The path to a rewarding sustainability career

Four young professionals from around the world share how their choice of a postgraduate sustainability programme paved the way to a rewarding and meaningful career in the sector.

olivia cherie ciann usyd
L-R: Olivia Pitt, a Sydney Sustainability Programme alumna and sustainability consultant, with current students Cherie Beninger and Ciann Chow. The interdisciplinary programme offers a graduate certificate, graduate diploma, or Masters degree in sustainability. Image: Lucy Taylor/Sydney Sustainability Programme

When 25-year old sustainability consultant Olivia Pitt, newly-armed with a Science degree from the University of London, was researching postgraduate programmes four years ago, she had the world at her fingertips.

“I was looking at all English-speaking countries, and spent an entire summer doing research,” says Pitt, who today is a consultant with the climate change and sustainability services team at consulting giant EY in Sydney, Australia.

From the global array of programmes, one option struck Pitt as “completely one of a kind”: The Sydney Sustainability Programme at the University of Sydney.

Available as an 18-month full-time Masters programme or shorter Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate schemes, the course consists of a core curriculum spanning seven disciplines, such as the Life and Environmental Sciences; Medicine; Law; and Business, with electives, and a research initiative known as the capstone project.

Aside from the obvious appeal of living in warm and sunny Sydney for a British national, Pitt shares that it is the interdisciplinary nature of the course that stood out to her.

“It showed you what sustainability is like in virtually every aspect of society, from medicine to food and more,” Pitt tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

Once Pitt enrolled in the course in 2014, she says it was every bit as rewarding as the university website had promised. From dabbling in the many topics on offer to interactions with peers from a variety of professional and cultural backgrounds, to great support from the programme’s administrative and academic staff, “I definitely felt like I got my money’s worth,” she says.

But equally importantly, Pitt shares that the course helped her clinch her current role at EY. As part of a business module, the University invited climate and sustainability experts from EY to deliver a guest lecture.

Being able to recall insights from this lecture during her job interview, which took place almost two years after she graduated from the programme but was conducted by the same speakers, helped her stand out from other candidates, she says.

Pitt adds that she was hired into an experienced position rather than a fresh graduate role despite having little work experience, and that her sustainability qualifications had a lot to do with this.

And once she had clinched the job, which entails responsibilities ranging from reporting and auditing to conducting assurance checks and navigating the sustainability sector’s endless sea of acronyms, “I was very confident and comfortable because of my degree”, she shares.

Pitt’s fellow student, 28-year old Ecuadorean-American Carlos Monteverde, who graduated in 2016, also credits his time at EY as the key to opening up bigger opportunities. Monteverde did his capstone project and internship at the professional services firm, and says the experience allowed him to build a strong professional network.

“I consider the capstone project the most important route to get your foot in the door of some prestigious organisations,” says Monteverde, who went on to get a job as a financial inclusion project specialist at the World Economic Forum in New York, working in global inclusive finance projects impacting millions of people.

He shares that he was one of more than 3,000 applicants for the role, and adds: “I am certain the global exposure that Sydney University and the Master of Sustainability provided was a cornerstone of my success at the Forum.”

Before the programme, I was very focused on the social aspect of sustainability, but the course has broadened my perspective on topics like resource efficiency, policy, and health.

Cherie Beninger, student, Sydney Sustainability Programme

Next-level career advancement

While the Sydney Sustainability Programme has launched exciting sustainability careers for students like Pitt and Monteverde, it has also helped others take their work to the next level and nurture their passions into professional pursuits.

Take Cherie Beninger, a 33-year old Mexican-Canadian who worked as a sustainability consultant in Mexico before enrolling in the Sydney Sustainability Programme last year.

“After five years of working in the field, I realized I needed a Master’s to increase my knowledge of sustainability and advance my career,” Beninger says, sharing that she was drawn to the programme both because it was based in a vibrant city like Sydney, and because of the broad range of topics it covered.

“I’m particularly interested in energy, climate change, and what business can do to reduce its environmental footprint; but sustainability is really about how one thing can impact many other aspects,” she notes.

“Before the programme, I was very focused on the social aspect of sustainability, but the course has broadened my perspective on topics like resource efficiency, policy, and health,” she says.

Beninger, who is doing her capstone project at industry association Sustainable Business Australia and looking at how Australian Stock Exchange-listed companies are disclosing their carbon emissions, hopes to continue working in the sustainable business space after she graduates, as a consultant or in a company’s in-house sustainability team.

She says: “This programme will open more opportunities for me.”

The programme has also empowered Ciann Chow, a 25-year old Australian who is currently enrolled in the programme, to pursue a career in food security and communications, interests which were nurtured through her undergraduate studies and internships at organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“I felt like I was missing some parts of a good foundation to communicate effectively about sustainability,” says Chow, who initially enrolled in a graduate diploma in the programme but later switched to a Masters track.

She tells Eco-Business that the multidisciplinary core curriculum helped her uncover new insights, and make previously unseen connections between various aspects of sustainability.

“When we did the core unit on population health, for instance, it revealed to me just how important food is to social and cultural systems,” she shares, adding that other modules revealed further links between food security, greenhouse gas emissions, health, and even urban planning.

Chow, now in the final semester of her course, is doing her capstone project with the Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture (AIEA) where she is working on developing an organic accreditation programme for small farmers in the country.

“I loved my time at the course, and soaked up every single minute of the lectures and interaction with my classmates,” she shares. Upon graduating, “I feel confident that I’ll be able to combine my passion for food security, sustainability, and marketing communications in a more constructive manner,” she says.

From the academic content of her courses to the willingness of her professors and mentors at the AIEA to share their knowledge and answer questions, “this course has helped me get closer to my goals”, adds Chow.

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