Career opportunities in environmental economics

Students often ask me what kinds of jobs environmental economists get. Bob Hartzell has named his list of the top 5 career opportunities in environmental economics. They are (1) environmental consulting, (2) project management, (3) resources policy advocacy, (4) agricultural economics, and (5) resources management, and you can read about each on the hyperlink.

Most of these positions will require at least a master’s degree. And, in fact, in order to be hired to do the type of work that most economists do (in general, analyzing data to answer questions your employer wants the answer to), you’re going to need a master’s degree whether you’re an econ, agecon, or environmental econ major. And of course, if you go beyond a master’s degree and get a PhD, there are many more job opportunities available such as working in academia (i.e. being a professor), working for NGOs and government organizations, and working in the private sector.

I usually tell my undergraduate advisees that your graduation from MSU sends a signal to potential employers. The first signal, which doesn’t depend on your major, is that you were competent enough to graduate. And that’s saying something – not everyone can graduate, so if you do so, that says something about yourself. It first of all says that you were capable of passing your courses. But it also says you were organized, committed, and disciplined enough to spend about 4 years working towards your degree. If you go on and get a master’s degree or PhD, that signals that your expertise is probably greater than that of someone with only an undergrad degree and that, again, you were committed enough to pursue more advanced degrees.

The other signal your graduation sends pertains to your major. While both the history major and the environmental economics major are committed enough to graduate, the history major is probably more likely to enjoy reading and writing and to be able to, um, do whatever else it is history majors are good at (I don’t know because I’m not one). If you’re an economics major, it sends a signal that you are relatively strong in critical thinking and logic, and, if you’re an environmental economics major, you can think critically about environmental issues in particular and that maybe you have some knowledge of applied economics (analyzing data to answer questions).

Our Environmental Economics and Management (EEM) major is relatively young so we’ve had only a handful of graduates so far. But here are some of the things they’ve gone on to do after graduation:

  • Go to graduate school (Virginia Tech, USM, MSU)
  • Human Resource Management at Target
  • Environmental Professional at Nova Engineering and Environmental
  • Production Supervisor at Yokohama Tire
  • AmeriCorps Volunteer
  • Area Director for Ozone Ministries

You can see that some positions are more related to the environment than others based on their titles. Some of that may be due to the preferences of the graduates, but, in general, I’d say that regardless of what a student’s major is, many students don’t actually go into the field of their major directly after graduation. I myself was an economics (straight up, not ag or environmental) and music double major. After graduation I volunteered for AmeriCorps and then had several odd jobs that were related neither to music nor economics, until I entered graduate school for environmental economics after a 4 year hiatus from school. And that four year hiatus was important – it was during that time that I learned there was such a thing as environmental economics in the first place.

My own philosophy is that you needn’t be so attached to a particular career route as an undergraduate (but if you are, that’s perfectly fine). But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be thinking ahead. My approach was to set myself up to have opportunities (if you don’t graduate, you’ll have fewer opportunities!), let a little time go by, learn about the world and my own preferences, and then make a more specific decision about a career path 4 years after graduating from undergrad. I’m sure many of our graduates will make career changes like I did as they progress in life. So be thinking about the opportunities you’d like to be setting yourself up for (different majors open yourself up to different types of opportunities!) as you choose your major and make decisions about graduate school and other possibilities after graduation.