Sep 12

Get the Most out of Your Green (or any other) Degree

Hat ThrowI’d like to be able to say that when I was in college, environmental sustainability was just starting to take a foothold at universities around the country.  Honestly, though, I don’t know if that’s true.  The farther down the rabbit hole I go, the more I realize that the roots of the green movement started long before me.  While I’ve always pursued sustainability to some extent as a personal goal and aspiration, it wasn’t until very recently that I began to think of it in terms of a possible career path.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.  Colleges and universities around the country are now offering and expanding options to students looking to improve the world through environmental stewardship.  The Princeton Review now even keeps an honor roll of the most sustainable schools (so disappointed not to see my alma mater on there).

If you’re headed off to college, back to school, or already enrolled, there are several things you can do to make sure you’re at the top of the pack when you graduate.  You may be interested to know that graduating suma cum laude is not on the list (though there’s nothing wrong with that).

Always take on interesting projects

This is one of the easiest ways to stand out from the crowd.  Most college students are just trying to get by, regurgitating the same facts and ideas that they’ve absorbed over the years.  By designing projects that truly interest you and challenge you to do your best work, you’ll stand out to your professors and even future employers, even if your conclusions aren’t revelations.  It’s easy to get it right when you’re repeating the same steps someone else has 100 times before.  It’s far more difficult and interesting to blaze your own trail.

People notice when you step outside of the box. For example,  while all your classmates are studying the effectiveness of a green roof, you could be researching the cost benefit of different types of green roofs across different types of climates.  An original idea can go a long way.

Make valuable connections

Never miss an opportunity to create a meaningful connection with someone.  The more you make the better.  These are the people that will inspire you to be the best you can be, force you to healthily challenge your beliefs, and provide you with connections to the people and companies that you want to work for.  Don’t limit yourself to classmates.  Connect with professors, department heads, club and organization leaders, and guest lecturers that you find interesting.

Since I graduated from high school, I’ve had five or so different jobs and have only ever submitted one resume and been to one interview.  I now work for one of the leading green contractors in the US and I never even had an interview.  I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, only to emphasize the power of the connections you can make with people. You simply never know where they’ll lead you.

Also, don’t be afraid to sever connections with the wrong people. These are the ones that bring you down and will try to hinder you in reaching your goals.  Sometimes, when we’re eager to make all the connections we can, a few bad ones slip in there.  Our first impressions aren’t always right!  Being able to recognize these poor connections  and, more importantly, end them will improve your odds of success exponentially. Furthermore, don’t make connections just to network. These kind of folks are sleazy.  Just be natural and do your best to connect with people that are interesting to you.

Seek out challenging internships

The best way to find the job you want right out of college is to get your foot in the door before you graduate.  Use the network you built above to do a little legwork for you.  Don’t settle for one internship, either.  Pursue many throughout the course of your academic career, and in different fields, even if your degree is very specialized.

I only completed one internship while in college and luckily ended up in a pretty good fit, but I still truly regret not making the effort to pursue more opportunities before tying the knot.  The only way to know what company will be the best fit for you will be to try many of them.

Besides, the more internships you’re able to complete, the better positioned you’ll be to accept a position with a company that is the best fit for you and with potential multiple offers on the table, you’ll be in a great place to negotiate your starting salary.

Stay on top of technology

This is just one of those things you need to do to be as valuable as possible to your future employer.  If this is something that comes naturally to you, then it will probably be easy.

It does not come naturally to me.  I seem to always be a generation or two behind whatever new and exciting technology is available to me.  You don’t need to know everything about the latest and greatest in every aspect of life.  You just need to be able to identify the areas of technology that are important to your field and focus on them.  This is easier to do if you’re passionate about what you’re studying!

The technology leaps in the green industry are staggering right now, but if you can navigate them and prove proficiency in the latest and greatest while all your classmates have given up and stuck to what they already know, you’ll have positioned yourself pretty well.

Start side projects

This has got to be the most important of all the things you can do to make sure you’re successful coming out of college.  If you find success here, there’s no need to even go looking for a job out of college.  You’ve already created one for yourself.

Start small and try all sorts of things.  Constantly be on the look for opportunities to use your knowledge and skills to provide people with something they want or need.  Fail all over the place. It doesn’t matter how many times something new doesn’t work out because you’ll learn something with each attempt and you’re still in college, so you’re allowed to fail (you’re allowed to fail out of college as well, it’s just more difficult to grant yourself permission).

What’s the worst that will happen? You’re future employer will be impressed by how self-motivated and creative you are? That doesn’t sound so bad.

Graduate early

No, you don’t have to give up the “college experience” to do this.  I wish I would have known that sooner.  I rationalize my choice to spend 5 years getting my degree to myself every day, but deep down, I know I could have had an even better experience and came out way ahead with more forethought and planning.  Don’t make the same mistake I did.

They say kids these days grow up too fast, but trust me, year five induces symptoms of acute senioritis.  This doesn’t even take into account all the costs associated with expanding your collegiate career by a year.  I’m sure you can think of something better to do with your money.

Final Thoughts

Basically, the best thing you can do to ensure your success is to love what you’re studying and what you’re doing.  When you love what you’re studying, practicing all of these tactics and becoming fully engaged with the world around you is easy.  It’s something you want to do, not something you have to.  How do you target what you love to do?  Well, that’s a topic for another post, but here’s one big hint – do the opposite of what everyone else thinks you should do.

Where are you at on the higher education spectrum – completed, in progress, going to attend, not going to attend?  What do you want to know about sustainable schools and education programs?  What are your career aspirations? How did you decide what to study?


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