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STEM Career Advice, from a GIS Assistant in The Nature Conservancy


Nicole Labarge '15
Nicole Labarge '15

Every weekday morning, I walk across a bridge on the Androscoggin River to my job as a GIS Assistant at the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, housed in a repurposed brick mill on the river’s bank. I still have a hard time believing that, in just over one year after leaving Hamilton, I am in a position that I dreamed of being in years in the future.

Even more surprising is the fact that my career at TNC is founded, in large part, on one course that I took during the spring semester of my senior year: GIS. In reality, I believed as early as the first grade that I would be a writer, and spent summers filling notebooks with characters and plotlines on my front porch.

By the end of my first creative writing class at Hamilton, it was clear to me that while I still enjoyed writing, I did not want to major in it. Changing majors is a common, maybe even obligatory part of the college experience—but it can make you feel like you’re ricocheting blindly between life paths, with every change in mood. But, the uncertainty is part of the process.

Don’t be afraid to challenge your plans for the future, and don’t be afraid to change your mind.

Even after I decided on an environmental studies major with a geology focus, GIS was not part of my plan. I didn’t use it until I began working on my thesis, and now I may spend the next 40 years building a career in this field. In rapidly developing STEM fields especially, the path that leads you to your dream job isn’t always clear (in fact, there may not even be a path yet). One of the greatest things about Hamilton, in my mind, is that you can explore unfamiliar subjects while you develop a strong foundation of knowledge and skills—finding your path while you hone the skills to follow or forge it.

When I first learned about TNC, as a volunteer with them at the Rome sand plains, it didn’t take me long to decide that I’d love to work for them one day. However, after applying to several internships and entry-level jobs with them during my senior year—and never making it past the initial round—I realized that TNC positions were more highly sought after than I’d anticipated. Maybe someday, I conceded, after building a lot of experience, I could become competitive enough to make it through to an interview. But first, I needed some stepping stones.

Volunteering and online courses are great ways to boost your resume.

I attribute much of my success in finally landing a job with TNC to building my resume and network in ways that helped me to stand out from the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of other applicants that came across the desks of hiring managers for every position. A lot of STEM jobs require demonstrable experience working on particular types of projects. Entry level jobs seem to want you to already have done all of the things they need you to do, before you’re even out of school.

I completely understand the frustration that situation causes—the way I dealt with it was by volunteering with organizations who could offer me the experiences that entry level jobs were expecting. I also took advantage of some free, online courses, to help fill in gaps where I could. From coding languages to GIS itself, online courses offer training in a number of valuable technical skills that can help boost your resume. Both of these options are great ways to channel the stress of waiting to hear back from job applications into a productive outlet that ultimately boosts your resume and your chances of getting hired. And if you’re not sure what organizations you could volunteer with, or what skills might be useful to add to your resume, what’s the best thing you can do? Ask someone.

People want to help you succeed, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.

I first got this piece of advice from a Hamilton parent I shadowed for a day over winter break during my junior year, and I have found it to be unfailingly true. If you feel stuck in your career search, if you’re not sure whether you’re heading in the right direction, if know where you want to be but don’t know how to get there—ask someone for help! If someone is doing what you think you’d like to do, or if there is an organization you’d love to be a part of, do not hesitate to reach out to them.

alumni career advice

Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.

more from alumni in stem

Shortly before graduation, I reached out to my local TNC chapter to ask if they had any job openings. They didn’t, but one of their freshwater scientists did need a volunteer to do GIS work on a project. And so began my involvement with TNC. In sacrificing my time and effort, I gained a great new experience for my resume and, more importantly, a person in my professional network—one who was able to put in a good word for me with the GIS manager who would become my future boss. And all because I went out on a limb and asked for help.

Hamilton alumni are always a great resource, sometimes even when you don’t realize it (a Hamilton alumnus sat on the interview panel for my current job, and I didn’t even know until after I was hired.), but expanding your network beyond Hamilton can have huge payoffs. Even if that particular person cannot help you, chances are they know somebody who has answers to your questions, or maybe even someone who’d like to give you a job? It may not be quite that easy, but then again, you won’t know until you ask.

A lot of the time, searching for and ultimately getting a job can feel like it’s beyond your control.  But taking the initiative to expand your resume and network can go a long way towards helping you stand out in a pool of highly qualified applicants.

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