4 April 2012
Talking with undergrads about ‘nontraditional’ careers in the geosciences
Posted by Jessica Ball
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…
- A science consultant for several wildly successful scifi television series
- A geologic photographer who flies his own plane (and has an M.D.)
- A geochemist who helped preserved artifacts in the Library of Congress
- An astronaut who helped repair the Hubble Telescope
- A camera operator for the next Mars rover
- A geoarchaeologist who studies natural disasters on ancient coastlines
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:
- American Geosciences Institute Careers – http://www.agiweb.org/workforce/careers.html
- AGI Geoscientists in the Media – http://www.agiweb.org/workforce/webinar-videos/GeoWebinar_GeoscientistsinMedia.html
- American Geophysical Union Careers – http://sites.agu.org/careers/
- Geoscience Careers Beyond Academia (SERC) – http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/careerprep/jobsearch/alternative.html
- Geological Society of America Jobs/Career Resource Center – http://www.geosociety.org/profdev/
- Association for Women Geoscientists Careers Page- http://www.awg.org/eas/profiles.html
- National Park Service Geoscientists in the Parks – http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/gip/index.cfm
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”.
There are probably a few interesting jobs with science museums, too, though I suppose that’s still fairly close to the government/industry/teaching set.
I agree that good writing, and communication in general, is a huge key to success. In addition to writing frequently, though, it is important to go back and proofread and edit. Every few months I’ll go back and read something I wrote a year or more ago, and which I was proud of when I wrote it. In reading it, I always see a lot of places where it can be improved.
I often wish that science classes offered for undergraduates at my current institution focused a little more on the writing aspect of science, and that at least once a semester students were required to edit and revise a paper or lab report. It has been my experience that in rewriting a paper or refining a presentation, I often end up with a much better understanding than if I had just put something together once and been done with it. Or maybe it’s just because by revising a lab report my students would actually read the fairly extensive comments I left on their paper instead of just the grade.
Meteorology is another field that values science graduates. In the UK we’re required to have a degree in meteorology, physics. maths or a physical science or engineering, partly for the maths involved in modern weather forecasting but mainly for the thought processes that are taught and developed studying science.
Being able to express yourself clearly and work to time constraints are also skills that are essential; having a perfect forecast is useless if it is late or if the person receiving the forecast doesn’t understand it.
When we have to explain things like climate change and the risk associated with volcanic ash, or even probabilistic forecasts, we need to communicate clearly, often to people who have already made up their own minds about what we’re going to say..
Great post, as always! (then again, I might biased for various reasons with this one :P)
Hopefully this won’t be too long, but I just want to add to what you and the two previous people here have said. I’m aiming this at any computer science student who is reading this, but the CS field can ALWAYS use scientists. I say this from both personal experience, as well as from seeing where fellow CS majors from undergrad have wound up. I have more than one CS friend who has gotten a job in the science field, simply because of their interest in it.
A hypothetical example, just because a CS major may go to work for a company to write the software that runs a satellite or rover, doesn’t mean that science won’t play an integral part of their everyday life there. All of the engineers here at least have a strong interest in science, especially geology, if they don’t have a degree in it already. Being a geologist by training, my job is pretty much half science/half computer science all the time. I’ve already been writing more scripts and programs than I ever have before, and it’s cool to think that some of them may be used for mission-critical things once the rover lands.
Understanding what you are trying to image, or what you are trying to take a sample of, makes writing the software easier and ultimately produces better code. Additionally, any potential employer will always look to see what other interests you may have. They will be much more apt to offer a position to someone who has a background in what the main goal of the company is, rather than someone who only knows how to write code and just wants a paycheck (a note to the students: this is the _exact_ reason why I was offered my job.)
Lastly, no matter what job you may already have, there are always new opportunities that arise in any company. I’m mainly referring to any company in the fields of aerospace engineering/defense (they’re the ones who actually build the spacecraft/rovers after all). You may be working for one of those companies on a completely unrelated topic, but when new projects start that are science-based, having that science background can greatly increase the chance of landing a different/better job within the same company. You’ll stand out much better than those that don’t have it.
Heres a look into the career Ive chosen as a geophysicist performing geophysics. My job security will never rely heavily on the economy, because there will always be a need for surveying.