What Are the Top Sustainability Careers? Experts Break Down In-Demand Roles for Master’s Graduates

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[Sustainability] is a great field for people who want to be the change they want to see in the world and also have an exciting professional career,” says Paloma Lopez, a faculty member in the MS in Sustainability Management online program.

With plunging temperatures, deadly flooding, rampant wildfires and overwhelming heat spikes, it’s no surprise climate change has become such a top concern for the majority of people.

In fact, nearly three in four respondents agreed that climate change is harming those in the U.S., according to a recent national survey from the Pew Research Center.

To help combat the effects of climate change, there has been an increasing focus on sustainability efforts — such as changing the way we manufacture goods, run transportation, consume products and more. In turn, sustainability has become a booming career field with positions across companies and industries.

So, how can you enter the sustainability sector, and what types of positions are available to those who pursue a master’s degree in the subject?

We spoke with multiple faculty members from the USC Master of Sustainability Management (MSM) online program — including Victoria PetryshynAmy WilliamsPaloma Lopez and Duncan Jepson — to learn about these burgeoning career opportunities.

What Is Sustainability?


“What is sustainability?” may seem like a simple question, but it can warrant many different answers, faculty agreed.

“If you ask 100 different people for a definition of sustainability, you’ll probably get 100 different answers,” Petryshyn said. “Everyone has their own definitions.”

For example, according to Petryshyn, sustainability is about learning how we can meet our needs today without compromising our future, all by looking at the way we’re producing energy and consuming products.

Jepson echoed similar feelings, stating, “Sustainability is a direction that we choose to follow to change the way that we actually live and work. And in that, I mean the way that the economy works, the way that we choose to organize our lives in a material sense and put the resilience of the planet and its ecosystems first.”

Simply put, sustainability is the process of finding environmentally conscious ways to tackle our everyday issues while keeping a focus on building a better future.

It’s important to recognize that because sustainability is a relatively new field, its definition is one that’s both expanding and ever-changing as it becomes more popular throughout the world and our knowledge of the subject grows.

Do You Need a Master’s Degree to Work in Sustainability?


Although a master’s degree is not always required to work in sustainability, seeking an advanced degree can help you stand out from other applicants and provide you with the knowledge needed to thrive in any role.

“The biggest thing that extended education gives you is credibility,” Williams noted. “The people who are graduating with this degree will have the facts, the theories, the practices and the processes to draw on to be more successful and trusted leaders. This will enable them to move forward and move the whole field forward.”

Lopez agreed, explaining that a master’s degree is useful for both people who are starting out in sustainability as well as those who are already working in the field.

“The reality is that you would want to have as much foundational knowledge as you can acquire before you attempt to go into this field. Your success depends on your ability to ask the right questions and understand the challenges that you’re facing. Those challenges are complex,” she said.

While a related undergraduate degree can prove useful to those pursuing a role in the field, applicants to the MSM online program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences do not need to hold a specific bachelor’s degree.

The program accepts students from a variety of backgrounds, and the curriculum helps them develop sustainability strategies, implement them at organizations and measure their impact, all through courses focused on climate change, business strategy, global supply chains, sustainable finance and more.

“For the sake of the planet, we can’t limit ourselves to working on sustainability just in one field, or from one position within a company. It’s urgent that we tackle these challenges from every possible angle,” said Joe Árvai, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability. “That’s why the Wrigley Institute designed this program to equip professionals to lead for sustainability from wherever they are in an organization, regardless of the industry they’re in.”

What Type of People Should Work in Sustainability?


As mentioned, your undergraduate studies or past work experiences will not preclude you from landing a role in sustainability.

“I have students this semester who are in everything from construction to fashion because every raw material is impacted by sustainability,” Petryshyn said.

In fact, all the faculty members agreed everyone should be interested in sustainability on some level because of how profoundly it will impact each person’s future. But in terms of which types of people will advance in the sustainability sector, Jepson noted there are several qualities one should have.

“It’s going to be people who are thinking profoundly about the way that we as humans live in the planet’s ecosystems. They’re people who care about the planet and those ecosystems. At the same time, they’re going to have to be brave because it’s work that is convincing other people to change the way that they work and live. And therefore, there’s an element of adventure, of courage,” Jepson said. “They’re going to have to want to learn and keep caring. That’s going to require a lot of conviction and persistence, and in that, basically, a lot of personal energy.”

Ultimately, this field is an ideal career path for those who are passionate about effecting meaningful change on a global scale and want to contribute to the betterment of our planet.

“The reason this field has been booming is because it addresses some of the largest, most complex and most important challenges we have in the world today,” Lopez said. “This is a great field for people who want to be the change they want to see in the world and also have an exciting professional career.”

What Careers Are Available in Sustainability?


As the field is rapidly growing, you can find a multitude of job opportunities spanning diverse industries.

For instance, Lopez underscored the heightened demand for professionals in the decarbonization space, which entails mitigating human-induced carbon dioxide emissions that are detrimental to the environment. Roles within this sector involve formulating decarbonization strategies, monitoring progress, conducting impact analyses and providing consultancy services to organizations looking to diminish their environmental footprint.

Another branch? Communication.

“There are tons of communication roles in the sustainability space because it is a bit of a translation job to make sure that people understand what sustainability is all about and communicate it in a way that is engaging to consumers and civil society,” Lopez said.

Petryshyn also highlighted the role of sustainability officer. These professionals are tasked with organizing the proper logistics to make supply chains more sustainable. Whether it’s sourcing food or manufacturing clothing, their responsibilities extend beyond developing strategies to ensure the process is environmentally friendly. They also audit their changes and adjust the pricing of all components to reflect these eco-conscious adjustments.

The MSM faculty identified numerous other roles within sustainability, which include (though are certainly not limited to):

  • Environmental scientist
  • Renewable energy analyst
  • Corporate social responsibility manager
  • Climate change analyst
  • Sustainable agriculture specialist
  • Social impact analyst
  • Environmental engineer
  • Urban planners
  • Sustainability professors

“There’s a huge amount of work to be done just simply understanding processes and the operations of businesses, including whether they can be made more sustainable and in tune with the way that we want to treat the planet for it to thrive and be resilient so that we, the rest of nature, can continue to live and thrive on it,” Jepson said.

Learn more about the Master of Sustainability Management (MSM) online program today.


This article originally appeared on the USC Online news site. 

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