Masters in Sustainable Development | Top Universities

If you’re interested in studying environmental science on a deeper level – discovering how we can meet the needs of the present without negatively impacting on the needs of the future – then a Masters in Sustainable Development degree could be for you.

This is an interdisciplinary course which focuses on the principle that human welfare should advance without exhausting essential resources, without posing risks to upcoming generations, and without causing irreversible damage to ecosystems and the Earth’s resources.

With increasing discussion and debate surrounding issues such as climate change, pollution and energy in recent years, and increasing expectations for sustainability across our social, political and corporate sectors, there is growing demand for sustainable development graduates to help develop effective solutions.

Read on to find out about common Masters of Sustainable Development entry requirements, popular specializations and careers in sustainability.

Course structures will vary, but most programs are likely to consist of a mixture of core modules, elective modules which allow you to specialize, and research modules. Of the latter, one is likely to be a final dissertation or research project allowing you to show off what you have learned.


Course structure and entry requirements


Masters in Sustainable Development degrees are usually offered as an MSc (Master of Science) qualification, but less commonly can be found as an MA (Master of Arts). For example, the UK’s University of East Anglia offers a combined MA in Globalisation, Business and Sustainable Development.Most courses are one or two years long; this will vary depending on your country of study.

You’ll gain core knowledge in sustainability risks and prospects, as well as gaining a foundational understanding of relevant aspects of the natural, environmental and social sciences. Students will typically be encouraged to discuss alternative ways to promote sustainable development in different settings and sectors. This should lead to the development of excellent communication skills, as well as a range of persuasion techniques and leadership strategies. 

As well as developing your theoretical understanding of the subject, you will be taught how to conduct your own research. Some courses will also offer you a placement at a research center, non-governmental organization (NGO), government agency or other relevant workplace, allowing you to gain practical experience.

Entry requirements

You will normally need to hold a good bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject, such as a natural or social sciences subject. Some universities, such as Oxford, will also ask for a piece of written work pertaining to the course to assess your ability, as well as a personal statement expressing why you want to study this particular sustainable development degree.

However, you may still be able to study sustainable development at master’s level even if you do not have a related undergraduate degree. Relevant work experience in the sector will certainly help your application, while some universities offer alternative postgraduate options for those who do not have the academic background necessary for an advanced master’s degree. For instance, Royal Holloway (University of London) offers a postgraduate diploma (PGDip) in Practicing Sustainable Development, with a course structure identical to the MSc but without the dissertation.

There are a wide range of specializations available in the field of sustainable development, allowing you to tailor your degree and begin to explore which careers in sustainability might appeal to you the most. Elective course modules may well overlap with a range of subjects in the natural sciences, geography, sociology and even psychology. Here are some the most common specializations, which are available as both course modules and separate specialized degrees:

Agriculture and sustainability 


In this specialization you will study a range of topics, including current issues in agriculture and agricultural practice, the nature of sustainability and sustainable development, and examples of emerging applications and patterns of sustainable agriculture. This should enable you to critically analyze the changing viewpoints and issues in agriculture.

Climate change/ecosystems

If you’re keen to understand the underlying scientific principles, you may choose a natural sciences specialization, such as climate change or global ecosystems. Focusing on the interaction between humans and the environment, you’ll combine aspects of physical geography, hydrology, landscape ecology, toxicology, mathematics, physics and chemistry. You will learn about issues such as land use; dispersal of substances in water, soil and air; impact on ecosystems and biodiversity; approaches to cleaning up pollution; and the value placed on nature and the environment.

Poverty/international development

This specialization focuses on understanding the root causes of poverty and inequality, and examining the ways in which poverty can be overcome. If this is where your passion lies, there are plenty of full-length postgraduate sustainable development degrees specializing in the area; for instance, the UK’s University of Birmingham offers a Masters in International Development (Poverty, Inequality and Development).

Energy and sustainable development

This subject focuses on strategies to maintain the plentiful supply of energy needed to support our modern lifestyles in the developed world, without damaging or draining the environment. You will develop your understanding of a range of technical, regulatory and financial perspectives on the challenges related to transitioning to alternative energy systems.

Ecological economics

If you are interested in careers in sustainability from the perspective of economics, then this specialization could be for you. You will develop an understanding of how economic activity can contribute to environmental and social problems, and gain an understanding of various tools and strategies by which to lessen or resolve these problems.

If you are particularly interested in relating careers in sustainability within the fields of economics, business or management, you might like to study a ‘green MBA’ program in these subjects. To find out more about sustainable MBAs, read this article on our sister site.

The skills you will have gained during your Masters in Sustainable Development should equip you for a range of careers in sustainability, spanning the sectors of clean energy, technology, education, management, political science, business and more – with high demand in many industries for graduates in this subject.

Below are some examples of careers in sustainable development which you might like to aspire towards following your degree.

Sustainability analyst

Sustainability analysts gather data and research to help companies address their environmental responsibilities. This includes analyzing what environmental impacts the company is having and how these can be improved, for example by promoting recycling or encouraging more ethical purchasing. Business in pretty much all sectors are now employing sustainability analysts and consultants, due to the increasing focus on climate change and sustainability in recent years.

Similarly, an energy efficiency analyst is employed by businesses, organizations or individuals to analyze the energy efficiency of a project or building, and make recommendations for improvement.


Career Options


Conservation officer 

If you are passionate about the environment and want to encourage others to appreciate and safeguard the natural world, you might like to become a conservation officer. In this career you will work to protect a natural environment and raise awareness of the ways in which the local community can enjoy its settings without having a negative impact. Similarly, a sustainable development officer would promote their particular employer’s sustainability practices in the local area.

Recycling officer

Recycling officers aim to reduce waste by promoting recycling in their local area. They plan and develop environmental and waste reduction policies and schemes. Your employer could be a local authority/government, recycling contractor or environmental charity. In this career you will need strong communication and planning skills, as well as an understanding of current recycling practices, emerging technologies and future trends. As is the case in all careers in sustainability, relevant work experience will help support your graduate job applications.


Whether you have studied a scientific-based sustainable development degree, or simply have a keen interest in studying and researching the environment, a career as an ecologist could be for you. Ecologists study the relationship between ecosystems and their environment, and often specialize in a certain area, such as marine life. They carry out fieldwork to assess the impact of human activity in the area and can then advise on relevant sustainability practices, such as monitoring pollution and waste management. Again, relevant work experience is essential.

Key Skills

Common skills gained from a Masters in Sustainable Development include:

  • Problem-solving
  • Communication skills
  • Organizational skills and time management
  • Independent research
  • The ability to interpret and analyze data
  • The ability to combine theory and practical application
  • Knowledge of moral and social issues relating to sustainability
  • The ability to critically analyze facts and figures
  • Understanding of relevant political and economic factors