How to Become an Environmental Engineer

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The Earth provides humans and wildlife with the resources to sustain life. However, certain byproducts of modern industry and urbanization threaten those resources. Deforestation, air pollution, global warming, and water pollution are among the biggest issues that environmental engineers — and, by extension, all of humanity — face.

An environmental engineer wearing a hard hat and vest takes notes while standing in a water treatment plant.

Environmental engineers are problem-solvers who have been tasked with undoing the damage that decades of burning fossil fuels and producing harmful emissions have caused. They also work in a proactive capacity by helping create policies and developing new technologies intended to safeguard the planet and its resources.

For those considering this profession and wondering how to become an environmental engineer, a firm grasp of concepts such as pollution control and containment, sustainable development, and biological treatment processes is essential. An advanced degree program like a Master of Science in Engineering can prepare students to enter this vital field.

What Does an Environmental Engineer Do?

In a broad sense, environmental engineers address issues that threaten the planet, compromise its resources, or have the potential to negatively impact public health. They develop innovative solutions for environmental issues through policy, the deployment of new technology, and other methods.

So, what does an environmental engineer do specifically? The day-to-day duties of an environmental engineer can involve the following:

  • Overseeing the preparation, review, and updating of environmental investigation reports
  • Conceptualizing environmental protection projects
  • Monitoring the results of environmental improvement programs
  • Securing necessary permits or documentation required to perform environmental tests, take samples, and other related duties
  • Providing technical support on environmental remediation projects and in legal matters related to environmental protection issues
  • Gathering and analyzing scientific data
  • Performing various tests and quality control checks
  • Inspecting municipal and industrial programs and facilities to confirm compliance with environmental regulations
  • Advising government agencies and corporations on how to prevent or resolve site contamination

Additional responsibilities an environmental engineer may have include conducting studies on how to manage hazardous waste and researching the environmental impact of new construction. They may also explore ways to minimize the impacts of environmental concerns such as acid rain, vehicle emissions, and ozone depletion. These professionals often address specific environmental issues such as those related to air quality or water systems.

How to Become an Environmental Engineer

A natural passion for protecting the planet is essential for environmental engineers. It’s a rare line of work where today’s accomplishments can help ensure that future generations have basic resources like clean water and air.

Like many careers, the pathway to becoming an environmental engineer begins with an education. However, students can take multiple possible paths to enter the field and/or advance their careers. The following are some key steps in pursuing a career in environmental engineering.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. Undergraduate degrees in general engineering, chemical engineering, and civil engineering also offer a solid foundation.
  2. Take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. This test is for those who have recently completed their undergraduate education and are seeking professional licensure. Each state issues its own licenses for environmental engineers, though most states recognize licensure from other states.
  3. Earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering. An advanced education in environmental engineering qualifies candidates for higher-level roles in the field and prepares them for certification exams.
  4. Take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Environmental exam. This exam confirms that an environmental engineer meets the minimum level of competency to work in this particular field of engineering.
  5. Earn relevant work experience in environmental engineering.
  6. Earn board certification from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists. Candidates must have at least eight years of experience to sit for the exam.

It’s possible to secure entry-level work in environmental engineering with a bachelor’s degree; however, earning a master’s degree can lead to opportunities in managerial and leadership positions, and further develops in-demand skills that employers are looking for, such as:

  • Problem-solving
  • Creative thinking
  • Planning and organization
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Technical writing
  • Proficiency in environmental concepts and sciences

Environmental Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

Environmental engineers made a median annual salary of $96,820 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Salaries can be influenced by various factors, including location, education level, experience, and employer. For example, the median salary for environmental engineers working for the federal government in 2021 was $110,240, while those working in management, scientific, and technical consulting services made $94,970.

The BLS reports that employment of environmental engineers is expected to grow by 4% between 2021 and 2031, on par with the average growth rate for all occupations — with approximately 3,400 job openings per year, on average, over the decade. Heightened public awareness of environmental hazards, and a need to devise solutions to these concerns, are expected to drive demand for these professionals.

Become an Agent of Change as an Environmental Engineer

Environmental engineers help safeguard the planet from all manner of hazards. Airborne pollutants, contaminated water, and the adverse impacts of climate change all must be kept in check to ensure that future generations have access to basic life-sustaining resources. An environmental engineer’s ability to problem-solve and innovate solutions will continue to play a critical role in combating environmental threats.

In outlining how to become an environmental engineer, the right education is a crucial step. The University of California, Riverside offers a Master of Science in Engineering program with eight different concentrations, including environmental engineering. This opens the door for students to explore specialized roles in a number of fields.

The program consists of 16 credit hours of core coursework followed by 16 credit hours within the specialization of your choice. Since many of our students are active professionals with busy work schedules, we provide the convenience of an online learning format with no residency requirement.

Take the first step toward a future as an environmental engineer with the University of California, Riverside.

Recommended Readings

Addressing Social Justice Issues with an Engineering Master’s Degree

What Is Clean Energy?

What Is Water Resources Engineering?


Betterteam, Environmental Engineer Job Description

Carroll Engineering Corporation, “The Real Impact of Environmental Engineering”

Environmental Protection, “Five Biggest Environmental Issues Affecting the U.S.”

G2, “Why Is Environmental Engineering Important for Human Health?”

Indeed, Environmental Engineer Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Engineers