Sam Bold and Treasure Bailley, far end of table, share their career pathways during a Geoscience Career Circle. Bold is an education technician at Rocky Mountain National Park and Bailley is an environmental scientist for the EPA. (Photo by K. Russo-Nixon, UNAVCO)
Making Geoscience Careers Visible: Illuminating Pathways to Geoscience
KELSEY RUSSO-NIXON (email@example.com), education generalist, and DONNA J CHARLEVOIX (firstname.lastname@example.org), director, are affiliated with the Education and Community Engagement Directorate at UNAVCO in Boulder, CO.
If you were to ask the average college or community college student who geoscientists are and what they do, the responses are likely to be highly varied. Geoscientist is often not an aspirational career path and as a result it is sometimes challenging to help students see themselves as geoscientists. In addition, many students have the false impression that once you embark on a major you have a linear path to a career in that field. In reality, career pathways are highly non-linear; no single career pathway exists in geosciences or any STEM field (NAS, 2011).
During three summer internships hosted by UNAVCO (an NSF-funded science facility), we provide a multi-faceted professional development program led by facility staff to both build skills and expose students to opportunities within geosciences. We developed the "Career Circle" as a fun, informal opportunity for student interns to meet geoscience professionals and learn about their varied career pathways. The goal of the Career Circle is for students to meet professionals working in various aspects of geoscience, learn about that professional's background and pathway, and have an open-ended discussion about their experience with geoscience. Over the five years we have conducted Career Circles as a weekly activity during our summer internship programs, this activity is consistently ranked as the most valuable part of their professional development experience.
What is a Career Circle?
Career Circles take place over the lunch hour and feature one or two guest speakers from various workforce sectors including, but not limited to: industry, nonprofit organizations, academia, research, government, and consulting. As space permits, seating is arranged in a circle or rectangle rather than lecture style. The program staff introduce speakers and help facilitate discussion, if necessary. A typical session includes the speakers explaining what their current job is and talking about their education and career path. Initially designed so that the end of the hour was devoted to a question and answer session, we found that the sessions quickly transformed into an informal discussion.
Career Circles provide students a casual environment to practice networking and hear real-world stories about navigating a geoscience education and career, and how each person's path is unique. Prior to the first Career Circle of the summer, staff provided an overview of the sessions to the interns and articulated what we hoped they would get out of the discussions. The first year (2015) the Career Circles were a part of only one internship program, the Geo-Launchpad pre-REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program for community college students. The Geo-Launchpad program is run in collaboration with Front Range Community College (FRCC). Faculty from FRCC emphasized that many students did not know what job opportunities or career options were available to them in the field of geoscience. The Career Circles were a way to help interns learn about various career options. Students found they could relate to the professionals through their personal stories.
- I feel like during these career circles, towards the end they would open up and then they would start talking about their undergraduate studies and the different jobs they had....It's kind of like being able to relate with them, with those stories. I mean, we're not there yet but seeing ourselves doing the same thing and doing different jobs before getting to higher positions like that. — Intern #5, 2015 cohort
The Career Circles were a positive experience not only for interns, but for guest speakers as well. The majority of Geoscience Career Circle guests returned to speak each summer to the new cohort and often commented how much they enjoy the students.
The invitations to professionals are very deliberate, ensuring diversity of every kind in addition to representation across geoscience sectors. Prior to 2020, all Career Circles were conducted in person, limiting to some degree who could be invited. They also can be conducted virtually. Career Circle guests sometimes have come with a work colleague, offering a dual perspective for a particular job. Students have found these sessions particularly enlightening, learning that two people working in similar roles have taken very different academic and career paths to get to that point.
Expanding Beyond Original Audience
While originally designed for the Geo-Launchpad interns, we quickly realized the potential for Career Circles to benefit interns in our other programs. The two other internship programs host undergraduate students (RESESS program) and graduate students (UNAVCO Student Internship Program/USIP). RESESS is a research experience for upper-division undergraduates that focuses on increasing diversity in Earth sciences, and USIP is a work-focused opportunity for late-career students to intern at UNAVCO on projects related to their major or career goals.
The inclusion of interns at more advanced academic levels was both positive and a challenge. The higher-level questions and conversations initiated by the RESESS and USIP interns provided an opportunity for Geo-Launchpad interns to learn about topics they might not have considered themselves. It also enabled them to participate in conversations with geoscientists with a range of experience. However, the advanced topics of conversations may have made the environment more intimidating. We observed Geo-Launchpad interns asking fewer questions compared to previous years and addressed this challenge by reserving the first few questions to the speakers to only Geo-Launchpad interns. This required Geo-Launchpad interns to come up with their own questions while still being present and learning from the higher-level questions and conversations.
Since beginning Career Circles in 2015, and even with the expanded audience, program evaluation shows that this hour is consistently one of the most impactful and memorable activities the students participate in. Exposure to a wide array of geoscience career options and pathways allows students to put a face and experience to a particular job in geosciences. With different guests each week, students were able to see similarities and differences in both the job duties as well as the paths to particular careers. They were also able to begin to see the variety of opportunities available if they pursued geosciences in academics.
- I think it was very enlightening to see how much I had an interest in what so many of them did, that I hadn't really thought of before, and being able to learn more about each one. Because we were fortunate enough to have somebody from geography, geology, atmospheric science, EPA, teaching. It was such a wide variety that definitely made me feel a little bit more comfortable about my chances of finding something that I'm going to be just absolutely passionate about. — Intern #4, 2016 cohort
Implementing Career Circle
Career Circles can be implemented in formal instruction or informal activities such as student clubs or local professional society meetings. A key to promoting discussion is keeping the sessions small, with no more than 20 to 25 students and one or two guests. The preparation time includes identifying guest speakers and the logistics of scheduling. We took the guest speaker to lunch after the Career Circle session as a thank you (and because the sessions were over the lunch hour and the speaker did not have an opportunity to eat during them).
The value we've found in the Career Circle is the consistency of having regular speakers from a diversity of careers and sectors. We encourage faculty who are interested in starting a similar program to implement it as a weekly activity. While in-person sessions have provided a unique venue for interaction and discussion, the Career Circles can be conducted virtually as well. All Career Circles for the summer 2020 internship programs will be virtual. We are optimistic that the impactfulness of the sessions will not be diminished because our cohorts this year are small (12 interns total) and this should allow for discussion through video conferencing.
Not sure where to start in terms of finding individuals working in various geoscience sectors? UNAVCO has created the Geoscience Career Spotlight series highlighting the variety of careers available to geoscience majors in addition to academia. This YouTube playlist includes individual interviews (each under three minutes) and can be viewed on UNAVCO's YouTube page.
In addition, staff at national facilities such as UNAVCO, IRIS, SERC, and NCAR are excellent resources for connecting with professionals in the various sectors of geosciences. Regardless of how you do it, help students connect to professionals working in geosciences so they can see themselves in that same role.
Our thanks to Dr. Heather Thiry, Golden Evaluation and Policy Research, for her contributions with annual program evaluation.
- Thiry, H. (2015). External evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad internship program, UNAVCO: Geoscience opportunities for community college students: Golden Evaluation & Policy Research.
- Thiry, H. (2016). External evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad internship program, FRCC, and UNAVCO 2016: Geoscience opportunities for community college students: Golden Evaluation & Policy Research.
NRC (National Research Council), 2011. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads: Washington, DC, The National Academies Press, 286 p.
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