Career hacks for the anxious 20-something climate change overachiever

By Zoë Visser

Chatting to a young ACDI researcher this week, I was reminded of how much anxiety I felt about my career in my 20s. Why was I progressing along my career path so slowly, even though I was trying so hard? Why was I getting paid so little, especially compared to people doing work that had no apparent social benefit?  When would I ever feel like an expert in something? Now, at the grand old age of 33, I have figured out a few things about working life, and I am enjoying the process a lot more. I thought it could be useful to share some of my personal career insights with the folks in our climate change graduate network. You are likely to get as varied advice as there are careers, but here is what I have learned personally about crafting a rewarding career in environment/development in your 20s: 

Being weird can be a good thing.

There are some environmental careers that require a very particular mix of qualifications and experience. For example, if you want to be an agricultural extension worker, there is a pretty clear career track ahead of you. However, in the Anthropocene, new professions and skillsets are cropping up all the time. A resource economist, for example, is a new profession that is in demand these days. If you are worried that you don’t fit a mould in terms of your interests, qualifications and skills – take heart. You could have a scarce skill of the future. 

It is a very interesting time to be in climate change research – we are seeing a paradigm shift towards more creative and even transgressive thinking. Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research units (and projects) are exciting places to work - your colleagues will often have unusual sets of qualifications and skills (although a strong grounding in one discipline is very useful). For example, I have an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Social Anthropology and a Master’s degree in Environmental and Geographical Science. My career path has taken many twists and turns, taking me into the private sector, civil society and academia. Although it has taken me longer to find my niche than some of my peers, as Research Coordinator for the ACDI, I am putting most of the knowledge and experience that I have collected on my career journey to use.

When trying to plan for a job that doesn’t quite exist yet, your best guide is likely to be someone who has similar technical skills to yourself, working in a field that you are passionate about. I spent my 20s sidling up to these people at networking events. Being nosy about other people’s career paths is also a fantastic method for cobbling together a career plan for yourself. Try identify the values, shortcuts, strategies and networks of peers and seniors that you find inspiring. It is also a great way to develop your professional network. Aligning yourself with other interesting people through fellowships and other memberships will also remind you that the reward for being a bit weird is an interesting and varied career.

Spend some time getting excited about your career. 

To achieve some level of mastery over your career path, it is very helpful to have a flexible 5 year career plan. This plan will inform your career and study choices, and lesson your anxiety about being ‘lost’. I go away with two good friends every few years, we drink a lot of wine and consider our 5 year plans together. I also meet with a support partner every few weeks and we coach each other about life and work for 45 minutes each. Basically, I give a lot of energy to thinking about my career as an interesting and exciting part of my life, rather than just a way to make money.

If you are worried about not having a core passion at this stage of your career, please relax. Focus instead on your values, and the contribution you want to make over your lifetime, and let that guide your career choices. It also helps to have a more specific plan of action for the year ahead. For me, this has taken the form of a wish list of skills and knowledge that I want to ‘collect’ each year. I keep my list on a post-it note next to my desk. The more intentional you are about what you want to learn, where you want to work, who you want to work with, and what you want to earn - the more likely you are to achieve those things. Then, be open to the unexpected opportunities that may come your way.

Remember that nobody really knows how to do everything well. 

As a social scientist - often working with climate science experts - I often don’t understand what people around me are talking about.  Meetings are often followed by flurries of Googling. This used to trouble me, until one day I realised that I was good at some things that some of my colleagues struggled with. For example, I am good at getting people excited about doing boring things that I need them to do. I am good at designing projects that can be rolled out and measured, even though I don’t always understand the science being undertaken. I ask strange questions in meetings that get people thinking about things in a different way. And that is enough to go on – I can be in a room of brilliant scientists who know a lot more than I do about where rain comes from, and still add a lot of value to the process.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by how little you know at this early stage of your career, take a deep breath. This is a confidence game. Pick one or two things you are pretty good at, and do them self-assuredly. Let people know that you can organise the hell out of a small project that comes your way. Then start saying yes to a few tasks that really scare you – like doing a public talk or writing a chunk of a report – and expand that confidence in yourself bit by bit. Until one day – bingo! – you are tackling complex tasks without crushing self-doubt hounding you at every turn. 

Some more from our career series:

1.       How to create a vision for your career

2.       How to find a job after graduation

3.       Networking your way to professional opportunities

4.       To intern or not to intern?

5.       A recruiter’s guide to cracking job interviews


Image credits: Image 1, 2, 3.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity