19 Jun 2008

Can a BS Make a Difference?

SD asks:
Basically, I just got my Bachelor’s degree, and I know what I want to do in life. The problem is, I am not sure of the best way to get there. Would you be interested in giving me a few pointers? I am really interested in the development of environmentally-friendly public policy, sustainability, and want to work to reverse some of the damage that we as humans have inflicted on the environment. I know I need to get an advanced degree to do this, though. I majored in Politics, but have a good understanding of science. So now, I am looking into water law, environmental law, and sustainable business practice degrees. I honestly have no idea which degree would best suit what I want to do though. If you have time, would you be willing to tell me about your experience, or even give me some suggestions of where to look and what to look for? Thank you so much! It would be a great help.
Here's what I said (brief version):
  1. More education is neither necessary NOR sufficient to "fix" things.
  2. There's plenty of great information on water, the environment, policy, etc. You need not go to school for 3-8 more years to add to that pile.
  3. Not many people understand that information or how to implement it.
  4. Go, use your job [paid gov't intern] and connections to learn how things work, where the problems are (just ask people, they'll tell you), and who is in favor/opposed to fixing them
  5. Then work with all parties. Start with "stupid" policies.*
Bottom Line: Use your talents and connections and passion to be part of the solution. There's no single, right way.

Addendum: This advice applies to BA and BS holders :)

* Decreasing block pricing in water gives a unit discount to those who use more. Makes sense if you want to sell as much water as possible, but not if water is a scarce. See also ethanol, tax law, farm bill, bureau of reclamation, katrina, ad nauseum.


  1. If I may add to David's excellent advice, as I'm not in academia:

    o Learn how to write clearly and cogently to express your ideas. Bullets. Recap. Intro. Executive Summary.

    o Learn how to be a self-starter.

    o Express your ideas tactfully. You may find that this is still dangerous to bureaucrats and the weak (esp if your boss is weak or a bureaucrat), but in the long term this is what is needed - you expressing your ideas (if you have any. If you don't, then you'll have a harder time of it).

    o Learn how to get people to do things. Take a leadership or management courseload.

    o Learn to ask good questions. More people notice this than your spouting off wonderful factoids. Really. "Wow, good question" is often more useful than "Wow, good point" because "question" keeps the discussion going better than "point".

    o Stop saying "but" and replace it with "and".

    o Be honest.

    o If you screw something up, admit it ASAP, apologize, ask how to fix it and fix it.

    Note how these bullets are about what you DO, not what you know. If you can't relate what you know and get people excited about doing it, you'll be a lonely and unhappy pale cube dweller.

    Successful folks get people to do things. The GF has an amazing capacity to do this, and every time the Mayor (of a very large city) sees her, she gets a hug. Because she can get others excited and it makes the Mayor's job easier.

    Bottom line: concentrate on you, and you vis à vis others, and the rest will work itself out.

    Lastly, I found my BS (from UCD) wasn't enough. I got a Masters to help me do what I wanted. Lots of us out here do too.

    Good luck in your choices,


  2. As a newly minted lawyer, I would caution against water law as a way to influence environmental law and policy. Although a law degree gives a good understanding of the law in general, few schools allow focus on issues of water and environment. Several schools offer specialized law degrees, Vermont Law School and Lewis & Clark law rank highest, but these can over-qualify applicant for jobs.

    I also would recommend contacting nonprofits and legislators to see what kind of assistance you could give / entry-level job. Even working on a political campaign can help shoehorn a person into an influential position. Consider law school after working with lawyers.

    Good luck.

  3. Hello. So I'm going to add my two cents. It seems everyone thus far has discounted the value of an advanced degree. You do not need an advanced degree to participate in policy making, but it can lend you credibility while you intern with various organizations and figure out how you fit into the policy picture. The best way to figure out which type of program is right for you is to talk to people who have degrees from programs you are considering. Ask them what they do, do they enjoy it, and who else they work with. Then look towards jobs you think that you would like, talk to people who are employed in that position. Ask as many questions as possible, find out how they got there. The development of sustainable, environmentally-friendly public policy, which reverses anthropogenic damage to the environment is not as clean cut as you might think and can often be a disheartening line of work. That being said, it can also be rewarding, just be prepared for both. I am just finishing up my MS in environmental policy and my JD focusing on natural resource and water policy. I have certainly learned a lot along the way and (mostly) don't regret the experience.


Read this first!

Make sure you copy your comment before submitting because sometimes the system will malfunction and you will lose your comment.

Spam will be deleted.

Comments on older posts must be approved (do not submit twice).

If you're having problems posting, email your comment to me