How to Become an Environmental Studies Professional

Peter deFur has been a professor of environmental studies for 30 years. For the past 20 years, he has been a part-time professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to his work in academia, Peter has worked for a national environmental organization as a senior scientist, evaluating federal policy and regulation. He also operates his own consulting business, which provides technical information and services to community organizations, primarily concerning the cleanup of contaminated sites. He holds a PhD in biology from the University of Calgary, and he also completed two different fellowships: one at a medical school and one in Washington, DC, in environmental policy. Throughout his career, Peter has participated in a variety of leadership development programs, including a year-long stint at the Natural Resources Leadership Institute. Peter currently serves on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

What is environmental studies?

Environmental studies is the field of science, law, regulation and practice of many different areas concerning how human activities affect the world. Thus, environmental studies includes a wide range of areas of study in science, economics, law, arts, management, math and other fields.

What do you find most interesting about environmental studies?

As a classically educated biologist, the most interesting aspect of environmental studies is how living systems manage to survive and even thrive in new and changing conditions. But I find that I am learning so much about so many different topics, that I can honestly say that each day is a learning experience.

What is your least favorite aspect of environmental studies?

I sometimes grow frustrated that I cannot deal with more progress in teaching or in my consulting work. One example is the local issue of the Chesapeake Bay. The governments around the Chesapeake Bay, where I live, signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1985, nearly 30 years ago and the largest problem remains. The difficulty in solving the problem is not lack of knowledge on how we can solve the problem, but the difficulty in generating the will to solve the problems.

Are there subfields of environmental studies that students might not be aware of?

That is hard to say, because any subject area students can think of has an environmental field — all the sciences (geology, hydrology, biology, chemistry, psychology, anthropology), engineering, economics, sociology, art, literature, and education.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in environmental studies?

For the longest time, environmental studies graduates went into some area of science, management, or law with a company, university, or government. But that pattern has changed incredibly in the past 10 years or so, and I see the job opportunities continuing to expand. I see jobs and careers in the environmental field that did not exist 10 years ago. Perhaps the field that is expanding the most is restoration of streams, rivers, fields, and forests.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in environmental studies, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

Some people find that an undergraduate degree suits their job and career interests, and in others, a graduate degree is necessary, so it depends. The sciences are more likely to expect a graduate degree, especially if there is research in the job.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in an environmental studies program?

Students have to have an interest in the subject, be able to separate facts from opinions, and be willing and able to tackle new and different topics on a regular basis.

What electives would you recommend that a student in an environmental studies program take?

Many environmental studies programs have so many science and math requirements that I recommend taking a language, literature, or perhaps a course that is outside the immediate major — maybe sociology or anthropology for majors in math, biology, chemistry.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in an environmental studies program?

Learn the facts and basic terms, then fill in the concepts.

Do you think environmental studies is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

I have taught several online courses, and if done properly, online courses work fine. I think the important aspect of environmental studies courses is a strong emphasis on practical aspects, not just theory.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of environmental studies?

Think broadly and creatively, because the future of the world is in your hands!