Environmental engineering
February 4, 2013 5:47 PM   Subscribe

You graduated from an environmental engineering program, bachelor's or master's degree in hand. What was your first degree-related job, and was it what you expected?

I'm looking at a career in civil or environmental engineering, and while there's plenty of info on the civil side of things, the environmental side has been a little more nebulous; general talk of water systems or environmental monitoring, little in the way of specifics. Looking to get info on what, exactly, an environmental engineer is likely to do, particularly in the first 1-5 years post-graduation. I'm particularly interested in any work you may have done in an urban environment, either for a government entity of some kind, or a non-profit (are there non-profit C/EEs?)
posted by curious nu to Work & Money (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are several environmental engineering grads I met who work for my consulting firm as water engineers - area drainage, sewage systems, etc. for industrial plants (Those two things I have worked with them on directly).

For those two...
The sewage was looked at as an expansion to the plant's existing systems, which involved gathering all available info on existing facilities (original construction diagrams, any modifications or replaced equipment), current local laws on sewage systems, desired targets to meet for the plant (future staffing, their types and hours worked to forecast usage including showering), etc. They drew technical drawings, prepared reports on their findings and tions, and provided budgetary quotes (just like any other engineer).

The area drainage involved surveying the elevations of the plant and its current drainage system to determine current capacity, historical rainfall data, and anticipated emergency drainage (firewater or emergency system dumping, etc.) requirements to advise on future modifications, expansions and/or maintenance activities for the plant.

I would imagine that urban projects are not so dissimilar from industrial plants as you'd think, in terms of what all's involved... just a lot more restrictions and regulations to work with.
posted by lizbunny at 6:20 PM on February 4, 2013

I studied masters of sustainable energy engineering (not environmental) as well as under in architecture and i've spent the greater part of the last 5 years working for a private, renewable energy technology company. Working for a private company that delivers utility scale, off-shore renewable projects, is very different to what I imagine working for the government or not-for-profit may be.

I have alot of friends and colleagues who studied environmental engineering. Alot of them speak of their first jobs with government in the Environmental Protection Agency (this is in Australia), taking soil samples etc to check that companies are meeting regulations (fuel stations, etc). Other have worked for mining companies doing basically the same kind of work but internally. Both of these jobs have come across as depressing to my friends or colleagues where they said they were often cutting corners, ticking off boxes to ensure the companies can operate business as usual, as per the management direction. It seems against the grain for the motives of people who choose to study environmental engineering.

I've seen a few graduate type jobs over the years advertised with both state and more so federal government (again in Australia), mostly climate control (federal) or energy (state). From what friends have told me of these positions, these are mostly auditing / data entry type roles to assist with policy development. Civil & environmental engineering in water management however is huge here with alot of water management type positions, including engineering jobs on infrastructural projects (de-sal and the like).

Some very close friends with degrees in Environmental Engineering have set up quite a successful (but small) company that works in collaboration with other small-scale Landscape Architects / Urban Planning firms. They provide environmental audits, environmental and energy efficiency event infrastructure (mostly for big music festivals, pretty awesome), education & training (project based R&D environmental solutions with some big local universities) as well as policy and planning for local government and businesses (usually recommendations based on enviro and energy audits). This, to me, is the more creative site of the industry that merges some of the cross-over territory between urban planning and environmental management.
posted by Under the Sea at 6:33 PM on February 4, 2013

The reason there are no specifics is that the field is very, very broad. I'm a civil engineer (MS, w/ emphasis in water/ wastewater/ greywater water design and planning) and the SO is an environmental engineer (PhD, w/ emphasis in groundwater and sediment remediation). Though we took the same classes in school, our careers have diverged quite a bit with me doing more infrastructure-intensive work for primarily municipal (but some industrial) clients while he has focused more on the science-y research and some litigation support for a lot of private (industrial or commercial) clients. Friends/ colleagues in my graduate program in civil or environmental engineering have gone on to work on very different things: indoor air quality research in government labs, climate change issues and the water/ energy nexus, water supply schemes in mountainous developing countries (like Nepal), designing waste-to-energy facilities, membrane-separations R&D, etc. I myself have worked for NGOs and federal/ state governments in the past and am working in the private sector now and they are all totally, completely different beasts. The first 1-5 years you'll spend doing a lot of shit work regardless of where you go (like any career)...the big projects and payoffs come a bit later. If this to get a feel for continuing education, I'd take a look at some of the research being done at some of the grad programs and browse through some of the academic (such as Environmental Science and Technology) and (more practical) trade journals to get a feel for what people in the field do.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 12:17 AM on February 5, 2013

I graduated with a BS in civil engineering in 2002. I am currently employed by a small municipality and really like my job (now). My first job was with a large construction firm, like really big, nationwide and very, very profitable. It paid well and the work was challenging and important but the corporate culture was crap, too many hours, everyone was in it for the paycheck and it just wasn't a good fit. A big part of my job there was dealing with pollution from the construction process, mostly mud and dirt washing off into the surrounding areas and the rest was just the crappy paperwork stuff that has to be handled by somebody and so the new guy does it. Standard Professional job stuff.

After a year of that I moved on to a small, regional design firm and spent the next 4 years doing a mix of construction inspection and drainage designs for a wide range of commercial and public land development. Everything from large scale suburban developments to dense multiunit housing to regional stormwater management and even a couple of really cool habitat restoration jobs. Both of these two jobs filled out my required 4 year time to take the professional engineering test and get my License which is a huge career marker kinda like the bar exam and I think the medical boards? that doctors take after interning. After this is when you get to do the fun stuff and actually be in charge of projects and even pick and choose who and what your work for/on.

My official title is land development engineer, but in reality i do whatever engineering task comes up and needs doing. A WHOLE lot of my job is making sure the city and the new private development meets the condition of our federally issued discharge permits for stormwater and sewer. The rest is making sure the private development meshes well with the existing infrastructure and pays it own way when services need expanding. It is important vital work and it was one of many of the building blocks of sustainability and balancing that with the need for an active, vibrant economy. Everyone likes to hear about the big things and the big wins in cleaning up pollution or habitat restoration but my part in all that(and one that isn't as glamorous) is trying hard to make sure those conditions never happen in the first place and making the most of what has already been built. It requires staying on top of the latest technologies available (and their cost), the political realities of the town council (or whatever your local area has) and the other public agencies in the area, the overall political views of the private sector in your area (I have yet to meet a progressive, liberal developer-but they are not all tea party types either) and how much they are willing to pay for and build. But mostly the terms of the codes (building, municipal, state and federal) that guide and shape your life more than than any other single thing. I can't stress that part enough, and school (college) wasn't great about teaching me this-the code runs your life and career. You must obey the code and if it isn't in the code you can't enforce it regardless of how good (or bad) the development is. It is a good job and pays me well enough the public sector and especially the environmental field does not pay as well as most engineering jobs but being able to point out to people that I did indeed build that (as part of a team at least) is awesome.
posted by bartonlong at 10:29 AM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: If this to get a feel for continuing education, I'd take a look at some of the research being done at some of the grad programs and browse through some of the academic (such as Environmental Science and Technology) and (more practical) trade journals to get a feel for what people in the field do.

I hadn't thought of journals. What are the big/good ones?
posted by curious nu at 5:18 PM on February 6, 2013

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