From his pre-graduate school work in community development, to his doctoral research in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, to his current role in California state government, Christopher Hyun is driven by a central principle: “I need to feel like I’m helping people and helping the environment. I won’t be motivated if I don’t feel that those things are true.” This guiding principle informed his doctoral research in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley on the social, policy, and historical factors involved in the theory and practice of sanitation. Chris’ commitment to helping both people and the environment motivated him to pursue this interdisciplinary approach, which contrasted with existing research on sanitation that was heavily engineering-based. And in many ways it set him on the path to his current role as Senior Environmental Scientist-Specialist for Climate at the State Water Resources Control Board, where he tracks the state’s progress towards its climate goals.
When he was considering post-PhD career paths as he was finishing his doctorate, Chris put a high priority on staying in the Bay Area, as he had spent much of his life before Berkeley traveling, working, and living in different states and countries. “I knew I would need to diversify what types of jobs I looked at, since I had a desire to stay in a particular geographic area. It worked out well, because my experience at UC Berkeley opened up a lot of different job types that I could pursue.” He also describes himself as having a personality suited to work that involves variety and challenge, which were factors in his decision as well.
Chris applied to both academic and nonacademic positions starting a year from his intended graduation–and then COVID-19 hit. “The pandemic put a fire under me in terms of getting a job. I started applying to those ‘maybes’ that I may not have applied for otherwise, including my current position. My fear induced action, which in the end paid off!” Starting a new job during the pandemic was challenging, but Chris had six months of working virtually as a graduate student and Professional Development Liaison to gain experience in the realm of virtual work. And to make social connections, the first thing he did upon starting his new job was set up one-on-one time with everyone on his team as well as new colleagues outside of his immediate circle. “The pandemic actually made it easier to reach out to others around the office who I might not have otherwise met, such as senior staff members.”
Chris’ experience taking on a role outside of his area of PhD specialization is actually fairly common for scientists working outside of academia or in government, but it wasn’t without challenges. For example, he found himself being asked to give presentations and to speak as a panelist about a report from 2019 that far pre-dated his start at the Water Board. This made Chris feel uncomfortable at first, as he felt he didn’t know enough to answer questions or present on the topic. But like a good former graduate student, Chris did his research and preparation: “I became the expert on this report! At times I felt surprised that people in other spheres move forward on projects or decisions without the rigor that we’re used to in academia. But I realized I could help bridge the gap between these two modes.”
I asked Chris for his advice to graduate students interested in multiple career paths, including outside of the academy, and he had several suggestions (“There’s so much to say!”):
- Get administrative experience: Chris worked as his department’s website administrator, which gave him a different perspective on working with faculty and administrators. The people skills that he developed in this role were vital for him during grad school and after. Chris also notes that seeing how an academic department works is great “whether you’re interested in academia or not.”
- Talk with people: Chris conducted a lot of informational interviews to explore sectors and fields he was interested in. “After talking to enough people, you can get an impression of how the role will be, and how you need to be in that role.”
- Apply early: Start to prepare and send out materials even before you start the job search in earnest. Pushing yourself to get out there as soon as you can “sparks questions to ask yourself and others, and it helps you get your materials ready. You don’t want the first draft of your documents to go to your dream job!” Chris describes the application process as an experiential way of exploring your career, not just the final step.
- Make use of campus resources and connections: “Get the most out of grad school!” The Berkeley campus has many resources that are available to you as a student, so explore and make use of them. “There are so many ways to explore and invent yourself–take that class, attend that workshop, meet that person.”
Want to act on Chris’ advice? A great place to start is to make an appointment at the Career Center with one of two PhD counselors to talk about your resume, cover letter, or prepare for an interview. Additionally, a consultation with GradPro can help you learn about resources and events on campus to help you develop skills and make connections in graduate school.
And if you’re interested in working within the Graduate Division as a Professional Development Liaison as Chris did, be sure to read the job description and apply by Friday, April 23 at 11:59 p.m. PT!
About the Author: Alicia Roy holds a Ph.D. in German from UC Berkeley and is a Hitchcock Postdoctoral Fellow in the GradPro office of the Graduate Division.