Kaipūtaiao Ao Tūroa
Environmental scientists study the environment and how plants, animals and other organisms are affected by it. They also study external influences, such as pollutants, and advise how to avoid or reduce harmful effects on the environment.
Environmental scientists usually earn
$49K-$130K per year
Source: Payscale.com and Environmental Protection Authority, 2017.
Pay for environmental scientists varies depending on experience and where they work.
- Environmental scientists usually earn between $49,000 and $85,000 a year, with an average of $64,000.
- Environmental scientists with a postdoctoral degree who work at research institutes can earn from $65,000 to $130,000.
Sources: Payscale.com, 2017; and Environmental Protection Authority, 2017.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)
What you will do
Environmental scientists may do some or all of the following:
- study plants and animals in their environment
- assess sources of soil, water and air pollution, and develop ways to control these
- use computer modelling techniques to predict future events in the ecosystem
- study soil types and suitable fertilisers
- study how to alter soils to suit different plants
- develop efficient irrigation, drainage and waste disposal methods
- plan and run field studies and experiments
- prepare reports on the environmental impacts of activities such as mining, forestry and agriculture
- report results of studies in science journals and in conferences
- study and develop environmental policies
- provide technical advice to clients or local government authorities
- prepare applications for resource consent on behalf of clients, in compliance with the Resource Management Act.
Skills and knowledge
Environmental scientists need to have knowledge of:
- the environment, including excellent knowledge of at least one area of environmental science such as water, soil or air quality
- ecosystems and the interaction between species
- natural history
- the Resource Management Act, and understand the effects commercial development may have on the environment
- the Environmental Effects Act 2012
- practical skills for performing experiments and operating scientific equipment
- research skills, and ability to analyse research results
- maths and computer skills.
- usually work regular business hours, but may be required to work weekends and evenings to meet deadlines
- usually work in offices, but may work outdoors when collecting samples or visiting sites
- may travel nationally and overseas to work on projects.
What's the job really like?
A passion for geckos led to a PhD
When someone tells you they fell in love at first sight, you expect to hear them rave about a human, not a lizard. But ecologist Mandy Tocher gets misty-eyed about a gecko. "As soon as I saw a photo of the black-eyed gecko, it was like a light going on – it was incredible."
The nine centimetre-long gecko captured her heart, and inspired her to do a Masters and then PhD on reptiles and frogs.
A dream job with the Department of Conservation
After a stint studying the ecology of the Amazonian rain frog in Brazil, Mandy took a job with the Department of Conservation in Otago, working on projects aimed at protecting endangered lizards and frogs.
Challenges followed by rewards
"Projects like this can be stressful, because you’re taking a major risk with a few precious animals. For example, one of my projects was developing methods to move and rehabilitate a species of endangered native frogs, which had a population of just 300 adults. I knew if anything went wrong, it would be my responsibility. But then, that's what makes it so satisfying if you're right."
Environmental scientist video
Mahina-a-rangi Baker talks about her role as an environmental consultant – 5.38 mins.
Working as a kaitiaki, as someone who protects the environment on behalf of our people requires you to be a bit of a jack of all trades. In any given week I could be working with freshwater scientists, stormwater engineers, planners at council, people who actually do construction on the ground. I think that’s potentially one of the most challenging aspects of this work, but it’s also quite rewarding because it means that we have a really integrated overview of all the things that are going on in our region. If I sit down with a freshwater scientist they may not actually be aware that their colleague who works in stormwater is actually doing some sort of works further down the river. I find that it’s helpful that we can bring that more integrated approach to things where we have a general understanding of what’s going on in all sorts of spaces within the environment.
What drew me into doing this sort of work, when I was a teenager our iwi here asked for young people to assist with kiwi translocations from Kapiti Island. So I went over to the island to help catch kiwi to send to other islands and I think in that process of handling kiwi and spending time with our native birds and our taonga I really grew an appreciation for how special they are, and wanted to work in a space where I could help protect them. And that then directed me to take a lot of science classes in high school and then to do a degree in ecology.
I applied for a lot of scholarships when I was at university and one of the scholarships I had provided me with a work placement and it was a very scientific role working in a lab looking at the effects of pesticides on bee communities. So it was very technical, not in the field. But I think having that grounding in hard science is very helpful.
Some of the projects that I’m working on at the moment are responding to applications by either council or private developers where they want to build a new development, or want to do some sort of work in a river or a stream that’s going to have an effect on the environment and we provide input into a management plan that may have some sort of impact on freshwater.
Typically the way that people think about effects to freshwater are chemical or biological. So might look at the chemistry of the water, the water quality, the ecology of the river catchment. A Māori approach will look at those things but it will also consider, what are the effects to the cultural heritage of that river? Because for us landscape is really imbued with historical and cultural meaning. What’s the effect spiritually? And not just spiritually to the people but to the peaceful and calm quality that water and rivers often have. What are the social effects? So can our people still go down and eat from the river? Do we see our traditional foods being put on our marae, are we able to serve food to people? Those types of considerations, I think Māori are able to bring that fuller picture. And what we find is that those values in one way are specifically Māori but non-Māori can relate to that too.
The job requires me to consult widely with our iwi to maintain really good relationships. In particular with our kaumātua, or our elderly community. That’s something I’ve been encouraged to do since I was quite young. But certainly anyone getting into this work I’d encourage them to participate and be active within their own iwi, because whilst in our job there’s a lot of reading and writing, our responsibility is that we’re accurately reflecting the values that our people hold.
For people looking to do this type of work, the starting point is with the iwi itself. That being said, within the mainstream sector, within ministries and council there’s also a huge demand for people who not only have a background in environmental science, but particularly if they have familiarity with the Māori world, or with Māori knowledge, there’s a huge demand for people with those skills.
To become an environmental scientist you usually need to have a Master's degree in one of the following areas, depending on your specialisation:
- environmental science or a related area such as chemistry or engineering
- ecology or a related area such as botany or zoology
- soil science or a related discipline such as earth science.
A PhD is usually required for research-based positions.
A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training. Useful subjects include maths, economics, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, and agricultural and horticultural science.
Environmental scientists need to be:
- able to make good judgements
- good at problem solving
- good at planning and organising
- good at communicating
- creative, so they can develop new ideas.
Useful experience for environmental scientists includes:
- surveying work
- environmental engineering work
- environmental monitoring or measurement
- work with a fertiliser or crop and seed company
- working as a volunteer in ecology or conservation work
- laboratory work
- being a member of an environmental interest or community group
- completing a summer placement at a regional or city council.
Environmental scientists need to be reasonably fit and healthy to make field trips or site visits.
Find out more about training
- Department of Conservation
- (04) 471 0726 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.doc.govt.nz
- Science New Zealand
- (04) 4 913 9979 - email@example.com - www.sciencenewzealand.org
- National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)
- firstname.lastname@example.org - www.niwa.co.nz/education-and-training
What are the chances of getting a job?
Shortage of environmental scientists
Environmental research scientist appears on Immigration New Zealand's long-term skill shortage list. This means the Government is actively encouraging skilled environmental scientists from overseas to work in New Zealand.
This shortage is due to increasing demand for environmental research because of increased pressure on the environment due to population growth, urban expansion and the effects of industry.
According to the Census, 1,767 environmental scientists worked in New Zealand in 2018.
Many ways to increase chances of finding work
Chances of finding work are better if you have a postgraduate environmental science qualification and have studied subjects such as economics, law and geography.
As a new graduate, you can also increase your chances by:
- being flexible about where you work in New Zealand
- choosing a field with more vacancies, such as water resource management
- doing voluntary or intern work to get practical experience
- being versatile about every opportunity, including work as a research assistant or technician
- demonstrating good people and teamwork skills.
Good opportunities in a range of industries
There are good opportunities for scientists with a policy or evaluation focus to work for primary sector industries on land or at sea, regional and local councils, and government environmental ministries and agencies.
There is high demand for environmental scientists who can monitor the impacts of industrial activities on the environment, manage resource consents, provide advice on minimising environmental footprints, and consult and engage with stakeholders.
Types of employers varied
Environmental scientists who do academic research mainly work for:
- Crown research institutes or government departments such as Landcare Research or Department of Conservation
Environmental scientists who do policy or evaluation work may be employed by:
- local authorities – regional, city and district councils
- government departments and Crown entities – for example, Environmental Protection Authority, Ministry for Primary Industries, Ministry for the Environment
- private consultancies – for example, those doing environmental assessments for resource consents
- private companies – for example, fertiliser, insecticide and pesticide-manufacturing companies, where environmental scientists check toxicity levels.
- Immigration New Zealand, 'Long Term Skill Shortage List', 19 February 2018, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 'Scientists' Occupation Outlook', 2017, (www.mbie.govt.nz).
- Patrick, M, environmental consultant, Careers New Zealand interview, April 2017.
- Rowarth, J, chief scientist, Environmental Protection Authority, Careers New Zealand interview, April 2017.
- Stats NZ, '2018 Census Data', 2019.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)
Progression and specialisations
Environmental scientists in research roles usually progress through the following steps:
- Technicians with a Bachelor's degree may progress into research environmental scientist positions after getting a Masters or PhD.
- Those with a PhD can do postdoctoral fellowships at research organisations or universities before becoming a permanent environmental scientist.
- After about 15 years' experience environmental scientists can progress into senior research scientist, team leader or manager roles.
Environmental scientists may also specialise in an area such as:
- Air Pollution Analyst
- Air pollution analysts study factors producing air pollution and recommend ways to prevent and control these.
- Ecologists study animals and plants in their natural habitats, and how they interact with those environments.
- Land Degradation Analyst
- Land degradation analysts study factors degrading the quality of soils and recommend ways to prevent and control these.
- Water Quality Analyst
- Water quality analysts study factors affecting water quality and recommend ways to prevent and control these.
Last updated 13 March 2020