How to find a master’s program in sustainability that’s right for you

Enter “master’s degree in sustainability” into your favorite search engine and you’ll quickly find that there is no shortage of graduate programs to choose from. This comes as no surprise: Sustainability is a fast-growing, multidisciplinary course of study with an incredible array of career paths.

The thinking and skills that a degree in sustainability can help you cultivate are as relevant to business development and engineering as they are to anthropology and urban planning, not to mention many other fields. However you apply what you learn, the right graduate program can give you the knowledge, training, and skills you need to move forward professionally or academically.

So, how do you find that “right” master’s program?

For starters, the best program for you depends on, well, you. Your professional goals, the kind of learning environment you work best in, and the experience you already have are all factors that should weigh heavily on your final choice. But even if you’re clear on your own needs and objectives, it’s not always easy to see how a program’s offering will support them.

Below are four questions you can ask yourself as part of your search. The answers you come up with will help you better align your own personal expectations with how a specific program is designed, its priorities, and its approach. Ultimately, this will allow you to assess the best options quicker to build your shortlist of “yes, definitely apply” schools faster.

1. What breadth of study is right for you?

There are many, many ways to teach, study, and “do” sustainability out there. That’s why, when it comes to researching degree offerings, you might feel a little like Goldilocks. Some programs are very focused, while others are very general. And, just like the fable’s curious protagonist, you’ll want to find one that feels “just right.”

Let’s imagine three universities: A, B, and C.

University A’s master’s program in sustainability is based in a college that is a leading research hub in the field of forestry. Its master’s degree program reflects this. Courses use the lens of sustainability to address a range of issues surrounding forest management, natural ecology, and biodiversity. This is great—if you’re sure that you want a career in an area related to forestry. But, if you haven’t fully settled on a career path yet, you may want a program that has a broader approach.

In contrast to A, University B’s sustainability program offers a general overview of sustainability, what it means, and how it can be applied. The curriculum is centered on the global problem of climate change, exploring its causes and evaluating different solutions. B might be an ideal choice if you know you want to work in sustainability legislation, and need some basic grounding in the area without delving too deeply into a specific scientific discipline.

Right in the middle of these two extremes is University C. The sustainability program there has a general focus on sustainability, but also explores how it applies to areas such as product design, corporate social responsibility, waste re-use, and energy modeling. C’s goal is to help students understand applied sustainability concepts as a whole, and can be a good choice for students who aren’t sure which career they want to go into, or want to keep their options open.

Whether A, B, or C offers the best option depends wholly on you. The course of study you choose should build on the skills and knowledge you already have in some way. It should also expose you to new ideas and skillsets in a way that best prepares you for your career path. A program with the balance you need could give you the right skills to become an attractive candidate to future employers.

2. What type of curriculum design suits you best?

Consider the design of the curriculum alongside your learning objectives. Current pedagogical practices suggest more dynamic learning activities, with a mix of different strategies, including written assessment, class discussion, and group work. Try to avoid a program where all instruction is done solely through lectures, as this can limit what you take away from it.

Hands-on instruction is a helpful and important part of career preparation. Even if you’re not headed into engineering, understanding the work that research engineers do in a lab setting could give you better perspective and potential in your career. So, when researching a program, consider not only what is taught but also how it is taught.

Some programs allow you to complete a “capstone project” instead of a thesis, which could give you experience doing work for a company in your area of interest. Real-world, out-in-the-field training or project work can be a worthwhile addition to in-class learning when it comes to career readiness. If you plan to work in an industrial or business environment, this could be invaluable to a future career. Likewise, if you plan to pursue scientific research within sustainability, favor programs that include a thesis written on an active research project, and aim to get yourself published.

3. Do the faculty share your interests?

Many degree programs are designed in keeping with the research interests of its instructional faculty. Spending time learning about the research projects they have participated in and reading any publications they have published may give you a sense of a program’s possible priorities.

Pro tip: Tools like Google Scholar are an easy way to find publications by individual faculty members.

You may also want to look at each faculty member’s curriculum vitae (CV) and career history to learn about their past experience. Many researchers who work in sustainability have served in different fields. So, for example, if a faculty member previously worked in an industry setting, they may be a good mentor if your ultimate goal is to work in industry.

4. Does the program match your learning (and life) style?

As with any educational choice you make, be sure that the program matches your learning style as closely as possible. Some good questions to answer:

  • What’s the average class size?
  • How available are faculty members for one-on-one consultation?
  • What’s the balance between course load and field or lab work (if applicable)?
  • How do instructors assess performance?
  • What accolades or designations has the university received?

When considering applying to a program in the United States as a citizen of another country, learn if it is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) designated program or not. A master’s degree that is STEM-designated has been classified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in one or more of several categories. If you are considering relocating to the U.S., the STEM designation may support finding long-term employment within the STEM fields upon graduation. 

Of especial note, remember that the COVID-19 global pandemic dramatically changed higher education (along with most everything else) in 2020. How did the program you’re considering readjust to this situation? The answer says as much about the university’s dedication to safety as it does its ability to adapt and evolve within a changing world.

Most universities worldwide adopted or expanded online learning models in 2020. It’s important to consider the methods they adopted, to both assess the university’s response to change and to ensure that they are using a format that works well for you. Online courses are categorized as synchronous, asynchronous, and blended or hybrid. The first, synchronous, means that the instructor teaches students in a live online setting using a web-based video chat platform (like Zoom), and follows the typical lecture or discussion format. Asynchronous courses have no live component—students access materials, submit work, and engage in web-based discussion according to deadlines. This method works well for students who prefer to learn on their own and set their own schedules. A blended or hybrid course blends both methods. This format can take on a variety of different structures, but can often mean that students can choose whether to attend a class in-person, stream it live online, or watch the recording at their convenience. Or it might mean that the course material is taught online but is followed by a short in-person workshop to provide necessary hands-on experience.

Finally, don’t forget location when it comes to graduate study. While this may not be the driving reason behind the program you choose, important factors like the cost of living, local amenities and recreation, and community diversity could have a considerable impact on the quality of your overall experience.

Finding a graduate program that’s right for you can feel like an unsurmountable challenge when you are first starting out. But through careful research and by asking yourself the right questions, like those above, you’re on your way to creating a career in sustainability, whatever that might look like.

At RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), we understand what works best when it comes to graduate education within sustainability. Our master’s program (Master of Science in Sustainable Systems) is designed to give students comprehensive knowledge and skills for understanding global challenges like pollution or resource scarcity. It is built on a systems-level approach for understanding the most complex sectors of our economy, like industry and energy, from a sustainability perspective. All students are provided the opportunity to gain research experience, either through a capstone project or thesis.


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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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