Insider’s Guide to Getting Into Grad School for Outdoor Careers


The world of graduate programs is alluring for many students interested in careers in the outdoors or environmental science. While the process and requirements for undergraduate programs are familiar—transcripts, SATs, interviews, and campus visits—graduate school may feel mysterious and daunting.

So, what’s needed to be competitive for grad school in the environmental and conservation fields? What kind of funding is available? What types of careers can graduates look forward to? Is it a good idea to get professional experience before applying? To answer these questions, we sat down with Dr. Ingrid “Indy” Burke, an SCA alum,  ecosystem ecologist, educator, and the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Some of what we learned might surprise you!

Combine Depth and Writing to Get Into Grad School

According to Dr. Burke, the first step to getting into a graduate program in forestry or environmental studies is to build a strong foundation. “At the undergrad level, you want what we call a ‘T-shaped’ background,” she says. “You need breadth across all subjects, but depth in certain areas.” Math and science are common areas in which to acquire that depth, yet they are not the only ones. Political science, economics, anthropology, and the humanities are also very valuable areas for depth.

“If a master’s or doctoral student applies to work for me and they have a degree from a liberal arts school, I want to snap them up, because I know they can write!” she says. “It’s tough to take on a student who can’t write well.”

In summary: depth and writing. Over and above the specific coursework completed, the ability to write “might be the most important thing out there!”

Internships and Professional Experience? Yes and Yes!

Interestingly, the average age of incoming graduate students to the Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies program is 26 years old. “The large majority of our students are coming to us with several years of professional experience,” Dr. Burke notes. This on-the-job knowledge (from internships like those available through SCA) provides perspective for students to apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-life situations.

Master’s students in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies completed internships and fieldwork in 34 countries in the summer of 2018.

Dr. Burke states that their admissions team gives specific weight to students with solid work experience, and following matriculation, students also obtain practical experience. “All of our students in the Master’s of Environmental Management and Forestry program have paid internships all over the world every summer,” Dr. Burke notes. “When they graduate, these students can then speak to having had professional experience. In fact, they will often be offered a job at the same place where they did their internship.”

Dr. Burke was quick to clarify, however, her School does not have an overemphasis on professional experience in admissions; this might create a bias against individuals from underrepresented groups at a time when we are working hard to diversify. “When there are talented people from these groups, they might not want to take time off to work,” she notes. “They might want to get right to grad studies. A hard requirement for professional experience could add an extra barrier – or make our own School less competitive for attracting these students.

Diversity of Students, Diversity of Careers

“We gain a lot by having very different types of students studying with us,” says Dr. Burke. Students come to the Yale forestry program with backgrounds in government, non-profit, and business—and from diverse locations all over the world.

On the business side, you’ll find students interested in creating a more sustainable supply chain, bringing a product or service to the market that addresses an environmental problem, or learning to evaluate sustainable stocks in order to persuade others to invest in them. There are also students studying the circular economy and looking at the lifecycle of industrial processes. There are many students getting a joint MBA and Master’s in Environmental Management. “The term ‘forestry and environmental studies’ does not really reflect the breadth of our discipline,” Dr. Burke concludes.

Some 78 doctoral students and 340 master’s students are currently enrolled in Yale’s program, representing 41 countries.

This same diversity applies to the careers students choose after graduating. “Essentially, every job sector includes opportunities for individuals who have an interdisciplinary graduate degree in environmental studies,” Dr. Burke points out. “If you have a passion for the environment, you can really do anything!”

A Ph.D. Doesn’t Always Lead to a Life of Academia

“Being in academia is a lifestyle choice,” says Dr. Burke. While noting that many of their doctoral students do go on to get hired at top-notch universities – for the science students, after postdoctoral positions, and for those with tracks such as environmental economics and environmental anthropology sometimes going right into assistant professorships– others go into fields from entrepreneurship to public policy.

Where Yale Forestry Grad Students Go Next:

business/consulting (31%)

non-profit sector (26%)

government/public service (15%)

further study (14%)

academia (9%)

entrepreneurship (4%)

However, academia is not the only option for those interested in a research-based career. “We have students who have gone on to work at think tanks such as Resources for the Future,” Dr. Burke says. “And their job is to research and write papers. Others go into public service, where they work on policy pieces to advise congressional staffers – or indeed, become staffers themselves. These are just a few examples of positions that require depth of scholarship but are not purely academic.”

Funding Is Available – and Not Just for Doctoral Students

Yale’s Ph.D. students receive fellowships, which consist of tuition plus a living stipend. Master’s students pay tuition, but funding is also available for scholarships, with an average discount rate of a little over 40 percent. “We do have supports in place,” Dr. Burke notes, so make sure you research funding options before applying.

In addition to the paid internships in certain disciplines described above, other types of support are also available. For those students who are performing work or research out in forests, for example, transportation is available. Alternatively, students who need to travel may choose to use some of their financing to cover their transportation needs.

Graduate Study Is About Curiosity and Fun

Finally, Dr. Burke stresses that graduate study is about zeroing in on – and ultimately loving – what you do. “There are lots of great schools out there,” she says. “Keep your eye on the ball and make sure you have depth. And then before you make the grad-school leap, make sure you’re doing this because you’re curious and want to have fun! There are so many opportunities to make a difference and learn new things. And that’s really what it’s all about.”

The takeaway? Environmental studies is a much broader field of study than many assume – leading to a wide range of potential careers across almost all sectors. And you don’t necessarily have to be a science major to explore these fields! To learn more about college majors that can launch a green career, visit our related article, Six Best College Majors for a Green Career.