Making a career change into sustainability: 3 things to consider before going back to school

by Shannon Houde

Many job seekers and career changers feel the allure of the sustainability and green markets but are not sure how to break into these sectors.

There are more jobs than ever in this exciting and rewarding field. Yet competition is at an all time high, with an average of 100-300 applications for every online posting. That may leave you wondering if you need an advanced degree, or if it’s better to look for a lower-paid job to gain some experience. Both options have merit, so consider the following before making any decisions.

1. Change one thing at a time

A career change can encompass any or all of the following: role/function, sector/industry or sustainability issues/expertise. The most successful career changers change one of these things at a time. The role/function or sector/industry are the most important, so chose one of these to start with. That will be your interim step if you plans are to change both role and sector eventually. Then you can transition for your next job into changing both.


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For example if you are a marketing expert in oil and gas your next move could be to stay in marketing but for a B-Corps or responsible business in a different sector. However there are also benefits of keeping the sector the same and changing your role. So perhaps you move into external affairs within oil and gas that has more of a sustainability and communications focus to it but within the sector that you already know well.

The sustainability aspect is a bit different because shifting into this area does not always require a specific degree or experience unless it is a more technical role like environmental assessments or assurance work. According to a recent report from Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship (BCCCC), the majority of business sustainability roles are being filled internally. Companies figure that an insider has the best understanding of the business landscape, services and key stakeholders, as well as how to navigate and implement change across the politics of the company.

Your thought leadership or knowledge of niche sustainability issues is important and can set you apart. But are you really going to learn these in a Masters programme? Perhaps if you decide what the issues are before starting your programme and use all of your coursework, projects and company consulting opportunities while a student to dive deeper into your issues of passion. For example if you are passionate about water or human rights, make those your themes throughout all of your projects in school so that you have a track record to show employers upon graduation.

2. Devaluing yourself doesn’t open doors

Taking a step back in salary or your level may do more harm than good. Hiring managers know that overqualified candidates get bored and leave or seek speedy promotions. They may also worry that you would be too difficult to manage, not wanting to really role up your sleeves because you know you should be doing more senior type of duties.  The hiring manager also may wonder why you are thinking you are worth less than you are in the market.  It makes you look insecure.

This deters them from choosing someone with more experience and education than the job requires. You will also quickly lose confidence when you can’t even get interviews for more junior level jobs. Instead of searching for low-level positions in a new field, aim for roles at your level that shows career progression or a least a lateral move if you are changing one thing at a time as mentioned above.

Offering to do volunteer, pro-bono or consultancy project work for your dream organisation can be a good way to break in or boost your skill set. It gives you a chance to prove yourself, to solve a specific problem or pain point they may have, while also allowing the employer not to take on too much risk.  You will need to make this easy for them though by showing you are self managed and have already thought through the project/solution you are going to “sell” them and do for them to make their lives easier, without much insight required from them.  You might just offer to write blogs for them or do research – two areas of pain that most managers suffer from.

3. Going back to school doesn’t buy you a job

Consider if the roles you are targeting actually require an advanced degree or certification and if that is truly the key qualification you are missing that is keeping you from being perfectly qualified. It is all too easy to think that going back to school will wave a magic wand of career change upon graduation.

If this is the only criteria you are not meeting on the job advert then perhaps they would overlook it for all of the other aspects you offer. If it is a theme you are seeing in most roles you are wanting to go for then perhaps you do just need to tick that box. But there are ways to go back to school part-time and even online now. So beware of pulling out of the workforce and the opportunity costs of not earning while in school.

If you do go back, make it count. Returning to school is not an automatic ‘in’. Focus your coursework on real projects with real companies so you build relevant competencies and expand your network. Finally, don’t wait until graduation to start your job search. Begin hunting around six to nine months before you finish so that you can tap into your alumni network and other school resources (career centre, etc.) that you are paying for!

Still not sure about how to shift into a sustainabilty job? Check out my recent column for more thoughts.


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