Seven tips for following your dream from a Duke alumna

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Monday, Mar 10, 2014 - 1:55 pm

Melissa Semcer earned her masters of environmental management at the Nicholas School in 2007. She then joined the California Public Utilities Commission as a senior analyst on climate change market strategies, eventually moving up to her current position as an administrative law judge. She offers this advice to colleagues at Duke who are seeking internships and jobs.

1) Informational interviews are your friend, especially before you need a job. People generally love talking about their work and if they're passionate about it, which many people in the environmental field are, they love to help new folks get started in the profession. It's always best to establish relationships before you need a job; as an employer, it's much more interesting to talk to someone who is in a genuine space of exploration, and the conversations tend to be more genuine and fruitful. One approach is to treat informational interviewing like a class. Do it throughout grad school and set a goal, like one a week or every other week. By the time graduation nears, you'll have established a fairly large network that you can draw upon for the job search. Another benefit of informational interviewing before you're looking for a job is that you can get a real sense of what that person does and what types of jobs are out there. The reality of environmental work often looks very different from the pictures many of us had in our heads. My favorite question?  "What do you dislike/wish was different about your job/profession?" It's amazing what you can find out with this question!

2) Find your uniqueness and never let it go. Everyone has a unique set of skills, passions and interests. Always bring yours to the table and try, as much as possible, not to mold yourself into being or doing something in which you have no interest in the name of getting a job. You never know where and how your unique skills will be useful, so don't be afraid to highlight those skills and ask how you can use those skills in whatever job you take. It's your uniqueness that will make you stand out in a crowd. You can easily tell when a candidate is trying to sound perfect for the job, but not really sharing who he/she is as a person and what he/she brings to the table.

3) Never underestimate "soft skills." The energy industry, although growing, is still quite small and you'll run into the same people over and over again. Relationships are everything. I highly recommend everyone get training in mediation, negotiation, facilitation, managerial effectiveness and emotional intelligence. These skills, while rarely reflected in a job title, are invaluable in the energy industry.

4) If you are interested in a job or company but feel under-qualified, apply anyway. This is where the cover letter is essential: Tell your story and why you should be considered for the job, even if you don't have every skill or the necessary years of experience. Never answer for someone else; let the other person say no rather than deciding in advance that the answer will be no. You never know what else might be available in the company or how much the company may value the "go-getter" attitude over the skills and experiences they listed in the job posting.

5) For women: Although the energy industry is rapidly changing, it is still effectively a male-dominated world. It's only recently become "sexy" with things like renewables, energy efficiency and sustainability. Before this dramatic change, most people who entered the energy industry were males with finance or engineering backgrounds. Learn to play in that space — this is where negotiation skills can be incredibly effective. Although it's changing, for now don't be surprised if you work in a utility and most of upper management is male.

6) On a similar note, don't be afraid to venture into the less "sexy" areas of energy. You'll see that the energy field is rapidly dividing along gender lines. You'll find more women in the sustainability space and many more men are in the traditional oil, gas and "dirty" energy space. You can learn an incredible amount if you spend some time working in the "traditional" energy areas. After all, coal, natural gas and oil are still the predominant means of producing power in this country and around the world. The more you know about traditional energy and the people that work there, the more effective you'll be when trying to make a change down the road.

7) It's OK to fail and it's OK to realize that you don't like your job. I learned the hard way in my internship that speaking up about things not working is way more effective than being silent and ineffective. As my boss said, "If you had spoken up, something could have been done about it." And, as he also pointed out, "If your boss isn't interested in trying to make the job work for you, then you don't want to work for them anyway." On a similar note, as someone else said to me, "Nothing in your career is permanent." You can always adjust, realign or just go a completely different direction. Don't be afraid to try something and fail at it. Failure often teaches you so much more than success.

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