What Can I Do With a Master's Degree in Earth Sciences?
The earth sciences concern the study of the Earth, of course. But beneath this simple statement is an extremely diverse field of sub-disciplines. A master’s degree in earth sciences can lead you down a wide range of professional paths in science, environmentalism, education, and much more.
Students who pursue a master’s degree in earth sciences will usually get the chance to choose a specialization from these subdisciplines, though it’s also possible to take an interdisciplinary approach to your earth sciences master’s degree. In either case, you’ll study the earth’s atmosphere and climate patterns; the matter and substances comprising our planet; the ecological and environmental realities sustaining us, and more.
Earning an undergraduate degree can be a good way to get your foot in the door as a technician or laboratory assistant. But because so many professions related to the earth sciences are research-intensive, many of them require an advanced degree. Earning your master’s degree in earth sciences will be an important step on the path to becoming a scientist, researcher, or science educator.
Just getting started in the field? Check out our look at the earth sciences major to find out how you can get an undergraduate degree in earth sciences.
If you’re ready to earn your graduate degree at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, get started with a look at the Most Influential Schools in Earth Sciences.
Or read on to find out what you can expect as an earth sciences master.
Why Get a Master’s Degree in the Earth Sciences?
We spoke to Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment, Senior Research Associate at The Rockefeller University, chair of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and top influencer in the field of earth sciences. Of his own experience as an earth sciences master, Jesse told us:
I liked geography, maps, globes, atlases, almanacs, very much when I was a boy. I liked math and science. I loved the oceans, so my family spent summers by the sea, but I wasn't a person who had a strong sense of vocation. When people asked me what I would be when I grow up, I didn't have an answer. When I applied to college, I wrote... I said I was undecided about what I would be. And it was really only my senior year in college when I read an excerpt from a book about supertankers in The New Yorker magazine, that I really said, 'Hey, this is really the kind of thing I'm interested in.' And I still, I'd say, wandered around after that for another two or three years. In graduate school I had a job as a research assistant working for a multidisciplinary group of faculty interested in different problems of the oceans. And as soon as I started doing that work, I was very excited about it.– Jesse Ausubel
Jesse’s story illuminates the inherent versatility of an earth sciences master’s degree. Because earth sciences touches on so many overlapping areas of study like geology, geography, meteorology, oceanography, and much more, it can serve as a pathway into countless careers and specialties.
A master’s in earth sciences gives you the chance to find yourself among many related but distinct scientific subdisciplines. In fact, earth sciences is a great option for graduate students with a clear talent and passion for science but a less clear sense of exactly where to apply this talent and passion. You’ll get to sample a number of interrelated areas of study. This could be an extremely valuable way to experience numerous areas of scientific inquiry before committing to a career path.
Of course, if you already know that you want to become a climatologist, ecologist, environmental scientist, meteorologist, or another type of scientist specializing in a particular subdiscipline, mastering in earth sciences is likely to be your best path forward.
How Can I Qualify to Get a Master’s Degree in Earth Sciences?
There is no specific entrance exam for gaining admission into an earth sciences master’s program, though some programs may require you to complete a Graduate Record Examination (GRE). If the GRE is needed, your program may either require a general exam, or a GRE specific to the subject of earth sciences. Some programs may require you to meet a certain scoring threshold while others may merely require that you complete the exam. These requirements will vary from one earth sciences master’s program to the next.
If no GRE is required for your program, the primary requirement for gaining eligibility into an Earth sciences master’s program is completion of a bachelor’s degree from a properly accredited undergraduate school. While programmatic accreditation is not specifically required in this field, most regionally accredited graduate schools will require that your bachelor’s degree be granted by a regionally accredited college or university.
Some colleges may offer bundled bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, where you could earn your advanced degree in one continuous five-year program. This option could save you time and money if you already know that you’ll be pursuing your advanced degree. However, the accelerated pace of such a program may make this a challenging way to earn both degrees. Find out if your school offers this bundling option and ask about eligibility requirements. But be sure you’re up to the added challenge!
For any additional questions about eligibility, refer to your intended program and learn more about application requirements and any additional requirements such as work experience, academic performance thresholds, and referrals. You’ll also want to find out well in advance if your master’s degree program requires you to have completed specific math and science courses before you can be eligible for enrollment. Be sure you know, and are on the path toward fulfilling, these course requirements before you complete your undergraduate studies.
If you’re still working on building your qualifications for grad school eligibility, check out our look at the earth sciences major to find out how you can get an undergraduate degree in earth sciences.
What Kinds of Earth Sciences Advanced Degrees are There?
Earth sciences degrees come in an extremely wide variety. Available as everything from an associate degree to a PhD, earth sciences degrees can be earned as a general course of study, but are more likely offered as specialized programs in areas such as geology, atmospheric science, meteorology, climatology, environmental science, hydrology, or oceanography. While some earth science jobs may be accessible with a bachelor’s degree, you significantly improve your chances of landing a job and advancing in your role with a master’s degree. In other cases—such as epidemiology or virology—a minimum of a master’s degree is either expected or required before you can earn a job under this title.
- Master of Earth Sciences (MA or MS): A master’s in earth sciences typically takes two years to complete and requires 30-45 credits. At this level, students are working in specialized areas, like geochemistry, climate change prevention, protection of water sources, or forecasting meteorological events. Students must complete a research project or thesis, as well as an internship. Master’s degree holders will qualify for advanced jobs such as geochemist, hydrologist, conservation scientist, or agricultural scientist. The MA will typically balance core studies with some relevant humanities, whereas an MS will focus on the more technical, practical and laboratory dimensions of your study area.
- PhD in Earth Sciences: A PhD in earth sciences is the highest level degree you can earn in the field. This terminal degree will typically take three to five years to complete, and requires a combination of advanced coursework, a research project and dissertation, comprehensive exams, and lab or instructional work. At this level, you will already be well into your specialization area. Therefore, you may need to determine where to earn your doctoral degree based on how each school ranks for your specialization. Your PhD will qualify you for an array of high-level professions, including director of research, or tenured college professor.
What are Some Popular Earth Sciences Specializations?
The list of potential specializations in earth sciences is long and varied. As a master of earth sciences, you’ll have the chance to pursue a highly interdisciplinary course of study. But you will also have the opportunity to select an area of specialization from an extremely wide range of science disciplines. Popular earth sciences specializations include:
- Agricultural Science
- Atmospheric Science
- Conservation Science
- Earth Science
- Environmental Science
- Geophysics and Seismology
What Courses Will I Take as an Earth Sciences Master?
Your specialization will determine many of the courses you’ll take as an earth sciences master. You will likely be required to take a number of requisite courses on foundational topics such as Ecology and Scientific Research Methods. You will likely also spend a significant portion of your program working with a mentor or advisor to develop a thesis, pursue research, and defend your findings before a committee. But there is also a wide variety of subject areas to choose from as you design your course of study.
Common earth sciences courses include:
- Analysis of Field Data
- Aquatic Ecosystems
- Environmental Geochemistry
- Meteorology and Climatology
- Solid Earth Geophysics
- Hydrology and Environmental Geology
- Mapping and Navigation
- Space Research
Is a master’s degree in earth sciences worth it?
While a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences can qualify you to work in a wide range of roles, you can significantly improve your earning potential with an advanced degree. Indeed, there are many well-paying jobs in the earth sciences, but the top roles are often very competitive. A master’s degree could markedly improve your career prospects as a geoscientist ($92,040; median pay, 2019), atmospheric scientist ($95,380; median pay, 2019), or hydrologist ($81,270; median pay, 2019).
What are the top jobs with a master’s in earth sciences degree?
With such a wide range of specialization options, earth science masters have an equally wide selection of career paths. Keep in mind, your specialization could be a direct determinant of your professional path. So if you want to work in an aquatic setting, you may want to choose a specialization in oceanography or marine biology. If you are interested in studying the environmental impact of farming practices, you may want to choose a specialization in either agricultural or environmental sciences (or both). Whatever specialization you choose, an advanced degree in earth sciences can lead to a wide range of career opportunities, including these top jobs:
- Atmospheric Scientists and Meteorologists
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
- Conservation Scientists and Foresters
- Agricultural and Food Scientists
Curious how far you could go with a master in earth sciences? Start with a look at the top influencers in the field today!***
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