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Career Preparation in the Earth Systems Undergraduate Program at Stanford University

Kathleen Phillips, Stanford University

The Earth Systems Program is an interdisciplinary degree and our students are interested in a wide variety of careers ranging from academia to non-profits to finance. Given the diversity of interests in our program, there is no one-size-fits-all method for career training, rather we have a great amount of flexibility that allows each student to gain the training necessary for their goals and interests while maintaining academic rigor. This is done through several pathways: coursework, the required internship, and the Senior Seminar/Capstone project.

Earth Systems requires foundational coursework of all of our students in the physical and biological sciences, math, economics, and writing to give them a solid background to understand the science underlying complex environmental problems. Each student then selects from one of six different course tracks to focus their academic studies: Anthrosphere; Biosphere; Energy, Science and Technology; Sustainable Food and Agriculture; Land Systems; or Oceans. Through the selection of the course track, students can gain the specific knowledge and training that is most relevant to their career goals. There is also flexibility within the tracks, with each track offering a menu of course options from which students can choose.

In order to give students hands-on, real world experience, Earth Systems requires each student to complete an internship (9 units/270 hours). The internships are student selected, but must meet strict guidelines to ensure that the students are gaining valuable experience, ie. a student cannot get internship credit for cleaning test tubes in a lab, or collecting signatures for an advocacy organization. Students are encouraged to use the internship as an opportunity to "try-out" a career field that is of interest to them. Students have completed internships at a wide variety of organizations including sustainability departments at major companies, non-profit organizations, research labs at Stanford and other universities, city and state governments, consulting firms, etc. The internship requirement gives students work experience to include on their resumes, and they are able to talk about the projects that they worked on when they are on the job market.

The Senior Seminar/Capstone project is required of all students and consists of a 45 minute oral presentation by each student to their peers on their internship experience and a quarter-long group project where students engage interdisciplinary problem-solving skills to tackle a real-world problem, conducting research and offering solutions. Each group delivers a final oral presentation on their project to their peers at the end of the quarter. For many students, this if the first time that they have been required to give a significant public presentation, and the course includes resources and support for students to hone their presentation skills. Because the Senior Seminar brings together students from all different course tracks, they have the opportunity to work with colleagues with different backgrounds and skills in their group projects, which is valuable training for their future careers. Students also learn how to adapt their presentations for a more general audience since they are speaking to a peer group with varied backgrounds – again an invaluable skill for many career paths.

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