I want to save the world... no seriously
January 19, 2008 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I am considering going back to grad school. All I know is that when I get out I want to put myself in the position where I can do the most good for protecting the environment. What specific job should I shoot for (Government, Non profit, other?) and what degree do I need (MPA, MPP, JD other)?

Ok, I know that is a bit broad so let me narrow it.

I already have a liberal arts undergrad degree and I am not going back to school to get a pure science degree (nothing against science I am just not the engineer/scientist type). I want a legit, life long career so not Eco Terrorism or Volunteer work (as honorable and necessary as Volunteer-ism is).

Plus I want to make as big an impact as reasonably possible, not just "save one whale" but "protect the whole ocean" sort of thing

My thoughts to this point: Get a JD and become environmental defense lawyer or get an MPA and work for an environmental non-profit or in a government agency like the EPA. Or get both the JD and MPA in a dual program and do some combination of both.

Help me flesh out these or some other paths and how to get on them. Which will allow me to do the most good?
posted by DetonatedManiac to Work & Money (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Third, fourth and fifth possibilities: become a hedge-fund manager, or a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, or something along those lines, then donate nearly all of your salary to worthy environmental causes. Alternately, become a research scientist. Or plan to run for office.
posted by box at 2:46 PM on January 19, 2008

If you are really serious about helping the environment, get a grad degree in public policy with a focus on population control. #1 best way you can help the planet.
posted by one_bean at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

...but you're probably not going to do that, because you love the environment and would prefer to do something more direct (and actually dont mind people all that much, so it would feel weird to you to want to reduce the number of people on this planet). In which case, I say study what you think will make you happiest. I believe you can do as much good as a scientist, lawyer, or economist; it's really not possible to say that one career has more impact than another. JD and MPA are both good ways to go about it, but only if you're doing a great job of it. If you don't love what you're doing, the work will suffer.

(I'm a PhD student in environmental studies if you want to e-mail me with more specific questions)
posted by one_bean at 2:53 PM on January 19, 2008

My two closest friends are both involved in helping the environment in different ways. One is a grad student studying water chemistry and methods of detecting PCBs in water and the other is a lawyer fighting against dirty coal-fired power plants.

One thing I've noticed between these two endeavors is that it seems like my lawyer-friend is getting more done immediately, but my PhD-seeking-friend will probably get lots done indirectly and over a longer time frame.

I hope that helps a little:
  • lawyer = relatively fast and direct with hugely varying results (some wins, many losses)
  • grad student = relatively slow and indirect with more constant results (your research is eventually successful, but how is it applied to help the environment?)

posted by yellowbkpk at 3:02 PM on January 19, 2008

I get this question from bright undergraduates every year. You are not alone, and that people have the kind of dedication to make saving our miserable little species from "extincting itself" (as my kid once said) is inspiring to see in young people.

No one has given you an effective answer because we don't know what you are (or might be) *good* at. You will make the biggest impact doing your best work. Whether that is as a scientist, a lawyer, a CEO, or a senator, or even an eco-terrorist (just kidding) you can't pick a future in the abstract.

A different perspective, anyway. Tell us more about you.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:20 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a teaching degree. Become an elementary school teacher and lead the next generation into a less selfish, more sustainable ethic. I guess "saving" a classroom of 8 year olds isn't much bigger than saving one whale, but I am a firm believer in small is beautiful. Have an impact on lives, not laws.
posted by nax at 3:21 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Design a really great lesson plan on the environment and how to help protect it, and start presenting at elementary, middle and high schools. Partner with some organization and/or grant source so you can take your Great Lesson Plan to the masses. If you really want to impact the future, educate kids with something that will sink in and register about things they can do to protect our planet. Your competition is fierce, look at the material wealth of the average American and you can see you might have your work cut out for you. When I went to school, Hootie Owl and the crying indian were all over the place educating us on litter and conservation. Where is that campaign now? Kids aren't getting the message.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:25 PM on January 19, 2008

you don't need an MPP to pass condoms out at parties and beg one_bean to never, ever reproduce

I don't get the personal attack, but maybe my second comment came off as sarcastic? It wasn't at all -- my point was that (1) promoting basic sexual education is the best single thing you can do for the environment, but that (2) that probably doesn't interest you much. It didn't interest me, which is why I'm not studying it. So, really, you have to figure out what would make you happiest/most interested, and pursue that. Or, what fourcheesemac said.
posted by one_bean at 3:54 PM on January 19, 2008

I've heard good things about the Columbia MSP program.

Maybe I'm biased, but I think agricultural-envi policy is really important. The impact of agricultural pollution is huge and it's so often ignored (see: farm bill). It's also not saturated with too many people. Lots and lots of people want to work marine policy, but ultimately we need to stop the pollution at its source....and a big source is, your guessed it, agriculture.

Personally I already do work with this, but I'm going the JD route for maximum impact. Not because the policy people can't do a lot, but because I'm not really good at the PR stuff that often goes along with those jobs. You have to ultimately look at your own strengths and passions and decide what is right for you, because there are tons of jobs that
posted by melissam at 4:12 PM on January 19, 2008

Spend an evening curled up with 42 U.S.C. 9601 et seq. to see if you have what it takes to be an environmental lawyer -- you're going to be doing a lot of reading of detailed, mind-numbing laws and regs. While you're at it, get a start on admin law, since that's where you'll be doing most of your litigating.

Basically, to be a good environmental lawyer, you're going to have to be the most lawyerly of lawyers -- extremely close reading of complex statutes, appplying highly technical scientific information. A lot of people find this exceedingly dull, even lawyers.
posted by footnote at 4:28 PM on January 19, 2008

yeah, parman_parman, that was either hopelessly obscure or uncalled for.

actually, reproduction among the brig
ht, educated classes of the post-industrial west is on the wane. so most of us "not reproducing" isn't going to make a lot of difference.

ironically, it is very likely that the best way to engender population decline in the impoverished global south is to work towards better education, less environmental destruction, better public health, and better economic futures for poor people. because the better off people are, the fewer babies they make. look it up.

putting population control, as such, first is a debatable proposition (which would be parman's correct point, perhaps). it might be the best emergency response to coastal flooding from global climate change -- though how you could do it by policy fiat (mass sterilizations, perhaps, anyone?) is tricky.

but within a few generations, economic opportunity and hope for a better life can shrink birth rates below replacement, which is in fact what happened in the US and Europe in the 20th century.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:31 PM on January 19, 2008

Basically, to be a good environmental lawyer, you're going to have to be the most lawyerly of lawyers -- extremely close reading of complex statutes, appplying highly technical scientific information. A lot of people find this exceedingly dull, even lawyers.

This is very true. I find the agricultural laws and regulations a lot less boring...but then again, I'm weird. I worked with pollution permits for awhile and that discouraged me from wanting to go into traditional environmental law. The best ones I know are the sort of people who aren't scientists, but they are so technical that they easily could have been.
posted by melissam at 4:31 PM on January 19, 2008

Go into policy. I'm in grad school right now and I know that policy will be my eventual focus: I want to change the way the United States works, and I know the best way to do that is to be the ones guiding the decisions, not making the science or in the classroom, or at the rally or as a lawyer.

(Not saying any of those are a bad choice, it is just that I, like you, want to fundamentally change the paradigm- I'm out to be part of a revolution and I want to be on the leading edge. I think working with small, local projects is GREAT and hugely admire my brother, who is doing just that in an impoverished neighborhood elementary school in the east bay)
posted by arnicae at 4:46 PM on January 19, 2008

thank you for the input.... I am narrowing to the choice between MPA and JD or maybe a dual degree but I wanted to see if there were any other options in that vein that I may have missed.

What I guess I was really looking for is like what footnote and melissam provided which is what it would be like post degree. I think I would be strong as an administrator or as a lawyer but I just don't know what long term position I should aim for.

Thanks again
posted by DetonatedManiac at 4:50 PM on January 19, 2008

arnicae, what specifically is your strategy? what degree and what eventual goal with that degree?
posted by DetonatedManiac at 4:52 PM on January 19, 2008

Most people seem to agree that to really have an impact, mass quantities of people are going to need to change their behaviour -- but people don't seem inclined to do so, for complex and compelling reasons. So...

My vote is for studying psychology, and figuring out how people can meet what needs they have met, or how to communicate with them so that they are willing to make sacrifices.

This basic level seems to be ignored by everyone, I think because it's so difficult. But setting policies isn't doing any good if it makes sense for most people to ignore them. And if you doubt that, consider how closely people follow the speed limit.
posted by amtho at 6:02 PM on January 19, 2008

Why grad school? There are a lot of things you can do professionally to help the environment, some of which need a degree, and some of which don't. But most entry-level jobs don't. I'd suggest you get an entry-level job working for an environmental organization, or in one of your state's environmental agencies (ie, Environmental Protection/Pollution Control, Forestry, Parks Dept, Water Board, etc), in your state's legislature working for one of the environmental/energy committees, OR for a green business.

It's great that you want to devote your life to the environment - seriously, it's awesome! But there are a million ways to do it, and I'd suggest having a really clear idea about what it is you actually want to do before you go - that will help you figure out what kind of grad program you should do. Which would be good, since grad school is so expensive, and such a time commitment.

That said, and and having personally worked in the enviro field for 6 years, I'd say the best degrees for the non-scientifically oriented would be law, public policy/affairs, or an MBA. Make sure the program has a really good curriculum in enviro issues.

Definitely feel free to MetaMail me if you have any questions!
posted by lunasol at 7:25 PM on January 19, 2008

I have a few "save the world" people in my MBA program right now. They hope they can either end of marketing their cause or run the non-profit in a way that will make it grow and save the world.
posted by UMDirector at 8:39 AM on January 20, 2008

Sorry...um...one of end improve the marketing of their cause....
posted by UMDirector at 8:40 AM on January 20, 2008

You should figure out what it is you really like doing and then figure out how to parlay that towards a big-impact environmental effort. For example, I naturally enjoy business so I am mastering in finance in order to help fund cleantech projects (first through an investment bank, then most likely through a private equity fund). If you talk to a number of environmental lawyers and find their work fascinating, then perhaps that route is most fitting for you.

Also, as you think about areas to focus on, consider the impact of different drivers behind the issue. Population-control was mentioned above, so to use that as an example: if per-capita resource consumption & pollution simultaneously double, you could cut the population in half and still not realize a net improvement.
posted by fourstar at 9:41 AM on January 20, 2008

Depending on your skill set, we could really use more journalists who are scientifically literate who can communicate the importance and implications of environmental science to a mass audience. If you could conclusively demonstrate to the public that there is no scientific debate over global climate change, that would be huge.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:26 AM on January 21, 2008

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