4 April 2012

Talking with undergrads about ‘nontraditional’ careers in the geosciences

Posted by Jessica Ball

Yeah, I think the title is lame, but I couldn't come up with anything more creative and I doubt anyone noticed...

So for anyone who was interested, my careers talk back in March went pretty well. It was an intro class, so I’m assuming that getting any of them to ask questions right before lunch was a success! I can’t seem to get the presentation to embed, but I can give you the gist of the thing.

Because this was an intro class, I went in with the assumption that very few of the students had any real conception of what a geologist ends up doing aside from what they see in the movies (bad examples for the most part) and what they experience in classes (teachers they see a few times a week but don’t have time to connect with). I presented a very linear concept of a geological career: take classes, get a degree, go into government or industry work OR get another degree, teach or do one of the former two options. Then I showed them the list of everyone I could find who got creative with their geologic experience. Such as…

I tried to get them really excited about this. Work in television! Travel the country in your own aircraft! Go to space! Drive robots on other planets! I think the utter coolness of the last one may have sunk into a few minds. But I did remember that this was an intro class, and  most of them probably either didn’t know what they wanted to do or had already chosen another major and just wanted a science credit. So, I ended the talk with a bit of an overview on how science in general (as well as geology) could help them find jobs, and what to do when they started looking. My key points (and bear in mind that I’m working from a fairly limited experience of being on the job market and a short career in general):

  • It’s all about who you know. Seriously, this is how a lot of us get jobs. My job at AGI resulted from a conversation at a volunteer archaeological dig with one of AGI’s education and outreach employees. The aforementioned Mars rover driver (a fellow UB grad) found out about his job from his advisor’s connections. Another UB grad is now working in an outreach position at a volcano observatory in the Caribbean because our department has a lot of professional connections there. So my advice? Networking will get you noticed. Talk to anyone and everyone, especially at conferences or on field trips, and take advantage of your professors’ connections too. Make friends with everybody!
  • Be prepared. You never know a job opportunity is going to show up, and you want to be ready to show yourself off on short notice. Keep an up-to-date resume and/or CV; also, keep a portfolio of relevant work you’ve done. Posters, abstracts, presentations, publications – anything. I have a whole notebook of geoscience education materials that I worked on at AGI, and you can be darn sure I’m pulling it out if I ever start looking at outreach jobs.
  • Take advantage of opportunities. Sure, that unpaid internship might suck away your whole summer, but it can’t hurt to give it a try. You might narrow down your interests (I love this! vs. I never want to do this again), and you’ll make connections, and you’ll get work experience of some kind. If you can swing it financially, don’t turn down chances like this.
  • WRITE. I’m not just saying this because I’m a blogger; I’m saying it because every scientist needs to be able to communicate, and writing is how we do that. If you can’t tell people why your work is important, or why you need it to be funded, then you’ll find yourself ignored and broke. Most positions requiring scientific backgrounds also require some amount of writing, and if you don’t write well, it’s going to hurt you. That said, you don’t need to write journal articles all the time. Write a diary! Write letters! Write stories! Blog! Email people! Write in any way you can as much as you can, and eventually you’ll find yourself developing a voice that will serve you well later on.
  • Be imaginative and take chances. All the jobs I featured in the list above are not anything I would have thought of when I was an undergrad – but these people took a solid basic skillset and found ways to apply it to a huge variety of professions. Being adaptable with your skills and background opens up all sorts of interesting opportunities. I probably wouldn’t have applied for a job in education and outreach, given my undergraduate background was mostly in field mapping, structure and volcanology, but knowing that all that work gave me a solid grounding in the geosciences made it easier to take the plunge.
  • Don’t be afraid to work up to your dream job. If you’re really lucky you might be able to snag it early on, but for a lot of people that doesn’t happen. Maybe the job isn’t available, maybe you need more skills than you have, maybe you don’t know the right people yet. It’s not the end of the world! I realized that I didn’t want to continue in my desk job even though I really liked the people I worked with (and the idea of doing outreach in general), so I knew my best course was to go back to graduate school. I have some ideas about where I want to go with my degree after I’m done – but I know that I should keep my options open!

Finally, I put together a list of geoscience career resources:

And that’s about it! It ended up being a mash-up of topics, because I was playing to a mixed audience, but I think some of them found it useful. I actually got a great question from a communications major about how valuable a science background could be – my answer was along the lines of “SOLID GOLD WE NEED MORE OF YOU COME JOIN US!” (With less shouting, but you get the idea. We always need more communications people in the geosciences!) Hopefully all the students took something away from the talk, even if it was just “hey, geology is cooler than I thought”.