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How Do I Become an Environmental Engineer?

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Few people defend the environment and safeguard public safety as staunchly as environmental engineers. These scientific-minded professionals oversee pollution control, hazardous waste management, environmental sustainability, and water quality, among other important elements of civilization. They design municipal and industrial systems and research ways to minimize their environmental and health impacts. Environmental engineers also work with governments to establish industrial, safety, and environmental regulations.

The scope of responsibility assumed by environmental engineers underscores the importance of proper training. Environmental engineers need excellent math, engineering, and science skills. Practical experience and licensing are essential, while additional certifications enhance one’s employability and demonstrate a highly specialized knowledge

This guide provides a step-by-step path to becoming an environmental engineer in the image of recommendations from the Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors Foundation (AEESPF). The steps required to become an environmental engineer are listed along with the time each step typically takes to complete.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil or Environmental Engineering (4 years)

Environmental engineers must have at least a bachelor’s degree to practice. Prospective students should look for programs accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET accreditation not only verifies an engineering program meets established quality standards and best practices but is a required by many graduate programs, licensing boards, professional organizations, and employers. One can earn ABET-accredited degrees online or on campus. Students enrolled in online environmental engineering programs can usually satisfy hands-on, practical requirements within their home communities.

Environmental engineering programs provide the education one needs to be licensed, earn certifications, and succeed in the field. Some, but not all engineering schools offer bachelor’s degrees in environmental engineering specifically. It is not uncommon for future professionals to attend programs in related fields such as civil, chemical, or general engineering before gaining specialized training in graduate school or on the job. Students are encouraged to find programs that incorporate “co-ops” (i.e., they award credit for structured work experience). Doing so can help students meet future licensing and employment requirements. Some colleges offer combined five-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees, an accelerated option for students which can be more cost-effective than pursuing the two degrees separately.

Admissions Requirements – Environmental Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Every environmental engineering program establishes its own admissions criteria; more rigorous programs usually have more rigorous requirements. Not surprisingly, highly competitive programs have steeper GPA and exam requirements and might even require an interview. Examples of typical admission requirements from real environmental engineering schools include:

  • Successful completion of prerequisite high school courses (e.g., physics, chemistry, calculus, algebra, trigonometry)
  • Minimum high school GPA of 3.0
  • SAT and ACT scores
  • Admissions essay or statement of purpose

Typical Courses – Environmental Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Bachelor’s programs in environmental engineering usually offer a range of classroom, lab, and field-based components. Students balance required general education and core engineering courses with specialized electives. Here are some typical courses in undergraduate environmental engineering programs:

  • Introduction to Environmental Engineering
  • Drafting and Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
  • Introduction to Engineering Fundamentals
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Elements of Geology
  • Engineering Economy
  • Transport Processes
  • Water Quality Control
  • Chemical Engineering Process Design
  • Green Engineering
  • Sustainable Design

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering (2 years)

Master’s degrees in environmental engineering are not necessarily required to enter the field, but forgoing them can limit students’ future professional roles and licensing opportunities. Graduate-level environmental engineering curricula are more advanced and specialized than that of undergraduate programs. Here are just some of the concentrations students pursuing master’s degrees might choose:

  • Air Pollution
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Environmental Health
  • Environmental Risk Management
  • Hazardous and Solid Wastes
  • Subsurface Contaminant Hydrology
  • Sustainability
  • Water and Wastewater Infrastructure
  • Water Resources
  • Coastal and Ecological Engineering

Admissions Requirements – Environmental Engineering Master’s Programs

As one might expect, graduate programs in environmental engineering have steeper requirements than bachelor’s programs. The following criteria are examples taken from real schools across the nation. Note that requirements can vary significantly from one school to the next. For instance, some master’s programs only admit candidates with a certain number of years of professional experience, while others admit students fresh out of bachelor’s programs.

  • An ABET-accredited B.S. in engineering or a related science
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0 on the last 60 hours of undergraduate coursework
  • Minimum score on the General Aptitude portion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Professional resume or curriculum vitae
  • A statement of purpose

Typical Courses – Environmental Engineering Master’s Programs

Many students earning master’s degrees in environmental engineering dedicate the first year to core engineering coursework and the second to electives that reflect their interests and/or formal concentrations. Examples of classes include:

  • Solid and Hazardous Waste Management
  • Element Analysis
  • Microclimatology
  • Microbial Genetics
  • Marine Microbial Ecology
  • Coastal Chemical Systems
  • Water Quality Management
  • Hydrology
  • Enfironmental Chemodynamics
  • Free Surface Flow
  • Biological Treatment of Recirculating Aquacultural Systems
  • Fundamentals of Biodegradation
  • Operations and Processes in Sanitary Engineering
  • Landfill Design
  • Natural Wastewater Treatment Systems Design

Step 3: Establish State Licensure (timeline varies)

Most environmental engineers cannot practice independently without being licensed. According to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), licensing requirements are set by individual states, which means they can vary. The Council advises candidates to check licensing requirements in the state where they intend to work. Readers can research state requirements through the NCEES.

Some states require environmental engineering students and recent graduates to earn special Engineer in Training (EIT) or Engineer Intern (EI) licenses by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.

Fundamentals of Engineering Exam for Engineers in Training

The FE exam verifies candidates have the foundational safety and engineering knowledge necessary to work in the field. The NCEES offers FE exams in several concentrations, including the FE – Environmental Engineering. According to the Council’s official website, this exam explores knowledge in the following areas:

  • Math
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Ethics and Professional Practice
  • Engineering Economics
  • Materials Science
  • Environmental Science and Chemistry
  • Risk Assessment
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Water Resources
  • Water and Wastewater
  • Air Quality
  • Solid and Hazardous Waste
  • Groundwater and Soils

Undergraduate environmental engineering curricula are often designed with FE exam requirements in mind. Students can usually find this information online or by contacting the academic department overseeing the program.

Step 4: Get Practical Experience in the Field (1-4 years)

Environmental engineering graduates who meet state practice requirements—including those related to EIT or EI licensing—are free to enter the field, but only under the direction of Professional Engineers (PEs), who are discussed below. Work and any practical co-op experience completed in bachelor’s or master’s environmental engineering programs prepare new engineers to eventually become PEs themselves. Most board and professional certifications also require a certain number of years in the field.

Step 5: Become a Professional Engineer (PE) in Environmental Engineering (At least 4 years)

Like master’s degrees in environmental engineering, a PE license is a voluntary but valuable credential. Professional Engineers typically enjoy higher earnings and advancement potential than non-credentialed peers. They can also practice independently and complete a wider variety of tasks. Among them:

  • Serving the public directly
  • Starting private firms
  • Bidding on government contracts
  • Managing major projects
  • Mentoring EIT and EIs

PE Licensing Requirements

Environmental engineers must meet the following criteria to become licensed PEs:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

Step 6: Consider Board and Professional Environmental Engineering Certifications (At least 8 years)

Board and professional certifications are additional voluntary, yet highly beneficial credentials. These certifications demonstrate that an environmental engineer is truly an expert in the field, whether at large or within one specialized area. The following are the most common types of advanced certifications.

ASCE Board Certification

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) board certification is a credential for highly skilled engineers. Because environmental engineering is considered a subfield of civil engineering, the ASCE offers board certification in many concentrations relevant to them.

Specializations – Environmental engineers can become certified in the following specializations:

  • Coastal Engineering
  • Geotechnical Engineering
  • Navigation Engineering
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Ports Engineering
  • Water Resources Engineering

Requirements – Eligible candidates must have master’s degrees, PE licenses, and eight years of post-licensure engineering experience. ASCE certifications are overseen by Civil Engineering Certification, Inc. and accredited by Council of Engineering & Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB).

AAEES Board Certification

The American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists also offers board certification specifically for environmental engineers. Candidates who meet the Academy’s requirements can call themselves Board Certified Environmental Engineers (BCEE). Environmental engineering is a very diverse field, however, so one typically becomes board certified in one of the following concentrations:

  • Air Pollution Control
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • General Environmental Engineering
  • Hazardous Waste Management and Site Remediation
  • Industrial Hygiene Engineering
  • Radiation Protection Engineering
  • Solid Waste Management
  • Water Supply/Wastewater Engineering

Requirements – A BCEE-designated environmental engineer is considered a true expert in whatever area in which he or she is certified. Such an advanced credential is only available to those with the education and experience necessary to sustain that role. Eligibility requirements include:

  • A PE License
  • Eight years of full-time environmental engineering experience in the field (e.g., research, teaching, professional)
  • Successful completion of a written exam and oral peer review

Other Professional Certifications – Environmental Engineering

A number of environmental engineering organizations offer their own professional certifications, which usually target a particular skill or specialty. These certifications can give one an edge when competing for jobs or advancements. Examples of other relevant professional certifications and associated organizations include:

Career and Salary Projections for Environmental Engineers

Aspiring environmental engineers may be curious about potential earnings and projected growth of openings into the future. Fortunately for people seeking careers in this field, environmental engineering is both relatively lucrative and secure with respect to future job opportunities.

Earnings – The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016) reported environmental engineers earned a mean annual salary of $88,530. Wages were highest for professionals working for the federal government followed by engineering services and local governments. In more detailed terms, here’s a breakdown of salary data in environmental engineering:

United States (52,280 environmental engineers employed): $88,530 average

  • 10th percentile: $49,830
  • 25th percentile: $63,860
  • 50th percentile (median): $84,890
  • 75th percentile: $107,920
  • 90th percentile: $130,120

Also, data from PayScale (2017)—a site for self-reported salaries—suggests that environmental engineers with project management, regulatory compliance, environmental compliance, and engineering design experience also tend to earn more.

Job Outlook – Government efforts to improve water quality and efficiency, clean contaminated sites, and enforce environmental regulations drive demand for environmental engineers. The BLS (Dec. 2015) projected that environmental engineer employment would grow by 12 percent between 2014 and 2024, three times the average for all engineering specialties. Prospects are generally best for candidates with master’s degrees.

Helpful Resources and Professional Organizations

Lastly, professional and educational environmental engineering organizations support students and professionals throughout their careers. They provide career and training information, professional networking opportunities, continuing education courses, and more. Now-and-future environmental engineers may find the following agencies helpful:

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