Business Administration

What Does It Take to Earn a Master’s in Sustainability Management?

What Does It Take to Earn a Master’s in Sustainability Management?
Sustainability experts help organizations do things like limit carbon emissions, switch to renewable energy, manage water resources, create climate change mitigation strategies, and otherwise ensure that businesses can minimize their ecological impact while still making a profit. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry August 26, 2019

You want to protect the planet, but you're business-minded and not opposed to making good money in the process. Earning a master's degree in sustainability management can be the first step on the path to doing both.

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Sustainability is a relatively new field, but it’s one that is gaining traction because of the negative impact of human activity on the planet. As more and more companies look for ways to mitigate the effects of their manufacturing processes and overall business models, many hire sustainable business experts.

Sustainability experts help organizations do things like limit carbon emissions, switch to renewable energy, manage water resources, create climate change mitigation strategies, and otherwise ensure that businesses can minimize their ecological impact while still making a profit.

Earning a Master of Science in Sustainability Management—sometimes called an MSSM—is one of the best ways to advance in the professional roles occupying the intersection of environmental and economic systems. This interdisciplinary master’s degree track is relatively new and integrates elements of cutting-edge environmental science and business management curricula. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What Master of Science in Sustainability Management programs look like
  • Top schools for a Master of Science in Sustainability Management
  • How MSSM programs differ from MBA in sustainability and MS in sustainability science programs
  • Possible fields and career paths for a Master of Science in Sustainability Management
  • Why an MSSM might be the right master’s degree for you

What master of science in sustainability management programs look like

MSSM programs are graduate-level degree tracks designed for students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in business or sustainability, and/or have professional backgrounds in management, the natural sciences, or engineering. These students have the desire to understand the organizational role of sustainability in business. They may already be working in sustainability management or fields like financial services, energy, utilities, technology, or industrial manufacturing.

The commitment required for a Master of Science in Sustainability Management varies by school, but earning an MSSM typically takes two years of full-time, on-campus study. Students complete coursework in business and management, environmental sciences, public policy, and social science.

Some of the courses found in typical MSSM programs include:

  • Economics of sustainability management
  • Ethics of sustainability
  • Measuring environmental impact
  • Quantitative analysis and economics
  • Corporate sustainability metrics and reporting
  • Environmental policy
  • Greenhouse gas emission reporting
  • Green accounting
  • Sustainable futures
  • Statistics for sustainability management
  • Global environmental markets
  • Environmental conflict resolution 
  • Public policy and sustainability management
  • Environmental law
  • U.S. environmental regulations
  • Financial management
  • Natural resource markets
  • Global environmental markets

Many, though not all, MSSM programs require students to complete an integrative capstone project. 

American University‘s Kogod School of Business Program Director Richard Linowes told The Washington Post that there is a real need for sustainability experts in the business world. Of his university’s MSSM degree track, he had this to say: “The program is unique in providing interdisciplinary training in science, public policy, and diplomacy as well as business. We aim to turn tree-huggers into business professionals.”



University and Program Name Learn More

Top schools for a Master of Science in Sustainability Management

There are a lot of sustainability master’s degree programs out there, but relatively few universities offer MSSM degrees. The ones that do tend to emphasize the rigorous science components in those curricula. Here are some schools you should look at if you’re considering this degree.

Columbia University

Columbia University’s 36-credit master’s degree program prepares students to pursue a career in management that is focused as much on the environment as it is on the economy. Full-time students can complete the program in three semesters, while part-time students may take as many as nine.

The curriculum is divided into five areas of concentration (integrative sustainability management, economics, and quantitative analysis, physical sustainability, public policy, and general and financial management) that combine the study of business with classes in pioneering sustainability science. There are also professional development opportunities in and out of the classroom. 

Students can take courses at Columbia’s other graduate schools, including the School of International and Public Affairs, the Mailman School of Public Health, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia Business School, and Columbia Law School.

Classes are taught by notable sustainability academics, practitioners, and researchers; the coursework focuses heavily on both physical resource sustainability and the kinds of business skills that will make students attractive job candidates. Graduates of this MSSM program also have lifetime access to Columbia’s network of sustainability professionals who work at domestic firms, government agencies, and international organizations.

American University

AU’s 30-credit full- or part-time MSSM program is the only one in the DC metro area offered by a business school. Full-time students can earn their degree in just one year, while part-time students will usually finish in five semesters.

Kogod’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management is a business-focused degree that integrates social science, sustainability science, public policy, and global economic issues into the curriculum. One feature that sets this program apart is the residency component. Each year, MSSM candidates participate in an international residency to learn about best practices in sustainability management across industries and in different cultures. Students can also take classes at different schools on the campus to further round out their educational experience.

Graduates of this program are well-versed in sustainability theories and practices and are equipped to solve problems in the public, private, and non-profit spheres with economic-, ecological-, and socially responsible solutions.

Illinois Institute of Technology

This is the only environmental sustainability program in Chicago that is offered by a business school. While the university calls this 33-credit program an MS in environmental management and sustainability (or EMS), it is essentially the same as an MSSM. Students can typically earn this master’s degree in one to two years of full-time study or four to five years of part-time study.

The program integrates law, science, and business, and includes courses like industrial ecology, environmental law, sustainability analytics, environmental analytics, sustainable energy, regulations and compliance, and environmental risk assessment. Students have the option of opting into dual degree programs, including an EMS/MBA track. 

Graduates of this MSSM program go on to work in environmental sustainability and compliance management as consultants, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. They’re well-equipped to collaborate with scientists and engineers across industries. 

University of Wisconsin – Stout

While there are many online master’s degree programs focused on sustainability, the Master’s of Science in Sustainability Management degree path is so new that only a few schools offer this degree online; the University of Wisconsin is one of them.

This 34-credit, 12-course program was designed for busy working professionals who are already working in the sustainability sphere and want to enter into high-level leadership positions. The curriculum explores sustainability law, environmental ethics, communication, the economics of sustainability, sustainable development and design, corporate social responsibility, sustainability leadership, and responsible supply chain management.  

How MSSM programs differ from MBA in sustainability and MS in sustainability science programs

When you’re searching for Master of Science in Sustainability Management programs, the chances are that your results will include not only MSSM programs but also MBA and sustainability science programs. At first glance, these degrees can appear very similar, and so you may wonder if it matters which program you choose. When you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll discover that there is one fundamental difference between these degree paths: the depth of science education.

The Master of Business Administration in sustainability management degree is an excellent option for students who want to dive deeper into general finance, marketing, leadership, data, and corporate social responsibility while also studying green business practices. The coursework is often largely the same as in other MBA programs, but concepts are presented within the context of sustainable business. In general, these programs contain the least hard science, but give students the knowledge they’ll need to work with scientists and technicians. 

That said, read program and course descriptions carefully. The sustainability MBA programs at some universities (Yale University, for instance) look very much like the MSSM programs at others. 

An MS is usually the better degree choice for someone with an active business or professional background who wants to become an expert in the sustainability field. MS in sustainability management programs tend to be much more specialized than MBA programs. Students still get an in-depth management-focused education, but most topics will be rooted in sustainability science. For that reason, MSSM students often find careers that require them to straddle the line between business and technology.

An MS in sustainability science trains students in fields like engineering, math, and science to pursue careers focused on the technical aspects of sustainability. This degree path exposes students to the most science, and graduates who hold this degree can often find roles like environmental engineer, environmental monitoring supervisor, compliance specialist, director of environmental science, and manager of environmental science.

Possible fields and career paths for a Master of Science in Sustainability Management

MSSM program graduates work in a wide variety of roles, including: 

  • Regulatory compliance
  • Organizational management
  • Facilities operations
  • Environmental stewardship

They’re employed by businesses, non-profit organizations, research firms, and government organizations. With this degree in hand, you can work in healthcare, finance, manufacturing, construction, pharmaceuticals, academics, and other fields. 

Tip: If you’re thinking about earning a master’s degree in sustainability management because you want to help the planet or do the most to mitigate climate change, look for internship and employment opportunities at large companies and organizations. The bigger the business, the more significant the impact will be when positive changes are made. 

So, is an MSSM the right master’s degree for you?

Sustainability is a hugely complex specialty, and there are no easy answers. However, if the myth that sustainability and economic growth are fundamentally incompatible has made you hesitant to look for ways to combine your interests in ecological responsibility and business, it’s time to take another look at where the corporate world is headed. 

A changing technological landscape and shifting public opinion have inspired many corporations to explore how sustainability can benefit the bottom line. After all, sustainability can mean increased efficiency, supply chain security, and brand loyalty. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t publish specific wage data for sustainability jobs, but data suggest that there will be ongoing growth in green careers—especially in the business sphere. Forward-thinking companies are even inviting sustainability into the c-suite. How does becoming a chief sustainability officer sound? If you answer that it sounds pretty good, then this might be the right degree for you.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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