Green Gigs: How to Launch a Stellar Sustainability Career
As a corporate sustainability consultant at GreenOrder, the most common question I received was, “What type of graduate degree do I need to be a competitive candidate in this field?”
The first thing I'd say? “Slow down.” Setting yourself up for a successful career in sustainability is about more than the graduate degree you get. In fact, I think that taking time to try some things out first is critical in helping you choose the right grad program—and ultimately landing a job you love.
Whether you’re interested in green building design, sustainable apparel manufacturing, or the economics of climate change, here’s my three-step plan for setting yourself up on the right path for a green career.
Step 1: Don’t Go to Grad School
That’s right: The first step in a successful sustainable career is to not go to grad school (at least not right away).
Straight out of undergrad, I decided to apply for a MS in forestry, as my internship at a forest conservation nonprofit was coming to a close. I knew I wanted an advanced degree and was passionate about the environment, so I took the GRE and applied to MS programs at Virginia Tech, UC Berkeley, and Yale.
Boy, was this a mistake. Frankly, I didn’t know which academic questions I wanted to solve—and this is key to making the most of grad school. My own thesis advisor even declined to write me a letter of recommendation for a master's program, telling me that everyone should go out and work for a few years, “even if it’s only at a hot dog stand” before considering grad school. I stewed with anger for a long time, but it remains the best piece of advice I’ve ever received.
Why? Because before you can really decide what you want to devote your time (and money) to, you need to get your hands dirty and learn what you actually like. In my case, I realized that I was a generalist, and choosing a technical niche in forest management might limit my future options. Not to mention, a bit of work experience will give you a competitive edge when you’re applying to grad schools and jobs later down the road (in fact, top non-technical master's programs want you to have between three and seven years of experience before you apply).
That being said, if you want a competitive edge, you shouldn’t actually work at a hot dog stand post-grad. Instead, look for an opportunity that gives you a chance to experience two or three different functional roles. Startups and nonprofits are great for this, since you’ll likely be asked to wear multiple hats. Corporate rotation programs also let you experience work life in a few different departments, which will set you up nicely for the next step.
Step 2: Learn Which Job Functions You Like
Now that you’ve deferred grad school and are out in the real world, it’s time to do some self-discovery. While you’re working, it’s important to pay close attention to what you like and don’t like about different jobs and tasks. You’ll naturally find yourself gravitating toward certain things, and that’s important to pay attention to if you ultimately want success and job satisfaction.
During my two years of work, I got to dabble in marketing, HR, event management, and politics. I learned what I loved (writing, managing things, solving problems, having variety in my work, and being a generalist) and what I hated or wasn’t good at (lobbying, academic research, routine, and being a subject matter expert).
If you’re anxious to speed up your self-discovery process or need a little guidance, a life-changer for me was the book Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. It helps you understand what your Myers-Briggs personality type means for your career and is the perfect supplement to on-the-job learning.
Step 3: Choose Which Grad Program is Right
While grad school certainly isn’t required for a successful career in sustainability, it's an important path to consider (again, after you've worked for a few years): Most professionals working in the field either have a master's degree or have already had about 10 years of highly regarded work experience.
You’ll want to choose a grad program that completes your story and gives you a leg up against the competition. Consider what you learned from your time working, along with how the degree would fit in with your work experience and undergrad education. At the end of the process, you want at least one, and ideally two, out of the three experiences to demonstrate sustainability knowledge.
Here’s a guide to some popular grad school options for green careers:
Master of Business Administration
The most versatile option, getting a business degree is strongly encouraged if you want to work in the private sector. It can also help position you to run a larger nonprofit. I used an MBA to supplement prior work in the nonprofit world and pivot to corporate sustainability.
An MBA exposes you to the broadest set of post-master’s careers, and most of them can be applied to sustainability. That being said, you won’t get much training specifically in environmental areas while getting this degree, so you should have strong work experience or a related bachelor's degree to be a competitive candidate for most traditional sustainability jobs after grad school.
Also, be wary of “sustainable MBA” programs. These programs were popular at the height of the sustainability craze, but tend to be regarded as less rigorous in some circles. However, if you have an undergrad degree from an Ivy League or other top tier school, they can be a good choice.
Master of Public Administration or Master of Public Policy
If you love reading The Economist and working on hard-to-solve problems in the public realm, like climate change and water scarcity, this could be a good path for you. While these degrees are less common in the world of corporate sustainability, there are consistent opportunities at think tanks, advocacy organizations, research firms, and government for MPP or MPA grads. City governments, in particular, are doing exciting work on sustainability.
Again, you’ll want to have work experience or an undergrad degree in an environmental area to edge out the competition if you’re going this route.
Master of Science
If you love digging into the science and want to be a subject matter expert, an MS or other technical master's is for you. This is for people who have an undying passion for a particular area of the environment, such as hydrology, climatology, alternative fuels, or soil science—and who are ready to commit their careers to going deep in that one area. As we learn more and more about the environmental challenges we face, the need for focused technical experts like these will likely increase tremendously.
To get the most out of such a program, you’ll need to research specific programs at schools that have prestige (and money) in your area of interest.
Dual Degree (MBA+MS) or Master of Environmental Management
While this is a great all-purpose option for anyone who wants to advance in or enter the field of sustainability, it’s especially good for those who don’t have bona fide environmental credentials from their undergrad degrees or work experience. A master’s in environmental management isn’t as wonky and specialized as the MS and still has the management aspect that helps you move up a corporate ladder. You’ll learn about everything from ecological systems management to natural resource economics and be set up perfectly for careers in almost any area of sustainability, particularly those that involve managing teams, working in a corporate setting, or directing global conservation programs at a nonprofit.
On the downside, this is a more rigorous degree. You’ll likely have to go back to school full-time and attend for at least one year longer than traditional programs.
Other programs that are less common in the broader field of sustainability—but can still lead to a successful career—are the JD, MFA, MPH, or other technical master's degrees in fields like urban development, architecture, tech applications, or data science. One of these can be a great option if you are passionate about going into a specialized career such as environmental law, journalism, or landscape architecture. They’re not as common—but they just might help you differentiate yourself among a sea of applicants with general skills.
Ready to launch your green career? Having a few years of work experience under your belt, knowing which functional areas you excel at naturally, and selecting a complementary graduate degree will not only set you up for a job in sustainability, it will set you up for an impactful career you’re passionate about.
Photo of wind turbines courtesy of Shutterstock.
Emily Chan is a sustainability strategist based in San Francisco with ten years of experience in non-profit management, corporate strategy, and consulting. She advises executives at Fortune 500s in the tech, utility, and consumer products sectors on sustainability and is an Advisory Board member at SXSWEco.More from this Author