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Is "Water Education" For You?

Table of Contents:
  1. Why Water?
  2. Degree Types
  3. Careers
  4. Funding
  5. Now, what?

Trying to decide on a career can be tough. Most people would say they want a job they enjoy and that makes a difference in the lives of other people. Whether you're a high school graduate or middle-aged person looking for a career change, colleges and universities offer abundant options in many different fields, and the search for a degree program can seem endless.

A degree in a water-related field opens up doors in many areas from health to science and engineering to business.  Career options for those who choose to pursue a degree in "water" abound.  Many colleges and universities across the U.S. and around the world offer degrees in various water-related fields, including hydrology, water resources management and water resources engineering. Before deciding which field to enter, it is important to consider your options.

Why Water?

Water is a natural, essential component of our everyday existence. Professor and hydrologist, Dr. Todd Jarvis, of Oregon State University states that, "Water is life. Water is embedded in virtually everything we use daily from Google searches, computer chips, clothing, and plastics, to our favorite foods and beverages." The need for this resource is undeniable, and as Jarvis states, "water is connected across so many disciplines."

Some would argue that a degree in "water" is necessary to the pursuit of a career in the field. UC Davis graduate, Angela Carmi, claims that, "experience alone is not sufficient to thoroughly understand the many guiding principles and nuances of the specialties in water resources; it is critical to obtain advanced education in order to practice in the field of water resources." But why even pursue a career in this field? What are the benefits?

University professors and students alike say that global climate change and increases in population are affecting this resource tremendously. University of Wisconsin student, Michelle Balk says, "This century is predicted to be the century of water.  With the global climate changes occurring, many of the normal sources for water are changing and potentially being lost. Combine this with the continuing increase in population, and you have a clear issue in the near future." Water resources management professionals, and environmental and water resources engineers tackle these issues in various ways, providing safe drinking water and sanitation to those who need it and managing water in order to "prevent flooding and other natural disasters," according to Dr. Michael Johnson of Utah State.

The need for these professionals continues to grow, even during an economic recession, making job security one of the main benefits of pursuing a career in this industry. Dr. Peggy Johnson of Penn State University states that "The combination of needs for safe and abundant water supplies, infrastructure replacement and maintenance, energy and food (all requiring significant amounts of water) will guarantee a growing job market for our students for many years to come."

Necessity and job security are just two of the benefits to pursuing a career in a water-related field. A third benefit, according to Jarvis, is having fun:

"I pursued a career in water resources because I enjoyed working outdoors, meeting new people, traveling the world, and meshing all of this into technical career that integrated computers with science. Later in my career, I became interested in how water resources are managed and why there is so much conflict over water. I have been working continuously for over 25 years in groundwater resources, have never had any problems finding a good paying job, and have traveled all over the world for my work.  I still can't believe I get paid for having so much fun."

Degree Types

Students looking to pursue a career in a water-related field can choose from several degree programs, including Water Resources Management, Environmental Engineering Sciences, Hydrologic Science and Civil Engineering. Most programs offered are at the graduate level. Many schools, like Oregon State University, offer multiple advanced degree options. According to Jarvis:

"OSU ... offers the Water Resources Graduate program...which permits graduate stduents to earn Master's and PhD's in Water Resources Science, Water Resources Engineering and Water Resources Policy and Management. OSU also offers the Certificate in Water Conflict Management and Transformation, a post-graduate program for professionals and students alike, which is one of just a few programs offered in the world. OSU offers two both in-residence and online methods to complete this program."

Students who enter these programs should already have a Bachelor's degree in a related field. But the work associated with each field differs. Jarvis outlines the basic differences between science, engineering and policy-based degree programs: 

"Engineering students interested in water resources focus on solving problems related to water development, water treatment, wastewater treatment, and sustainable use as it relates to the construction and operation of dams and dam removals, which is becoming more commonplace with changes in societal values and climate change. Science-based students focus on inquiry - exploring how water moves underground, in rivers, through wetlands, how it connects to ecosystems (fish, forests, farms), and how it is reused. These students encompass many backgrounds in the physical, chemical, biological, and health sciences. Policy and management students wrestle with the complexities of hydropolitics, hydrodiplomacy, hydrohegemony - the who gets what, when, where and why? They also study how to resolve conflicts over water resources, as well as how to prevent disputes. Some of these students also study the 'value' of water and associated environmental services related to water as water economists."


Water resources and engineering students pursue a large range of careers in many areas, including: environmental impact studies; data collection and analysis; water resources planning and management; drought and flood analysis; river system management; water quality investigations; ground water studies and research; education; human health; building; municipal water and wastewater; consulting engineering and environmental equipment sales. Students obtain employment with many different organizations: private consulting firms; schools; non-profit organizations; government; waste treatment plants and more. According to UC Davis Professor, Dr. Jay Lund, PhD graduates become professors at research universities and some even run water ministries in countries overseas.

The options abound. Because the need for water professionals is so great in many areas, according to Jarvis, "the only OSU Water Resources Graduate Program alumni that have not found jobs after they graduate are the ones who are not looking." 


Research funding, teaching and work assistantships are available in many graduate programs. According to Johnson, these "attract and retain an excellent pool of students." Scholarships and grants are also available. The University of New Mexico does not offer teaching or research assistantships, but "because it is located in a large city with many federal, state, and local water resource management agencies as well as water consulting firms, there are many internship opportunities," says Dr. Bruce Thomson, UNM's Water Resources Program Director. Thomson claims that about two-thirds of the students in his program "have full or part-time employment with firms or agencies that deal with water issues." 

Scholarships and grants are also available in some programs. According to Jarvis, "Each state has a Water Resources Research Institute that is administered through grants from the U.S. Geological Survey that is very student-centric and promotes funding of students through small grants." In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation provides scholarships to students at Oregon State University, along with private donors who are OSU alumni. Jarvis jokingly states that "one student has their entire M.S. program funded through a 'hydrophilanthropist.'" The money may come from various places, but no matter the source, students accepted into the program at OSU (and in many other schools across the country) are pretty much guaranteed at least partial funding upon acceptance.  

Students who wish to study abroad also have the opportunity to earn scholarships. CEO of the International WaterCentre, Mark Pascoe states that "The IWC offers Water Leader Scholarships every year, which cover full or partial tuition fees." 

Now, what?

If you've decided to pursue a career in a water-related field, the next steps are crucial. According to Dr. Paul Chadik, Chairman of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida, it is important to have laid a good foundation in the subjects of math and science, before entering a university level program, as these subjects are used throughout all areas of coursework. Once you have entered a program, deciding which direction to pursue can be tough, as Carmi argues: "The water resources field is diverse, complex, and interesting.  There are so many aspects to learn and so many interesting things to do, that for some folks, like myself, it can be difficult to pick just one aspect to study.  I think it is critical to start with a very broad understanding of the many aspects of the water resources field, but to eventually develop a niche for yourself over time to allow sufficient in-depth study." However, as is true in any specialized field, you must eventually narrow your options down to one, and according to Balk, the sooner the better:

"The biggest piece of advice I have is to know what area you'd like to work in.  There's such a wide band of uses for such a degree, you should have some sort of idea about where you'd like to work so you can best tailor your classes to your field.  Are you more interested in environmental or humanitarian application?  Do you want to work with surface water or ground water?  Do the biological processes and habitats created by water interest you, or do you prefer the chemical and water quality aspect more?  Figure out where you'd like to be within the spectrum, and then use that knowledge to focus in and find the classes that will most benefit you.  Not only will this help you learn about that topic, but it will also make finding a position in that field that much easier."

But, obtaining the degree is only the beginning. If you stop there, your perspective will be limited. Thomson advises that, "All students wishing to pursue careers in water-related fields should take advantage of opportunities to broaden their knowledge beyond that which can be obtained in a single graduate program." Often, direct experience in the field during and after college provides such opportunities.

Even if you know what area of study you'd like to pursue, it is important to research your school options and decide carefully which institution to attend based on your individual needs. There are different factors to consider when choosing a school, such as location, reputation and the types of degree programs offered. Carmi shares the reason why she chose to attend UC Davis: "the surface and groundwater systems in California are the most complex, politically diverse, and engineered systems in the world and therefore catalyzes exciting and cutting edge research in all aspects of the water resources field.  The program of study for water reflects this complexity and depth and therefore provides one of the more comprehensive programs available in this country.  This was the critical reason for my choice in attending this school."

Comprehensive approaches to the field of "water" are attractive to students who wish to study locally or abroad. According to Pascoe, it is the holistic approach taken by the IWC that makes it so appealing:

"This program is quite unique in that it has been developed by practitioners from four universities, and it is delivered and co-badged by these four institutions. It is unusual to have universities working together in such a way, and therefore gives us access to the top professionals in varying disciplines from each institution. The program is taught using a hands-on, problem-based approach which allows students to get real-world experience of the theory they learn in lectures, by working on real projects and case studies, individually and in groups."

The sooner you begin researching your options, the better off you will be when it comes to choosing a career and program of study in such a diverse field. The schools mentioned in this article are a good starting point. You may also wish to contact other people in the field who have chosen "water" as a career and find out what steps they took to arrive at where they are now.

The information in this article was provided by professors and students in water programs at each of the following institutions:

International WaterCentre
University of Wisconsin - Madison
University of Florida
University of California - Davis
Penn State University
Oregon State University
Utah State University
University of New Mexico

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