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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

What to look for in sustainability degrees and training programs, Part 1

Sustainability credentials are in high demand. But which programs are right for you?

The sustainability job market is growing faster than ever. New federal investments and regulations, as well as market demand for sustainable products and services, are leading more and more organizations to add employees with "green" knowledge and skills. Predictably, sustainability training programs have also proliferated in both the public and private sector. This has created an increasingly confusing landscape, especially given that sustainability is a newer discipline that encompasses a broad range of topics and applications.

Unlike established professions such as architecture, urban planning, engineering, law, and medicine, there isn't yet much centralization of accreditation or licensing in sustainability fields. The International Society of Sustainability Professionals administers exams to confer Associate and Professional certifications in sustainability excellence. But many other organizations offer their own, unrelated certificates and credentials. If you're interested in changing fields or further developing a career in sustainability, there are an overwhelming number of options in college and university accredited courses, degrees, and certificates, as well as non-credited credentials in both the university and private sector.

So how do you select the right one? To break things down, the first step is knowing what you want to get out of sustainability training. Do you want more fluency in the fundamental ideas, approaches, and competencies for developing sustainability solutions? Or do you need knowledge and credentials in a specialty area or application?

In this post I'll focus on general sustainability credentials that provide training in the fundamentals, and move on to specialty areas of training in Part 2.

Foundations of sustainability

A general program in sustainability is a good approach if you need to be conversant in:

These days options for training and credentials range from brief, non-credited online courses; degree programs at the bachelor's, masters, and doctoral levels; and everything in between.

Overall, I have found that there are large differences between sustainability programs that evolved out of older disciplines versus programs that were developed specifically to provide sustainability learning outcomes. For example, in academia many sustainability programs emerged from environmental science, environmental studies, natural resources management, or environmental engineering curriculum. Very generally speaking, these programs can sometimes be more problem than solutions focused. The environmental sciences, for example, usually focus on the problems that society has created as a result of industrialization and development, resource extraction, and other human activities. This is important work, and I do not want discourage people from pursuing it (my own degrees are in the environmental sciences).

ASU School of Sustainability banner

But programs that were founded specifically to advance sustainability are often more solutions-focused, and emphasize the pathways toward transforming organizations, communities, institutions, and society as a whole to achieve sustainability outcomes. Here I will use the ASU School of Sustainability (SOS) as my main example. It's is not the only program of its kind, but it's the oldest in the United States. SOS has spent almost two decades developing programs in the competencies students need to have a successful career in sustainability, and their alumni have an excellent track record.

One hallmark of SOS's approach that surprised me when I arrived at ASU is their deep commitment to working across disciplines. Unlike most departments I'm familiar with, the faculty don't group themselves into individual disciplines or interest groups - all 60+ faculty work together to build a truly transdisciplinary program across social, economic, technical, and ecological aspects of sustainability. This is something to look for in sustainability programs - is the curriculum a compilation of individual, separate courses and disciplines? Or does it really focus on the transdiscipline of sustainability?

Within this space there are several different types of credentials:

  • 2 and 4 year degrees, including Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in sustainability. At ASU SOS, these degrees provide training in a set of five competencies common to most sustainability applications.

  • For-credit certificates, consisting of shorter course sequences at either the undergraduate or graduate level that confer college or university credits. Here is an example from SOS that can be earned as a stand-alone credential without enrolling in a degree program.

  • Non-credited career certificates that don't confer college or university credits. These might be offered by colleges and universities, internally at large companies, or by private third parties such as Google Grow

The costs for these programs varies accordingly - there is an enormous range, from free non-credited courses on platforms like Coursera and certificates that cost under $500, to private university degrees in the six figure range!

At the low cost end of these training opportunities, courses that don't confer university credit tend to carry less weight with employers as a credential, even if they're offered by a very reputable organization. Commit time to these courses if they provide knowledge and skills you need to speak fluently about current sustainability topics, language, and approaches. You may have to try a few different programs to get what you need, as the content and quality vary greatly. The more you can narrow down exactly what you'd like to get out of these courses, the better you can choose.

For-credit college and university degrees and certificates are more recognizable by employers on your resume, and they provide more in depth content, assignments, and direct interactions with faculty and instructors. The best programs, in my opinion, provide experiential learning in sustainability, which is hands-on training with actual projects in collaboration with businesses, community groups, NGOs, and government agencies. They also bring experienced sustainability professionals into the classroom either virtually or in person.

For most people these credentials are a major investment, so it's important to ask questions about the programs that interest you. Here is some of the information I personally would want to know:

  1. When was the program created, and how did it get started? Who are the current instructors and what is their perspective on sustainability?

  2. How is the faculty expertise categorized? Do the main areas align with your interests in sustainability? Is there a broad range of areas of expertise, so you can be exposed to perspectives and methods you aren't yet familiar with?

  3. Are there courses taught by faculty and professionals who are experienced with the types of organizations, projects, or sustainability solutions you're interested in?

  4. Are there internship, workshop, project-based, or other opportunities for hands-on experience you can list on your resume?

  5. Where do the alumni of the program work? Does the program offer adequate access to career services for resume building, career development, and job placement?

  6. What other support is available for students with your background and situation, i.e. in person vs. online enrollment, part-time vs. full-time, domestic vs. international, etc.?

Right now, sustainability is one of the most rapidly changing fields in the job market, so education and training programs need to be particularly nimble, responsive, and even visionary in response to a dynamic environment. If you invest in one, you'll want to be sure it's at least responsive to current trends in the field, if not an industry and thought leader in what sustainability means to communities, businesses, governance, the environment, and social and political change.

In the very near future, the landscape for sustainability training may very well become more coordinated and standardized. The Global Council for Science and the Environment is working on an accreditation program for sustainability education, and in the U.S. a brand new National Sustainability Society is about to launch to bring together sustainability educators and professionals. In the meantime, sustainability job seekers have a vast array of options to join a growing workforce that will, in no small part, shape the future of humanity and the planet we depend on.

In the next post we'll explore training in specialty areas of sustainability and career development options for current professionals.


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