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What are some good interdisciplinary grad programs in the environmental sciences?
August 24, 2009 10:31 PM   Subscribe

I want to develop a strong technical background in environmental issues, but don't want to leave the social sciences - my first passion and the thing in which I know I have actual talent - behind. What are some grad programs that will suit me?

I am a semi-recent college graduate ('06) with a degree in cultural anthropology, and I've spent now going on 2 years working for a hurricane relief and community development nonprofit in the Gulf Coast. During that time, I've developed a strong interest in certain admittedly diverse environmental issues - wetlands ecology, water resources management, food sustainability, environmental justice - the common thread between them being that they all figure prominently in the work that is being done in my community.

I have also developed a fascination for the technical side of things, which I've never had before - I would love to have the know-how for making or evaluating concrete project plans (for example, green building initiatives or a small urban agriculture concern, or a coastal restoration project - I haven't decided which technical area appeals to me most just yet). At the same time, I'm not satisfied unless I have a chance to think about the social impacts, policy implications, and economic challenges of a particular project. My work has brought me into constant contact with situations where "the science and the social" have to be considered together, and I have become super-passionate about becoming the sort of person who is well versed in both dimensions. "Whole systems thinking," I've heard it called, and that sounds all right to me.

So now I'm searching for a graduate program that will allow me to develop that dual expertise. I'm looking for environmental science programs that tout their "interdisciplinarity," not fully knowing whether that's just an academic fad that will leave me not quite specialized enough to do anything at all, or whether the eco-careers world will think it as valuable as I do.

There are several things I could see myself doing with that kind of training - going into policy analysis, translating scientific research information for policymakers, or being a consultant for sustainable design projects (I'd especially love to work in a "developing" country context). I'm open to suggestions on this front as well.

Are there grad programs you all might recommend that you think would be a good fit for me? I'm pretty taken with the Earth Institute at Columbia and the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and am looking for others that come close to these in terms of the breadth of options/concentrations, integration of different departments, etc.

My sub-question, I guess, would be that I completely lack a natural science background. I haven't taken a science or math course since high school. Am I looking at a potential extra year (or more?) of remedial work in community college to increase my chances of getting into a program with any kind of natural science component at all?

Thanks for the help and for any related suggestions!
posted by geneva uswazi to Education (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Look into the University of Georgia's MS in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development. Off the top of my head, you might be interested in the work of Ted Gragson in the Anthropology department. I got the regular MS in Ecology there, and many of my friends who were in the other program were returned Peace Corps volunteers whose experience had affected them in a similar way to your work on the Gulf Coast.

Because it's an interdisciplinary program including a lot of social science, I think your background would serve you well and you'd probably just need to take an ecology class, although you might find it helpful to take some intro bio as preparation for ecology.

Another nice thing about UGA is that they offer decent financial support for their master's students, unlike some other programs you might look at like Duke's Master's in Environmental Management, which offers extremely limited financial aid and essentially nothing like a stipend for the vast majority of students. The stipend I received as a master's student at UGA was more than sufficient to live comfortably in Athens.

You sound like you have great background for this and are entering grad school for the right reasons and you should not have to pay for grad school.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:09 AM on August 25, 2009

U Washington at Seattle has an environmental anthropology PhD program. Top notch. Combines biological and cultural perspectives.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:12 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is a really good school and I think you can take courses from different disciplines too.
posted by caelumluna at 7:40 AM on August 25, 2009

UCSB Bren School
posted by k8t at 8:54 AM on August 25, 2009

This is in Canada, but next week I am starting my Master's in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.

I think it fits your bill pretty well.
posted by just_ducky at 9:24 AM on August 25, 2009

There's also the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at UBC in Vancouver (same city as Simon Fraser in fact). I am a student in this program; I don't have time right now to describe it but message me if you're interested.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:44 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I work for UW-Madison, just up the hill from beautiful Science Hall (the home of the Nelson Institute), so I am, of course, biased. On a semi-related note, we're just starting an online bachelor's program in sustainable management, which I think is a pretty nifty idea. Maybe if you were to come here you could work with them in some way. At the very least, it shows that we've got some of the same ideas.

Reading your post, it also made me think about other programs on campus which would dovetail nicely. How about Urban and Regional Planning, or the LaFollette Institute for Public Affairs? At the very least, you could make great connections, but you could also get some committee members, etc. The connections with state government and our activist history here in town are also great, as we have many organizations who are quite active in areas like global sustainability, slow/local food, etc. I think you'd fit in well here; I can say that because I'm definitely in the "why choose just one area?" camp myself.

Also, we're hosting the national conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in October, which should be great. Some guy or other named Gore is speaking...

If I can give you any other information, please feel free to message me :)
posted by Madamina at 5:21 PM on August 25, 2009

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