Sciencewomen is looking for help for an environmental science person who’s trying to decide between a PhD and a MS. So here’s my 2 cents:
First of all, environmental science is a really big field. In my experience, departments titled “environmental studies” or “environmental science” tend to be social science departments. So they tend to do things like environmental planning, management, and policy. Environmental physical science includes topics as disparate as industrial hygiene, forestry, toxicology, treatment system design, and analytical chemistry.
So you have to remember that I deal in dirt and contamination. I have a totally different educational experience from all the disciplines I mentioned above. So should a dirt/contamination person go right to a PhD, or should they get a MS first?
Field projects can take a lot of time, a couple of field seasons. So if you know that you want to go into research or academia, I’d suggest going straight to the PhD. It’ll give you more flexibility with your research. However, most environmental companies will see someone who went straight to a PhD as a liability – someone who will be expensive, but who doesn’t have enough practical experience to be trusted with a project. Most of the folks I know who have PhDs in industry end up being the local expert in their one small area of expertise and get pigeonholed there. That’s fine if you just want to do just groundwater modeling or whatever, but I like to be able to work on lots of different things. So I’d recommend starting with an MS and at least some degree of environmental experience to get some sense of real-world conditions.
Most of the experts in this field who aren’t engaged in pure research (i.e. academics) have a combination of a graduate degree and a significant amount of experience (over 10 years). There aren’t any shortcuts. Why? Well, I deal in what’s actually out in the world. And what’s out in the world doesn’t necessarily conform too well with what it’s supposed to. You end up with a lot of judgment calls, and you have to know how to get good data in adverse conditions, including all the crap I’ve dealt with and mentioned in this blog.