State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Sustainable Development Career Panel and Alumni Networking

To cap off the Spring 2020 semester, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development (SDEV) hosted a virtual alum panel and networking session for current students. The event, spearheaded by the Student Union for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Alumni Board, and moderated by Professor Lisa Dale, sought to expose students to sustainability professional pathways, and to share invaluable insights for the sustainability job and internship search.

Below are some of the key insights that the alumni shared.

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What classes were informative and useful for your career? What skillsets have you gained from those classes? 

Rebecca Smith (SDEV ‘13) explained that a general understanding of sustainable development has been useful for her job in sustainable finance, and she often reflects on learnings from the SDEV program when performing her tasks. Particularly, Ethics of Sustainable Development allowed Rebecca to contemplate what sustainability is, which was fundamental knowledge before jumping into her career. In addition, while leading an independent project for her senior thesis, Rebecca  gained hands-on professional experiences. Skills classes were also helpful to build technical expertise, such as statistical analysis using R and Stata, and making maps with geographic information systems (GIS).

Numerous classes in SDEV taught Joe Girton (SDEV ‘14) how to address global problems in community-driven ways. He underscored that for project managers, such perspectives are important in navigating complex situations.

How did the SDEV degree help you in getting your jobs? How is the SDEV degree received in the real world? 

Monica Carty (SDEV ‘15) works in marketing for retail products. Monica witnesses how products are marketed to encourage consumers to take sustainability into consideration when purchasing items. For example, a number of products are advertised to have recyclable packaging, or to be produced through fair trade. With this trend, Monica believes that having an understanding of sustainability will be more well-received in private fields.

Noeleen Advani (SDEV ‘15) is a monitoring and evaluation agent at a global health non-governmental organization. She remarks that in many sectors in sustainable development, quantifying social impacts and data-driven decision-making are critical. Noeleen was able to learn this approach while completing an internship in Africa during her time in the SDEV program. In this light, SDEV helped her gain hands-on professional experience, which became a step in the direction of her current career. 

Rose Winer (SDEV ‘13) discussed how the SDEV program and Columbia University host many different events throughout the school year and attending them helped Rose make connections with working professionals. Students can be shy when it comes to networking, but she strongly advised that students be more proactive in making connections at such events.

What other career advice do you have for students who want to pursue sustainability? 

Monica discussed how communication skills are very important, especially for those who want to make impacts in policy. Monica was able to learn how to communicate with people in a professional manner through extracurricular activities, such as organizing events through student organizations, and so she encourages students to participate in the extracurricular activities that they are passionate about since the experience can transcend their time at Columbia.

Kathy Zhang (SDEV ‘14) reassured students that they can be flexible at choosing their first job after graduation. Even though first jobs may not have a sustainability component, many SDEV alums have found opportunities to pursue sustainability throughout their career trajectories.

When it comes to the generalist vs. specialist debate, many desire to become specialists. However, Joe explains that there are advantages to being a generalist. Generalists have skill sets that can be applied across different sectors and industries, such as communication and organization skills, and they become big assets in the job market. Joe closed by encouraging  students to explore the real world and discover what works for them. 

The Earth Institute strives to help students and alumni build their network to achieve their career goals through its professional development programs. After graduating from the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, alums will join the Earth Institute Alumni Network which comprises over 2,000 environmental and sustainability professionals worldwide.

Graduates of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development go on to work in public, private and non-profit organizations and many go on to pursue graduate studies in sustainable development, environmental law and public policy. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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