Today I have a different kind of post, but a “series” I would love to continue in the future. I got a reader email earlier this month with a question for me that I felt needed more than a quick response via email, and one I thought could use some advice from more than just me.

So instead of responding to her in detail via email, I thought I would share the question here (with her permission, of course) and crowd source some answers from all of you. I know I’m not the only one in an environmental career and figure she will get a better answer by sharing the question with all of you.

Reader Question: How Do I Find an Environmental Career?

Hi Angela,

I read your blog, and relate to your philosophy of seeking financial independence but not early retirement. I’m writing to seek your advice as someone who works in their dream job related to environmental impact.

I want to move into a job/career that has an impact on climate change. My ideal timeline for this is around the end of 2020/beginning of 2021, when I plan to move states with my boyfriend who is starting a PhD program. I am hoping you might have advice on what sort of companies/industries to consider that will match my interests and skillset, and how I can better prepare myself to be a qualified candidate.

About my interests: I am an industrial engineer by training, and I love what I do. I’m a couple years out of college with a Master’s degree. In my career so far, I’ve found my niche to be focused on process improvement/project management for knowledge work – I love helping people to use data to drive their decisions and planning processes, to streamline or automate their recurring tasks, and to determine their priorities.

I love doing the planning and prioritization myself as well. I have experience in a variety of industries, from healthcare to manufacturing to theme parks, and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but I really would love to move into something helping the planet and build a career in that field. That being said, I obviously want to make sure that the role itself is something I enjoy and am passionate about, or else it will not be sustainable long term.

I know this is somewhat different than what you do, but I don’t know many people in climate jobs, so any advice from someone in industry is helpful! Looking for roles that might be a fit, my best guess so far is operations at a solar company, though I’m sure there’s more out there that I’m not considering.

Thanks in advance for any response you can provide!

My Advice

My first suggestion here would be to reach out like you’ve done – ask questions of people in the environmental field. More specifically, ask about their specific jobs, what they like, dislike, and what might be relevant to your skills. Network with those you know, and have them connect you up with those you don’t.

I recently spent some time on the phone with a good friend’s cousin discussing similar questions, but in that case she had an interview that she was preparing for. The best part about asking these questions now is that you have plenty of time to prepare and research before your job hunt.

It sounds like you really do enjoy industrial engineering, so I would definitely start down that path. Do you enjoy it enough that you would rather do that in a job like you have that doesn’t focus on environmental impact, or is the “do good” part of your career of higher importance?

In my personal experience, I made the choice to go with the career where I could make the largest environmental impact. While I adored my park ranger job, I felt I could do more in sustainable building, and that’s definitely been the case. I could have been happy in either career, but my “do good” nature is glad I’m working in a place where I can make a real impact.

My final question is whether you know where you are headed for your boyfriend’s PhD program. Is that location still up in the air, or is the school set already? If it’s set, it’s time to do some more specific research on the area to figure out your options there.

Job opportunities vary wildly from region to region, so if you can narrow down a city that would be helpful in figuring out what your options are. COVID-19 may open up more remote options for the long term, but it’s hard to say right now.

But because of the instability of life right now as well, if you’re happy where you are at, and it’s a secure job, I would be a bit hesitant to change things up. That said, you are looking out far enough into the future that hopefully things will be settled more by then and it will be a better time to make a big switch.

Ultimately, good luck! And remember, even if you do go down one path you think you will like, know that you don’t have to be stuck in it forever if it turns out not to be the perfect career you’d hoped for. Pivoting can happen at any age, and don’t let the fear of choosing wrong stop you from trying things out.

Now over to all of you – what suggestions do you have for her? If you work in a field that might be of interest, please share below! Even if you don’t, I bet you have some great advice.

11 thoughts on “Reader Question: How Do I Find an Environmental Career?

  1. I’ve been through this recently myself.
    I studied chemical engineering and spent some time studying environmental process engineering which was the highlight of my degree.
    After graduating I moved into oil and gas – that was about 15 years ago and it was a good choice on some levels. Although I worked most of that in environmentally responsible projects/work (or so I trolled myself).
    Now… oil is looking rocky – it’s not a very secure career at the moment and I just didn’t enjoy it after doing a few different jobs over the last few years.
    When stuck with the prospect of sticking with what I knew (chemical engineering) or going off and taking time off to study something new (environmental/sustainable engineering) I decided to find a company that had won work in a sustainable project and get a job there.
    That worked out and I started in March there – 4 months in and it’s going great.

    The other option of quitting work and going back to school is not only costly (lost income and added expense) but you’ll end up with a piece of paper which might not get you a job. That’s how I see it – maybe I’m too cautious to take that gamble but you can probably get paid to get the experience that a degree will teach you/

    I think that there are many jobs – even in dirty industries – which are green/sustainable. In some ways there’s more to help with there. It’ll be part of every business in the future.
    So, think about how you can build up your skills as an engineer to help deliver the solutions that are needed in the challenges ahead. You’ve already got a wide range of experience in different industries – I’m sure you’ll be able to follow through on your desires.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your input! I asked the original question.

      You make a good point about sustainable jobs in green industries – in your experience, have you consistently been able to work on sustainable projects, or does it depend on what projects you get?

      1. I think it very much depends on the company – what the core goals are.

  2. Great question! When reading the post a couple of fields of work came to mind, utilities and construction. Here in Canada our utility companies are growing their renewable energy projects quite a bit and I don’t see them slowing down anytime soon. I’m not sure what the situation is in the United States if the reader is from there, but I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities in the field.

    I think construction is a big field where the reader could have a big impact when it comes to the environment. Whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial construction provides provides a chance to set environmental standards for years to come.

    Hope this helps!

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your input! I asked the original question.

      Those are definitely two fields I’m considering! Utilities often seem to have construction-related jobs as well. I’ve definitely been feeling a little underqualified to work in construction (my degree is not in construction management, and I don’t have experience in construction projects). I’m thinking I might be able to get onto some installation projects at my current job that would help fill that gap a bit – but then I would have to drop something else that I’m working, so it’s a balancing act.

      One takeaway from this post/comment: I’m going to try to find someone to talk with about construction jobs and get a better idea of whether it would be a good fit.

      1. I work in the construction field, you know 😉 With an environmental science degree.

  3. Thank you Angela! I’m the one who asked this question.

    “Do you enjoy it enough that you would rather do that in a job like you have that doesn’t focus on environmental impact, or is the “do good” part of your career of higher importance?”

    This question really stuck out to me. It’s hard to answer without experiencing it. I’ve enjoyed jobs in lots of industries with various levels of “do good” factor. So far, I’ve found that industries that are a BAD fit with my morals/culture have more impact on my satisfaction than say, good vs. neutral impact. But I’m very early in my career, and as I look at the years ahead I do think it’s worth a shot to try to have a higher impact. And like you said, any change is not forever, I can always make another pivot if it doesn’t work out.

    We do know where we will be – Minneapolis area – and I’ve been scoping out the industry! They are actually pretty high on the list of states using renewables, so I’m hoping that can be promising.

    Finally, your point about COVID instability is a good one. Another vote for the utilities industry is that it’s likely to be less impacted by all this. I’ve been planning to be patient and work on finding the right job, even if it means staying put for a while after my partner moves. But I will want to move eventually, and COVID adds another level of unpredictability to every aspect of this move. I can only wait and hope that it settles out a bit before I’m looking for jobs.

    Thank you to everyone who is willing to give any advice or share their experience! I have a lot to figure out 🙂

    1. If you’re interested, I could try and set you up for a phone call to talk to a couple folks I know in utilities. Email me if you are!

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