As director of program development at The Environmental Careers Organization, Kevin Doyle knows a thing or two about job searching. In a new column for Grist, he’ll explore the green job market and offer advice to eco-job-seekers looking to jumpstart their careers.

February is National Mentoring Month. Aren’t you psyched? No? Well, consider this column a shout-out to mentors everywhere. If you’ve had a good mentor in the past, or if you have one right now, celebrate February by calling that person just to say “thank you.” (And call your mother, too. She’s worried about you.)

In this column, I want to focus on the biggest of big pictures and share three pieces of strategic wisdom I’ve stolen over the years from people who are a lot wiser and smarter than me.

Just get started!

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Take a look at any book about jobs and careers. Inevitably, you’ll find the same rigid list of action steps buried in the text. Strip away the detail, and the strategy usually looks something like this: Know yourself (your skills, your preferences, your values, your astrological sign, Chinese New Year animal …) and understand “your industry” (job titles, public and private employers, salary levels, important trends). Have a plan and develop a vision of your ideal job. Get needed degrees, certifications, and experience, and master the basic job search skills (résumés, interviews, cover letters). Build a good reputation, and develop and maintain a strong career network.

That’s a lot of work! Where does one even start? Truth is, it doesn’t matter where you start. Trust me on this. Before you’re done, reality will force you to deal with all of the career components above. If you’re listening to your life at all, each situation will practically scream a good next step in your ear.

So, if you’re the planning type, go ahead and plan. If you’re a doer, jump right in. If you derive power and energy from self-reflection, by all means, go ahead and gaze at that navel. The important thing is to get started.
Work is a verb.

Imagine that a friend came to you with an ardent desire to be a musician. It’s the only thing she talks about. “I need to make music,” your friend says. “It’s in my soul!” With that level of passion, you would be pretty flummoxed if you learned that your friend never picked up her guitar, never practiced, and never sought out any gigs (paid or unpaid). If she told you that she was certainly going to start playing actual music someday, but only when some kind employer gave her a salary and benefits to do so, you’d be within your rights to conclude that she was “all hat and no cattle,” as our shotgun-wielding vice president might say.

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It’s exactly the same with environmental and conservation work. Whether you are in school, just out of school, currently employed, or unemployed, it’s essential that you keep working at the highest possible level of craft that you can find.

Fortunately, this is not nearly as difficult as it might sound. There are ample opportunities for temporary, contract, grant-funded, consulting, or voluntary work assignments that you can use to stay active and maintain an ever-growing portfolio of professional-level work results. Many people pursue these non-permanent job assignments as a way to pay the bills, build networks and stay in the flow of insider information about jobs. The real reward, however, comes from the work itself.


Find a platform for your work in the world.

You want to achieve something specific and measurable with your work? You should be looking for a job that gives you an opportunity to produce real results for people and the environment that jibes with your personal goals. Don’t go looking for “a job.” Look for an opportunity that can reasonably grow into a platform from which you can achieve the results you want to achieve.

For example, let’s suppose your work in the world involves increasing the number of profitable, family-owned, organic farms serving local markets in your bio-region. By defining your work this way, it’s likely that your next steps will be quite different than if you were “a job in alternative agriculture.” Instead of a “job search,” you’ll be engaged in a process that incorporates elements of scholarship, journalism, policy analysis, business planning, community organizing, and program design.

You’ll ask questions like:

  • What is the current status of organic agriculture for local markets in my region?
  • What are the drivers that encourage it and the barriers that discourage it?
  • Who are the people working on these issues in my region and elsewhere?
  • What do these people have to say about the greatest needs right now?
  • How can I help?

The final result will probably send you back here, but the mental framing guiding you will be very different — and so will your interactions with other leaders, professionals, thinkers, and volunteers in the field. Instead of being perceived as a supplicant looking for a job, you’ll be thought of as a concerned professional who is collaboratively engaged with others in good work. And that is not a bad way to be perceived.

So, to those of you who are gainfully employed — take it up a notch! To those of you who are still looking — best of luck. And to all of the wise mentors of the environmental workforce — thank you.

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Kevin Doyle is the national director of program development for the The Environmental Careers Organization in Boston. He is coauthor of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World and The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century.