A recent PhD grad and a mentor talk about their experiences and the mutual benefits of mentorship
When the time comes to settle on a career, there’s plenty out there for University of Alberta graduates skilled in the wide-ranging field of energy: jobs in research, government, industry and startups, to name a few.
But how to decide? One tried and true way is to talk to somebody who’s already out there — which is why environmental researcher Elisabeth Richardson signed up for the U of A’s new Energy Pathways Career Mentorship Program. A newly minted PhD from the Faculty of Science, Richardson wanted to explore her options and was matched with mentor Shane Patterson, a veteran science and technology specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, and graduate of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.
One of 13 pairings between U of A graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and experienced professionals from various energy-related sectors, Richardson and Patterson connected for eight months during the program’s first run this year. Folio asked about their experiences and the benefits they feel mentorship offers.
What made you want to be part of the Energy Pathways Career Mentorship Program?
Elisabeth Richardson: Through my studies in oilsands microbiology, I’ve been in the energy space for seven years, but I’m not from Alberta, and the energy sector looks very different in the United Kingdom, where I’m from. Being in academia, I was seeing one side of the industry, but there’s so much more out there in terms of policy, and I wanted a better understanding of that as a whole.
Shane Patterson: Professor Anne Naeth, director of Future Energy Systems, was a co-supervisor on my PhD in water and land resources, and we talked about the opportunities in the work I do, to explore linkages with the university. This was a good way to connect back.
Sounds like there were some useful nuggets of information to be shared?
Richardson: I’m working right now as a post-doctoral researcher with the School of Public Health, exploring whether environmental DNA can be used to monitor water quality, so I’m not in an immediate job-seeking situation. But Shane gave me an idea of what to look for out there, like seminars and scientific literature and the professionals in the field I could potentially follow to see how the energy sector evolves.
Patterson: Elisabeth had similar questions to mine when I was finishing up my PhD in 2008, whether to pursue a career in academia, government or the private sector. I was able to share my own experiences and provide some insight based on the choices I made.
Do you feel better prepared to plan a career now?
Richardson: Yes. It can be especially stressful for someone with a PhD to pick a career path, because it’s easy to feel ‘choice paralysis’ at the end of our degrees — that the career we pick has to be forever, since our studies are so focused on a particular topic. Working with Shane helped me identify my transferable skills and the work I’d be interested in, even beyond the energy sector. I have a background in computational biology, working with large datasets, so I can be open to different opportunities.
Shane’s guidance also gave me a better idea of what a job posting would involve on a day-to-day basis. He’s worked in academia, in government and as a consultant, so it was interesting to hear what it’s like to work for different employers. A posting can look both generic and intimidating, but now I can look at it, know what’s involved and not dismiss it right off.
Patterson: While working on my PhD, I was also consulting and looking at different job opportunities, so I hoped I passed that along to her — that if a posting comes up as, say, a contract or outside the university stream, she could do it in parallel. If you haven’t worked in a particular area, you need those types of experiences to figure out what it is you want to do.
How does this program help out in relation to the need for energy-sector workers?
Patterson: It creates a dialogue about what government and industry want in a workforce, then tries to match students with mentors in that same technology or research space.
The idea also helps with succession planning for vacancies. Employers are looking for highly motivated individuals, and initiatives like the Energy Pathways Career Mentorship Program build early connections between employers and students as they consider different career path options in their field of study.
Richardson: I want to be able to use my skills converting big data to inform the approaches taken in terms of reclamation and environmental protection. A lot of projects do a good job of that, but it’s so easy to collect a lot of data, so there’s a need to make sure we single out the most relevant, useful information for stakeholders.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.