Making a Career in Environment

I receive on an average five applications with Curriculum Vitae (CV) every day from students and young professionals who are interested to make careers in the field of environment. Out of the 100 CVs that I examine, I would say that less than 5% of the CVs look promising – or worth taking the discussion ahead.

I worry about the remaining 95%. I see that many of this category do not get jobs or advice (in the right time!) and subsequently run into a frustration and many a times even drop their plans of working in the field of environment. The ever-hungry IT sector offers them alternate opportunities.

I am writing this blog today to guide the students and young professionals on how should one build a career in the field of environment. I don’t have a remarkable story to tell about myself, but still I will use my career as an illustration wherever relevant.

The starting point is that you must be sensitive and have a passion towards environment. As you learn more, you should get even more excited. Does this make you restless? If it does, then great. I remember environment was always my passion. I was clear that this is what I want to learn about right in my undergraduate days.

You need to meet with people who work in the field of environment. You need to ask them questions and listen to what they have to say. I remember I met practically all those who mattered across the country. I travelled.

Think who you want to be? Identify personalities that may inspire you. Read my blog on who you want to be?. But be careful as it is a satire but has a lot of hidden messages.

See how can you add green (or more green) in your undergrad/grad program. Take electives and mini-projects that expose you to different topics of environment. I remember the second year elective offered by Professor S M Khopkar of Chemistry Department at IIT Bombay on “Environmental Pollution”. We had a choice to take 4 electives in the fourth and fifth year of BTech. You could do 4 electives on Systems and Control or  Humanities or Environmental Science. I chose the latter.

If required, audit the courses that are “lateral” but are important e.g. a course on mass communication. I remember during my doctoral research I took lots of such lateral courses such as system simulation, combinotorial optimization.

Internship is very important. Carefully plan your internship. Ideally look for two internships – one with an industry and another with a research organization or a science based environmental NGO. If you can manage getting internship outside India, then go for it. Intern where you have someone to mentor or the program is well laid out. Practice based learning is the essence. If you are asked to produce a document only through Googling, then this kind of internship is not worth at all.

At Environmental Management Centre LLP, we have been running a serious internship program for more than 15 years. So far nearly 80 students have completed their internships. Visit www.emcentre.com and I would recommend you to browse through the internship topics we offered.

Selecting your project (bachelors/masters/PhD) and the Guide are very important decisions. The project should give you research as well as project management experience. It’s the experience that is more important than the outcomes. So, select a topic such that you meet lots of people and travel in the field. Aim for a good publication – ideally two – one in a national and one in an international refereed journal. Read my blog on the fuss that will tell you my story how I chose my bachelors project.

It is a clever idea to take part or start green campus initiatives. This could mean setting up of a solar hot water system for the college canteen or replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs or designing and installing a waste to compost facility. These initiatives will expose you to the practical aspects of design, costing, getting the sponsor (such as alumni) and getting involved in the implementation. Use your summer vacations for such a project implementation experience. In some cases, you could even link these campus projects with your research interest and formulate a bachelors or masters dissertation.

Become secretary of the student association on environment –set up FB /LinkedIn pages, bring out a newsletter and organize lectures of external faculty. Consider holding a national workshop – learn event management, make contacts and maintain them post the event. I remember working for a national workshop on environmental management that we conducted at IIT Bombay during my Masters. Professor P Khanna was the convener.

At bachelors and masters level, don’t overly specialize – look at all media (e.g. air, water, land) and get the nexus right. That will distinguish you from others. Give Indian statistics as much importance as the international. Familiarize with local and national situation, challenges and opportunities. Blend both theory and practice. Be comfortable in working in the lab and be familiar with instruments.

Pick up a job before moving to Masters or Doctoral – work for at least 2 to 3 years preferably at an institution that gives you a rounded experience.  Getting the right experience is more important than the salary. Do read my blog on three interviews I faced during my job hunting! Oh, this was hilarious.

Small organizations with great people should be the first choice. Opportunity of working on “unconventional” projects should be the priority.

Join a professional association. Get involved. Help the association and learn. Get elected. Take a position in the organization of the association, Patronize the association and Grow. For last several years, I have been closely associated with the Indian Water Works Association. I edited the Journal over 8 years, organized national and international workshops and this helped me a lot.

Continue referring to the “library”. Identify the problems and opportunities you see in practice (as of today and as anticipated in the future), talk to to seniors/experts and see whether answers are already there. You may hit on something where solutions need to be evolved. Write two pagers on your ideas. Communicate and get them peered. I remember that I wrote my first two pager on the research needs on water supply engineering and sent the note to Professor Daniel Okun, legendary professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Okun replied and offered me research assistanceship. That was amazing.

Find the best place where you want to research. Don’t compromise the university. Wait and have patience. Brand of the university where you do advanced learning is extremely important.

Make the best of your Masters/PhD program. Shape yourself well to face the world as you complete. You will never get such a time again.

Pick up a career stream based on your passion and the skills. Teaching? Research? Consulting? Technology Development? Technology Marketing? Project implementation? Policy and Regulations? Financing? You may experiment for a while if you like but all this should be done within the first 5 years max. In my case I tried to do all! But I must say I have been lucky to be the “free radical”

When you work take additional qualifications to update and build more skills – keep annual and five-year cycles for learning. Avoid templated work to the extent possible. As you grow, learn to manage teams and build experience on project management.

Become a mentor – keep connections with the Academia as the subject of environment is so dynamic. Look for visiting professor appointment. If required, spend your half Saturdays.

Continue working for professional associations, build your network – nationally and internationally

Publish to create impact. You will automatically be visible. Maintain high quality with no compromise. Keep a balance between individual and group publications, conferences and refereed journals.

Aspire to bring in a change that is impactful and measurable. You need to have patience and doggedness to pursue.

Finally, money should not be the objective of what you do. Money will chase you as much you stay away! Stay humble and celebrate others success. Have a compassion.

And finally, give back to the society. Environment is such a great subject that giving back enriches everybody’s life and makes your life worth living.  And only those who are fortunate, take environment as their career.

I have said a lot and everything what I have said may not be possible. You may “delete” and “add” and “adapt” depending on your opportunities and situation. Feel absolutely free and if you need any advice then do reach me on prasad.modak@emcentre.com

Each year, I hold a one-day counseling workshop on making careers in environment called as Disha. We will hold Disha this year after the academic sessions are over around April end or so.

I will notify and if you are interested, then please do attend Disha.

I will be glad to help.


Cover image sourced from http://wolhawaii.com/the-journey-of-my-destiny/


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The Joy of Teaching

In my professional career, I have been a Professor, a Consultant, a Corporate Head, an Entrepreneur and have worked with UN Bodies, Governments and Financing Institutions across the world. Amongst all these roles that I played, it is teaching that has given me the most satisfaction. Teaching to me has always been a joy – and a never-ending opportunity for learning. You feel blessed.

I remember days at Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay where I was a lecturer in 1984. All of us, as teachers, used the blackboard then with a box-full of chalks to “construct” what we wanted to say and “communicate” to the students. Use of Overhead Projector (OHP) and the plastic foils was just emerging.

Using the blackboard required teachers thorough understanding of the subject, confidence or the command to convince and of course the creativity. There were no “props” like the plastic foils where the content to be spoken was already written. You needed to ensure that your writing on the blackboard is neat and in the right font size so that it can be read by a student who is sitting on the last bench. You also needed to draw well, especially the diagrams and use chalks of assorted colors for the required emphasis. A big advantage of blackboard based teaching was that it made the students write and take their own notes as you erased the board once done with your point or topic. Today students are not simply writing!

OHPs are now replaced by LCD projectors where teachers use PowerPoints, animate the slides and insert videos to make teaching interesting. This is great. But still, I find writing on the blackboard very effective and challenging.  You feel more of an Actor in the classroom as your voice modulation, pauses, movements across and towards the blackboard matter.

When you draw a stretch of river and show discharge of untreated wastewater and then “narrate” what happens to the Dissolved Oxygen (DO) profile by drawing the DO-Sag Curve, you essentially build the “situation” step by step. You speak as you draw. The communique to the student therefore “brews”. Its not the matter like instant coffee!

Well you can do this rather dramatically with the help of animated PowerPoint slides. But to me developing the situation real time on the blackboard is like offering a freshly squeezed juice as against providing a canned juice! The fizz of the subject is simply lost when you have something already prepared or cooked that you many a times “mechanically” deliver.

I remember each time I taught the DO-sag curve, the visualization on the blackboard was different – as ideas came to my mind on “real time”, sensing the pulse of the class and more so as I kept on learning.  In this process, many “lateral” questions used to come up as I would sometimes show a case of Sag going below 2 mg/l of DO and then question the students whether the first order kinetics of BOD degradation was still valid.  On some occasions, I would invite a student to draw DO sag due to discharge of a non-point source such as fertilizer laden runoff from agriculture fields. Posing these situations would make students a bit uncomfortable, but then such “expansions” created ground for me to slowly build the complexity of water quality modelling beyond the basic equation of Streeter and Phelps. This matter was however put rather logically and humbly!

When we talk about complexity, teaching subject like environment, requires out of the box thinking on part of the teacher and an innovative strategy. The sheer complexity and uncertainty of environmental science is really exciting to teach. Nexus is the crux that needs to be “taught” and that is where a teacher is needed to introduce the relationships, generate discussions and motivate building of scenarios. It’s the free thinking that is to be introduced. The cross-connect in teaching environmental management of today and for tomorrow is to emphasize on the nexus. I hate teaching in silos like air pollution, water pollution, solid wastes etc.

Nexus is best communicated through story telling. You don’t start teaching atmospheric chemistry of smog formation first – instead you tell the story how the flights to Delhi in the winter are significantly delayed. And how these persistent delays affect people’s lives and the economy. Then ask why does this happen? The story “compels” the students to unfold the science behind the smog episodes and so the relevant chemistry comes in.

You tell the students a story where recycling of plastic was used to make toys for toddlers. Isn’t recycling of plastic waste a clever idea? You ask the students. In this story you then tell how the recycled plastic when used to make toys led to adverse impact on the neurological functions of the toddlers who loved to chew these recycled toys ! These adverse impacts were found much later. Well these adverse impacts could well be questioned and argued. The probable reason was the use of flame retardants in the used plastic that had remained “unabated”. The story illustrates the case of ”irresponsible recycling” and throws up several technical and policy related matters for a discussion.

A teacher is needed to tell such stories in the right or clever sequence pointing out the science, economics, social concerns, policies and of course the politics behind. Imagine if a teacher uses a bank of 30 such well identified and researched stories to “teach” students a full course on environmental management. While stories open up the minds and makes one aware of the realities; the underlying science is read by the students as essential supplements – but not in the class but “off-line” – by reading notes, research papers on googling the web. Meeting in the Classroom is to get narrative of the story from the teacher, discuss and appreciate complexity of the subject to understand the nexus and multiple or different points of view. I enjoy teaching when I run a course full of stories. And indeed, this is close to the “flip” method of teaching.

I have prepared a matrix of “teaching stories” covering local, sub-national, national, regional and global scales across various thematic. Examples in the thematic of air pollution-health-economics nexus are

  • Did Substitution of Petrol by CNG in Delhi work at all? (Local scale)
  • Asia Brown Cloud over East Asia – Is it a significant issue? How much has it affected the health and economies of the ASEAN? (Regional scale)
  • What are the new challenges due to phase out of ODS, especially on the formation of Short Lived Climate Pollutants? (Global scale)

We have several newspaper headlines and articles on such questions and they often become the starting points of the stories.

But teaching does not have to be only in the class room. A lot happens when you take students on a field trip that is well planned. These field trips or “yatras” provide great experiential learning opportunities, in a group, and often in an implicit manner. So, if you organize a field trip to Ralegaon Siddhi (a transformed village in the State of Maharashtra in India), students understand the linkages to the development and environment and the complexities. They experience the story.  Perhaps in a course of 36 lectures on environmental management, spending weekends at 4 interesting locations for such learning will be very effective.

I must tell you about my experience and experiment at one of the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) in India. When the Member Secretary (the Administrator) of the SPCB asked me to train some of Boards staff, I told him that I would do this a bit differently. I asked for a desk on the first floor to sit and parked myself there. “Let me first be part of your staff Sir” I told the Member Secretary.

On the first floor, I was in a room of few Senior Environmental Engineers. One of them was Bala. I saw a heap of files on Bala’s desk. I noticed that Bala stayed late every day clearing the files and carried several files home in his car. He looked stressed.

I walked up to him next day and talked to him about his problem. “Is there a way that we could make three heaps, one heap of files that requires your priority attention; one that is of cases that do not need your attention and your sub-ordinate can manage and the third heap that is simply not relevant to you and hence is to be returned”.

“Oh, you have a point Dr Modak, my assistant stacks all the files as they come in. Can you help?”

There was a blackboard in the room which did not seem to be used much. I walked to the blackboard and started ideating the schema of prioritization for applications made by the industries. As I started developing the criteria, Bala joined and started commenting and making suggestions. Others in the room noticed this discussion and pulled their chairs around us. It  soon became a classroom of “students” and I was the “teacher”.

In the next two hours we developed a schema that Bala and his assistant could use to stack the files in three heaps. I then unfolded the science behind and exposed the team to some of the criteria and tools used by other regulators in the world. When we ended the session with a tea, few asked me for some reading materials. Next week onwards, Bala’s desk had only one heap of files and he did not carry files home anymore.

Member Secretary understood my method of teaching. He asked me to move and take a table now on the second floor! “You may like to teach there like you did on the first floor” He said with a smile. Thats the joy of teaching.

I wish my “last lecture” is in a room with a blackboard with students sitting around me – eager to learn.  I will enjoy teaching them through “story telling” and it will be a great joy to  see their faces getting slowly illuminated. This makes life worth living.

God – bless me please.

 


Cover image sourced from https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching


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