Friday, September 2, 2011

Five Things You Didn't Learn in Environmental Science - A Guide for New Graduates

I promise that you will never survey a stand of Phragmites
this way outside of a college environment. Ever. 
And please don't wear jeans and a  hoodie to survey wetlands.

Environmental college programs are diversifying, and rightfully so.  I graduated from a fairly traditional wildlife management program (GO HOKIES) in 1996, and the knowledge I gained there is aging.  My field and design techniques, had I not supplemented them with practical work, grad school, and professional courses, would be "like Afghanistan - bombed out and depleted." Apologies to Dave Chappelle.

A formal education in the environmental sciences, especially the Old Guard fields such as crop science, forestry, wildlife, and fisheries science, gives you a good basis in technical skills.   That most students never use most of these skills after graduation is an issue that I'll leave alone. Skip down to #1.

But that many of these programs miss opportunities to provide even more meaningful training for their students is inexcusable.  What kind of training? The kind you'd never think would matter........but really does. Here are some of the things you'll need to know or understand in order to be an effective, professional-level environmental scientist:

1. What the hell are you doing? More specifically, what do you actually want to do in your career? You might have up to 30 years, which probably sounds like a long time.  It's not.

One of the toughest and most important questions is: how important is field/lab work to  you?  The more time you spend in the field/lab, the more you'll be known as someone with those hard-earned skills. And unfortunately, full-time field scientists almost never get paid what they are worth. But you get to spend a whole lot more time outside, which is pretty great.  The more time you spend in the office and/or meetings, the more you'll learn about "process" and "protocol," and learn about ALL of the components of a good research or field project.  Those folks are generally known as staff who don't have a strong basis in science. But they make more money.   See? Not an easy decision.

There are three areas of environmental science that continue to produce jobs, and you'll need to settle on one of them fairly early into your career, or be very patient that you'll arrive in another sub-field eventually:
1) Consumptive resources (pollution, agriculture, sewage/water supply, env. mitigation, game management)
2) Highly threatened resources (endangered species recovery, coral reefs, primitive lands)
3) Conflicted resources (brownfields, remediation, urban wildlife, invasive species, pest species)

It's very likely that your first job won't allow you to focus on exactly the one you want.  Try to attach yourself to a project or initiative in your area of interest.  It's amazing - once you start meeting people, your name as "Sarah, from XX, she does "XX" type of work".....will spread like wildfire.  Enjoy it!  With any luck, hard work, and a few years, you'll either be offered to take over your intended work, or you'll get a job somewhere else that's closer to your career vision. Regardless, start your career's work by knowing (somewhat) where you want to land in 10, 20, 30 years.  It won't work out exactly as you imagined.  But it might work out even better than you imagined.

And remember, the average professional science job now lasts less than five years.  No one expects you to stay put at a job that's far outside your area of interest.

2. Public speaking.  I know, I know, you're "gonna be in the field."  You're "gonna be making breakthroughs in the lab."  Uh huh. I'll let you in on a trade secret.  In the environmental sciences (as in life), your "quality" as a scientist will be gauged by others based on the combination of your competence and your confidence.  Confidence is most often expressed by talking to people about your work.  If you can't talk to people about how smart you are, or how important your work is, without boring them or having them tune out, you will never be well funded. Not being able to explain the value of your own work raises many concerns to the person with whom you're talking.  Maybe you're not a hard worker.  Maybe your work isn't really that important.    Do it. Own it. Talk about it.

3. Conflict Resolution.  Being a scientist is all about saying, "My data proves it!" and then everyone bows down and trusts you, right? Right? No, not at all.  In most cases, the best scientific answer to a problem is not going to be the resolution.  Not only do you have to deal with non-scientific bugaboos like "perception," and "pseudoscience," but there are often strong opposing viewpoints in the workplace about the scientific merits of different solutions to environmental problems.  That means that you are going to work with scientists who strongly believe that everything you have learned about wildlife, forestry, fish, etc. is just plain wrong.  Getting anything done in such a work environment will require you to know when to hold 'em acquiesce, when to accommodate requests for more information (and to what extent), and when to fight all comers for the value of your work and reputation. What to do? Be confident, be polite.  Give up some ground, but not too much.  Remember what your opponent says.  Keep it available to use against them later.

4. Budget skills.  Ugh.  How awful.  I don't know if you have been watching the news, but there is no money.  And there's going to be less.  Like, the additive inverse of money.  You need to understand how your department's budget is built.  You need to understand how a double ledger works.  You need to know how and if your time is billed to clients or grants, and what rate your employer charges for your time.  You can learn these things online, or in a basic accounting course.  Your choice. But you'll need to learn them, hopefully before you embarass yourself by not understanding your own budget.

5.Proposal writing skills.  If you are just getting into the field,  you are probably writing grant proposals, project proposals, or permit applications at least part of the time.  This is not the "technical writing" you were informed you'd be doing as a professional.  This is writing for your life.  Or your career, at least.   Be accurate. Be precise. Be succinct.  No typos.  Read the first part of the RFP or permit that provides instructions.  Ask for examples of past permit/proposal applications.  Have the best possible understanding of who will be reading what you write.

A sixth one that I hate to mention, but that's absolutely critical, is to understand that politics plays a role in the workplace.  You will experience favoritism, both positive and negative.  Hopefully it will not be gender or race based favoritism, but when you're on the outside, it doesn't hurt any less when it's not an illegal prejudice.  If you luck out and have a great supervisor that pushes you to improve your work, while being active in your growth, that's awesome.  But in that case, their boss, or their boss's boss, are likely to not be good managers.  Sorry, those are the odds.  And it will affect you - hopefully not personally.  People aren't usually promoted to management because they are good managers.  They were promoted because they were good at what you do.  And in too many cases, they are gonna tell you alllllllll about how they did it.

In your career, you're likely to find yourself on any possible side of political and workplace conflicts.  In every case, make the best of the situation.  Be confident.  Be sincere.  Take your successes and failures seriously, but never too personally. 

Good luck out there! 


Stephanie and Dustin said...

This is fantastic. I'm going to print it! I think it is time for me to really hone in on what interests me the most and start volunteering in that field/realm.


Map Monkey said...

Excellent advice, Swampy! I agree with just about all of it, and I think even though you geared it to environmental science-y careers, much of it applies to many, if not all, professional positions. But just tell me this, since I am woefully uninformed about field work - what's wrong with wearing a hoodie and jeans?

River Mud said...

Thanks for the compliment Stephanie! Unfortunately, I learned a lot of this great wisdom the hard way! Ha ha!

Thanks also Jules! The problem with those clothes is that they are made of cotton, which is notorious for freezing/roasting/dehydrating people to death. It's horribly absorptive and encourages your body to keep cranking out (and losing) heat.

Steve said...

A superbly written item and incredibly useful too.

Alex said...

This makes me even more nervous about finishing school in spring :)

I do agree that I'll probably never use most of the skills that I'm currently being forced to do.

prpark said...

Great entry and solid advice...I was at Horn Point Lab over the weekend at the Open House and was impressed by the dedication of the grad students and professors. I have a few friends who work there and these guys/gals help so much more than I was aware.