As a “career-changer,” M.S. in Sustainability Management (MSSM) student Laura Humphrey felt that she could not consider herself successful until her daily work reflected her core values. Currently, Laura works as a Senior Associate at ICF International in the Energy Efficiency division. Laura believes that her graduate studies have informed her work at ICF because of the team-oriented nature of many projects she has worked on as a student in the MSSM program.
1. What is your current job and what are the responsibilities associated with your position?
I am a Senior Associate at ICF International in the Energy Efficiency division. Though my division generally works with utilities and federal clients, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I am primarily devoted to our program management role for the NYC Clean Heat program. It is run out of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
2. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program?
I had originally started my graduate school exploration thinking that I would apply to an MBA program. If only the MSSM program had been around when I was taking the GMAT! As I got closer to sending in my applications, I realized that I wasn’t finding a part-time program that would allow me to fully align my passion for sustainability issues with developing a broader management knowledgebase. Fortunately for me, the first semester of the MSSM program started at the same time that I began to look beyond business school for my continued studies.
3. What inspired you to work in sustainability?
My current career is a definite sea change from the arts background that I had come from originally. Though I had enjoyed that work, I realized that I would not be able to consider myself truly successful until my daily work reflected my core values. I needed to commit my career to helping address what I believe to be the most pressing challenges of our time.
The challenges our society faces in terms of sustainability are fantastically complex. Even though it is easy to get lost or overwhelmed by them, I find it incredibly intellectually rewarding to at least try to tackle and solve these problems.
4. What has been your biggest challenge associated with sustainability in your current position?
One of the biggest challenges for all levels of organizations, from companies to cities and governments, is to look across the silos to come up with comprehensive strategies to address environmental and economic issues. In my line of business, energy usage, efficiency, and supply are all interconnected and smart cities, states, and utilities will benefit from developing approaches that take all of these into account.
5. What has been your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability in your current position?
I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with in the NYC Clean Heat program. The program helps existing buildings in the City switch to cleaner burning heating fuels. In addition to eliminating tons of harmful PM 2.5 emissions from the air, we’re also helping develop the market for more clean heating systems and fuels to come.
6. What is an example of how you have applied something specific you have learned in the program thus far to your job?
It’s hard to pick just one – but I definitely lean on the deep dive I got into how energy markets function and energy production projects are developed in the Financing the Green Economy class with Professor Brannen McElmurray. From a purely academic standpoint, I feel lucky to have studied these issues during a time of immense upheaval and change due to natural gas development. Though there’s still so much to learn, the insight I gained in that one class alone has been incredibly valuable.
7. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?
I’ve really loved all of the Area 3 (Physical Dimensions) classes I’ve taken. They’ve embodied what I see to be one of the primary goals of the program: to test assumptions and explore sustainability solutions in an open and unbiased way. This was particularly true of the life cycle analysis principles I was introduced to in Industrial Ecology, with Professor Christoph Meinrenken. I was amazed at how much of a hands on learning experience we got in Resilience in the Built Environment, with Prof. Widder, that let us explore the ideas of what the built environment can and should be able to do. Earth’s Climate Systems, with Prof. Anchukaitis, was amazing if for no other reason than the sheer scale and scope of what we covered.
8. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program in furthering your career?
I decided to pursue a graduate education in order to round out the knowledge and experience I was gaining on the job. In many areas the MSSM program has done just that both in terms of technical ability, knowledge of the issues at hand, and refining core communication skills, like public speaking. Now that I’m in my final semester of the program, I am much better equipped to engage a wide variety of audiences on sustainability issues and solutions.
9. What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?
Speaking from experience as a fellow “career transitioner,” the first thing to examine are your strongest skills that could be used on a day to day basis by a company or organization. This could be things like customer engagement, data management, or research. Then look to augment those core skills with the knowledge you’ve learned in this program.
Also, if there’s a project or paper that you are proud of, look for ways to share it outside of the classroom. Connect with like-minded organizations and share your findings. Or find a place to write a short article about it. It’s a great way to share what you’ve learned and maximize the utility of all your hard work in this program.
10. What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the MSSM program with regard to your career?
In addition to the knowledge and skills I’ve gained, I’ve been surprised at how much the program has taught me about the power of teams. We all know that teamwork has its own set of challenges and sometimes it is a struggle to make a team successful. Yet I’ve been lucky to work with other MSSM students on a number of projects where the quality produced would not have been possible if we had worked independently. Learning how to navigate group work to positive outcomes has been an incredible asset at work. And I know that the colleagues and friends I’ve met in this program are invaluable personally and professionally for years to come.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.