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Some Advice On Careers In Sustainability

As a manufacturer of sustainable products, we here at USAI Lighting work with many businesses and professionals interested in sustainability and sustainable products and services. As the demand for these products has grown, it would stand to reason there would be more jobs and more job seekers looking to fill those roles. That has been true in many ways. There has been growing demand from both students and professionals and employers across the country and in the late 2000’s colleges and universities began extending their sustainability education offerings. Arizona State University opened their School of Sustainability in 2006 and began propelling young graduates into the workforce in 2008. We predict that the capacity and demand for this field will continue to grow in the coming years.

Although still a relatively new field, we reached out through our network currently working in sustainability as well as academia to get feedback and opinions on the present and future of this field for job seekers. Our respondents had varied backgrounds, with three from the education side (representing Texas Tech and Michigan State, respectively) and three respondents currently working in sustainability, including a venture capitalist, marketing strategist, and a LEED certified architectural consultant.

1. If I’m interested in a career in sustainability, what should my major be as an undergraduate?

Sustainability is all about the triple bottom line; the social, economic and environmental impacts of development. If you are interested pursuing a career in some facet of sustainability it all depends on where your interests and strengths are within those areas. For example, if you want to learn about sustainable construction, study architecture and look for courses, credentials, and certifications that allow you to study and implement sustainable design practices.  If you are interested in sustainable policy and the financial benefits then maybe a career in finance with focus on policy, energy, green products, or construction cost estimating is right for you. –Eric Guikema

An attractive quality (which can also be limiting to its implementation) of sustainability is the broad net it casts. I think you will find that there aren’t many disciplines that sustainability doesn’t draw from; it is very much a transdisciplinary field. For example, you may need biologists and chemists to understand how the environment works, engineers to develop technologies and processes, business (e.g. banks and angels) to fund the projects, sociologists to work on developing narratives and norms, educators to disseminate research, artists to promote sustainability discourse, and so on. Undergraduates can study and contribute to sustainability using an array of majors. –Barry Broughton

Anything works, but a good blend of business and science is best.  – Sam Hogg

Sustainability is a concept that encompasses a very large spectrum of disciplines that have only recently been aggregated into one field of study. Questions of sustainability arise anytime human and environmental systems interact with one another, so it is by nature interdisciplinary. This is good news for an incoming undergraduate interested in the subject because they can first focus on a major that interests them, then find where that fits into the field of sustainability. Majors that would focus on important aspects of sustainability would be anything involving earth and environmental sciences (meteorology, hydrogeology, and chemistry), agriculture (crop and soil sciences), life sciences (ecology and biology), engineering (civil and environmental), economics (everyone wants to know what it will cost), and much more. –Austin Parish

I’ve heard great advice from many corporate sustainability executives on this topic – major in a function that you love (that may be accounting, marketing, engineering or social work ) and take courses or otherwise study up on sustainability and systems thinking to become the sustainability thinker in accounting, marketing etc. Companies hire for the role and you will be an incredibly valuable candidate if you bring to that your passion, interest and understanding of sustainability. –Andrea Learned

In some ways, the precise major is less important than whether it affords you the ability to gain exposure to cross-disciplinary and integrative ways of addressing complex problems, tools for engaging with diverse interest groups, and the ability to think about problems from a systems perspective. So it may be flexibility that matters, and guidance on how to use it effectively. –Patricia Norris

2. What are important classes or subjects to take as an undergraduate? Did you have a memorable class that you would recommend students taking? 

If you have decided on your degree then the courses you take will already be laid out for you but if you are undecided or if your interests overlap into areas other than your major then take electives, minors or even double major if you think that they will give you some exposure to other areas of interest.  I had professors in Urban Planning and in Facility Management courses that would call on their contacts and past graduates to come talk to our class about the company they work for, what their work involves, what career opportunities exist, etc. Those were very valuable insights and contacts for us to have as students.  Ask your professors to do this or to help you make contacts who work in the industry that you can ask questions and gain insights from. –Eric Guikema

In my opinion it is very difficult for people to care about something they don’t understand. For this reason I think it is important for individuals to understand how the environment works such as taking an ecology class. With that understanding people can then choose how they want to contribute. Again, different courses and majors can contribute to sustainability in their own ways. –Barry Broughton

Organic chemistry.  I use it all the time. –Sam Hogg

Chemistry, calculus, and physics are very common requirements for a variety of science majors because many of the core concepts in all three are crucial to understanding any upper level field of science. One cannot possibly be too experienced in computers. I would highly recommend any basic computer science course because knowing how to store, analyze, and present quantitative data is an absolute must. –Austin Parish

A course on systems, a course on community engagement theory and tools, ecology, an environmental economics course, and an environmental ethics course. –Patricia Norris

3. As an undergraduate, are there any clubs or associations that I should try to be involved in?

United States Green Building Council has local chapters and student memberships and most trades generally have national organizations with local chapters.  These allow you to interact directly with people employed in fields that you are interested in. They can give insight to what you can expect. –Eric Guikema

I’m unfamiliar with any sustainability organizations at TTU. Our biology department here focuses more on the cellular level and pre-med majors. However, maybe there is an organization(s) and I am unaware. –Barry Broughton

Almost every college has an environmental club.  Join it.  –Sam Hogg

Most major universities will probably have clubs associated with environmental or scientific interests. Michigan State, for example, has the Fisheries and Wildlife club as well as the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP). As for associations, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Geological Society of America (GSA) are the two largest for the earth sciences and their conferences are great opportunities to learn and network. –Austin Parish

4. Should I plan to go to a graduate program if I want to have a career in sustainability? If so, when should I plan on going? 

Pursuing a graduate program depends on your situation and your field.  Graduate degrees can better position you for meeting or exceeding employment requirements or at the very least demonstrate dedication. In my case, I have multiple associate and bachelor degrees; partially because I took me a while to find out what I really wanted to do, but also because having experience in multiple related fields was valuable to me and to my employer. –Eric Guikema

My answer is contingent. You can participate in sustainability with any level of education. Do you want to do field work? You should get an undergraduate degree in ecology. Do you want to do research on sustainability? You’ll need a graduate degree. Do you want to participate in policy making? You can do this through undergraduate, graduate, and law degrees. What kind of a career do you want? –Barry Broughton

Work for a while first.  Almost any graduate program can be tailored to a sustainability track (law, MBA, etc).  Figure out what you want to do before you invest the time and money into grad school. –Sam Hogg

It’s definitely becoming more and more of a requirement. Graduate school will allow a student to focus in depth on a particular aspect of sustainability that interests them as well as be a part of a community of great people who are passionate about what they do. However, taking a break from academia between undergraduate and graduate can be a good time to collect your sanity and some “real world” experience. –Austin Parish

I would say, not necessarily. Fill your resume with obviously sustainability-focused additions to your classes and again, be an excellent example of an “accounting sustainability thinker.” –Andrea Learned

Many job ads request a MS degree and/or several years of experience. A graduate degree may substitute for job experience in some cases. I believe that the right MS degree will build skills and open doors. –Patricia Norris

5. Aside from graduate school, are there other options for further education that may be worthwhile? 

Internships can give you a front row seat of what the day to day is like and give you a great overall feel of an organization and of the industry in general.  Find out what areas of sustainability that you are interested, find out what companies offer those products and services and see what opportunities exist at those organizations. If they don’t have any be persistent and they might create something for someone who shows drive and interest. –Eric Guikema

Local organizations such as The Audubon Society do a pretty good job of educating people on environmental issues. –Barry Broughton

There are lots of certifications you can get (LEED, CEP, etc).  –Sam Hogg

Not that I know of. Graduate school really is the first step to further education or a career in academia.
–Austin Parish

Jump in on causes that you can be passionate about and contribute enough to make a difference and be able to include what you did on your resume. –Andrea Learned

Internships are valuable, and doing more than one in very different settings would be good. –Patricia Norris

6. What industries tend to hire sustainability graduates? Are there any industries on the upswing? 

I know that there is a need for technological innovations to address environmental sustainability. For that reason, environmental engineering, architecture, engineering, chemistry, and physics are very attractive options.  NGOs are also hiring undergraduates with a variety of degrees. –Barry Broughton

Most major corporations of any scale have a sustainability arm.  There are also niche consulting firms out there.  Aside from that, lots of government and non-profit jobs exist, though they can get pretty specialized and scientific.  –Sam Hogg

Any industry in the energy sector, even petroleum/natural gas, will be interested in people with a background in sustainability issues. Consulting firms (environmental / engineering) would be another large industry with sustainability in mind. However, the best chance for a career involving sustainability would actually be in government. Because there’s not yet much profit to be made from being sustainable, government agencies like the EPA, USGS, and NOAA are much more interested in it than industry. –Austin Parish

Not just industry but also local governments, community organizations, other non-profit organizations, and higher levels of government. –Patricia Norris

7. Will there be significant differences in the roles and responsibilities and opportunities available in working with small vs. large organizations? 

There are benefits to both; a small organization will likely have more hands on and more responsibility but less resources and possibly less opportunities and experience whereas a large organization may have a lot of opportunity, resources and experience but the hands on experience and responsibility will take longer to achieve. –Eric Guikema

Yes. As with any organization larger organizations typically have more resources so they are more likely to be addressing sustainability. However, smaller organizations are finding they also need to approach sustainability whether that is through community or stakeholder demands or legal requirements. So, there is opportunity for a sustainability career in a smaller organization. –Barry Broughton

The larger the corporation, the greater the potential impact.  Think of the impact of shaving 2-3 MPG off the trucking fleet at Walmart versus picking up trash along the highway.  –Sam Hogg

Probably, but I’m not sure. –Austin Parish

You have to decide if you want to make a difference in moving a big, traditional organization or if you know you’d prefer to start with a small organization that has not embedded too much of the “business as usual” processes and policies. –Andrea Learned

8. Is there a common career path for sustainability careers? 

There is not a common career path for careers in sustainability because sustainability encompasses a wide range of careers and industries. –Eric Guikema

No. The discipline is simply too new for there to be a common career path. –Barry Broughton

No, it varies tremendously.  –Sam Hogg

Not really. It is a very large interdisciplinary field. Just about anyone in earth sciences, engineering, and economics could find their way into sustainability. –Austin Parish

Absolutely not. An excellent resource to learn more from is Net Impact – they get incredible corporate leaders to speak and participate and you can learn so much from them. –Andrea Learned

I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it. This area is pretty new as a “brand” for a graduate and new employee. –Patricia Norris

9. If I’m looking for a job, what are some good resources to tap or tools to use that may help me find employment opportunities? 

Seek connections in organizations that you want to work for or at least in industries that you want to be in. What you know is important and will apply after you get the job but who you know is often what gets you the lead on a job. –Eric Guikema

Networks. School job postings. Conferences. –Barry Broughton

If you are looking for any job, go meet people who are doing it.  –Sam Hogg

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to the saying about “who you know.” Because of this, network network network. Go to conferences. Get to know your professors. Become a student member of national associations you’re interested in and get on their e-mail list. Subscribe to newsletters. –Austin Parish

10. What responsibilities should students expect in an entry level position? 

Project management skills are crucial in most jobs. Being able to handle multiple concurrent projects that are in varying stages of completion without being overwhelmed is really important. –Eric Guikema

I don’t know for certain the answer to this question other than from a biology standpoint. Usually entry level in biology is field work but in business perhaps entry level would be marketing in sustainability, process alignment (e.g. supply chain management), and general work in a sustainability department. –Barry Broughton

Data analysis.  –Sam Hogg

Anything and everything. They might end up doing the menial tasks that no one else wants to do or they might get thrown into a high level project that involves reporting to the CEO. The most important thing is to learn as much as possible. Someone who is very knowledgeable in every “rung of the ladder” from the bottom up is better off than someone who is not.  –Austin Parish

11. What can students who are starting off a career in sustainability do to stand out from the crowd and be noticed when applying for jobs? 

Demonstrating motivation and enthusiasm and having applicable educational experience is what got me my job. Research the positions that you want and the companies that you want to work for and then find, contact and go meet the people who work in or hire for those positions. Even if they don’t have job openings just show them you are interested and want to do a meet and greet to find out more about the company and the work. Then when the time comes that they need to hire, they already have you as a candidate.  Because of the meet and greet I did, I was able to get my job without even competing against anyone else. –Eric Guikema

Internships and experience (See below). The more you know the better. Read and stay up to date as much as you can. If you can walk into an interview or meeting and discuss a disruptive event’s (e.g. oil spill) implications for a business model or industry you’ll stand out. –Barry Broughton

Have technical skills and know how to communicate.  –Sam Hogg

Extracurricular activities and work experience. The assumption that everyone applying will have a comparable degree to yours is a safe one. Experience outside of academia and activities beyond the classroom are good ways to set oneself apart.  –Austin Parish

12. Where do you see the field of sustainability going in the next ten years? 

Growing. This field will become more pervasive. –Barry Broughton

It will no longer be a field it will just be the way things are – much like how green building has just become building.  –Sam Hogg

I see it going in the direction of “too little, too late.” There is far too much hesitation to tackle the difficult questions. “How are we going to feed and bring clean water to the estimated 2050 global population of 9 billion people?” “What happens when the average global temperature rises by 1 degree Celsius?” –Austin Parish

13. If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would you say? 

Do your research, make contacts, get exposed to different careers and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Also to be proactive and forward thinking. Figure out where look and who to talk to for the information that you need to make your own decisions. –Eric Guikema

The more sustainability experience you can get the better. I worked on sustainability internships for 6 months and they were invaluable. I would have done more field work and internships. –Barry Broughton

Learn to code.  Software is in everything now.  –Sam Hogg

Look up from your books and do some networking once in a while; it won’t kill you. Only small amounts of stress are healthy. Anything beyond than is very counterproductive. –Austin Parish

14. Are there any other recommendations you have for students interested in a career in sustainability? 

Stay relevant. Study the basics (i.e. understand how the environment works, how different disciplines can contribute) but also stay aware of changing trends and stories by watching the news and reading newspapers/magazines. On top of the reading I do for my PhD I try and read a new sustainability book every month or two. –Barry Broughton

It is a very broad field.  Find your niche and a way to stand out.  –Sam Hogg

Find the subject that you find absolutely fascinating and chase it. Once you think you’ve caught it, ask yourself where it’s needed. Doing it in the opposite order is a quick road to misery. –Austin Parish