Environmental Psychologist

Environmental psychologists can use their expertise to evaluate human interactions in a variety of settings, from a workplace, school, museum or prison to a neighborhood, city or natural ecosystem.

A teacher dims the lights so her students will become less rambunctious. The city builds a trail alongside a river system so residents will value its ecological significance and natural beauty. A workplace initiates an open-plan office in order to foster team dynamics and communication between management and employees. These are just some examples that fall within the scope of environmental psychology.

“Environmental psychologists study the dynamics of person–environment interactions,” states the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Careers in Psychology webpage. “They define the term environment very broadly, including all that is natural on the planet as well as built environments, social settings, cultural groups and informational environments.”

Environmental psychologists can use their expertise to evaluate human interactions in a variety of settings, from a workplace, school, museum or prison to a neighborhood, city or natural ecosystem.

Environmental Psychologists – At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: Ph.D., but there are related careers with less education.
  • Certification/Licensure Requirements: Not usually required, but there are exceptions.
  • Specializations: There are many, from responses to noise and ecological literacy to workplace safety.
  • Median Annual Salaries: $68,640 *
  • Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020**

To become a recognized environmental psychologist you must earn a doctoral degree (i.e. a Ph.D.). However, there are environmental psychology-related careers available to candidates with a Master’s degree or less as well.
“Environmental psychologists can use their expertise to evaluate human interactions in a variety of settings, from a workplace, school, museum or prison to a neighborhood, city or natural ecosystem.”

Career & Job Description

Environmental psychologists may work for a single employer or for various throughout their career. According to the APA’s Division 34—the Society for Environmental, Population & Conservation Psychology (SEPCP), environmental psychologists may work in academic settings (such as a university or a professional/scientific organization like the APA); for government agencies (from a research psychologist for a research council to a consultant for a city’s housing authority or planning office); for the private sector (such as a behavioral research firm, for an environmental design firm or as a consultant for various businesses and industrial settings); and for national and international non-profits (such as a conservation group or policy research organization). Some environmental psychology positions also require extensive time spent outdoors!

Throughout their career, environmental psychologists may:

  • Strive to answer key questions to understand and improve interactions between applicable humans and their environment through specialized research. For example, an environmental psychologist working as a researcher for industry would ask questions on how to increase safety, well-being, efficiency and productivity. Or working for a housing authority, an environmental psychologist might research areas of affordable housing, landlord-tenant relationships and rehabilitation strategies.
  • Share findings—what environmental psychologist “knowledge transfer activities”. This might include writing/publishing research studies, articles, books, etc., delivering presentations to relevant stakeholders, participating with or leading professional associations or relevant groups (from a grassroots organization to the Environmental Design Research Association, International Association for the Study of People and their Surroundings, the SEPCP, etc.), and more.
  • Guide, teach and inspire students in universities and other educational settings. This includes teaching classes and seminars, supervising students who are conducting research, leading design studios, etc..
  • Collaborate with a variety of professionals, including psychologists in other disciplines, government officials, architects and designers, physicists, engineers, advocates, urban or community planners, and more.
  • Organize relevant programs (such as community outreach, environmental health or educational programs), conferences and other public programs.
  • As a consultant, provide guidance/recommendations/knowledge to a variety of “clients” or organizations in various sectors, from business and industry to international non-profits.

Specializations & Concentrations

The term environment is vast, as it can denote indoor or outdoor; natural or man-made; social, cultural, intellectual, vocational, recreational…an almost endless number of settings. The intricate field of environmental psychology then has, unsurprisingly, many specialties. Just SOME of the specializations/concentrations that fall under environmental psychology include:

  • Energy efficiency (i.e. lighting, heating, etc)
  • Workplace safety
  • Ecological literacy (i.e. programs that promote this, such as an urban garden)
  • Attachment to place
  • Community development
  • Place identity
  • Politics associated with a specific environment/place
  • Diversity of urban neighborhoods
  • Housing rights
  • Environmental interior design
  • Development of places that promote health and wellness
  • A particular area of Sensory Psychophysics (such as responses to lighting, sounds, smells…)
  • Wayfinding (how people navigate or orient themselves)
  • Population density
  • Comfort in the home environment
  • Design for a particular age group (i.e. the elderly population)
  • A particular institutional environment (such as a school, prison, hospital or prison)
  • Human factors/ergonomics
  • Workplace/office design (i.e. private versus open-plan offices)
  • And More!
“The term environment is vast, as it can denote indoor or outdoor; natural or man-made; social, cultural, intellectual, vocational, recreational…an almost endless number of settings.”

The Educational Journey

Environmental psychologists are scientists, but their careers are also very interdisciplinary. “They recognize the need to be problem oriented, coordinating as needed with researchers and practitioners in the other fields of psychology, in related disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, biology, ecology), as well as in the design fields (e.g., regional, urban and community planning; landscape architecture; architecture; and engineering),” states (APA) Careers in Psychology webpage.

This means that as you pursue your studies to become an environmental psychologist, it is important to keep these other academic fields in mind when selecting electives, research topics, volunteer opportunities or internships/supervised practice. It also means that there are various career paths and educational journeys to becoming an environmental psychologist. For example, some might not complete a psychology degree until the graduate level. And remember, if you do not wish to complete a doctoral degree, there are still related careers obtainable with a Master’s degree or lower.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s Degree: You could complete a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and opt to take relevant courses, such as Environmental Psychology, Healthy Psychology, Social Psychology and Research Methods. For electives outside the psychology department, you might consider courses from Architecture/Design/Landscape, Environmental Science/Studies, Engineering, Urban Planning, Geography, Political Science, etc.

Some schools also offer joint programs, such as a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Psychology/Human Factors or you could double major (i.e. in Psychology & Environmental Science or another combination). Furthermore, Masters of Psychology programs do not necessarily require candidates to have completed a psychology degree. Talk to an academic advisor to make sure you are on track as you begin your educational journey and career path.

Relevant Careers

Relevant careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: Research assistant (or undergraduate level research intern), Assistant to a Designer, Outdoor Educator, Community Development Coordinator, Ergonomics Specialist, Assistant Planner and more.

Master’s Degree

Master’s Degree: Examples of relevant Master’s programs include: Master’s in Human Relations, Master’s in Psychology with an Ecopsychology concentration, Master’s in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environmental/Conservation Psychology, Master’s in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Human Factors, Master of Science in the Built Environment, Master of Philosophy in Human Ecology, and more. (Note if you are planning on pursuing a doctoral degree to become a recognized environmental psychologist, some universities offer relevant joint Master/PhD programs; alternatively you should ensure your Master’s program will allow you to move onto a PhD program that meets your career objectives).

Relevant Careers

Careers with a Master’s Degree: Usability Specialist, Human Factors Specialist, Research Coordinator (or graduate level research intern), Adjunct Professor (in some cases a Master’s may only be required), Urban Planning Project Manager, Director of a Conservation Organization, Wilderness Therapist, and more. (Note some positions may require specific coursework/certification/licensure).

Doctoral Degree

Doctoral Degree: Relevant doctoral degrees include: Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology, Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology with a concentration Human-Nature Interaction, Ph.D. in Ethology and Evolutionary Psychology with an Ecology concentration, Ph.D. in Social Psychology with emphasis in Environmental Psychology, Ph.D. in Ecopsychology, and more. Some environmental psychologists go on to do postdoctoral research positions.

Certification & Licensing Requirements

Generally speaking, psychologists who carry out clinical and counseling roles are required to be licensed (licensing guidelines by jurisdiction are outlined by the Association of State and Licensing Boards); and academic psychologists (such as environmental psychologists who conduct research or teach) are generally not required to be licensed. However, some employers may still require that an environmental psychologist be licensed—for example some universities prefer members of their psychology faculty to be licensed since their role is essentially mentoring and advising students who could be one day practicing psychologists.

Furthermore, an environmental psychologist may branch out into counseling/clinical roles (such as incorporating nature/wilderness/outdoor therapy into treatment or treating patients using their understanding of environmental factors) and in this case, licensure is required.

Even after you’ve started your career, you can continuously upgrade your knowledge base through continuing education. By completing short programs—anything from Ecopsychology in Counseling to Geographic & Environmental Policy certificate programs—you can gain certifications or credentials demonstrating proficiency in that specialty.

  • References:
  • * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-5
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6