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How to Become an Environmental Engineer: Steps to Take from High School

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What’s Covered:


Environmental engineering is a fascinating discipline that is distinct from many other types of engineering. Unlike other engineering disciplines, environmental engineering uses technical knowledge for the greater good


Environmental engineering is a valuable job not only to the world at large, but also to the engineers themselves. As one of The 12 Highest-Paying Engineering Degrees, environmental engineering is an excellent career path. Additionally, engineers within the discipline tend to report low stress and high opportunities for advancement.


Read along to learn what it takes to become an environmental engineer!


What Does an Environmental Engineer Do?


Environmental engineers protect the environment by applying their knowledge of the principles of engineering, biology, mathematics, and chemistry to environmental problems. They are responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring new technologies and practices that increase sustainability.


Goals of an environmental engineer might include:

  • Reducing waste and pollution
  • Creating renewable energy systems
  • Mitigating the effects of existing contamination through remediation
  • Improving waste and wastewater treatment
  • Combating global warming
  • Decreasing the effects of acid rain


Specific roles and responsibilities of environmental engineers include:

  • Advising businesses and government agencies about the correct protocol for waste disposal
  • Evaluating the significance of hazards and deciding the best course of action for hazard treatment and containment
  • Quantifying the environmental impact of construction proposals
  • Preparing and reviewing environmental investigation reports
  • Designing new projects to improve sustainability
  • Inspecting facilities and plants to ensure that they comply with environmental regulations
  • Answering technical questions from businesses and government agencies regarding environmental protection measures
  • Developing regulations to prevent environmental accidents
  • Collaborating with environmental scientists, urban planners, other engineers, and legal specialists to address large-scale environmental problems


How Much Do Environmental Engineers Make?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for environmental engineers in 2020 was $92,120 (about $44.29/hour). BLS predicts a 3% increase in employment opportunities for environmental engineers between 2019 and 2029, equivalent to the average growth rate for all occupations.


Steps to Take from High School


High School


Because environmental engineering draws ideas from the natural and physical sciences, high school students can prepare themselves for undergraduate studies in environmental engineering by taking challenging math and science courses. Going into undergraduate studies with a foundational knowledge of chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus, will prove immensely valuable for aspiring environmental engineers.


High school students interested in engineering also benefit from (and enjoy!) participating in internships. Internships help students gain confidence in their field, allow students to connect to industry professionals, and boost the quality of student resumes. If you are an aspiring engineer looking for an internship opportunity, you might want to explore CollegeVine’s list of 15 STEM Internships for High Schoolers.


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Undergraduate Studies


Environmental engineers must possess a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field. Because many colleges and universities don’t offer environmental engineering as a major, professionals in the field frequently hold bachelor’s degrees in civil or chemical engineering (in fact, the number of environmental engineers with degrees in civil, chemical, and environmental engineering are about equal). 


Many universities, including some of the Best Colleges for Engineering like MIT and Stanford, offer the combined major civil and environmental engineering. Whatever your engineering specialty may be, it is important to make sure that your undergraduate program is accredited by the ABET—the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. 


You can take advantage of CollegeVine’s college search tool to find accredited schools with chemical and civil engineering programs. While we don’t have a specific filter for environmental engineering, searching for civil/chemical engineering programs will be a great starting point for making your school list!


It’s important to find programs at colleges that are good fits for you and advance your career goals. If possible, a student should apply to 8-10 schools, with about 25% being safety schools, 40% target schools, and 35% reach schools. These categories—safety, target, and reach—are determined by your chances of acceptance at the schools you are applying to. 


We’ve made it easy to figure out which engineering schools fall into which categories with our free chancing engine! This tool will factor in your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and more to let you know your odds of acceptance at different schools. It will also give you tips for improving your candidate profile.



Once you are accepted to an engineering program and begin your undergraduate studies, you will be required to complete coursework in areas like the natural sciences (chemistry and biology), mathematics, and the physical sciences. Then, as you advance through your degree, you will explore environmental engineering more specifically through classes on topics like water chemistry and analysis, air quality control, pollution monitoring and mitigation, and environmental rehabilitation.


The Optional Master’s


It is important to remember that environmental engineers find lucrative jobs and successful careers without obtaining a Master’s degree. That being said, many environmental engineers choose to attend graduate school to increase their job prospects—particularly at large and competitive companies. Jobs at universities and advanced researcher positions also generally require a Master’s or doctoral degree. 


Many universities across the country (large research institutions and small liberal arts colleges alike) offer 5-year Master’s programs in engineering. These accelerated programs make it possible for students to obtain their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees quickly, decreasing student debt and increasing the earning potential of new engineers.


Fundamentals of Engineering Exam


After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, you are able to work in the industry! You are also eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam—your first formal step to licensure, offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). 


The FE exam covers information that is taught in ABET-accredited engineering programs. Aspiring engineers normally register to take the exam during their last undergraduate year or shortly after graduation so that the information they learned in their undergraduate program is fresh and accessible. 


The FE exam is discipline-specific. The environmental exam covers topics like engineering fundamentals, applied mathematics, chemistry, environmental policies, and more. The exam consists of 110 multiple-choice questions, answered throughout 5 hours and 20 minutes. The passing rate for the environmental exam is 76%. 


Once you find yourself in that 76%, to complete the licensure process, you must 1) obtain at least four years of engineering experience (requirements vary depending on your State Licensing Board) and 2) pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam.


Entry-Level Experience


Engineers who pass the FE exam are free to work in the industry and are called engineers-in-training (EITs) and engineer interns (EIs). It is a common misconception that engineers need to be licensed to obtain entry-level positions. In reality, licensure is not even possible until an EIT or EI has worked in the industry for at least four years because you must meet the work experience requirements outlined by the NCEES to register for the PE exam (the last step for licensure).


Entry-level roles will help you to meet the work experience requirements for the PE exam while also adding to your resume and advancing your career opportunities.


Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam


The PE exam is 80 questions, answered throughout 8 hours. The environmental exam covers topics like hydraulics, site assessment and remediation, and solid and hazardous waste.




Although you don’t need a professional license to work as an engineer, many environmental engineers work for consulting firms and government agencies that require a professional degree for engineers to provide services directly to the public, oversee other engineers, and sign off on projects. Generally, PE licenses are appealing as they allow engineers to take on leadership roles and increase an engineer’s employment opportunities. 


The requirements for state licensure generally include the four steps we have walked through:

  1. A degree from an accredited engineering program
  2. A passing score on the FE exam
  3. Four years of work experience
  4. A passing score on the PE exam


In some states, you are a licensed PE as soon as you receive a passing score on the PE exam, while other states decouple the two elements and, after receiving a passing score, you must apply for your license. You’ll want to look into your state’s requirements for specifics about the licensure process.


Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is a film and television production assistant, originally from Dallas, Texas. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in English and Neuroscience from the University of Southern California. At USC, Brooke was a producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, a Resident Assistant (RA), and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.