Don’t Quit Your Day Job

If you follow me on Instagram or know me in real life, you have probably seen some of the very strange photos I’ve posted while at work, leading you to ask yourself, “What does she DO?” Well, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in asking yourself that because I can virtually guarantee that my friends and family could not tell you either outside of something vague like “she goes outside a lot and writes a lot.” Both of those things are true, but today I thought I’d give you a little peek into the other side of my life – the side that actually takes up the vast majority of my time and has nothing to do with running except when I’m fleeing from mosquitoes. We’re going to talk about my job! I promise not to make it a snooze fest and can virtually guarantee that you’ll learn something by the end, deal? Deal.

Not to worry, more unflattering pictures of me are on the way! This one was taken during field work in southeastern Georgia during a combination rain storm and mosquito swarm – basically my worst nightmare.

Ok, so first thing’s first: my actual job title is Environmental Specialist. Pretty useless in terms of information, right? My job is a combination of three things: environmental planning (the writing part), field science (the outside part), and GIS analysis (the mapmaking part). The background of my position is that the National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 and requires federal agencies to take environmental impacts into consideration when they are making decisions and requires that the agencies look for alternatives that will minimize impacts to the environment. That basically means that your state can’t just decide to build a brand new road anywhere they want without first thinking about the best, least damaging place to build that road. In order to prove that they considered different options and that the new project won’t cause unjustified damage to the environment, they are required to write a document that provides the evidence. That’s where I come in!

I primarily work on transportation projects like road and airport improvements, but we also occasionally work for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. The environmental documents that I write for these projects cover everything from impacts to natural resources, such as wetlands, endangered species, wildlife, and rivers to human resources such as historical resources, neighborhoods, socioeconomic data, and more. Impacts to both the human environment and the natural environment are weighed across many categories to determine which alternative is the best choice. Depending on how involved the project is determines the size and scope of the document. It may take me a week to write a small document or three to five years working with a whole team to write a large one! If you’ve ever wondered why it takes so long to widen that highway near your house that’s backed up with traffic, now you know – the environmental process takes a very long time.

Sometimes it takes longer because we have to walk across sketchy bridges like this

In order to get all of the information we need for the documents, a big part of the work involves going out to the physical project location and flagging out all the wetlands, looking for endangered species, and assessing aquatic resources. That’s where all of my crazy pictures come from! I didn’t know anything about wetland science when I first started working in this field. I had no idea I would ever end up outside. In fact, I was hired strictly as a GIS analyst (making maps on the computer) when I graduated college. Then, my bosses figured out that I’m a decent enough writer and after that, they learned that I’m not afraid of snakes and don’t complain much when I’m in pain, so they sent me out to the field and the rest is history. I’ve now become pretty decent at identifying the different plants and trees and looking for habitat, but I mostly play second fiddle to the guys who do this full time and make sure they don’t get bitten by anything and collapse while we’re out there. I genuinely enjoy going out to the field when it’s below 85 degrees. Above that, not so much, but my boss doesn’t seem to care about my temperature preferences because it was over 100 today at the airport we were flagging. Oh well, better luck next summer.

The best part of my job is when I find new animal friends like Mr. Charles the turtle. The second best part is when I make my coworkers take reluctant selfies with me.

The documents are accompanied by tons of figures, charts, and graphics that help convey the data in a more interesting and understandable way. Interesting fact: the documents have to be written at an 8th grade level because the public needs to be able to read and understand them so that they can comment on projects that have the potential to affect them. I love that aspect of my job because I enjoy the challenge of taking extremely technical information and putting it into terms that are not only understandable to the average person, but also interesting to read. In order to do that, we include a lot of maps of the project area showing various types of impacts, which is the final part of my job. It’s funny that the field I got my degree in is actually the area I do the least amount of work in, but it’s all still related.

So if you’re wondering why it’s taking so long to widen the highway near your house or build the new metro line that’s been promised, it’s probably my fault. And if you’re wondering if there’s any method to the madness in how government decisions are made as they pertain to the environment, I can tell you that yes, there usually is. I can also tell you that public opinion is very important in what I do, so if there is an upcoming project you hate or one you love, don’t be afraid to stand up and make your voice heard! It really does matter, and I promise you there is someone just like me near where you live that is reading all of your comments and responding to each one. I know because I have to do it too.

I’d be lying if I said that this is the career I thought I would grow up to have, because it definitely is not. I wanted to be a large animal vet until I found out I had to take physics. So while a few years ago I don’t think I would have said I’m living the dream, I can honestly say I genuinely like what I do. It is interesting and challenging and it’s never the same thing two days in a row. It’s nice to be able to get out of the office pretty regularly and hone a variety of different skills. Plus, I’m not afraid of snakes and am very useful for moving them out of the way when running with a group.

Almost stepped on my buddy Floyd here. He was cool about it.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What is your job? Can your friends and family explain what you do?

27 thoughts on “Don’t Quit Your Day Job

  1. I am glad you explained this, I always wondered!

    I work at a running store so it’s pretty easy to explain it to people. It was not the job I ever imagined having post college but honestly I love it. I have no complaints.

    1. I think working at a running store would be so much run! I used to want to own my own running store for awhile 🙂

  2. I’m a TV news producer, it’s pretty easy for family to explain that I “produce the 6pm news”. When I explain it to people, I tell them that I basically put the entire newscast together, writing it, building graphics, choosing video, and keeping it running on time. People understand that pretty easily, although I don’t think that description quite conveys the massive amount of crap that happens between the start of the day and the end of my newscast 🙂

    My question for YOU is how did you get a hat for your sorority in camo? I imagine those aren’t that common…

    1. That’s a really cool job, but I would imagine it can be very challenging and stressful! That’s a lot of pressure to get things right, especially on live television.

      I’ll give you the long version of the story, even though you may not care to hear it! When my sorority was first founded, the very first dated party we had was when our founding members took their dates duck hunting! It became an annual tradition, and even though we no longer go duck hunting, almost every chapter has an annual fall date party called “Mallard Ball” that is camo themed. We wear outdoor clothing and hunting gear and camo and do something outside, like have a bonfire or go on a hayride. So those hats were from that event!

  3. I think this is awesome because I always wonder about what jobs bloggers have and because I work as a technical writer, so I know all about writing documents at an 8th grade level (we actually strive for lower than that) and how long it can take to put together specs and documents! Plus it’s neat you get to go out in the field and see animals and see the sites, instead of always having to be at a desk job. You get the best of both worlds :).

    Stay cool in the 100 degree temperatures though!

    1. Yes, Amy! A big part of my job is technical writing. I really enjoy it! And I agree, I always like what hearing bloggers do behind the scenes, especially because a lot of the big bloggers do this full time. It’s nice to hear from people who are balancing running, blogging, work and family all at the same time.

  4. I think your job sounds awesome! I work for a non-profit (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) that is devoted to protecting redrock wilderness in Utah. We have our very own GIS Analyst and several field guys, so when you were describing your job it sounded fairly similar to what our guys do as well! I’m just the membership coordinator, which doesn’t give me much time in the field but we do go on staff camping trips, which isn’t a bad way to spend a week for work if you ask me. Thanks for sharing your interesting work with us!

    1. Michelle, that’s such a cool organization! Having been to southern Utah and seen the redrock, I can attest to your job being very important. Staff camping trips sound pretty awesome, although when you spend as much time in the field as we do, it can sometimes be a tough sell. Then again, we’re not camping somewhere as awesome as Utah!

  5. Your job sounds fun and adventurous! I’m a staff accountant, and while my family can sort of explain the accounting side of my job to others, they have no idea what exactly it is my company does. (We’re a federal staff augmentation company who mainly deals with government contracts with the DOE. Most of our employees work in national laboratories in ID and NM). Since I live in WA, they have a hard time understanding that 95% of the employees I deal with don’t live in WA, and I’ll most likely never meet the majority of them.

    1. It certainly can be fun and adventurous, for sure! It can also be crappy, like any job, but I am lucky to enjoy mine. We’re government contractors too so I can definitely relate to your situation a bit!

  6. What is my job? Right of way negotiator/acquisition specialist. So, if you’re wondering why it takes so long to widen the interstate to six lanes or fix that intersection near your house, it’s probably partially my fault, too. Interesting to learn what you do. I actually understand it! 🙂 Folks like you are out in the field a couple years before folks like me show up with plan sheets and engineering wheels! 🙂

    1. Yes, Judy!! I work for one of the “big” engineering companies and we have right of way specialists on staff. I’ve been able to go to some of the discussions with the property owners before, and it is so interesting. I actually think I would really like being in that line of work, but you’re right, it takes a LONG time for some of those negotiations!

  7. This is so great on so many levels. My favorite is that you have to write on an 8th grade level so the general public can read and understand the documents. That is just sad. THANK YOU for the work you do!!!

    1. It is sad, but you’d be amazed how much of our audience still can’t understand them. I understand that the content can be difficult to understand, but it does speak to the literacy issue we still have in our country, unfortunately.

  8. That sounds like it could be really interesting. I don’t know that I’d be a fan of trekking around in mud and bugs, but I think its awesome that we have people like protecting the environment!

    I am an application administrator at a bank. I am in charge of the program that hold all the customer information and balances. I work really closely with the software vendor when we have bugs with the system. I also do a million other little tiny details, but that’s the biggest part of what I do!

    1. I’m not sure I would necessarily say that we are protecting the environment, as much as I wish that was the case. It’s more that we’re helping these projects stay within the confines of the law, if that makes sense.

      It sounds like you’re trusted with a lot of important information! My husband is a software developer and that type of thing would stress me out. So much pressure if something goes wrong!

  9. I think wearing that amazing yellow suit ALMOST makes up for the black snake picture. ALMOST.

    I’ve always wondered what it would be like to work outside a lot. I am sure it is always one of those ‘grass is greener’ deals where I only look at the positives and not the 85+ degree days….or the snakes.

    1. It is flattering, isn’t it? Really emphasizes the figure.

      I like that my job has a good mix of inside and outside. It’s definitely not as fun as everyone thinks it is, though. Yeah, we see cool stuff and it’s not sitting at a desk all day, but we’re talking 10-12 hour days non-stop on your feet with no lunch breaks (we just eat massive amounts of trail mix). And there’s a lot of bug bites. So it’s a give and take.

  10. Thanks for sharing! I had pretty much gathered all of this from stuff you’ve said in the past and also from friends in the environmental field.

    For me? I continue to leverage my dual education in statistics and electro-optical physics … at Corning I am in the Statistics group in corporate engineering, but all of my projects have leveraged my measurement engineering background as well. It is pretty awesome getting to work on things from environmental filters for cars, glass for phone/tablet screens, huge processes, semiconductor lasers, ultra-thin foldable glass, and some new projects I can’t talk about 😉

    It is funny that both my wife and I are science geeks, but both of my kids are totally art-types!

    Loved this as a topic – great reading what everything else does as well.

    1. That sounds like a very cool job, although wayyyyy outside of my comfort zone. I do a totally different type of science! I was actually surprisingly good at statistics, but physics, not so much. Calculus, yes, physics, no. Oh well. And I’m nothing like my parents in terms of career either…or interests, really, but we still love each other 🙂

  11. I tried twice last night to post my comment, and it didn’t take either time.
    I had someone ask me last week what you do. I tried to explain but failed miserably! Thanks for this post!
    PS. I wish the IRS would have to write the tax code at an 8th grade level! 😉

    1. Well, now you know! And you can explain it to all my many Tulsa fans who are undoubtedly dying to know.

      Yeah, that’s true! In theory, the public has to read the tax code too, right?

  12. I’m an Instructional Designer. Or as I explain it to people: Adult Education in a corporate setting. My mom always asks “but what do you DO?” and I try to explain it but she just ends up looking at me like I switched to Japanese halfway through the conversation.

    Like you, it’s not the job I ever thought I’d have – I didn’t even know it existed – but I’m so happy that I discovered this career option and I love me job a little more every day 🙂

    1. That’s really cool! I actually have a sorority sister who does something similar for Nintendo, I believe. Well, at least that’s what I think she does based on what she posts on facebook 🙂

  13. Thanks for sharing! I do just the GIS part for an Environmental Consulting firm in Texas and you just explained it better to me than anyone at my job 😉

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