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How to find a Job in the Environmental Field

I am frequently asked one question by students of all ages – from grade school to college.  “How do I find a job in the environmental field?”  My answer has always been basically the same.  Learn about what you love and what you are interested in, and work really hard.  Environmental organizations and companies need employees with the same skills as any other.  They need great writers, and people who are good at doing math.  They need folks who are educated in marketing and PR, HR and accounting.  But early this morning, as I lay in bed anxious to get up to do the work I am passionate about, I realized there is advice missing from the response I usually give.  Here are seven ways to find and KEEP your dream job in the environmental field:

  1. Volunteer.  If you’re crazy about birds, and think you might want to be a biologist, do not wait until you have graduated from college to find out!  Volunteering is your chance to learn more about what you’re interested in – and maybe even find out what you DON’T like before it’s too late!  Long ago I volunteered with a team of bird biologists.  I quickly found out that I had NO interest in waking up WELL before sunrise to drive in the dark on unpaved roads to set mist nets in the wilderness.  I was tired and cold and weary from hiking from net to net all morning.
  2. Find a great internship. Volunteering – specifically as an intern – can help you gain critical experience for your resume.  But don’t be a flake!  Show up consistently and on time, and do your tasks really well.  Non-profits sometimes rely on interns to do jobs that for-profits would have the funds to hire someone for.  Think of it as an entry level position, and take it as seriously as you would a paid job. Check out internships available at the ENC HERE.
  3. Be ready to accept some hardship.  Here is where I need to elaborate just a bit on the “work really hard” part.  Yes you need to go to college, but do not expect to land your dream job the day after you graduate.  At this point in your life you have proven that you can survive our educational system.  Congratulations!  But most of the skills you’ll use on the job will come from experience, not from what you learned in class.  The first job you take will likely not pay very well (in fact you may NEVER be paid as well as if you worked in the “for profit” world).  You won’t have the job title you want and you might not even be doing the job you imagined you’d be doing.  But take that job and do it very well.  If you have food and shelter and clothes on your back, you’ll be OK. Remember – there are plenty of people who have it a lot worse than you do!  Read this great book if you need a reminder.
  4. Be prepared to wear more than one hat. “That’s not in MY job description” is not a sentence that should come out of your mouth when you work for ANY company – especially not a non-profit.  The more skills you have, the more you will be valued by your employer.  I have a master’s degree but that doesn’t make me too good to scrape paint off cement, or dig a hole – I am REALLY GOOD at digging holes.  Take Eric Idle’s advice and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  Taking on that extra task could lead to improving your skills, being given extra responsibilities – or maybe even just getting a little exercise!  Who doesn’t like a little endorphin rush?  Never say no to more responsibility.  Become invaluable to your employer.
  5. Learn how to market yourself. There are probably a lot of great potential employees out there, but I am rarely impressed by a resume.  To be honest most of the resumes I see are horrible, only because the applicant doesn’t know how to turn their experience (as unrelated as it may seem) into expertise related to the job they’re applying for.  You worked at a shoe store?  Nope.  You have retail experience during which you developed great customer service skills and gained knowledge of point of sale software.  You’ve been volunteering in your field?  Tell people!  And not just in your resume.  Sell yourself all the time – on your facebook and face to face – to your friends, to your own family and to people in line with you to buy coffee.  Become “known” for being that person who <insert what you want to be known for HERE>, and when an opportunity comes up that would be great for YOU, you’ll find out about it and have a better chance of seizing it!
  6. Don’t waste energy.  Figure out a way to make everything you do count toward achieving your goals, and your ultimate goal should be marketing yourself.  I know that sounds shallow, but in MY mind, marketing myself means doing a great job at work.  If I make a great impression to the person on the other end of the phone they will think I’m great, AND they will think my organization is great for having an employee like me.  Every experience in life is a learning experience you will use in the future.  I waited tables for years and I use the organizational skills and “people skills” I learned in those years to this day.  Nothing is a waste of time, unless you allow it to be.
  7. Be positive.  This is probably the most important thing I learned in life – and I wish I had learned it earlier.  It’s life changing.  BE POSITIVE.  No one wants to hear you complain about your job or your life.  Everyone wants to hear about what you did this weekend to combat climate change!  Employers will be way more likely to hire you if you can “see the bright side”, and they’ll be way more likely to keep you around and PROMOTE you if you’re eager and positive.

Be patient and realize that no job is perfect.  It’s going to take time to find that job you love, so love the job you have and make the most of it.  No job is EVER perfect.  You might have a crabby boss, or a co-worker who you just don’t click with – or a little more data entry than you’d like to do.  Be patient and use this experience to your benefit.  In time – and with some effort on your part – things are likely to improve.  Good luck!

– Lori Whalen
Education & Community Relations Director
Environmental Nature Center
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