Sustainability Careers – Where to start?

Sustainability is such a wide field, and people studying sustainability-related and non-related courses can face challenges in understanding how they can pursue their passion for Sustainability and embed it into their professional career; if they are entitled to work on sustainability with their degree; and what the main prerequisites are to start their sustainability career journey. The Sustainability Service at the University of Leeds is a substantial point of reference for any students who wish to participate in volunteering, internship opportunities, or events hosted by like-minded experts in the field, including Leeds alumni, which could often provide students with many useful tips and suggestions to feel more confident in working in sustainability, by talking about their own, very different, academic and professional experiences. This is the case of the Sustainability Careers Online Panel Event organised by the Sustainability Service on 12th January 2021.

Many students and I had the opportunity to meet Joshua West, Shara Samra, and Arianna Griffa, and receive insight on their amazing academic and professional experience, all of which have followed different pathways to pursue their passion for sustainability.

Below is some very useful advice that our speakers shared with us during the event, including key recommendations and fundamental things to remember in our continuous thinking process towards the achievement of a career in sustainability that can really fulfil our passions and life dreams!

Getting your first job in sustainability, try to ask yourself: “What am I really interested in? Do I already know it?”; “What are my strengths and weaknesses?”. This will definitely help you narrow the types of job to research and apply to, in order to be more effective in your job hunting process. It is important to find what niche of sustainability you want to work on, from communication to data analysis, from environmental management to policy making, all strictly related and fundamental to sustainability but at the same time very specific. Think about learning the structure and function of the industry, its technical aspects, but also aspects of yourself and what you want to get out of the job. The work experience is important but so is your passion in the area! Find a role that matches your values by looking at the values of the organization. Your career requires you to think in the long-term. You will progressively learn about yourself and what you are most interested in, but you will always have the opportunity to change your pathway.

Try as many avenues of sustainability as possible, without being afraid to fail. While working in sustainability can be versatile and requested by businesses and organisations from the most varied sectors, it may also be difficult to understand the specific area you want to go into. One solution could definitely be to try different things, for example, volunteering in multiple fields alongside your studies on a specific degree, in order to enrich your CV.

Be patient. Sustainability is a competitive sector but there are so many opportunities growing and coming up, starting from the upcoming COP26, governments’ climate mitigation and adaptation agendas, interest and ambition to achieve sustainable development growing both in the UK and worldwide.

The recruitment process might be stressful, frustrating, like a full-time job, but push forward and persevere to begin shaping your journey. Getting to the interview can be the hardest part. One key thing is to practice your CV and cover letter writing, because these two are the factors that can distinguish you from all the other candidates. Once you get interviewed is when you can really demonstrate how you fit with the team. If you get to the interview you need to show that you really care about the organization’s ideas. Think about your experience to tell a story creatively, and always keep an open mind: few jobs will be perfect at the first look, but you might be surprised then once you join the organisation.

One common pillar is definitely not to neglect transferable skills! Working in sustainability may require you to be flexible, to be able to communicate, write reports, make presentations, and engage with stakeholders. All these criteria are crucial for every job. If your current job is not strictly relevant to sustainability, you may think of the wider skills you might gain, such as the ability to communicate clearly, establish and strengthen relationships, and listen to stakeholders. In addition to technical expertise, it is important to be able to think critically and strategically. Rather than talking about technical knowledge, for example, you might want to strengthen other soft skills in cover letters and interviews.

Never stop learning: sustainability is a fast paced sector, and ideas on sustainability continuously change, it is therefore fundamental to be flexible but also to engage with the most recent progresses and keep yourself updated. Join groups, societies, reach out connections in LinkedIn, create your own groups to expand your network and knowledge! Try to be curious and keep an open mind. Explore new emerging topics to make progress in your career, to find a new role but also to improve the one you already have.

Particularly important for international students like me that decided to study a Masters course in a foreign country like the UK, it is possible for you to work based in the UK government as a foreign citizen, for example in an international team. Even if you are based in the UK, much of the work can be based in collaboration with other countries. Sustainability is a field that is internationally focused, with many opportunities to engage with other countries worldwide. In addition, do not forget that opportunities for international collaboration through remote working are progressively increasing and quite advantageous to consider nowadays.

Positive impacts towards sustainability and the environment will be sooner or later visible and rewarding, for example after long diplomacy conversations with other countries and seeing sustainability commitments rising internationally, or through collaborations with communities at a local level that benefit from the projects you contributed to develop and implement. In the end, sustainability is what makes you think that you are contributing positively to change our world, and this is what is really important to value.

Joshua West – Business Development Manager for Cross-River Partnership

Joshua graduated as a conservation biologist and is now working as Communications and Business Development Manager for Cross-River Partnership. Although this type of degree may be specifically oriented towards the environmental side of sustainability, during his studies Joshua realised that in the end, humans are the most responsible for environmental impacts and the ones who can drive the most change. That is why he decided to explore the behavioural aspects of delivering sustainability. His first introduction to sustainability was right within the University of Leeds, working as a sustainability project assistant delivering projects such as the Students Sustainability Conference, managing the Student Sustainability Architects programme, as well as working on communications and events. All this improved his transferable skills substantially.

Shara Samra – Senior Policy Adviser at Confederation of British Industry (CBI)

Shara has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, therefore more related to the social and economic sides of sustainability. But her passion for sustainability in its entirety started when she had the opportunity to write her dissertation on environmental policy and energy security in the EU, although this was not something she covered academically. She therefore realized that she needed further knowledge on the topic. That is why she enrolled in the MSc Sustainability and Consultancy at the University of Leeds. The course was very practical and she learned a lot by delivering projects. She firstly became a Student Sustainability Architect, looking at a project on how to integrate sustainability into final year dissertations. It was a very interesting project to get students outside the School of Earth and Environment to embed sustainability, especially for students that did not have dedicated courses on the topic. She therefore learned how to communicate sustainability beyond niche environmental groups, a topic that she could then fulfil in her final year project working with a small charity on sustainable and environmental education. She took a slightly different route from other students who after the MSc, obtained environmental management jobs. In fact, she entered into the policy field, initially working at Green Alliance as a policy assistant. She also worked at the UK commission for UNESCO, on projects in partnership with developing countries to foster research between countries. Her current role is senior policy adviser at CBI (Confederation of British Industry), working on Brexit policies creating future relationships for prosper and competitive UK economy throughout the Brexit process. Although this may not necessarily seem sustainability focused, she took this role to learn how lobbying is done, how to make effective policies to influence people, as well as to drive major challenges in businesses.

Arianna Griffa – International Energy Innovation Adviser at BEIS

Arianna is an international energy innovation adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy within the UK government. Her first plan was not to become a policy adviser, and this demonstrates how it can be so common but also understandable to change and to not know what exactly you want to be. After obtaining her degree in International Relations she had internships, jobs and volunteering roles in non-profit sectors, working for businesses as well as EU agencies, with roles on communication, stakeholders engagement, and event planning.

Her passion for Sustainability started while she was working for a charity in the Netherlands to manage a programme to support young entrepreneurs all over the world. All this made her acknowledge this big latent issue of sustainability which relates to environmental, social and health, as well as economic issues. She completely changed her mind by realising that the impact that her role in the job will have is more important than the type of job itself. All this led her to enrol at the University of Leeds on the MSc Climate Change and Environmental Policy, through which she had the opportunity to obtain a relevant degree and fundamental knowledge for working in sustainability and policy advisory. Here is where she also gained many different experiences that helped her increase analytical and research skills, as well as transferable skills such as communication and presentation abilities.

To listen to the entire Panel event, you can access the following YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ98ZjhtDGw&ab_channel=SustainabilityLeeds

For more information you can visit the University of Leeds Sustainability Service website at: https://sustainability.leeds.ac.uk/

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Arianna Gialletti
Hi everybody! I am Arianna, I come from Deruta, Italy, and I am 23 years old. I am a Masters student of the Climate Change and Environmental Policy (MSc) programme...
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