Guide to College Majors in Environmental Engineering

We shall never understand the natural environment until we see it as a living organism. Land can be healthy or sick, fertile or barren, rich or poor, lovingly nurtured or bled white.
--Paul Brooks

What is Environmental Engineering?

Environmental engineers use principles of chemistry and biology to prevent or solve environmental problems. Environmental engineers possess a strong commitment to the environment and they enjoy a career that allows them to improve it. The most successful environmental engineers have backgrounds in math and science and are detail-oriented.

Professionals in this field work on issues like wastewater treatment, toxic materials control, and air quality control. Duties vary by project and can include collecting and analyzing data, performing quality control checks, and evaluating and devising solutions for environmental hazards.

A bachelor's degree is required for most engineering positions-but for an environmental engineer, formal education rarely ends with an undergraduate degree. To stay current in their field, engineers often continue their education with master's degrees and continuing education courses. Online environmental engineering degrees, found primarily at the master's level, have become popular with working professionals who are ready to boost their careers but can't take the time off from work for a traditional degree. These online courses are geared towards more experienced students who have mastered basic hands-on training and are ready to explore more advanced theory in the field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in the field of environmental engineering are expected to increase more quickly than average over the next ten years. As climate change is finally accepted as a reality, there is great impetus around the world to find creative solutions for the environmental problems humans have caused. Environmental engineers will play a crucial role in helping the human race co-exist with the rest of the world in decades to come.

Career Education in Environmental Engineering

The majority of college degree programs in the field of environmental engineering exist at the bachelor's and master's level (particularly among online degree programs). Associate degrees and undergraduate certificate programs are less common.

Bachelor's Degrees in Environmental Engineering

A bachelor's degree in environmental engineering is required to gain employment as an environmental engineer. The bachelor's degree emphasizes math and science courses as well as classes specific to the environmental engineering field. Examples of these courses are air pollution engineering, environmental risk assessment, and principles of environmental engineering.

In some universities, environmental engineering is a supplementary program to a bachelor's degree in civil, chemical, or mechanical engineering. In these cases, students earn bachelor's degrees in another branch of engineering with a minor in environmental engineering. A bachelor's degree in environmental engineering typically takes five years to complete, though some students may be able to complete it in four.

Some colleges and universities offer advanced online certificates in environmental engineering studies. This certificate typically focuses on one aspect of environmental engineering and offers four to five courses in that area. It is intended for bachelor's degree holders who wish to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level. It is not considered a graduate degree.

What Can You Do With a College Major in Environmental Engineering?

  • An engineering technician is an assistant to an engineer or scientist. In the environmental engineering field, he is often responsible for assisting in research, collecting data, maintaining equipment, and assisting in the planning and execution of projects. Engineering technicians usually have an associate degree in engineering technology and are not required to have a license. An engineering technician may be required to work in a hazardous environment, such as dealing with nuclear waste removal or waste treatment.
  • Environmental engineers resolve and help prevent environmental problems. They work in many areas, including air pollution control, industrial hygiene, toxic materials control, and land management. The duties of an environmental engineer range from planning and designing an effective waste treatment plant to studying the effects of acid rain on a particular area. An environmental engineer is sometimes required to work outdoors, though most of her work is done in a laboratory or office setting. Career opportunities for environmental engineers exist in consulting, research, corporate, and government positions.

    At minimum, environmental engineers must possess a bachelor's degree. Master's degrees are strongly encouraged, but not required. Environmental engineers offering their services directly to the public must be licensed.
  • Engineering managers supervise engineers and support staff. They typically begin their careers as engineers and advance to the managerial level. Engineering managers are responsible for administrative work in addition to supervising staff and engineering projects; these tasks often involve budgeting, creation of policies and procedures, and the hiring and training of staff members. In the field of environmental engineering, most managers hold office jobs, though some may work in a laboratory setting. Engineering managers often receive benefits such as stock options and bonuses. In addition to their engineering degrees, they typically have some business or management training.
  • Environmental sales engineers are responsible for selling equipment and/or services related to the environmental engineering field. For example, a sales engineer in the environmental engineering field may be responsible for the sale of air pollution control products to factories.

    Sales engineers bring their education and experience to the position, enabling them to speak with their customers clearly and accurately about the products they sell. In addition to sales, they often assist with the design and modification of their products based on customer feedback. Careers in sales can be stressful because, in most cases, quarterly job performance directly impacts job security. Sales engineers are often required to travel, sometimes long distances. Those engineers required to travel are often compensated with company cars and accumulation of frequent flyer miles.

 

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Environmental engineers are strongly encouraged to become Licensed Professional Engineers. Requirements for this licensure vary from state to state, but typically involve:

  • graduation from an accredited engineering program,
  • work experience, and
  • completion of two examinations.

To qualify for licensure, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology must accredit the engineering program you graduate from, so be sure to check this accreditation before enrolling in a degree program. Most engineers take the first examination, called Fundamentals of Engineering, upon graduation.

Experience in the engineering field is the next step on the road to licensure. Different states have different requirements regarding this work experience, so it is important to check with your state on its licensing requirements. Upon completion of the required work experience you may take the second examination, the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE). This examination is specific to your engineering field of expertise.

After completion of these steps, you may apply for licensure with the licensing board in your state. When you receive your license, you are considered a Professional Engineer, or P.E. Licensed professional engineers are the only engineers allowed to offer their services to the general public. You must possess your P.E. certification before you sign and seal any plans.

In many states, engineers are required to maintain licensure through completion of professional development hours. Examples of professional development hours include:

  • Attendance at applicable conferences or seminars
  • Published professional papers, articles or books
  • Participation in professional societies
  • College or continuing education credits

The amount of professional development hours required for maintaining licensure varies by state.

Other Associations and Certification Bodies

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