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Rising Stars: Making Room for Herself in Energy & Utilities

By Erdin Beshimov

Julia is a PhD student in California, a commitment she balances with her job at the California Energy Commission. Julia encourages students not to shy away from competitive fields; there's always room for good people, she says.

Name: Julia Silvis
School: BA - Harvard College; PhD - University of California, Davis
Major: History and Science
Years Out of College: 2-5
Title: Energy Analyst
Company: California Energy Commission
First Steps

"My first official job after graduating from college was a field technician on a large ecological experiment. It was similar to jobs I had in college, but it felt different to be doing it full-time. I had thought that I wanted a doctorate in ecology before I started, but spending so much time in the lab interacting with grad students made me realize that what I really wanted was to bring science into environmental policy decision-making. So, my next job was at a think tank in D.C., doing research about energy and the environment."

From Then to Now

"I don't think I had a big break. It was a gradual evolution, punctuated by little epiphanies, of my realizing that I wanted to be in the policy arena somehow, that I wanted to be thinking at a level that would require a Ph.D., that working as a ski instructor is a pretty sweet deal."

Challenges Faced

"One challenge I face all the time is that people have no idea what my degrees mean. My undergrad is in "History and Science" and my doctorate will be in 'Transportation, Technology and Policy.' These are both interdisciplinary fields, so I usually have to spend some time explaining what they involve on my resume, in job interviews, and even to people in casual conversation."

Sometimes it takes a little work to convince people that my degrees meet their requirements, and frequently they are only convinced by other jobs I have held, rather than by my brilliantly compelling arguments for why I am qualified. But generally, people find them to be interesting, and I like that I am not automatically put in a box, since people don't know how to categorize me. It gives me a chance to talk about what makes me unique or good for the job."

Another big challenge I faced was graduating without a job. I kind of freaked out for a couple months, but eventually I realized that it would be fine to do something totally out of line with my 'career goals.' So, I went to New Zealand and traveled for a while, then came back and taught at a ski resort (something I am still doing on weekends) and worked as a receptionist. I learned something in all those experiences, and some days I wish I was still a receptionist--it was a lot simpler than being a grad student, and you never had to take work home!"

My Experience

"The part I like most about my job at the Energy Commission is that I get to do a lot of writing, which involves research and synthesis. I like reading several reports, looking up information, and coming up with arguments for why this or that research project would be valuable. It's a great way to learn, and it feels useful.

As for my other job of being a graduate student, I also really like the writing part of that. And I like the amount of control I have over my research. Sometimes it is a little overwhelming, because I always see ways to improve my write-up, or research design, but it is nice to be able to spend the time to really get things right."

Next Steps

"I would like to keep writing as a large part of my job, but I would like to be writing more for policy-makers than project managers. I would like to be bringing science more directly to decision-makers, giving them good information upon which to deliberate and, ultimately, legislate."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

"No, I didn't think I'd end up studying transportation with a bunch of engineers in California, writing financial analyses of transportation bonds, writing summaries of energy research, and getting involved in civic government. I still don't know if my degree is going to get me where I want to be, but a tactic that has worked for me is to find an organization that is doing interesting work, and work for them in whatever capacity you can, and then, once they know you, you can redefine your job little by little (or a little by a lot) to be more exactly what you'd wanted to do in the first place."?

Advice for Others

"The advice I would give is take math and statistics. Employers seem to be really impressed by that, and statistics are everywhere. It's a big point in your favor when you can engage technical arguments on a technical level, and statistics is a tool that lets you do that in many different fields.

Good advice I've gotten: 'There's always room for another good whatever-you-want-to-be.' I know a lot of people shy away from fields because they think the job market is too competitive, but there is always room for good people in any field, so if you really want it, you'll make it work.

Also, don't be afraid to apply and re-apply for things. Sometimes re-applying gives an employer/scholarship committee/etc. a chance to accept someone they really liked, but happened to apply in a particularly competitive year, or the year when the boss's kid also applied."

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