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From Awareness to Action

Graduate programs at U.S. universities address the necessity to establish a workforce that will be equipped to work on combating climate change.


The climate crisis is one of the major concerns among young people today, and they are responding by joining environmental organizations, participating in community projects and spreading awareness via different platforms including social media.

Universities across the United States have established programs to study climate change, paving a way for youth to turn climate change awareness into a career. Graduate programs on climate change are relatively new but they address the ongoing necessity and desire to establish a workforce at governmental, nonprofit or research agencies that will be equipped to work on combating climate change.

Students interested in pursuing graduate-level climate change studies at U.S. universities have many options. For instance, the Climate Science and Solutions Professional Science Master’s program at Northern Arizona University and the Master of Arts in Climate and Society offered by Columbia University.

The program at Northern Arizona University is unique for its interdisciplinary approach and professional training. “There are several components that factor into our program’s interdisciplinary nature,” says John M. Fegyveresi, assistant professor of practice at the School of Earth and Sustainability and director of the Master’s in Climate Science and Solutions program at Northern Arizona University. “We require all students to take a core set of classes that encompass many sub-disciplines and sectors related to climate science and solutions.” 

While there is no specific background necessary to apply for the climate science program, students typically have a background in environmental science and physics. Once enrolled in the 18-month program, they study a set of core subjects including mitigation, adaptation, energy policy and environmental economics.  They can also choose from over 100 elective classes in other departments such as business, statistics, ecology, communications, biology, engineering, sustainability and policy, to personalize their degrees. “Our program has strong collaborations with other departments on campus that tie in closely with climate science, making these types of partnerships and the coursework crossover possible,” says Fegyveresi. 

In addition to strong academic components, the program offers comprehensive hands-on experience, including internships and community projects. “All students must participate in a summer-long internship as part of the program. This gives them all first-hand experience in one of the climate science sub-sectors. In addition to the internship, we have regular workshops with industry professionals as well as our advisory board,” Fegyveresi explains. “Lastly, students typically take part in several semester-long projects throughout their program. For example, last semester, students completed a small reforestation campaign, and also worked with local-area middle schools to complete a large outreach project involving eco-challenges with the students.”

Students looking to join the Climate Science and Solutions program can apply for different scholarships at Northern Arizona University. “There are a limited number of smaller departmental scholarships available, and our university has several ‘at-large’ graduate assistant positions that are awarded through a merit system,” says Fegyveresi.  The university’s Center for International Education sometimes has its own graduate assistant positions that may be available depending on the number of applicants. In addition to these awards, there are also a few tuition waiver scholarships that may be available for applicants.

Program graduates have the opportunity to work in a wide range of areas that pertain to their field of study. “Most graduates go on to work in one of three sectors pretty evenly: government, nonprofit or private industry,” says Fegyveresi. This includes local city sustainability offices, federal laboratories, nonprofit organizations, energy companies, policy-related positions at all levels, or private climate science-related companies. “A small subset of students gravitate toward research, and a few even go on to pursue a Ph.D. in a related field” like environmental science or geoscience, he adds. 

At Columbia University in New York City, students may take a slightly different approach to climate change studies. While the program focuses on understanding climate change, its ultimate goal is to understand how climate change affects societies. Unlike many other graduate programs in climate change which offer master’s degrees in science, Columbia offers a 12-month Master of Arts in Climate and Society, through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Applicants typically come from earth, natural and social sciences programs, but students with a background in arts are also encouraged to apply.

In the fall of 2021, the Master of Arts in Climate and Society will be the inaugural program to be housed in Columbia’s newly-established Climate School. “The establishment of the school really speaks to Columbia’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis,” says Cynthia Thomson, associate director of the M.A. Program in Climate and Society. “The transition will allow the program to grow in size and expand course offerings. It’s an exciting opportunity to take a well-established and successful program and create an even richer experience for students during their studies.”

The main areas covered by the program pertain to the study of climate science. The program is interdisciplinary in nature and students are encouraged to individualize their studies and take electives across Columbia’s graduate programs, including humanities and the arts.

“The M.A. in Climate and Society’s core curriculum focuses on climate science, climate risk and climate impacts. But what’s really unique about the program is the elective component. Students take a minimum of four elective courses of their choosing. These courses can be taken at any graduate school across Columbia’s campus and really allow students to tailor the curriculum to their interests,” says Thomson.

Beyond the program’s academic component, students have the opportunity to engage professionally in climate change issues. In the third and final semester, students have to complete either an internship or a capstone project, which allows them to put their knowledge to use outside of the classroom and gain valuable experience before entering the workforce, where they pursue diverse career paths. 

“The M.A. in Climate and Society study body is quite diverse and interdisciplinary and so there is no one typical career path for graduates. We have graduates across the public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors,” says Thomson. “In a sense, we are forging a new field at the intersection of climate and its societal impacts and we’re excited to have our graduates leading the way.”

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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