Julio Herrera Estrada *17 (CEE) interviewed by Max Horder, GS (ANT).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I’m currently an Applied Scientist at Descartes Labs based in New York. My role involves developing solutions to assess corporate sustainability targets around tropical forests by combining data from satellites with machine learning. I also provide strategic planning to identify growth opportunities around climate risks and sustainability. I completed my PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Princeton in 2017 and my BS in Applied Mathematics from Columbia in 2012.
Laying the groundwork
I think this path started maybe midway through my undergrad at Columbia. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study – everything was fascinating! For example, I thought I would study applied physics and then I took a few electric engineering classes that inspired me to pursue that major briefly. I was also very interested in biomedical research and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do some research in that field during my undergrad. With time, though, I realized that I wanted to find a field that would allow me to combine my love for science and engineering with my interest in policy and international relations. I came to the conclusion that even though the biomedical research that I was doing was very interesting, it wasn’t as tied to my growing interest in policy (I still wonder how is it that I didn’t converge on epidemiology as a way to bridge the two!)
Instead, I started looking for something more connected with sustainable development. Coming from the perspective of having grown up in Mexico City, I was particularly interested in issues like unequal access to water within a city and the fact that the poorest communities suffer from higher impacts from flooding. Before starting my junior year in 2010, I read through the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in detail, looking for topics that intersected with multiple of the Goals and that would have interesting engineering challenges to solve. In the end, I chose to focus on water resources given that they are critical for food security, energy security, as well as health.
As I sought to pivot towards environmental engineering, I wanted to gain more experience and looked for research opportunities for the summer before my senior year at Columbia. I had the fortune of finding a summer research program at Princeton in the same department in which I ended up doing my PhD. I loved that experience – during that summer I used statistics and probability to understand how climate variability affected the potential for agricultural expansion in Zambia. This research experience solidified my interest in water resources and inspired me to pursue a PhD in Environmental Engineering focusing on droughts. I was also thrilled that I could return to Princeton as a graduate student.
As I was nearing the end of my undergraduate degree and was considering what to do next, I thought that maybe I should have a couple of years’ experience before pursing my PhD. I applied for both jobs and grad school at the same time and was also looking for some positions in international development. One of the things that I found in the process was that development organizations like the World Bank would normally hire people with master’s with experience as well as PhDs. That inspired me further to pursue a PhD, especially since most of the jobs that I was hearing about at the time were not in the international development sector. I also kept in mind the possibility of working at an institution like the World Bank at the end of my PhD.
During my time at Princeton, I was able to get in touch with professionals from the World Bank through friends who were doing their MPAs at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School). The first thing I realized after having the opportunity to discuss my research on drought mechanisms with them was that my research was still on the basic science side and that it was not as applied as I had thought. I learned that professionals in international development were more interested in questions like: can you predict droughts and their impacts with accuracy? And, can you calculate long-term risks from droughts at a high resolution? I realized that I had perhaps been naïve thinking that I was working on an applied subject by doing my PhD on droughts. I learned that even within this subject there was a spectrum that spanned from basic science to applied science questions, and that I was unfortunately not close enough to the applied science side to provide actionable insights.
Even though I kept in mind the possibility of working in the international development sector, I still decided that I wanted to do a postdoc because I wanted to have another chance of doing applied research. I had already started working on a project as part of my certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) at Princeton on the impacts of droughts on the power sector in the western U.S. and the implications for climate mitigation policies. It ended up being a chapter in my thesis but it was not yet a fully published paper, so that was a project that I could elaborate further during my postdoc. I had the good fortune for finding a fantastic postdoc advisor at Stanford, as well as having the opportunity to work part-time as a consultant at the World Bank.
The moment that changed everything
During my postdoc, a mixture of things happened – partly intentional, partly coincidental. I wanted to be further and further on the action side of the so-called “science-to-action spectrum.” I also wanted to return to the Northeast, for a variety of reasons. At the time, my postdoc advisor gave me great piece of advice by saying that, realistically, one can only constrain one degree of freedom. For example, if you want to be a professor in a top tier school, then you have to be open to living wherever. My degree of freedom was that I wanted to be in the Northeast region and so I applied to a variety of jobs including faculty jobs as well as industry jobs. As I was considering academia, I thought that I could try to be one of those professors who do a great job of floating between research, policy, and even business.
Up to this point, I had focused most of my informational interviews during my PhD and postdoc within the policy and international development sectors and didn’t know much about jobs in the private sector. After applying for a full-time position at the World Bank and completing a series of faculty applications, I started compiling a list of companies that overlapped with my interests and skills. One of them at the top of the list was my current company, Descartes Labs. I knew about Descartes Labs because one of the grad students two years ahead of me at Princeton went there right after graduation. I also knew two other graduate students who interned there, so I talked with them and also asked them if they could put me in touch with someone at the company, just to learn more about it. It turned out that the recruiter and several Applied Scientists from Descartes Labs were going to be at the conference that I go to every year – the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. I scheduled an informational interview with the recruiter at the conference and after we finished chatting, he asked if I wanted to be interviewed by one of the Applied Scientists there since they were also doing interviews at the conference. I first panicked since I hadn’t prepared specifically for a full-on interview, but I couldn’t pass on the opportunity. And so that kicked-started the interview process at Descartes Labs – without even submitting a resume online first.
While I was going through the interview process at Descartes Labs, I received a faculty offer as well. I admit that it was a hard choice not to take the tenure-track position. However, that role was more of a teaching role, since the department didn’t have a PhD program. From what I have observed, one of the key impacts that a professor will have will be through their teaching and mentoring, potentially even more so than through their research. I also have learned that for many graduate students and postdocs, teaching is one of their main passions. However, while I would love to focus on teaching one day, I did not want that to be the core role of my job yet. I went back to the original motivation that drove me to pursue a PhD in the first place – to one day put the skills and expertise that I learned into practice. And so I decided to accept the Applied Scientist position at Descartes Labs.
Life beyond academia
There are certainly parallels between academia and certain jobs in industry. In my current role, I still do a lot of data analysis, Python programming, reading papers, and other tasks that are similar to those in academic research. Also, during my PhD at Princeton, I was really involved in science communication efforts and have found that being able to communicate complex concepts clearly and concisely, while avoiding jargon, is a very important skill in industry. Just as it is important to communicate one’s science in papers, talks, and proposals, it’s important to be able to communicate your technical work to other teams within your company, and to existing and potential clients.
I’d also like to emphasize that, in many ways, the idea of ‘in’ or ‘out’ of academia is a false binary since “non-academic” jobs are probably most of the jobs you can have after a PhD!
Advice for graduate students
My first advice is that it is never too early to do informational interviews. I know that some people don’t like the term “networking” but, really, it’s just about talking to people and finding out what they do. As I found out by connecting with professionals at the World Bank, for example, reaching out beyond academia can also help inform your own research questions. If I had made this connection earlier, I might have ended up proposing a different topic for my PhD that would have been more applied from the beginning.
The other important reason to make these connections early is that you can start building trust before you start searching for a job. Sometimes these connections could become mentors and sounding boards you can pitch ideas to. For example, I would periodically check in with my contact at the World Bank during my PhD to ask about the work that they were doing and to share more about my own work. Eventually, an opportunity opened up for me to join his team as a consultant while I was a postdoc and I was able to work with him and his team for a few months.
The second piece of advice I would give is to apply design thinking to one’s life and career. When you’re thinking about what to do after graduation, don’t frame it like ‘in’ or ‘out’, or stress about coming up with what you think would be your ideal career. Design thinking is about imagining three to five potential options. One option could be a tenure-track career, but also think about what else you could do. Then try to imagine a future five and ten years from now for each of those potential paths and start thinking about how you can “prototype” experiences from the different trajectories to learn more about what you like and don’t like about them. Look for ways to explore different options in a low-commitment way (like an internship) to gather more information about them. Then, when the time comes you can make a decision on your next step, but it doesn’t have to be the perfect decision. You’ll keep learning about what you like and don’t like and you will keep iterating. It takes some of the pressure off, too, as you keep testing new hypotheses and iterating based on what you’ve learned about yourself and different job types.
The last think I’ll say is that, in the case of climate change, we need all hands on deck, meaning that we need the relevant expertise that many PhDs have to be applied to work in government, industry, NGOs, etc. We need to scale solutions for mitigation and adaptation of climate change ASAP and that work is largely happening outside of universities. I know that many PhDs also yearn to work on these solutions yet some faculty may sometimes frown upon pursuing a job that is not a tenure-track job as admitting defeat. I recently heard a professor from UC Berkeley put it very well, by quoting Jurassic Park – some people grow up wanting to be astronomers while others grow up wanting to be astronauts. In the case of dealing with climate change we certainty need both those who prefer to do research and build prototypes of solutions, and we also need people to take those prototypes and apply them at scale. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be an astronaut even if you’ve been trained as an astronomer so far.