OwlGuru.com reports that the average starting salary for an environmental engineer in 2021 ranged from $55,450 to $70,260 per year, equivalent to an hourly wage between $27 and $34 per hour. The bottom end of this range was the salary for the bottom 10 percent of environmental engineers, while the top end was the salary for the bottom 25 percent. These figures assume the environmental engineer has little to no professional experience in that occupation.
Average Salary for a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering
Glassdoor.com reports that the average base salary for an environmental engineer with a master’s degree is $83,391 per year. The average benefits package is worth $15,458 per year, providing an annual total of $98,849. The complete range for these environmental engineers on total compensation is between $63,000 and $158,000 per year, although most of these professionals have a total compensation between $78,000 and $127,000.
What’s the most an environmental engineer makes?
The top ten percent of environmental engineers earn over $153,200 per year, according to the BLS. However, the type of employer significantly affects the salary for this occupation. For example, the federal government is the most lucrative hiring sector with a median income of $110,240 per year, as compared to a median annual income of $96,820 for all sectors. It’s also important to note that environmental engineers at the top end of their earning potential often work more than 40 hours per week, especially in deadline-driven work such as project management.
Tips for Increasing Salary Potential
The most effective way to increase salary potential as an environmental engineer is to specialize in areas with the greatest demand. An environmental engineering manager is one of the most lucrative specialties in this occupation because it requires both technical expertise and experience in supervising a team. Engineers in this role will oversee senior environmental engineers, technicians and scientists. It’s also important to manage more than one type of project, so you demonstrate your versatility. In addition, environmental engineering managers must be able to handle budgets, design research and prepare project proposals.
Environmental engineers also need to monitor emerging technologies that create advancement opportunities. For example, the rising use of solar power is increasing the salaries of solar consultants. These engineers evaluate the energy needs of prospective clients interested in replacing electrical power from a traditional grid with solar power. Solar consultants must also be able to explain the process of implementing solar technology while still covering its environmental and financial benefits.
Continuing Education after a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering
Once you receive your master’s degree in environmental engineering, you may want to continue your education in this field. Formal education after this degree generally consists of advanced certifications and doctorate degrees.
Industry groups often provide advanced certifications for professionals in their industry. The National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP) provides many such certificates for environmental specialists, including environmental engineers. For example, Registered Environmental Professional (REP) certification is intended to recognize professionals with an advanced degree related to the environment. This certification doesn’t require an exam; instead, qualification is based on education and certifications that the applicant already holds.
The Certified Environmental and Safety Compliance Officer (CESCO) certification recognizes an environmental professional’s understanding of the laws and regulations in this field. Specific areas of interest include legislation involving air and water pollution, hazardous waste, and safety. This certification requires applications to pass an exam.
Doctorate in Environmental Engineering
Environmental engineers will find that a doctorate degree is most useful in an academic setting, such as teaching at the college level or advanced research. Engineers who want this degree should look at institutions that are in the top tier in terms of research output, where they can deepen their knowledge of this discipline. Common topics of study at this level include the design and implementation of engineering systems that protect the environment.
Financial Aid Information
Financial aid is a common requirement for graduate students in environmental engineering, particularly if they enter a master’s program immediately after earning their bachelor’s degree. It’s often a better idea to work for a while first, so you can save up to pay for at least some tuition yourself. In addition, you may be able to get your current employer to contribute towards your graduate studies. Despite these strategies, it’s likely that you’ll need some form of financial aid such as loans or scholarships.
Like any loan, you’ll eventually need to repay a student loan plus interest. The exact interest rate that lenders will offer primarily depends on your financial picture and economic conditions, but they generally start at less than an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) of five percent. The most important factors for lenders to consider include the amount of debt you already have, typically expressed as your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. They may also take the marketability of your degree into account when considering the terms of the loan they offer. The current job outlook for environmental engineers is favorable, so it’s likely that you’ll get reasonable terms.
Many individuals and organizations offer scholarships to graduate students, especially industry groups. In the case of environmental engineering, the Environmental Engineering and Science Foundation (EESF) has created several scholarships for students in this discipline. For example, the EESF offers five scholarships each year worth $2,500 for students who enter a master’s program in environmental engineering or related fields. These scholarships are based on academic performance. It also offers three scholarships for the same amount to students who self-identify as a racial minority.
Internships are typically offered during the summer, so they don’t conflict with regular classes. They’re often unpaid or pay a nominal salary, but typically provide the student with college credit. GreenCitizen offers a variety of internships, including one for students pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in environmental engineering. This internship allows students to gain professional experience while working alongside senior engineers in performing studies on the environment, generally for the purpose of gathering data for later analysis. Students may also develop documents and presentations for publication.
How much does a master’s degree in environmental engineering cost?
The cost of a master’s degree in environmental engineering varies quite a bit, so you should get an idea of the range in prices before you choose a program to attend. In general, the least expensive graduate-level programs in this field cost about $5,000 per year, while the most expensive options can cost more than $30,000 per year. The average tuition for a master’s degree in environmental engineering program is about $12,000 annually.
The cost of a master’s degree in environmental engineering depends on a few factors. For example, private schools tend to cost more than public schools. This means you should look into a public school in your state if you want to save money, since in-state tuition is usually cheaper than out-of-state tuition. You should also consider what financial aid is available to help you pay for school, as grants and scholarships can save you money on tuition. If you already have a job in this field, you can find out whether your employer will pay for some or all of your credits. It’s not uncommon for businesses to pay for their employees to improve their education.
Another aspect to consider is whether you attend on-campus or online. In many cases, an online master’s degree program in environmental engineering is less expensive than an on-campus program. Not only is tuition often a little less, but you can save money by staying home and doing the coursework on your computer, rather than paying for the gas to commute to school. Additionally, an online master’s degree in environmental engineering is easier to earn when you also have a job. You can work during the day, while studying and taking exams on your computer at night and on the weekend.
Is a master’s degree in environmental engineering worth it?
Once you earn your bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering, you’ll need to decide whether to pursue your master’s degree or enter the workforce. When applying for jobs in this field, keep an eye out for positions requiring a master’s degree that you would otherwise be qualified for. If you see a significant number of these jobs, you may be better off earning a master’s degree right away. Otherwise, you may be better off gaining professional experience before going back for an advanced degree.
How long does it take to earn an online master’s degree in environmental engineering?
The typical time it takes to get a master’s degree in environmental engineering is one to three years. Most programs take about two years on average, but you can adjust the length of the program by increasing or decreasing the number of credit hours you take each semester. Note that you must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field before you can get your master’s degree, and this takes three to four years on average. This means you should plan to be in school for about six years if you follow this course of study.
Is a master’s degree required to advance as an environmental engineer?
A master’s degree in environmental engineering provides more opportunities if you want to teach this subject at the college level, and possibly for jobs in upper management.
Are environmental engineers in demand?
The demand for environmental engineers is generally about the same as the overall demand for workers, but new technologies like solar power have higher demand.
What industries are hiring environmental engineers with a master’s degree?
State and federal governments tend to have the highest concentration of environmental engineers.
Is an online master’s degree in environmental engineering the same as an on-campus degree?
Most educational institutions don’t specify your course of study on documents like diplomas or transcripts. However, individual employers may prefer that you earn your master’s degree in environmental engineering through an on-campus program.