You might think that earning a master’s in sustainability is about making the world a better place. While that’s definitely true, it’s also about developing in-demand skills and knowledge for a growing number of fields.
So what are the four top career paths where a master's degree related to sustainability can put you ahead of the pack? To find out, we asked faculty members, researchers, and graduates at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
1. Architecture and construction
- Related field(s): architecture, construction, building operations, landscape design
- Best career opportunity: sustainability project advisor
“Building projects that have dedicated individuals assessing material and energy flows in relation to building design, construction, and operation processes are critical to creating and maintaining sustainable buildings and cities.”
– Seth Holmes, Associate Professor of Architecture, GIS
The built environment—the fabric that makes up our cities and homes—is estimated to use about 40 percent of the world’s energy while emitting nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Because of this, how we design and construct buildings have become closely intertwined with sustainable development.
Seth Holmes, an associate professor in RIT’s Department of Architecture, based in GIS, researches how the design of buildings and cities needs to change in response to the effects of climate change.
The process of creating and operating a building consumes a significant amount of material and energy resources, both during construction and while running it,” he explained. “A truly sustainable building strives to minimize and optimize these material and energy flows throughout its design, construction, and operation in an effort to minimize impacts on society and the environment.”
Even though a master’s in sustainability does not provide formal training as an architect, it can nonetheless lead to a career in architecture or a related field.
Many architectural and construction firms today have a dedicated individual to assess a project’s material and energy flows in light of specific impact metrics. Larger architectural firms have dedicated sustainability positions internally, says Holmes, while numerous consulting firms exist to support projects from the design phase through to construction and operation.
For job seekers who want to become an architect should pursue a master’s of architecture (M.Arch.). Some programs, like RIT’s master of architecture degree program at GIS where Holmes teaches, give sustainability especial focus in their curriculum.
2. Corporate strategy
- Related field(s): business services like finance, real estate, information technology (IT), human resources, and insurance
- Best career opportunity: sustainability analyst, sustainability consultant, corporate strategist
“There’s an immensely high demand for professionals with a sustainability education.”
– Shweta Arora, Sustainability Analyst, Paychex Inc.
Companies are under increasing pressure from their stakeholders to decarbonize. In April 2022, a report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) called corporations to take immediate action on climate while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed new rules that would require public companies to disclose climate-related risks to investors. As corporations pivot in response, they will need experts who know how to measure, assess, and communicate climate impacts and risks.
Shweta Arora is a sustainability analyst at Paychex Inc., a human resource, payroll, and benefits services based in Rochester, New York. She says her degree helped her develop and hone competency in greenhouse gas emissions accounting, life cycle thinking, data analysis, as well as basic research skills.
“Traditionally, environmental impact has only been associated with manufacturing companies,” Arora noted. “But the research, critical thinking, and lifecycle thinking skills I learned in the classroom helped me identify the potential impact areas for a technology and services firm like Paychex.”
In her role, Arora supports Paychex’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. She participates in the company’s environmental impact disclosures and reporting, and is involved in programs designed to manage and reduce the firm’s overall impact on the environment.
Arora sees the corporate demand for sustainability talent only growing as investors, clients, employees, and communities demand more from companies to mitigate climate change.
3. Public policy
- Related field(s): energy policy, trade policy, regulation of consumer goods, finance and securities
- Best career opportunity: staff researcher, research consultant, research analyst, program manager
“Sustainability students learn to understand the economic and environmental assessment methods that are important to designing interventions.”
– Eric Williams, Professor, Department of Sustainability, GIS
Policies are an important tool for translating sustainability goals, like the Biden administration’s carbon-neutral goal for 2050, into reality. They can be used to accelerate the technologies, economic behaviors, and scientific knowledge that can drive progress towards sustainability.
But policymakers are not always experts on the issues they are tasked to address.
They fill their knowledge gaps by working with research analysts to better understand the concepts behind current trends. Research analysts help policymakers gain a systems-level view, says Eric Williams, a professor who studies sustainable energy systems at GIS.
“Sustainability emphasizes understanding the systemic implications of policy on economics, the environment, and society,” he explained. “All policy decisions are very much multi-criteria ones (like buying a car), so this perspective is valuable.”
Williams sees immense opportunity for a candidate with a master’s in sustainability to bring their skills and expertise to bear on policymaking as a research analyst. He points to four career routes in the U.S. policy environment that a job seeker can take:
- Serve under a legislator as part of his or her staff.
- Work in one of the 17 national labs managed by the U.S. Department of Energy.
- Find a position within a federal or state government agency that focuses on issues related to sustainability, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Join a public-policy consultancy or think tank that works with government to deliver quantitative and qualitative data to inform decision-making.
4. Industrial engineering
- Related field(s): manufacturing, materials processing, product design and development, pollution prevention, environmental health and safety
- Best career opportunity: industrial engineer, product designer, sustainability strategy consultant, data analyst, life cycle assessment (LCA) consultant
“Engineers who understand the fundamentals of sustainability are not only better positioned for different career opportunities, but become more impactful in their current jobs.”
– Kim Bawden, Technology Commercialization Program Manager, New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I)
Industry is critical to meeting the needs of a fast-growing world. However, it also consumes vast amounts of energy; industry was responsible for 40 percent of global emissions in 2019 when electricity and heat generation are taken into account
With this in mind, industrial engineers like Kim Bawden are applying sustainability principles to find more energy- and resource-efficient ways of making industry work at the ground level. Bawden is a technology commercialization program manager at the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I), she completed a master’s degree in sustainability in 2015 at GIS.
Bawden says the degree was an opportunity to develop fundamental skills in systems thinking. As an engineer at NYSP2I, she uses sustainability tools like life cycle assessment (LCA) to help businesses and communities in New York State become more sustainable.
“There typically is not one solution that optimizes all aspects of environmental impacts. It is important to understand these trade-offs as much as possible so that the negative trade-offs are minimized,” she said.
Guiping Hu serves as the head of GIS’s department of sustainability. Her research investigates how manufacturing operations and data analytics can support industrial sustainability efforts.
“Data analytics, machine learning, and operations management can all contribute to the better understanding and implementation of sustainability,” explained Hu. “A lot of data is generated when a company is implementing sustainable practices. It is essential to make decisions that are informed and supported by the data, so data analytics will come into play.”
For Hu, an engineer with a master’s degree in sustainability who is literate in data science will have a lot to offer manufacturers operating large facilities.