Guide to getting a master’s in environmental engineering
The professionals we today call environmental engineers were once known as sanitary engineers. Water and wastewater treatment were their main tasks. Around the start of the industrial revolution, water quality became a serious issue in large cities. This led to the rise of sanitary engineers, who worked to develop sanitation and water treatment systems.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, as human impacts on the environment were beginning to be better understood, that this largely unknown field of engineering took on a new name and quickly rose to prominence.
Sanitary engineering was rebranded as environmental engineering and expanded its remit. Today, environmental engineers work for companies across a variety of industries to minimize human impact on the environment.
While sanitary engineers focused solely on the sanitation of potable water and wastewater, environmental engineers focus on protecting every aspect of the natural world, including water, air, and soil as well as the delicate ecosystem as a whole.
Explore the top-ranking graduate programs for environmental engineering to make an informed choice.
What can you do with a master’s in environmental engineering?
Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s in environmental engineering, a master’s can open up a greater variety of career opportunities. From working as an environmental health and safety director to managing water projects, there’s no shortage of rewarding jobs available. A master’s can also qualify you for more research-based roles.
Should you get a master’s in environmental engineering?
Aside from deciding if a career in environmental engineering is one you would enjoy, another important factor to consider is how much you can expect to earn. The table below shows the average earnings and debt for master’s in environmental engineering students 3 years after graduation. It compares earnings to the median debt accrued and compares these new earnings to those 3 years after receiving a bachelor’s in the same field.
Debt and earnings
Graduate degree premium
Earning over bachelors
Annual debt repayment
The figures above give an indication of the debt incurred by graduates, and their salaries 3 years after graduation. The table on the left compares median debt and median earnings. The right-hand table compares how much a master graduate earns over a bachelor graduate 3 years after graduation, after deducting median debt repayments.
Engineers with a master’s in environmental engineering earn substantially more than their bachelor’s degree counterparts. The low debt-to-earnings earnings ratio of 0.39 also suggests that most graduates with this degree are able to quickly recoup the cost of their education.
How to pick a master’s in environmental engineering
There are a range of factors to consider when evaluating a master’s in environmental engineering. An initial consideration is finding a program that offers the concentration you are interested in.
Among the most common are:
Environmental engineering and public policy
This dual concentration prepares graduates to work at the intersection of policy and science. Students examine policy in light of engineering projects, and engineering projects in light of policy, to understand the broader social and technological contexts.
Groundwater and soil pollution
The focus of this specialization is on the measures that can be taken to prevent or treat groundwater and soil pollution resulting from commercial operations.
Environmental construction management
This specialization focuses on ensuring safety and minimizing the ecological impact of construction and demolition projects. This can include the safe use or removal of asbestos-containing materials, PCBs, heavy metals, and other regulated substances.
Water resources and climate risks
Sustainably managing water resources and mitigating climate risks in the planning, design, and operation of water resource systems are the focus of this specialization.
As the world moves towards a low-carbon economy, environmental engineers in this key field collaborate with environmental scientists to improve on current and develop new eco-friendly sources of energy.
Sustainable mining and materials
In this specialization, engineers train in consulting mining projects on environmental compliance. Students learn to evaluate methods of processing minerals, metals, and other materials. The intricate links between water and energy use and the processing of earth resources are examined.
Environmental and resource economics
Students in this concentration focus on seeking paths to a sustainable global energy system in the context of both economic needs and environmental impacts. In a multidisciplinary approach, social, economic, technical, environmental, and geopolitical perspectives are considered.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits engineering, science, and technology programs in the U.S. ABET accreditation is essential for bachelor’s degrees, but less so at the master’s level. However, you may not be admitted into a master’s program without an ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree.
Can you get a master’s in environmental engineering online?
Most environmental engineering programs are not offered online due to the amount of hands-on coursework, group projects, and lab requirements. While there are some schools that offer these programs online, it is essential to carefully research their quality before opting for them.
Master’s in environmental engineering
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
How much does a master’s in environmental engineering cost?
The table below shows the difference in debt and repayment rates based on institution type.
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Median earnings and median debt of graduates of this degree program. The debt-to-earnings ratio compares student debt to annual earnings. The lower the debt-to-earnings ratio the better, and total debt should never exceed annual earnings (a debt-to-earnings ratio of 1.0).
Financial aid and scholarships
Financial aid for a master’s in environmental engineering can come in the form of scholarships, student loans, grants, and work-study programs. As with any degree, the first step is to complete the FAFSA form on the Federal Student Aid website. It is also a good idea to schedule a time to meet with someone from your chosen school’s financial aid department to see what other financial opportunities might be available to you.
What to expect from a master’s in environmental engineering
Core environmental engineering courses form the backbone of the program, with specialization electives and breadth requirements in non-engineering and non-STEM fields as customizable add-ons.
Common admission requirements include:
- minimum GPA as determined by school
- bachelor’s in chemical engineering or a closely related field
- letters of recommendation
- research experience
Admission requirements vary significantly between schools. Be sure to carefully read through your chosen schools’ instructions.
Bridge programs for non-STEM or non-engineering backgrounds
Some schools offer bridge programs for students from non-STEM or non-engineering backgrounds designed to get them up to speed. If you are interested in pursuing a master’s in environmental engineering but do not have the required background, a bridge program could make this degree accessible.
A master’s degree in environmental engineering typically takes 1 to 2 years to complete.
Thesis versus non-thesis route
Some environmental engineering master’s degree programs require students to write and defend a thesis to earn their degree. Such programs tend to be more research-oriented. Programs that do not require a thesis are often more hands-on. The non-thesis route usually requires more credit hours to replace the thesis.
If you are interested in earning a doctorate in environmental engineering, choosing a school that offers this track is a good option to consider. These programs allow students to progress straight to a Ph.D. program after earning their master’s.
FE and PE exams
Upon earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering, you qualify for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. After passing the FE and earning at least 4 years of experience, you can sit for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam and apply for licensure as a Professional Engineer. Licensure is optional for most roles, but highly recommended.
What type of courses are there in a master’s in environmental engineering?
Common courses specific to a master’s in environmental engineering include:
- Fluid mechanics
Fluid mechanics deals with calculating and anticipating the behavior of water and other fluids in a wide range of environments.
- Sustainable design
Courses in sustainable design teach environmental engineers how to design buildings and products in a way that has minimal impact on the environment. Both materials and methods are covered.
- Renewable energy
Optimizing renewable energy sources is currently the only known path for solving the problem of limited fossil fuels. In renewable energy courses, environmental engineers take a deep dive into solar, wind, water, and geothermal energy.
- Geotechnical engineering
Geotechnical engineers focus on soil properties and underground engineering. Students can expect to learn principles such as the shear strength of soils, soil compaction and consolidation, and settlement of foundations.
- Air pollution engineering
Preventing pollution is a key responsibility of environmental engineers. In this course, students learn about air pollution sources and effects, and the design of air pollution control systems.
What type of master’s degrees are there in environmental engineering?
The 2 main types of master’s degrees in environmental engineering are the master of science (M.S.) and the master of engineering (MEng).
Master of science (M.S.)
thesis or research project requirement
less flexibility in course selection
aimed at academic career
funding opportunities in the form of graduate teaching and assistantships
Master of engineering (MEng)
funding opportunities in the form of graduate teaching and assistantships
flexibility in elective coursework
aimed at professional skills
fewer funding opportunities
Along with choosing between these 2 types of degrees, be aware of programs related to environmental engineering that are presented under different titles. A master’s in civil engineering with a concentration in environmental engineering is one example. Other programs have titles such as master’s in carbon management. These are technically environmental engineering programs that microfocus on a certain aspect of the field.
What careers can I have with a master’s in environmental engineering?
A master’s in environmental engineering can prepare you for a wide range of lucrative and rewarding careers in the environmental engineering field including energy efficiency engineer, green building engineer, and geotechnical engineer. It can also qualify you for senior and research and development roles.
Frequently asked questions
Is a master’s degree in environmental engineering worth it?
While the answer ultimately depends on your goals and interests, this degree is a good investment financially and can lead to more career options. Those with a master’s degree in environmental engineering earn an average salary of $69,178 just 2 years after graduation. This amounts to a little over $20,000 more than those with a bachelor’s degree in the same field.
What field is the best in environmental engineering?
Working as a health and safety director offers one of the highest average salaries of all environmental engineering careers. However, the best environmental engineering field for you ultimately depends on your own skills and interests.
Are environmental engineers in high demand?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for environmental engineers is expected to grow 4% through 2030, which is slightly slower than the average of all careers.
Do environmental engineers work outside?
Environmental engineers spend the majority of their time working from an office. However, the job can entail a lot of fieldwork, depending on the specific specialization you pursue.
The ISSMGE is an organization that provides resources and networking opportunities to professionals working in the geotechnical engineering field.
The ASEE is a non-profit organization committed to furthering engineering education in both environmental engineering and other engineering specialties.