Environmental engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field, such as civil, chemical, or mechanical engineering. Employers also value practical experience. Therefore, cooperative engineering programs, in which college credit is awarded for structured job experience, are valuable as well. Getting a license improves the chances for employment.
Students interested in studying environmental engineering should take high school courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Entry-level environmental engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Bachelor's degree programs typically last 4 years and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs where students gain practical experience while completing their education. At some colleges and universities, a student can enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s and a master's degree.
A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at some colleges and universities or to do research and development. Environmental engineers must be able to write clearly so others without their specific training understand their plans, proposals, specifications, findings, and other documents. When designing facilities and processes for treating wastewater and other pollution, environmental engineers strive to solve several issues at once, from workers’ safety to environmental protection. They must be able to identify and anticipate problems to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and mitigate environmental damage. Environmental engineers often work with business people, lawyers, and other professionals outside their field. They often are required to read and understand documents that are outside their scope of training. Environmental engineers sometimes have to design systems that will be part of larger ones. They must be able to foresee how the proposed designs will interact with other components in the process, including the workers, machinery, equipment, or the environment.
Environmental engineers must be able to work with others toward a common goal. They usually work with engineers and scientists who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice. As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects, and they have greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions. Eventually, environmental engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may even become engineering managers or move into executive positions, such as program managers. However, before assuming a managerial position, an engineer usually works under the supervision of a more experienced engineer.