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All Roads Lead to the Poles, Eventually, at APECS-AGU Cryosphere Careers Panel

On Wednesday, December 16, APECS and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Cryosphere Focus Group held the annual APECS-AGU Cryosphere Career Panel. Five representatives of the polar community participated in the panel, sharing their views on work, school, and polar lifestyles with the approximately three dozen people in attendance. The panelists were selected to represent a broad spectrum of potential career pathways in polar science and outreach and included:

The five panelists provided brief introductions before panel moderators Sara Strey and Laura Levy initiated the panel discussion. The questions asked to the panelists included:

  1. What does your typical day look like?

  2. What are some skills that you’ve found are helpful in your job but that you didn’t learn in school?

  3. How did you first become interested in polar science and/or outreach?

  4. Do you have any tips for navigating the funding environment?

  5. As an undergraduate student, how do you build connectors with potential employers and transition into graduate school?

  6. Reflecting back, would you do anything differently to manage your career?

  7. What would you say to people on the fence about pursuing a polar career?

  8. Do you see any new research or job opportunities on the horizon?

  9. Is undergraduate research valuable for graduate school?

  10. How do you find a non-academic job?

  11. Is it better to develop a broad set of skills or really hone-in and refine your specialized skills (i.e., shallow and broad or narrow and deep)?

An integrated summary of the panelists responses can be found below.

The winding path to the poles

Interestingly, hardly any of the panelists had come to working or studying the Arctic or Antarctic via a straight and narrow path. Chu worked in accounting before deciding to pursue graduate studies on the hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Her first time camping was in Greenland – demonstrating that one doesn’t need to be a hardcore outdoor enthusiast before ending up in one of the world’s most extreme environments. Wong worked as a helicopter technician in Antarctica before pursuing graduate studies at Dartmouth. Participating in a 40 day unsupported ski trip across Baffin Island sparked Young’s passion for the polar regions, while Wiggins decided to leave a PhD program and head for Alaska. “I’m not advocating driving across the country without a job prospect – but that’s kind of what happened,” she laughed.

All of the panelists concluded that gaining prior experience in unrelated fields put them in a better position to succeed once they finally decided upon polar careers. For instance, learning how to manage a project, gaining accounting experience, working with deadlines, developing skills in outdoor education, and doing improv all made the panelists well-equipped for polar work, outreach, and study. Chu also emphasized the importance of taking classes in statistics and programming as an undergraduate, since these skills can be applied to a wide array of scientific research.

Yet regardless of one’s background, people in the poles will likely be welcoming. “I think because of the interest in it, the Arctic is very open,” Chu expressed. “As someone without lots of background – not just a science background, but also a field background – working in the Arctic and with all of the logistics people, I see that they’re very open to young researchers, particularly young women. Seeing lots of my cohort out there is kind of amazing compared to other fields I’ve seen.” Part of the openness and the eagerness amongst people to collaborate may be due to the fact that in the Arctic, as Dr. Hinzman asserted, “there’s so much work to be done.”

Of course, there are a few key things you can do to make yourself stand out, especially as the Arctic grows more crowded. “Say hi, get to know people, and make yourself noticeable,” Wong suggested. He also encouraged demonstrating your value in a variety of ways. “Maybe you like to cook – Lord knows that in the field camp setting, food is how you keep morale up. And on the intellectual side, keep asking questions.”

The interdisciplinary Arctic

One member of the audience inquired whether, given the popularity of interdisciplinary research, it is better to pursue broad skills or push deeper into a narrow field. Dr. Hinzman responded, “Most of the opportunities are at the interface of disciplines. If you go strictly with biology or geology, it’s really hard. The greatest opportunities and easiest projects to get funded now are interdisciplinary.” He mentioned village relocation in Alaska as an example of an interdisciplinary problem. “This is a social science issue, but also a marine, economic, and permafrost issue, so there’s an opportunity for integrating all these different sciences together.”

Chu, however, added, “You need a little bit of depth just to show that you can do something. It’s nice to have a broad theme – for instance, I do Greenland Ice Sheet hydrology – but show that you have a skill, or interface between different skillsets, too.”

Wiggins, who is Director of Programs at ARCUS and is able to speak with authority on matters of funding, research, and the future of the field, confirmed Dr. Hinzman’s claim that the most polar funding is now found in interdisciplinary research. “There are lots of opportunities in Arctic now,” she said. “If you are a broad thinker or are interested in lots of things, communication or outreach, the Arctic is an excellent place to do that.”

The non-academic Arctic and Antarctic

Young, Wiggins, and Wong exemplified the ability to lead exciting polar careers outside of academia. Young used to manage field camps in the Dry Valleys in Antarctica, while Wiggins had a stint directing oil company trucks in Alaska. Wiggins, who moved to the 49th State on a whim and came across her current job listed in the newspaper, said, “I have found that there’s no category that says, ‘people who love science but are not sure they want to be in academia.’” She admitted, “It’s more work to find those jobs,” and suggested doing keyword searches, looking on Monster, state and federal job listings, and listservs that might be advertising such positions. Even for people who have received their graduate degrees but now realize that academia isn’t for them, there are still plenty of positions in the poles. Dr. Hinzman chimed in, “There are a lot of jobs out there that require academic jobs that aren’t in academia… For any professional position, it just takes time to find them. Realize that when you’re looking for jobs, start early, don’t get too discouraged.”

Passion for the poles...

One other trait many of the panelists shared was a love of their job. Whether it’s waking up every morning to the stunning polar landscapes or getting ready to fact-check the latest statements on climate change, each panelist spoke passionately about for their work. Young effused, “I think when you find a passion in a career that you have, that keeps you going and keeps you excited. Waking up on Monday morning and being ready to go because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you find passion in your field, it will keep you going.”

...and the pub!

Afterwards, some of the panelists and attendees headed to a pub meet-up at The Chieftain. A couple of photos are below.


On Twitter, USAPECS co-chair Alice Bradley live-tweeted the event at her account, @acb___. Check out the tweets to see more quotes from the event and stay tuned for a longer reference document we are planning to publish online with more of the information and guidance offered by our panelists.

Helen, Vena, Gifford, Kathy, and Larry – thank you!

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