You’re here (reading this) because you have decided to pursue an environmental career. But there are many subfields within this career field, and even more important, some you may not have considered or may not want to pursue at all. For example, I remember as an undergraduate student when I finally was able to take my first course within my major, which was Environmental Science at the time. Half the course was spent calculating bacteria present in a sewage treatment plan trickle tank. No kidding. While taking the course, we also had a field trip to the State Laboratory in Trenton, New Jersey. The lab at that time was in the basement of an old building and nuclear/bomb shelter signs were posted at all of the entrances. I fondly remember my “trip to the bomb shelter” as a turning point in my career. The course and the associated trip opened my eyes to the area of the environmental field my particular degree was focused on – and it wasn’t for me! It didn’t take me long to track down my advisor at the university and change my major – to forestry (that time) within the natural resource management program. Eventually, I found forestry not to be quite right, either, and focused on Natural Resource Management as my final choice.
I share this experience, because simply choosing the broader field of environmental science may not be enough. There are subfields that will appeal to you and those that don’t. So that brings us to the question, “How do we find our passion?” Here are some suggestions for finding the right “fit” in this field.
Join a Club or Professional Organization. This may sound obvious, but check your local area for environmental organizations. There will likely be a lot from which to choose. Consider watershed groups, hiking clubs, “friends of” refuges or parks (known as “friends groups”), paddling groups, local chapter of a professional organization, etc. One newer option is meetup.com. This site is becoming the place to go to find local organizations or special events for people with similar interests. Clubs and professional groups provide an opportunity to learn more about the type of people you would be working with and could (as a bonus) provide you with additional networking opportunities.
Look Inside Yourself. I don’t mean this in the meditative sense, but I do mean that you should take the time to focus on how you feel and why you chose this field of study. Sit down with a pad of paper and ask yourself the following questions:
Why did I choose environmental science (or the specific field you chose)?
What do I see myself doing? (Literally – envision yourself doing the job and write down what it is you are doing in that scene in your mind’s eye.)
Choose a memory of a day when you were very happy and felt a sense of great accomplishment – write down the activity. Why did that make you feel good?
Am I most happy working outdoors or in an office environment?
What hobbies or interests am I good at?
The answers to these questions can really inform your career intentions. If you grew up camping with your family and visiting national parks, that may have influenced you to want to work outdoors. Perhaps you are artistic and love to draw – this might make landscape architecture an appropriate field for you. Or you surround yourself with plants – identifying each species as you hike along a trail. That might point you in the direction of a botanist or habitat restoration specialist. I’m not sure of this, but I know I spent a lot of summers making mud pies when I was young. I ended up as an aquatic ecologist. Coincidence? Probably not!
Volunteer. This is something you will hear me repeat throughout this book – volunteer! There is no better way to find out what it is like to work in a field than to experience it first hand. Most organizations accept volunteers and the benefits are a huge boost to your job search, establishing a professional network, gaining experience to add to your resume, and, of course, finding out if the work is the right “fit” for you. I have volunteered many times throughout my career and I have always found out something new about myself when I did. Look to other chapters in this book to find out about how to go about finding volunteer opportunities – the possibilities are only limited by your creativity and imagination!
Ask Everyone! Don’t just rely on yourself to find your “bliss” – ask those around you. I will share a story about how I chose my environmental science major. In high school, I visited my guidance counselor and asked him what career fields I could enter if I were interested in science. His response was that I could be a teacher or a nurse -- keep in mind that this was a long time ago! I knew right away that neither of these choices would do, but had no idea where to start looking for other options. In a casual conversation with my oldest sister (my 2 oldest sisters were both teachers, having had the same guidance counselor!), she described a masters’ level course she was taking and how they went canoeing as a field trip. She said, “If I were you, I’d do that environmental stuff.” Had I not had that moment with her, I may not have found the field I love for many years, if ever. From that moment, I began researching the options and found that there were careers outside of teaching and nursing – thank goodness! So ask folks around you what they would do or what advice they have to someone starting a new career or changing careers. Sometimes you may find an unexpected nugget of wisdom that completely changes your trajectory!
Be Strategic About Taking Electives. If you are still in school, use your time well. Take electives in a variety of subfields or even in other fields of interest. Take courses that teach you skills, such as how to write environmental compliance documents or how to identify plants. Look for electives that broaden your knowledge – often, we are not aware of entire career fields until we are exposed to them through our coursework. For example, I once took an elective course entitled, “Environmental Education in the School Curriculum.” Now, to be honest, I took it because someone said it was an easy course (true confession!). However, I learned that environmental education is an entire career field (who knew?) and I learned to write a lesson plan for an environmental field trip. I can’t tell you how many times I have used that knowledge! From my first job as a Park Ranger-Interpretation, to leading field trips on the college farm, to teaching at the community college -- that information paid off for me many times over the years. At that time, I didn’t realize that having credits in environmental education would help me get seasonal park ranger jobs, either. So be strategic about taking your courses to maximize your learning and exposure to new opportunities or career fields. There is wisdom in the expression, “You don’t know what you don’t know!”
Do Your Research. Today, this is so much easier than it was back in my time! You have the internet to do your research, and the social media sites where you can actually get answers, leads, and feedback. That is a huge plus when searching for your true passion! There are lots of career questionnaires online that are free and may be of assistance to you. Here are some interesting ideas:
http://www.princetonreview.com/signin.aspx?RDN=1 - Register to take the 5 Minute Princeton Review Career Quiz (free)
http://www.truecolorscareer.com/quiz.asp - Carolyn Kalil’s True Colors Career
Aptitude Test (free)
http://www.self-directed-search.com/Default.aspx - Dr. John Holland’s (takes 30 minutes, there is a fee, however)
http://www.missouriwestern.edu/careerdevelopment/cig/ - University of Missouri Career Interest Game (free, easy)
http://www.jobhuntersbible.com/counseling/sec_page.php?sub_item=048 – The Job Hunter’s Bible – a great site filled with career insight, tests, and tips (free).
Finally, a word of caution. There are lots of unscrupulous career tests and websites out there. If you are asked to pay more than a few dollars for a career test or counseling, buyer beware! The best career advice available comes from people you know, university or other legitimate career services providers, and professionals in the field. Using trusted resources is always the best course of action.
I hope this has helped you find your true passion – the path is oft times uncertain at the outset, but we each manage to find our way!