Keep going: 5 tips for pursuing energy career opportunities in 2020

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Tuesday, May 05, 2020 - 10:47 am

The Career and Professional Development Center at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment assembled a group of energy professionals to advise students on advancing their careers during this challenging time. The webinar was conducted in partnership with the Energy Initiative, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and the Nicholas School Energy Club.

Here’s some of the wisdom that industry experts dropped during a virtual panel discussion:

1 - Your network is more important now than ever.

Everyone is busy these days, but that doesn’t mean your network can’t be there for you. In times like these, when online job postings are harder to find, check in with your professional connections. When reaching out, be sure that you are sensitive to the difficulties that your contact may be going through due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a numbers game, but I also think that you can spend a lot of time just doing [job] applications. And I’ve known people who have done hundreds and hundreds of applications. I have always taken the approach of building relationships, and I’ve always been a person who has done very few applications.” – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

“Ask, ‘Who else would you recommend, and would you be willing to introduce me to them?’… Definitely ask for more contacts as you go through.” – Nicole Buell, MEM '11, Democratic Professional Staff Member, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senate

“When you reach out, just do it very thoughtfully… For a lot of us now, we’re working full time and we have kids at home and it’s very distracting.” – Hannah Polikov, T '05/JD '08, Managing Director, Public Utility Commission Program, Advanced Energy Economy

“For each contact, you have to be very specific about your outreach. You need to know why you are trying to talk to this person and you need to have done your homework prior to talking to this person.” – Tian Qiao, MEM ‘17, Associate Consultant, Siemens

2 - Persevere.

The process of finding a job or internship takes time, and many job seekers have been thrown off their leads by the pandemic. It is important to not get discouraged and find a way to organize information about your job search. Try developing an Excel tool or other system to help you keep track of your progress and connections to help you to stay positive.

“I wanted to go to the Hill for three years, and I just kept the conversations going and eventually one of the contacts that I made was the reason that I ended up getting my foot in the door.” – Nicole Buell, MEM '11, Democratic Professional Staff Member, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senate

“There will be a cure to the COVID-19 crisis, but there will be virtually no cure for the climate crisis. [After the pandemic] the renewable energy industry will still be an important industry.” – Tian Qiao, MEM ‘17, Associate Consultant, Siemens

3 - Learn what your priorities are, and what you can be flexible on.

The reality is that not everyone will get their dream internship or job. It is important to know what your highest priorities are for your next job, and to identify aspects of the job that you are willing to be flexible on. For instance, if you know for certain that you want to work somewhere in New York, you may need to take a different type of role than you were expecting to make that locational goal happen.

“What’s really important is… getting clear on what you really want, like getting clear on what really, really matters to you, but also allowing for flexibility. So for me I really wanted to go out West. I really wanted to experience that part of the country and I had to get really flexible about what job I took… I ended up finding a great career that I never could have envisioned.” – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

4 - If you can’t find something right away, make use of the gap period!

Staying proactive about your career during a lull period is crucial. You may find yourself taking a job that’s not in your chosen field, just to make ends meet and fill a gap period. If this happens, you can still use your free time to read articles about the industry or volunteer with an industry organization. And keep in mind that your career detour will likely give you new skills that can help when you return to the industry. Just make sure to stay connected during the gap period.

“If you can’t travel and you’re in North Carolina… there are a lot of local organizations you can get involved in… Everyone is quite connected, the state players really connect with the national players… Getting a handle of how things move at the state level is a really good place to start.” – Caroline Golin, Senior Regulatory Policy Lead, Google

“The more skillsets that you can acquire will help you later on. It’s something really valuable to have. We always look for people that are adaptable and can handle a lot of ambiguity, who can slot into different spaces and learn quickly.” – Caroline Golin, Senior Regulatory Policy Lead, Google

“If you do something else [during your gap period], do something to stay relevant in this space… If you have to do something else, no one is going to hold that against you, but stay relevant in some way.” – Hannah Polikov, T '05/JD '08, Managing Director, Public Utility Commission Program, Advanced Energy Economy

5 - Plenty of places are still hiring, but you may need to broaden your search.

If you have been looking only at positions in private industry, try looking at government agency postings, as many still seem to be hiring at pre-pandemic rates. Also, you might be limiting yourself geographically without even knowing it—try looking at some of the local organizations that work in your field. Even if they aren’t where you want to end up permanently, you will probably learn something that will prove useful later in your career.

“Even though the economy is really sketchy, organizations still need people… for example, I am building my entire team.”  – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

Meanwhile, take advantage of these resources...

  • Your Duke Career Center can connect you with employment opportunities, advising, and resources.
  • Any Duke student interested in an energy career can request a virtual advising appointment with Stacy Peterson, assistant director for student and alumni engagement at the Energy Initiative.
  • Students interested in energy research careers or learning more about what it's like to work at a federal agency can request a virtual advising appointment with Dr. Eric Rohlfing, executive-in-residence at the Energy Initiative (formerly of the U.S. Department of Energy and ARPA-E). 
  • Subscribe to the Energy Initiative's email newsletter for postings, events, and more. 

Will Foster is a 2019-2020 graduate student assistant at the Duke University Energy Initiative. He is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management (MEM) at the Nicholas School of the Environment and a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) at the Fuqua School of Business. 

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Will Foster

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