environmental science versus environmental studies, what’s the difference?

There are two separate majors that can prepare you for environmentally-oriented careers:  environmental science and environmental studies.  In the midst of all of the other confusion you are bound to feel as you try to determine what to do with your life, this is an unwelcome addition.  Let’s sort it out.

First off, these two disciplines are often used interchangeably, although the general distinction is that environmental science is associated with BS or Bachelor of Science degrees while environmental studies aligns with BA or Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Environmental Science degrees are more heavily focused on the purely scientific aspects of the environment.  The major requires that you complete extensive coursework in the ‘hard sciences’ such as chemistry, physics and biology, as well as advanced mathematics.

The environmental studies major focuses less on the science and more on policy, regulatory and social issues.  This major has less ‘hard science’ emphasis but will still be demanding.

With this distinction in mind, some universities nest their programs under the auspices of environmental studies in general and may offer both BA and BS degrees.  In situations where the above science/studies dichotomy does not apply, simply go by the rule that a Bachelor of Science degree is the one that has more scientific rigor and aligns with the ‘science’ path outlined above, while the Bachelor of Arts degree has more of a policy focus and more closely aligns with the ‘studies’ path just discussed.

Why does it matter?

In general, if you have an interest in a science-oriented field, it is a good approach to go all in and get the maximum amount of exposure you can.  Having an extensive science background makes you more employable simply because you have withstood the rigors of a ‘hard science’ education.  In addition, it opens more doors.  You may discover after you get your degree that you would like to work in policy or perhaps for an NGO.  With an environmental science degree, you will have the requisite background to be a solid contender for these opportunities.

Unfortunately, the opposite is not necessarily the case.  Although an environmental studies major will open the doors to a diverse array of career paths, should you discover that once you are in the workforce what really interests you are the science jobs that you encounter, you may not have the requisite background to be employable in those positions.

In short, environmental science (BS) likely holds more prospects than environmental studies (BA). The downside?  More rigorous course work.  On the other hand, environmental studies is a path to wonderful and rewarding careers, but the lack of hard science training may be limiting.  If you are pretty certain that rigorous science is not for you, then this may be your best choice.

To see the distinction played out within one university department, check out Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, a phenomenal and highly recommended program.  They offer both a BS (Science) and a BA (Studies) degree, but call the entire program Environmental Studies.  Link to their program by clicking here.

Incidentally, the Environmental Studies degree we offer at MSJC is an AS, meaning it is really an environmental science degree based on this distinction.