Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences at Kearns & West (feat. Jessica Miller)
Alumni Aloud Episode 86
Jessica Miller received her PhD in Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences and is now a Director at Kearns and West.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Jessica explains the ins and outs of getting a research position that’s a good fit, and making your skills and experience meaningful to employers.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
MISTY CROOKS, HOST: I’m Misty Crooks, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interview Jessica Miller, who graduated from our program in Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences and is now a Director at Kearns and West. She explains the ins and outs of getting a research position that’s a good fit, and making your skills and experience meaningful to employers.
CROOKS: Hi, Jessica, thanks for joining us today. To start with, could you give us an overview of your organization’s mission and what your role is there?
JESSICA MILLER, GUEST: Sure, I’m at Kearns and West, which is a public engagement consulting firm. We do a lot of public affairs and strategic communications. We’re often kind of viewed as a third-party neutral in a lot of decision-making processes, so we do a lot of public engagement, community engagement, just aiding decision making at state level, local level, and also mostly I would say at the federal level. I think in terms of a mission, it’s a collaboration and communication firm whose experts mostly work on public policy spaces only in the United States, so we don’t do anything abroad. It’s almost entirely here.
CROOKS: And how did you get interested in this particular field?
MILLER: Kind of in a roundabout way. So as an undergrad, I studied film and communication, so I can even go back to thinking about that, I suppose. As an undergrad I studied film and communication and I went off to do all kinds of different things in between then and now. But the more I started thinking about a career transition, the more I saw myself thinking more and more about communication and how important it was all my research and all the positions I had had, including academic positions because I did community engaged research as well. I would say it’s a very roundabout way, but it played a role in everything that I have done since undergrad. And I think once I realized that was the case, it made it fairly clear to me that this was a space that I potentially belonged in.
CROOKS: A lot of people I think now are interested in doing community engaged research. Do you have any tips for combining that with what we do in academia as grad students?
MILLER: One of the ways in which you can do it is by getting the right advisor who will support that work because some advisors are incredibly supportive of doing community engaged work. I worked in the Gowanus, where I was interviewing a lot of people. I was going door to door and talking to people. I went to community meetings. I went to a lot of community advisory group meetings for the Environmental Protection Agency. I think that getting the right advisor who will support that is important. Knowing that it takes longer because getting buy in from people for the questions you’re asking obviously takes a little bit more effort and a little bit more engagement upfront before you can even start the process of asking questions. I think getting that engagement upfront is incredibly important for community engaged work, and also really informs the process that you’re going to undergo, so I think that would be my number one pointer is to make sure you spend the time in preparation for doing that and just knowing that it’s going to add time to your research project.
CROOKS: That’s really helpful. We’ve talked a bit about your undergrad and your research just here now in grad school. Can you tell us a bit about the journey from doing a PhD at the Grad Center to where you are now?
MILLER: Sure, so I finished in 2015. At that point, I was already at Temple University as an assistant professor of instruction. So that’s a full-time teaching position at Temple University. I was there for three years. The first year I was an adjunct as I was finishing up my degree, and then I became an assistant professor of instruction. I found that incredibly helpful to just be focusing on teaching, knowing that you know we did it at the Grad Center too. I mean I taught at Hunter College before that, but it was just kind of fine tuning some of my teaching skills in a really good way. And we weren’t expected to do a lot of additional research during the time that I had that position. After that I applied for tenure track positions and I landed at Montclair State University in northern New Jersey in 2017. I got that position, so I was at Temple for two years and then started at MSU in 2017. And I was there for almost four years, four school years, and then I left that position last summer, in the end of June. And then from there, I started my own consulting firm and sole practitioner consulting firm, working on community engagement and environmental outreach. And then I also took on a leadership position at the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, being one of their regional trail leaders in the northern New Jersey region.
And, as I was doing both of those things, I was also always looking at jobs and always paying attention to what was out there, and also doing a lot of informational interviews. I did so many over the course of the last two years. The second that I thought, maybe I would be leaving Montclair State University, I started doing informational interviews which I found incredibly helpful and so many different perspectives to take into consideration and what my next step might look like. I interviewed people from government, from nonprofits, from academia too, from publishing, all kinds of different sectors. So I tried to keep it as wide as possible, because I didn’t know exactly how I would use the skills that I had developed in academia and I had been using for a while, but I just wasn’t sure what the next step would look like. So this was super helpful in grounding me and also giving me a lot of examples of how other people approach the job hunt as well as their positions and what they do in those positions. I think sometimes it’s really hard to know until you have these types of interviews if a job would actually work for you. So it’s something I would highly recommend for anyone out there on the job hunt is to you know integrate informational interviews into your everyday if you can. And then so basically I met with Kearns and West last year. It was an informational interview. And I was really impressed with all the different work that they do there. And I found a job to apply for in November, and then I started in February. So I’ve only been there for about three months.
CROOKS: The field of sustainability is really growing now and there’s a lot of interest from grad students emerging. What sort of advice would you give for people looking to move into that field, and what sorts of qualities and skills do you think are helpful for getting a job in that field?
MILLER: I would say analytical skills are really helpful and not being afraid to perhaps be more of a generalist in that thinking. So I mean at the Grad Center, you can take methods classes in everything right. And I would say methods classes are your friend. So learning how to do analysis of all different types of things, and you know if qualitative information is your interest then really learning how to hone that skill because there are so many incredible resources at the Grad Center for that. But also quantitative too. I think a mixture of methods and trying to understand and the analyses and processes for analysis are really, really important. I would say that for almost any field, but I think for sustainability, it’s so broad. And if you’re you know, for instance, working with a government agency on a resilience video series, you know you need to understand the in and out of all the different potential themes that might come up, and being a generalist in that way is a really good fill. But I think having the balance of environmental science and social science for sustainability is also important. If you don’t have the backbone in environmental science, it’s hard to make good decisions about how the social science should play out, if that makes sense. I think it’s kind of this combination of both of those things and having a combination of the skills that come from both of those backgrounds is really helpful. So the you know, the analytical skills in in both of those rounds are definitely different and understanding that the communication about those things is going to involve both is really I think really vital. Teaching sustainability science students at Montclair State, that definitely was part of the curriculum. There definitely is a combination that is useful. And the students who I know who are out there working now from any of the universities that I’ve taught at have landed in places where it requires both.
CROOKS: That’s really interesting. What was it that got you interested in this particular field?
MILLER: So I grew up in an environmental justice community along the Ohio river and so environmental justice was always something that was really important and interesting to me. And so I think that, coming from that background made me want to understand more about why people make the decisions they do, or how people get into situations that they’re in through other people’s decisions right, and through inequity in decision making and all kinds of different, a slew of issues right. And so that’s really what kind of drove me into this realm. I remember writing my essay to get admitted to San Francisco State. I realized I had to tell that story, and once I realized that that was a valid thing to do, and to tell that story actually lended me a little bit of support in a way. And also just context you know, like this is where I’m coming from. It’s not a shallow reason that I’m coming to this realm right. There’s something pretty deep seated in me that wants to know more. So I think that was a really good learning experience also is like thinking about like, I mean as silly as it might sound, like everybody has their story. And yes, admission essays are not always the best way to you know elaborate on those stories, but sometimes it’s a good place for it. But it gave me a lot of respect for the people at San Francisco State, and I just loved that program so much. I think it allowed me to grow in that way, because I had had a film and communication background before that. And of course it was useful to have had that background in going into geography, but it was like all the environmental science and geospatial science that I had no experience up til then, I got a lot of background there. But in addition to that, geography is a wide field, so I also got a lot of really great training in qualitative methods and also in social sciences as well. So it was a really great program for integrating what I was already interested in into kind of skills and approaches that then I could use to understand those things.
CROOKS: Jumping forward to think about your current role, can you tell us what a typical day or a week looks like for you?
MILLER: Sure, I think at Kearns and West, there’s not exactly a typical day, but I can say there’s always a mixture of administrative things like doing a training or meeting with a colleague or talking through a new platform that you might use for an engagement process. But there’s also billable hours that you’re working for clients. And then there’s also business development. So everyone at Kearns and West takes part in business development if they want to. And that could include responding to requests for proposals or qualifications. It could be meeting with a group of people of like minded interests within the firm to grow that particular sector. So, for instance, the equitable and inclusive engagement practices is something that’s growing a lot. It’s been there all along through their client work, but the practice itself as a sector, an official sector area is growing. And so, that’s sort of a typical day, where I do engage in a combination of all those three things. I really like that aspect of it, is that no one day is ever the same and there’s always going to be kind of a mixture, combination of things that you’re thinking about in any given day. And it really keeps, it keeps me very engaged and it keeps me very interested.
CROOKS: What is the mix of independent work and collaborative work like.
MILLER: Typically, billable client work is done with teams. But individually they’re definitely tasks that I will be tackling on my own. I love the combination of working, both with teams to bounce things off of and then going off and doing something on your own as well. So if you have to do data analysis, usually that’s something that you do alone, but then everybody else has their eyes on it too. Teams are really important at Kearns and West. I think it’s really great because people bring such different skills and at Kearns and West, it’s not as if there’s an archetype of a person who arrived there. There are so many different people and different backgrounds and different specialities when brought in conjunction can really make for an incredible team. So I’ve worked on so far, like four different teams, I think, and each one of them is completely different, different approaches and different topics and just different personalities. But I that might be a little different than you know, an academic space and thinking through how you may find yourself on a team. There are definitely, for instance I just kept thinking about grants I had worked on in the past, where I was part of a team, a research team, and that was really illuminating. I think research teams are not far off at all from a team in an environment like Kearns and West. You have people with different specialties and different backgrounds that are coming together to offer what they know. And in combination can kind of present something that’s a little broader and more integrated into whatever the problem is at hand. So the same thing goes for working at Kearns and West in a team environment. Everybody brings something interesting to the table.
CROOKS: You started to touch on this already, but what do you find rewarding about this role?
MILLER: I find a lot of things rewarding about this role. I think one of the things I find really rewarding is working in teams because I do get so many different perspectives on the same issue, and I think that’s incredibly valuable for the type of work that we do. I think that diversity and opinion is absolutely necessary if you’re doing community engagement. You’re going to encounter it no matter what you do and so I think that really helps us to have a variety of opinions about something or perspectives about something. But also, knowing that we’re working as a team and we’re not here to step on each other but we’re working to figure this out together. I think that’s incredibly valuable. I think the experiences that I’ve had working with federal agency has also been incredibly useful and powerful, just knowing that this level of intricacy is going into their decision-making processes is actually something that grounds me for sure and makes me feel a little bit more at ease, thinking a firm like Kearns and West are the ones who are doing this because they really are a talented and highly diverse group of individuals. And I mean diverse in so many different ways. So I would say that’s incredibly helpful. I also find working in a team that’s noncompetitive is also incredibly helpful. In academia, things can feel a little cutthroat sometimes, a little like I’m on top of this, stay out of my business. And that’s not at all the environment at Kearns and West. It’s people of all levels, all ranks kind of working together, which I really like too. It’s not a competitive environment. It’s a collaborative environment, makes a huge difference in my everyday life, and my everyday happiness.
CROOKS: Great, that’s really inspiring actually. What challenges is your organization currently facing?
MILLER: I would say that one of the challenges they’re facing right now is that we’re growing quite rapidly. And I think as of three or four years ago, it was maybe 35 people and now it’s up to 90. And so there’s a lot of demand for the type of work that we do, especially from federal agencies. And I think that growing rapidly always presents challenges, and so I haven’t been part of the process, except for being on the other side of interviews, which I love doing, actually. But I think it’s kind of a challenge to staff everything. It’s just a constant flux of work and that’s I think the major challenge that Kearns and West is facing right now is they’re growing and there’s just growing pains related to that.
CROOKS: Interesting. Where do you see the field of sustainability going in the next say 10 to 20 years?
MILLER: Well, I think that in terms of sustainability or resilience or whatever framework you use to think through these things, these types of questions, these kind of human environment engagement questions, there’s going to have to be, and I know it’s already happening, but there has to be more communication between the natural and the social sciences. And I think that a space like academia can have kind of relics of that siloed approach. And I think that the more people are engaging in this issue, then, the more they realize, there has to be a social science component and there has to be a community engagement component. Without that, how do you make decisions that are going to impact people in the way that they’re hoping. The approach that Kearns and West takes is growing partially because of that kind of sea change, especially at the federal level, of thinking about the importance of community and diversity and inclusion and making decisions. I can only see that area growing where there’s that like understanding the natural science is wonderful when you come into that kind of environment, but I think the combination of the two is incredibly useful and will only continue to grow.
CROOKS: And can you tell us a bit about what the interview process was like for your current role?
MILLER: So, initially, I did the informational interview last July, I believe. And that was just an informal conversation with a couple of folks from the DC office. And then when I applied for the position, I applied right before the holidays, the end of November, I think. I didn’t really anticipate hearing anything back until January, but the first week of January I did get an email where I was invited to an interview with a few folks. I think it was just a handful at first, a smaller interview. And then I was invited back for another interview within a week with a larger group of other people in the firm. So this was project coordinators of two principles and just kind of a mixture of a lot of different people who I would likely be working with but also different perspectives. And so I loved having that conversation with so many different people and knowing that I could reach out to those people to ask some different types of questions afterwards. So I was encouraged to do that too, which was very nice, because there’s just a lot of unknowns right when you’re starting a new position. And there are different levels of understandings I think of what happens inside of an organization. And so I found that green light to talk to other people really revealing and revealing in a way that was great, like it’s a transparent place. You can ask questions. Nobody’s going to be upset with you if you ask the wrong question. And so I really found that to be reassuring, that I was maybe choosing the right place in the right place that you know I can fit into. And then pretty shortly after that I was given an offer and I started in February. So I started a little over a month after I interviewed. And that was more of me trying to tie up loose ends than it was them, you know wanting to wait. They would have loved to me to have started earlier right.
CROOKS: Great, that’s really helpful. What types of skills or qualities would you recommend current students really highlight in applications and interview processes for research positions outside of academia?
MILLER: That’s a really good question and I think a vital one to think through. So one of the ways that I learned how to kind of really configure what I had done into language that was a little bit more appropriate for a broader audience beyond academia was really the informational interviews that I did. I did a lot of informational interviews and just hearing the language that people would use in these interviews to discuss their skills and what they do every day. I guess I was still being a researcher right. I was trying to do a little linguistic research actually to understand the language that people use and the sort of messages that they revealed in talking about their skills. And so I found that to be incredibly helpful just to hear the language and ask questions when I needed to, when I didn’t understand what something meant. And to be curious because that’s how informational interviews work. I mean if you’re not curious and you don’t ask questions, then you’ll just get a one-sided sort of spiel about what a person does. And I think, for the most part, people like the give and take back and forth, you know kind of more conversational engagement with a person, rather than you just eating it all up and taking notes. So I think it’s really good to have kind of a back and forth with people you know, in a broad range of fields and broad range of environments, especially when it’s something you’re questioning and you’re not positive which realm you want to become part of. And I had one experience that I kept coming back to also. You know someone had mentioned to me in one of these informational interviews, think back about all the different jobs you’ve had and what were the things about those jobs that you really liked. And I kept thinking about an internship I had in San Francisco at Nelson Nygaard, which is a transportation consulting firm. And I had such a great experience there in so many ways. They really did not treat me like an intern. They let me, for instance, produce a film internally at their agency on rural transportation access in the Central Valley, and all kinds of other projects. I just kept thinking that was such a fun environment, working on all these different types of projects, really kind of stretching your brain in different directions to try and answer questions and resolve problems. I really, really love that kind of direct work. I think that was incredibly useful. It was just a good way of somebody framing things through your past and what about it, you know sticks out as something you really love.
Another person said to assess what the environment, the working environment might look like at a place that you’re interviewing for, to ask the person who would be supervising you, how would you prefer I communicate with you when we have a difference of opinion. And you can tell so much from that question, it is unbelievable. And it might sound like a simple question, but it gives you so many different reactions and the reactions will tell you something about the environment. If I had someone who had never thought about that, I would be like whoa red flag right. If somebody said, oh well, just talk to me, you know, then I’d be like, oh okay well, maybe this will be a good environment for me. And so I think that was a really revealing question that someone gave me in an informational interview. That just stuck out and I used again and again and again when I was interviewing.
I would say yeah framing your skills is also incredibly important. One is the language that other people use for sure. But also if you break down what you’ve done in academia, typically you’ve done facilitation, for instance. You’ve done community, if you’ve done a community engaged research project, you’ve done community engagement to some degree. And really thinking about what that looks like and spelling it out even if it’s just for yourself is a really good idea, because then you have the information that you need to move forward with an interview process and explain what you did outside of the research realm. And I would say, any skills in terms of programs, like if you use GIS or if you use Excel. Those are really, really valuable tools and you can use those in so many different environments. So even though it may seem like it was just part of what you were doing before, it is a skill. It’s a separate type of skill that some people do not possess, so think of it that way. I also think, so you get facilitation absolutely through teaching. You get, sometimes you get community engagement depending on your research. Someone had mentioned skills transfer. And so that also plays a role in teaching absolutely. So, for instance I taught a GIS class at Temple a couple times. And every time I taught that I was thinking, this is a skills transfer class This is like, let’s learn the software together so that you can go out and do geospatial analysis with some practice. And I also found that all the methods classes that I ever took were incredibly useful for developing skills, especially with Excel. Excel is just so useful, every day I use Excel. So if you’re not comfortable with those sorts of things, you can also learn how to do them on your own either through your research or through classes. I would really suggest trying to think, like listing all those things that you’ve done and really trying to pull them apart and tease them out. What are the skills that you, you got from doing this. I also think the way that you talk about your work is important. For instance, it’s not just about the research itself or the publications, any of those indexes that academics use. Those are not really valuable outside of the academic world in a lot of ways, even though of course publications are valuable. I mean that’s how you can show that you’re a good writer right. And being a good writer and being a good communicator is absolutely part of I think a lot of positions out there, so don’t undervalue that you also have extremely good writing skills, compared to many other people because you’ve had to write so much more and had to practice.
CROOKS: Related to your previous answer, are there any skills or any sort of areas that you think current grad students can develop while they’re at the Grad Center?
MILLER: Well, I think if you’re going into an academic environment, there are so many different types of academic environments. And so you know coming from the Grad Center, you’re getting a pretty specific view of what academic life could look like. And so I think that you know, talking to people who are in similar types of positions as the ones you’re looking for is a really good idea. And trying not to just glaze over those intricacies because I think when you know you’re a grad student and you’re looking for a job, the idea of a tenure track job is like you know, if you get the opportunity, wow you know I got an opportunity to do that. That’s incredible because there are so few jobs, and I think it’s really easy to just say like oh I found a job. I found a tenure track job. This is the, this is the job for me. I think there are so many things you need to pay attention to when you’re making that decision. And I think that when I went through this last interview process to work at Kearns and West, I really did think through all the things that you know made me happy or unhappy at my previous position, and really tried to like you know tease those out in the interview questions. And it was a conversation that I had with the folks who I now work with. And I think that was incredibly valuable and I think in academic environments, sometimes it’s hard to know, I don’t know. I had a friend tell me that she actually felt guilty when she got her position offer as a tenure track professor. And she felt guilty because she knew how few people got that opportunity. And I think that when you feel that way, it’s never a good thing to kind of forget about all the details that go into that. But it’s really hard to remember that I think when you’re, when you’re offering this kind of pie in the sky for an opportunity.
So I think taking your time, making sure you’re entering the right kind of space is incredibly valuable. And I would say, don’t be too quick to jump on something just because you think it’s the only opportunity you’re going to have to be an assistant professor. I think there’s way too much pressure in academia to stay within academia. And so I think this series is so incredible because you’re offering people another huge range of diverse paths. But in terms of training or classes or different approaches, I think I would have maybe tried to talk to other younger faculty members and ask them what their experience had been. And I didn’t do that, except for the folks within my cohort or near my cohort who went off and did those things you know. I didn’t really have a whole lot of people that I turned to to ask those kinds of questions, the really honest questions about their experiences. I would say yeah outreach, like always trying to talk to people about what their experiences is is super important. And also, you know the people at the Graduate Center who are teaching there are incredible resources. They are also part usually of another university at CUNY too. And they can explain the context of their position too. So asking your advisor or your instructors those types of questions is a really good thing too. Through this process of like you know thinking about leaving academia, I really turned to them to say, what has your experience really been like, can you explain, you know, is this similar to what you saw. And that was incredibly helpful and it also made me feel supported in my exploration of other opportunities.
So I would say those are the biggest things, but I also think I’ve always been into taking methods classes. And so I took so many methods classes with, for instance Setha Low, lots of qualitative data analysis classes. And I took lots of geospatial data analysis classes, and those were incredibly helpful. So I would say, you know, even though it may seem like you’re loading up on methods classes, you likely will use them all out there. Theory classes are also great for trying to think through big picture ideas and understandings of things. And just knowing that theory has to be combined with other things, so there may be theory, but there’s also practice and planning and everything else that comes in between. Practicing applying the theories to actual situations and seeing what comes up. Choosing some kind of concrete thing to focus on as a grad student, so I guess choosing something that will encourage you to develop different types of skills to understand the question and understand the process of what’s going on in that situation. That would be my biggest advice. And that may seem a little broad and a little vague, but I think the more you think about how you’re doing things and why you’re doing them the way you are,it’s going to help you out in the end.
CROOKS: And as a final question, we like to ask if you can give sort of an overarching message or piece of advice that you would like to leave current grad students with.
MILLER: Don’t feel like academia is your only path forward. There are so many different things you can do with the skills you developed there. And I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by pinning yourself to a structure that is very difficult to become part of, very difficult to maintain your position in, and may not actually be what you want. And I think that it’s a really good idea to question all of these things. What do you want? What makes you most happy, in thinking about the kinds of tasks that you want to be engaging in every day in order to make yourself happy. If teaching is what you love, knowing that you know because I love teaching, I do. Knowing that teaching is only one portion of what you’re doing as a tenure track professor and that some of those other things that we’re doing may be valuable too. But as opposed to other environments, you are expected to do a huge amount of service as a tenured professor. And sometimes those things get in the way of doing, for instance, research or grant proposals or working with colleagues to solve internal problems. Really thinking through what makes you happy on an everyday level is a really good idea.
Another thing about the academic environment is that some people are really drawn to the schedule thinking that the schedule is such a flexible thing. And I would say in my experience that’s not necessarily the case. Summers are not for fun. Summers are for getting everything done that you couldn’t get done during the school year because you were so busy with other things. So also think about that, like the transition from being a grad student to a tenure track professor means definitely making sacrifices for some of the things that you loved about being a grad student. And I don’t think anyone told me that before. I think I just assumed it would be a lot like being a grad student forever in a way. So I would say trying to think through how else you might apply yourself that would be rewarding as well as super valuable time as opposed to just barreling down the one track of I’m going to be an academic.
CROOKS: Great, Jessica, thanks so much for joining us today and sharing your wisdom with us.
MILLER: I am so happy to be here thanks for inviting me.
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