7. Preparation for Careers

Departments should help students take a proactive role in their education and co-curricular solutions to develop skills needed for future careers.

Student working on a map next to a computer
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Preparing undergraduate students for work experiences beyond the degree requirements can be challenging for faculty. The goals of undergraduates are diverse with only about a third continuing to graduate studies (Wilson, 2019), the development pathway with which faculty are most familiar. Additionally, few employers provide active career management for their employees, and commonly the best available advice to students is generalized educational pathways for a discipline rather than a specific occupation (Asher et al., 2018) or occupational handbooks such as those produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Supporting the spectrum of potential pathways, even within the geosciences, is a challenge, let alone for the 20% of geoscience graduates who decided to pursue careers outside of the discipline (Wilson, 2018).

Discussions catalyzed by the Summits focused on encouraging geoscience students to take a proactive role in their education, including co-curricular solutions to foster key skills. Summit participants noted that their undergraduates were surprisingly unaware of the career possibilities with a geoscience bachelor’s degree, and this was an area where actively partnering with student advising on their campuses and with their local, regional, and other employers would be beneficial.

One method to empower students in their own career development management is to have them develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with help from a mentor or advisor. These IDPs are generally used for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students1 but are becoming more common for undergraduates2. Such plans provide a customized roadmap for professional training and goals. The focus is on identifying career goals, the skills and competencies required to achieve that goal, the pathway of activities that develop them, and establishing a record of activities to assess progress.

One challenge for geoscience undergraduates attempting to use this planning approach is that the geosciences do not, as of 2020, have a universal detailed skills/competency matrix such as those found in the Department of Labor Career OneStop site for many other professions, including geospatial sciences.

In general, students start the process by assessing their own skills and exploring career pathways that are of interest. Once they have identified their career interests and current skills, they determine which skills they need to meet their career goals and establish a development plan. Additionally, students identify where and how they can obtain these skills and what professional development outside of their classes is needed. Integrating their IDP with an e-portfolio is one way to track and demonstrate their progress.

Developing their IDP with help from a mentor or faculty advisor throughout their education is important. Goals and interests change as students learn, and students cannot always develop the skills required for a specific career. These plans should facilitate agile responses to progress or changes in goals or the target environment, such as fundamental structural change to an industry. Although many students do not come into the geosciences with a specific career goal, some do but are unaware of the required skills and competencies. In advising these students, it is important to help them identify what they will need to learn and be able to do to follow that career path. The student will need to analyze whether they wish to pursue that career based on this information and their own skills, values, and interests, or whether to investigate and pursue other career paths.

Geoscience programs that have detailed the learning outcomes of their courses can provide the critical framework for the student to begin mapping their plan. With help from faculty, a student with access to the menu of learning outcomes available in a course of study can begin to map the portfolio of skills and competencies needed to support the trajectory towards their next career step. If it includes graduate school, the student needs to take into consideration the knowledge and skills they will need to be able to get into graduate school in their chosen field (e.g., field experience, high-level math, or computational methods).

In addition to technical skills and competencies, the mapping process should include professional skills such as writing and oral presentation, budgeting, project management, and, if appropriate, regulatory certification. Faculty advisors can be key in helping students understand when they are developing these skills, which may not be mapped to a specific course outcome and may be experiential or co-curricular in nature. For instance, designing and executing a senior research thesis study develops project management skills which should be identified to the student (Wulff and May, 2013). Likewise, faculty can help students understand that achieving a skill is not a binary experience, but rather one in which they progress from exposure, practical application, competency, and finally mastery. At the same time, students should understand they do not always need to be the master of all skills.

Some programs have started to implement student e-portfolios in which students compile examples of their curricular and co-curricular work products to document their educational experiences and developing skillsets for future employers and/or graduate programs (Cribb, 2018; see Section 6). These electronic portfolios can be reviewed by faculty to provide students guidance on how to best present their strengths. Additionally, many universities are developing stackable credentials, such as badges, or certificates for completion of a program of study or series of learning experiences that are awarded for mastery of a specific competency, which can be incorporated into e-portfolios. Many of these are designed to be relevant to specific careers, for example an energy management certificate or data analytics certificate.

A mechanism to improve students awareness of the skills and competencies needed for various careers is to have students interview individuals in occupations close to their goals about how those individuals rose to that position. This is a methodology used in some European energy companies to help new employees map their desired career trajectory into management or senior technical roles (Rosaz, 2013). In addition to the typical curricular benchmarks that will be reaffirmed, such processes help students identify not only the additional needed skills, but also the diversity of methods of acquiring those skills.

Students who participate in career-related activities, such as co-ops, internships, or extended problem-based learning experiences, gain first-hand experience with potential careers. Departments that develop collaborative relationships with employers to foster these types of opportunities for students also strengthen their program’s connection to industry and enhance their relevance on campus and in their community. The depth of involvement of departments with employers is highly variable, but whether sustaining or developing these contacts, overcoming the challenges of sustaining these external relationships do help students establish a network of potential employers.

To support the diverse career interests of geoscience students, geoscience professional societies are also providing a number of services: the American Geoscience Institute (AGI) Career Compass3 effort provides “roadmaps” for students and advisors to the critical skills and experiences that undergraduates interested in pursuing careers in a wide-range of professional directions should seek. The Geological Society of America (GSA) GeoCareers programs include the Schlemon and Mann Mentoring programs at GSA professional meetings where students can interact directly with professionals across a range of industries. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has partnered with other societies to establish Mentoring365, a virtual mentoring program providing mentors from outside of academia. The NSF-funded SAGE 2YC project4, hosted by the Science Education Resource Center (SERC), has developed an extensive suite of geo-career focused web resources aimed at freshmen and sophomores.

Students need to know what careers exist, where to search, what their options are, and how to leverage their competencies, skills, and knowledge to get an interview and be hired. Departments and programs can help guide students to job-seeking resources, whether within the department, somewhere within the institution, or through external groups like societies. Job seeking support can include providing advice on resumes, applications, and interview skills, which is often available on campus or even some employers who hire students from a program or local alumni are willing to provide in-house workshops.

Departments need to be intentional in nurturing and leveraging their connections with geoscience employers to support geoscience undergraduates through their degrees and post-graduation (Box 7.1). These employers can provide feedback on department programs through advisory boards and offer valuable student co-curricular professional experiences through internships, field experiences, and various kinds of professional development workshops and/or short courses. Geoscience professionals who participated in the 2015 Employers Workshop also noted the potential of some to support undergraduate research activities by providing datasets for analysis, or other kinds of hands-on field and/or lab experiences. Constructively engaging with geoscience employers and alumni involves persistent and creative engagement of one or more faculty members and is something that often goes unrewarded academically. However, as noted by Boyer (1990), constructive and successful outreach efforts are themselves a form of scholarly activity. To transform geoscience undergraduate education, these kinds of activities need to be recognized as mission-central and scholarly and be supported and rewarded by heads/chairs and administrators.

Box 7.1: Career-focused Geoscience Courses at the University of South Florida

The product of a vital and evolving Department/Employer partnership (see Ryan and Schackne, 2016; Ryan et al., 2017)

The University of South Florida (USF) Geology Alumni Society, founded in 1997, serves as the liaising entity between the USF Department of Geology (and more recently the USF School of Geosciences) and the professional geoscience community in Florida, and is an active partner in delivering key pieces of both USF’s graduate and undergraduate geoscience degree curricula.

At the undergraduate level, regional employers are central players (as presenters and as a co-instructor) in a new 2000-level course, “Preparing for a Career in the Geosciences”, which was added to the USF Bachelor’s degree offerings based on the recognition that many students were graduating with no clear idea of the professional opportunities in the field. In the course taught by a practicing geoscience professional and past Alumni Society leader, students interact with panels of 2–4 professionals from a range of geoscience employment sectors, many of whom are USF Geology alumni. The professionals introduce their work and background, and students interact with them through extended question-answer sessions. Student assignments involve writing reflective commentary on each of the panel discussions, and an informal professional development plan for their time at USF, based on their interests and what they have learned in the class.

Also, the Alumni Society offers a range of co-curricular professional development and networking opportunities for USF geoscience undergraduates, from social events, to workshops on resume writing and career opportunities, panel discussion events on professional licensing, and related topics, and live field demonstrations during periodic “USF GeoExpo” events, where local firms drill wells, conduct geophysical surveys, and do water sampling at an on-campus “geo-park” maintained by the School of Geosciences. Florida geoscience employers, through the USF Geology Alumni Society, also are intimately involved in the USF Professional Science Master’s degree program in Geology.

The USF Alumni Society’s involvement in the student’s level of education is motivated by seeing them as future employees. Geology Department/School of Geoscience faculty work to provide access by helping reduce administrative barriers to course involvement, and actively reach out for input and feedback on our programs. Much of this work is done by a few department champions who were given assigned time by chairs to network with alumni and employers, forge these connections, and occasionally support events if funding is provided. Also important in maintaining this employer partnership is clear communication about how things work in the context of a large state-funded university (e.g., the time it takes to get a program or course approved, or an on-campus demonstration event cleared to go forward); recognizing the limitations of what employers can and can’t do (ex: holding the above described classes only in the evenings so no one has to miss work to participate); and expressing sincere gratitude to all participating employers, both formally (through letters from Chairs, Deans, and other University officials) and informally.


  • Collaborate with students to customize a roadmap for professional training and goals based on skills and career interests (e.g., IDP, e-portfolios, external certifications, and professional development)

  • Help students find the resources they need to explore career options, find employment, and get training on the application and interview process, including support from institutional career centers, employers and/or alumni, professional societies, and other professional development resources

  1. For example, https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/ or https://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/sites/ctmh/docs/idp-worksheet.pdf ↩︎

  2. For example, https://medium.com/stem-and-culture-chronicle/building-your-individual-development-plan-idp-a-guide-for-undergraduate-students-f14feca9111c (Bosch, 2017; Sacnas — ​Stem and Culture Chronicle) or https://undergrad.ucf.edu/whatsnext/faculty-staff/resources/individual-development-plans-idps-for-undergraduate-students/ ↩︎

  3. https://www.americangeosciences.org/workforce/compass ↩︎

  4. https://serc.carleton.edu/sage2yc/careers ↩︎