What a PhD in Environmental Engineering is Like

Have you ever wanted to know what it is like to get a PhD in environmental engineering? If the answer is no, well, hopefully you still read this blog and learn a bit. If the answer is “yes”, then I hope this blog helps you out a bit more. Getting a PhD has been such a crazy fun experience and one that was totally worth taking. In fact, I left a full time job to come pursue this career path. That’s a pretty hard thing to do, but one that was 100% worth it. Anyway, Let’s talk about what getting a PhD in Environmental Engineering is like.

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Before you apply

A PhD in environmental engineering requires a good grasp on scientific and mathematical principles. In undergrad, we took physics, chemistry, water chemistry, organic chemistry, dynamics, statics, as well as thermodynamics. On top of that, we have taken many classes dealing with design work, advanced mathematics, and computing. Writing it down makes it seem like a lot, well that’s because it is a lot (lol). If you want to apply to get in, you are required to have taken a ton of courses in different scientific fields. You will be doing a ton of science while in grad school.

What You Can do

Some of what I do for my PhD in Environmental Engineering

For me, personally, I am a biogeochemist. I work with heavy metals (primarily lead) and see how we can use biology, chemistry, and geology to figure out problems. One of my main goals is to link blood lead levels to environmental samples. Lead comes in ore form, as well as other forms (geology). By using chemical properties of lead (chemistry), we can link it to blood samples (biology). It is a pretty cool concept. But of course, this is one of the many things that you might work on as an environmental engineer.

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Design Based

I have friends who do modelling of saltwater intrusion, other’s are education based, while some deal with counting birds. Environmental engineering is such a broad topic and has many applications. The engineering part can deal with design work. There are plenty of PhD students that are designing ways to clean up water or solve environmental contamination problems. These individuals rely heavily on AutoCAD and other programs such as Matlab and programming software to analyze data and create a model or design based on that.

We have a whole research group that deals with covid and how it travels on aerosols. This is actually pretty cool because they do tests around campus so you can see their work in action. Individuals in the air department deal with environmental pollutants that affect our breathing. They see how car exhaust mixes in the atmosphere and are extremely helpful in the fight against climate change.

PhD in environmental engineering water

Water people

I get thrown into this category. My other research deals with drinking water systems. Environmental engineers help to get clean water to households without contaminating them with toxins such as heavy metals and other contaminants. My research deals with water chemistry changes to reduce lead contamination in water systems. Stuff like this is only a very small amount of what you can learn in the water section. Many people in environmental engineering are also ecologists. Some do research on lakes and streams and find ways to clean them up. Other people focus on water systems in urban environment. These are almost classified as civil engineers, though.

PhD in environmental engineering water and wastewater

Water and Wastewater Plants

Many students work on methods to either design water treatment plants or create a product to help the plants be more efficient. We currently don’t have people working on this, but I know we have had people in the past work directly on problems dealing with water and wastewater plants. This is cool because you are directly affecting people’s lives and making it better in some way.

PhD in Environmental Engineering Waste

Solid and Hazardous Waste

This was one of my favorite classes at UF. If you have taken Solid and Hazardous Waste, you would agree with me. The research team in this department is huge. I mean huge!!!!! There is so much research involving trash and hazardous waste. You can do so many things to garbage to be used in some other methods such as reduction of toxic metals and even used as concrete. If you love trash and the many applications it has, you’d love to do research in this department. Plus, you would be one of not many working on these problems that we face with trash. Not many people like to deal with landfills or hazardous materials. You will though lol.

What the PhD is like

If you haven’t already, I highly suggest taking a look at my blog about the typical day as a PhD student (link here). Getting a PhD in environmental engineering is pretty difficult but not unattainable. If you are thinking about doing one, I would scour the internet for as much information on just doing a PhD in general. Many of the problems that grad student s have are common across all fields of study. A PhD is an apprenticeship. You are learning how to become a research scientist. You will work on very small portions of pretty large projects and you’ll be required to do this pretty much alone.

You will learn many skills that will be extremely helpful when looking for careers after college. Some, if not most, of these skills will not even have to do with science or engineering. Many of these skills will be learning quickly, writing effectively, and conveying complex ideas for people to understand. Remember at the beginning when I talked about all of the classes you should be familiar with? Now take those principles and explain them to people. It’s hard to do but something you may learn along the way.

I won’t lie to you, it’s a long journey of just doing repetitive things, reading papers, crying, and honing skills subconsciously lol. You will spend 3-8 years of your life, working each day on small, insignificant things, which in turn, will turn out to be very big things.

Should You do a PhD in Environmental Engineering?

Do you like to work on stuff that might lead to technology that helps mankind? Do you want to work with the brightest and most talented individuals around? Are you ok with failing 1000 times just to produce a little bit, if any, data? Do you want to go into academia or industry and end up working on some really cool projects that you might be the Principle Investigator on? If the answer is yes, then I think you will have a good chance at successfully finishing a PhD in environmental engineering.

Final Thoughts

If you are considering going for a PhD in environmental engineering, please send me an email at benswaringen@yahoo.com. Just let me know that you are interested and ask me all the questions you like. I would love to share more of my experience with you, and who knows, we may be lab partners one day. As always, thank you all for spending the time to read my blog. I truly appreciate you all. Until next time, peace!

2 thoughts on “What a PhD in Environmental Engineering is Like

  • Began when I was 14 in 1963. All through school and college and summers off as a teacher I usually worked for the City of North Miami running behind those garbage trucks. The first summer they paid me net at $40 a week. I know all I need to know about garbade. No more. No thanks.

  • The majority of environmental engineers work for government agencies, but are also employed by the private sector, in industries such as consulting, engineering, surveying and waste management. Environmental engineers who want to be employed in a particular industry must take the necessary licensing exam for that industry.

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