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How well does a university degree prepare you for a career in sustainability?

A sustainability program is an important step in mainstreaming the sustainability career but here are 3 ways it can be improved.


Is your university sustainability program up to snuff? Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

At a company that has been around since the 1980s with over 100 employees, I was one of the first employees whose degree focused specifically on sustainability when I was hired in 2022.

I work as a market research analyst with ARC Advisory Group, a traditional advisory company, in its newest division — the Energy Transition and Industrial Sustainability Team. My team focuses on analyzes emerging markets and technologies, and creates market intelligence on a multitude of industries that are increasingly integrating sustainability within their operations. I have covered a range of market issues and solutions, including recycling wind turbine blades, sustainable aviation fuels and decarbonizing the power system.

Having a degree in sustainability definitely helped get my foot in the door, and I do feel like my education has helped me help this legacy company to transition to the climate era. However, a lot goes into forging a career path in this uncharted sector that depends on skills outside of my degree.

A culmination of trial and error, a specialized degree and a wide range of experiences prepared me for starting a career. Yet, there were some places where my sustainability education fell short and I had to find my own way to supplement and catch up.

Sustainability program succeeds in the core theories   

Let’s start with where my sustainability degree actually did help me. I was taught a multitude of core lessons, viewpoints, issues and behaviors. Understanding and applying a systems thinking approach to solve a complex issue with multiple stakeholders was a key lesson I apply every day in my full-time job. Systems thinking is a way to evaluate a situation that contains multiple factors, interactions and relationships which may affect its outcome. It has become an essential tool when evaluating and communicating the complexities of how markets are trying to solve sustainability’s most pressing issues.

Another key way my education has proved itself useful time and again is how it trained me to understand the power of the collective. Climate change and the rapid rise in emissions is not the fault of a singular action, group or individual; it is the outcome of a multitude of actions. Climate change and decarbonization will not be solved with a single silver bullet. It will be solved with a multitude of solutions, groups and actions. Through group projects, lectures and stories, I learned that sustainability will only be effective if it is deployed through collaboration. This idea is something I am actively communicating outward to those involved in improving the sustainability of their businesses and markets.

While sustainability programs are great at teaching the basics, here where three places I think they need to improve. 

1. Highlighting the solutions

You know that friend who complains about every facet of their life but won’t put an ounce of effort into creating a solution? That friend reminded me a little bit about my sustainability program — always wanting to talk about the issues and never about the solutions.

My degree program was extremely good at teaching me what the problems were, how they came about and who to blame. I felt overwhelmed by the stories, data and projections of our climate crisis but had no idea what to do about them. I wanted to know more about how we could fix the problem, where are the solutions and who was already working on them.

Having a dedicated course on solution case studies could have opened my eyes to the companies, people and organizations making progress. Even better to have been embedded solution ideas into every class not only to ease my climate panic but also show examples of the work being done in the sector today. 

Discovering new climate solutions is one of the best parts of working in sustainability. As a sustainability analyst I’m given autonomy over what topics, stories and solutions I wish to cover. One of the most recent and interesting solutions I recently covered is wind turbine blade recycling. More specifically, how it came to be through an unlikely partnership between Veolia North America and GE Renewable.  

A program lacking the ability to connect students with others in the industry can leave many students scrambling when it comes time to graduate.

Another more localized solution I learned about through a senior year capstone internship is the Alachua County Forever program. A program funded by a half a cent sales tax which is then used to purchase parts of the county’s land from citizens who own land that may contain specific natural resources and/or species.

After passing through a rigorous nomination and vetting process, the land is then purchased and placed under the county’s ownership. The program’s purpose is to conserve and return the land back to its natural state while also providing public access to residents. New climate solutions are being developed daily and are what makes working in this industry so attractive.

2. Forgetting to build a community

Ultimately, people are at center of sustainability. A program lacking the ability to connect students with others in the industry can leave many students scrambling when it comes time to graduate. In my opinion, creating, fostering and building personal networks is one of the most important reasons why one goes to college.  

During my senior year, I had to seek out and engage these communities on my own. I attended two sustainability conferences, began an off-campus internship with the surrounding county and took part in a public service research program my university offered. Through these experiences I was able to meet and engage with a community of individuals who were working towards similar goals as I was. Both conferences introduced me to professionals who had been working in sustainability before it was even called sustainability. Having these connections helped fuel my career in the future.

3. Ill-prepared for the job seeking

When I first began my job search after graduating, I was aiming way too high for my experience and degree level. I was under the impression that I was going to graduate from college and instantly begin working for a Fortune 500 company directly reporting to the chief sustainability officer.

This was both due to my own ignorance and the misplaced expectations put forward by my program. I had a limited scope of the real-world application of my degree. Part of my issue was that I had no idea where, who and what to look for. Looking back, I wish my sustainability program would have introduced us to the wide array of career opportunities, organizations and job titles that operate under the large umbrella of sustainability. I now know that the opportunities in sustainability are endless, but they might not be labeled so obviously.

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