By Haley Paul on Jan 24, 2011

Degrees in Sustainability: Risky or Worth It?


It led the nation with the first comprehensive Ph.D. and Masters degree programs in Sustainability in the spring of 2007. Then, it opened up the undergraduate major in the fall of 2008. Now, Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability is witnessing a dramatic rise in its newly minted minor in Sustainability, which opened in the spring of 2010 and already has 100 enrollments.

Arizona State University School of Sustainability in Tempe, Ariz. Photo: Arizona State University

As for the new minor, “A key characteristic […] is that it is a university-wide offering,” says Christopher Boone, associate dean for Education as well as professor in the School of Sustainability. “Rather than being embedded within a major or a single department or college, students from nearly any major from all four campuses can enroll in the sustainability minor.”

Boone elaborates on the offerings of the minor, “For those majors or programs that have few electives in their programs, we have helped them develop specialized concentrations in sustainability. Two examples are the concentrations in sustainability for Business and for Engineering.”

In all of the degree programs—graduate, undergraduate and the minor—students with different academic interests are signing up for a piece of the sustainability pie.

Students’ enthusiasm and diverse interests are well-suited to take on the myriad issues facing humanity and the planet: social equity, alternative energy, climate change and legislation, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, raw materials extraction, solid waste disposal and storage, water availability and quality – the list goes on.

Meet the Students

"Sustainability interests me because it is a field that impacts everyone. It recognizes each person can make a difference, and collectively many people can witness true positive impact," says Alyssa Bisanz, Political Science major and Sustainability minor at Arizona State University.

Given the broad scope of sustainability, it’s fitting that the range of subjects studied by students reflects these plethora of issues. Five sustainability students share their plans for their post-grad lives.

The U.N. Ambassador
Ask Natalie Goldfarb, Global Studies major, why she chose the minor in Sustainability, and she’ll tell you she hopes to focus on international development for her career. “I want to improve people’s quality of life.” To do that, “I feel that creating sustainable communities around the world is just common sense.”

The Human Rights Advocate
“My main interests in Sustainability [are] the social [and] political aspects, […] mainly dealing with human rights and inequalities,” says Drake Hoffman, Sustainability major at ASU. “I have focused a lot of my studies on food and resource inequality for the impoverished (i.e., the inaccessibility of healthy foods and sufficient nutrition for [those] in poverty, and its negative impacts on their health). However, I would like to focus more on gender and racial inequality in the very near future.”

The Policymaker
“I would like to pursue a career in the public service field,” says Political Science major Alyssa Bisanz, who is also minoring in Sustainability at ASU. Bisanz says studying sustainability along with political science prepares her for “more than [just] conservation—instead, [sustainability encompasses] a solution-oriented framework where government, education and the public, private and business sectors collaborate to use resources in an efficient manner.”

Asked why he chose to major in Sustainability at ASU, and Drake Hoffman replies, "Call me a Hippie, but I have always been extremely passionate about the well-being of our planet, and all of those who inhabit it. That was my immediate draw towards Sustainability."

The Grassroots Organizer
Jesse Davenport, who started college as a Landscape Architecture major, felt limited in her course options due to rigorous lab and studio requirements. “I made [the] decision [to switch to Sustainability] after getting involved with Puente Movement, a grassroots migrant organization based out of Phoenix. I realized I was interested in a lot of fields outside of just Landscape Architecture. I ended up choosing Sustainability over a major in Justice Studies or Non-Profit Leadership and Management because I would be able to learn about all kinds of issues while also focusing specifically on the area of social justice.”

The Corporate Executive
As a sophomore majoring in Supply Chain Management in the W.P. Carey School of Business, J.T. Albright sees the minor in sustainability supporting his major by better understanding how to “get products from one destination to another without unnecessarily using resources that could be preserved for future jobs or generations.” Concerning his future, Albright’s main goal (or hope, as he states) is to pack a business/sustainability wallop by changing how businesses are run from the inside, “so that they have more forethought [rather than only thinking how to] make a quick buck.”

Are They Taking a Huge Risk?

Given that the major and minor are still in the nascent stages, and that other schools have yet to develop sustainability as a degree program in the same capacity as Arizona State, some wonder if the risk (a degree in sustainability) is worth the reward (a job).

Asked if the sustainability minor offers an edge in a competitive job market, Natalie Goldfarb, the Global Studies major, doesn’t even flinch. “Absolutely. The whole world is going to be focused on being greener in the near future. A minor will give me the slight edge since I have information on this important new way of living. [The value of] my degree will only increase as more people and companies realize the importance of sustainability.”

"Sustainability is being considered more every day so I'm confident that by the time I graduate it will be more understood and accepted. For the types of careers I'm considering in social justice or non-profit work, I think a degree in Sustainability will help me a lot in the job market," says Jesse Davenport.

Fellow undergraduate J.T. Albright agrees. “Minoring in sustainability gives me an edge compared to others in my [Supply Chain Management] major because it makes me stand out from the crowd and the cookie cutter candidates. I can provide certain assets and different perspectives to my future employer that other people could not because of my minor in sustainability.”

Their hope and optimism is contagious. And it’s not just wishful thinking.

“A friend of mine who graduated in May 2010 [with the major] was offered a job almost immediately for a company in Seattle that had just created a ‘Sustainability Director’ position,” says Drake Hoffman.

And Hoffman is confident the path he is taking will reap the benefits when he starts to look for a job. “I do believe that my major will stand out in the job market. The current trend in business has been towards sustainability and many companies are creating positions to pursue this trend. I think my fresh, different perspective will be advantageous.”

As for the School of Sustainability, it highlights some of the potential career paths graduates will be equipped to pursue. “Admission into strong graduate and professional schools, […] positions in higher education, industry, consultancy, utilities, regulatory agencies, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, or local, state or federal government. Recent interest in sustainability within business and government has created new employment opportunities in the field.”

As with any endeavor, hard work, perseverance and a belief in what you do all have an impact on finding a career. The five students interviewed for this story all exude the confidence that their knowledge and skills are only going to grow in value as time goes on and the need for sustainability experts increases.

Perhaps we can all rest a little easier knowing these sustainability minors and majors are getting prepared to take on the pressing social, economic and environmental issues of the age.

Sustainability Definition Side Note

Still looking for that perfect definition of sustainability to explain to your friends and family? The Board of Trustees for Sustainability at ASU has a succinct one you may want to use: “Promoting human prosperity and well-being for all, while protecting and enhancing the earth’s life support systems.” Maybe it will help wipe away the blank stares you sometimes get when you try and tell Aunt Mary what you are interested in these days.


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      • Janie

        I never realized Sustainability could be so far reaching. People tend to think of it (myself included) as on its own, but it’s amazing to see all of the different focuses it can take. I think it’s inspiring that such a big university has taken such a bold step in the direction of protecting our world.

      • http://bpscarpet.blogspot.com/ Kim Matsoukas

        Interesting read! I don’t think a sustainability degree is a risk, but it isn’t the golden ticket to a great career either…..here’s my take on this topic:

        http://bpscarpet.blogspot.com/2011/01/when-it-comes-to-careers-in.html

      • Philippe Orlando

        People who will make the difference in sustainability are engineers and scientists and politicians, not somebody with a master in sustainability.
        Find a way to make photovoltaic cells produce 10 000 times more electricity per area, that’s what we need.