Alumni Column: Career Possibilities for an Environmental Science Major

Kathryn Roberts

Colgate has a variety of environmental science majors and minors ranging from Environmental Geography to Environmental Economics. Now that it’s April, some of you may be thinking, “What can I do with an environmental science major?” The answer is, “Anything you want!” There are literally hundreds of potential career paths for an individual with an environmental degree and lots of ways to get there. 

After participating in SophoMORE Connections and Real World over the last several years, I’ve noticed that many students have a common misperception about the environmental industry. That is, students believe there are a very limited number of environmental fields such as private consulting, law and engineering. This may have been true at one time, but it is no longer the case. My own career path provides a good example.

I majored in Environmental Geography at Colgate. Gary Ross introduced me to an alumni living in the Binghamton, N.Y. area named Patrick Doyle (’90). Patrick did not work in the environmental field, but through his prominent role in the community, he had contacts at one of the local engineering firms. With Gary and Patrick’s help, I secured an internship at an environmental engineering firm, Hawk Engineering, the

summer following my junior year.

Hawk Engineering hired me the following February as an Environmental Geotechnical Specialist and I began my career in environmental consulting in the summer of 2001. As it turned out, I was one person doing three different jobs. I worked as a field technician, supervising drilling operations, evaluating oil samples and installing monitoring wells. I developed project maps via Arcview and AutoCAD. I was also responsible for completing Environmental AssessmentForms (EAF) and Draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS)

and conducting Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessments (ESA).

After about two-and-a-half years, my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided it was time to move on. So, in November of 2003, we relocated to Santa Fe, NM. After six months of sending resumes to every single agency with the word “environmental” in their title, I got an interview with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Hazardous Waste Bureau (HWB). NMED-HWB is a state government agency responsible for overseeing environmental compliance at facilities subject to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This was a major turning point in my career. I had no idea that environmental jobs were available in state government agencies, nor was I aware that there were state agencies solely dedicated to writing, interpreting and enforcing environmental permit requirements.

While at NMED-HWB, I was responsible for corrective action and permitting activities for LANL and White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). I reviewed permit applications, permit modification requests, corrective action work plans and corrective action reports for evaluation of technical adequacy. I eventually became the team leader for LANL projects.

One point worth noting – no one learns all the skills necessary to do a job like this in college. You may touch on high-level aspects of environmental regulations or even review case studies, but you will never delve into the details of a federal regulation or statute. This is something you must learn “on-the-job.” That said, being a Colgate alumni had some major advantages over the average state employee. One, I could write. Two, I had a work ethic above and beyond most of my colleagues. Three, well-developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills

allowed me to take on new challenges and resolve issues.

After about six-and-a-half years at NMED-HWB, I determined that if I wanted to move up and continue

broadening my skill set, I would need to leave the agency. I applied and was offered a job within the Environmental Programs Directorate at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL does everything from bio-medical research to nuclear stockpile stewardship. Instead of the regulator, I am now

the regulatee.

I have been with LANL for almost four years. I oversee three teams of people in the areas of regulatory support, deliverables compliance and contract performance. My group is primarily responsible for interpretation, development and implementation of regulatory programs (e.g., strategic direction and approaches). Additionally, my group interfaces with local, state and federal agencies on all types of environmental issues on a daily basis.

There are countless career paths for environmental science majors and the skills you learn in one will inevitably be useful for another. In the 13 years since I graduated, I have worked in three distinct areas of the environmental field: private consulting, state government and federal government contracting. The skill set I obtained in each of these jobs increased my overall knowledge base and helped prepare me for the next. Furthermore, the environmental field is growing rapidly. Nearly all industries have a team dedicated to environmental issues. These teams can be utilized for anything from regulatory compliance to sustainability/clean energy initiatives. Google, Apple, DOE/DOD, National Parks Service, Conservation International and even Harley-Davidson are just a few examples of companies who currently employ environmental teams.

Your options are endless. Natural resources and conservation, renewable energy, sustainability, non-profit, advocacy, environmental education, environmental law, policy, regulation and state/federal government are just a few examples of potential career opportunities. Don’t limit yourself to the “standard”

industries. Think broadly and always keep your options open.