This is the part of our ongoing series in which we interview people who have interesting jobs and get them to tell us how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation —
Scott Nelson lived upstairs from us our senior year at Brown. When I finally saw him again (six years after our graduation) at the wedding of mutual friends from Brown (his college roommate and my NYC roommate got married), we finally caught up. Turns out he’d spent his post-grad life living and working as a geologist in Alaska, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi before ending up back in his hometown, Washington, DC.
What ultimately led him to all these exotic locales and pursuits that had him looking for gold in Alaska and working on a desert oasis in Egypt? He was always in search of an adventure.
What did you want to be growing up?
I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I remember having a really clear vision when I was little. I know that as I look back at things that I did as a kid or what I really loved, there were certainly some themes that stand out. We’ve got this one photo of me with big safety goggles on, just pounding away on rocks. And as I became a geology major somebody pointed out that photo and I was like, “Oh yeah! That’s always been a part of me.” But I certainly never thought I would be a geologist.
So when you went to Brown, what did you think you’d study?
I went into Brown thinking I would study Classics and Physics. I had a great Latin teacher in high school who also went to Brown, and I talked to professors at Brown in the Classics department before I even stepped onto campus. I just sort of fell in love with Classics my first semester, had great professors and great, sort of ridiculous classes like “Medieval Latin Love Poetry.”
I took physics classes because I wanted to try to keep doing science, and I think I probably bit off more than I could chew my freshman fall with an advanced physics class, so I ended up taking a geology class and just sort of fell into it. It seemed like a great match.
The geology allowed me to go out and do fieldwork and be out of the classroom. It’s about the world around you – it was a different, really different major. I don’t think I got serious about geology until after my sophomore year. So I basically completed my Classics major my first two years and did my Geology major my second two years.
So you gradually developed a sense of what you wanted to do.
Classics was definitely sort of an intellectual interest, but I never saw Classics as the career path, because the career path there is really academia. With geology, I was coming out college thinking, “Where can I find an opportunity where I can keep learning and where I can have a cool adventure?
I spent a large part of senior spring – probably even longer than that – just looking around. On some geology job board, I found this posting for doing fieldwork to support a minerals exploration program in Alaska.
There were helicopters involved, there were drill rigs involved, it’s the middle of nowhere. For someone who was outdoorsy, like me – I did Boy Scouts, I did camping, I did all that stuff – and who was looking for an adventure and to learn more about geology, it was the perfect match.
And you get there right out of Brown..
I started in Spokane, Washington where they had an office. And then I went straight into the field: just me and one other guy, a 65-year-old geologist who’d spent decades in Alaska. I had met him for one hour before we headed off into the field to spend the next five weeks together. It was just the two of us wandering off.
I had to carry guns for the bears, and was with this man that I barely knew, and we were not going to see anybody else for over a month. A terrifying first day: “I’m now armed and wandering the woods with a stranger.”
What were you doing on a day-to-day basis? What does a geologist do?
We were truly in the middle of nowhere. We were about 90 miles from Nome, Alaska. Nome is, I don’t know, maybe 4,000 people. We got dropped in by helicopter.
We put together a geology map of 40 square miles just by walking around it. We walked all over, took hundreds – thousands – of samples. Rock samples, soil samples, and put together a map to understand what the geology was — where different rocks are, where we think gold may be.
Is that when you were really hooked?
I had a couple of reactions to it. In some ways, it was a great adventure. But it’s a lot of time thinking and talking about rocks. It’s just two people – and I love my field partner, we’re good friends, we’re still in touch, I’ve been back to Alaska to see him and gone fishing with him, he’s just a great mentor and guy – and he is a lifelong geologist. In short, though, we were talking about geology for 16 hours a day. We’d sit around, drink our morning coffee, talk about peace in the Middle East or how to solve world hunger – but it’s still mostly talking about rocks for 16 hours a day.
It got me more interested in natural resource projects and the business of mining, but less interested in being a full-on field geologist.
Where did you go from there?
That was for a field season. At the end of the field season, I’d already had another opportunity lined up in the Middle East.
It was a one-year position at the American University in Cairo, so at the end of the field season, I left Alaska, and I moved to Egypt. I spent the next year in Egypt, with this group that was doing a lot of research on desert agriculture and water management.
Was that also fieldwork based?
I was based in Cairo, but the group I was with had two research farms out in the desert, and an international development project that was managing an oasis twelve hours outside of Cairo – truly in the middle of the desert.
So we’d do this twelve-hour car trip to go down there and do fieldwork with this Bedouin community. This was basically an agricultural oasis that the government created. We were helping them with their water management, making the most of farming in the desert.
You were combining both the fieldwork and the learning/new aspect you wanted.
Exactly. It was a lot of fieldwork and it appealed to me because I got to live and work overseas. It’s this idea of, “What’s another adventure?”
Did you have a lot of culture shock your first days in Egypt?
I have this distinctive memory of flying into Cairo, and I had this German guy seated next to me. I was in the window seat and he was in the aisle seat. And you look out the window, and it’s all desert and you see these brown buildings that basically blend into the desert. And it’s just BROWN.
The German guy and I are talking and he’s like, “Oh, how long are you here for?”
“I’m moving here for a year.”
“I’m SO SORRY.”
There was a moment of, “My God, what did I get myself into?”
There’s culture shock every day, even at the end of the year. You are just constantly haggling for taxis. Or how do you cross the road? There aren’t pedestrian crosswalks or stoplights, it’s a highway and you just sort of walk across it like playing Frogger. Something as basic as crossing the road is a completely different experience.
Were you working with a lot of Americans there?
Out at the research farms, they were all Egyptian. The development project we did in the oasis, we’d go down there and we’d be the only white people around. It was an interesting mix of going home at the end of the day to the other people in the program, who were all young Americans who had just graduated college and were my peers, but then I’d go spend all day surrounded by Egyptians.
And after the program finished, did you want to stay in the Middle East?
I did. I loved being in Cairo, but it’s a really exhausting city. There’s a lot of air pollution. Downtown Cairo is so polluted – the urban legend that I heard is that being in downtown Cairo is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. At the end of the year, I was just feeling a little worn out physically and mentally.
But I loved being in the Middle East and I was looking for other opportunities where can I could keep doing natural resource and energy related projects, and I was looking for ways out of the research/non-profit world and into the private sector. Through networking, I got connected to this global, environmental consulting group that had an office in Abu Dhabi.
That must have been a huge change.
Cairo and Abu Dhabi are representative of the two polar extremes in the Middle East. Cairo is old, it is crowded, it is relatively poor, polluted. Abu Dhabi is very new. It is phenomenally wealthy. 95% of the oil in the United Arab Emirates is in Abu Dhabi. The national oil company just produces a lot of money that gets pumped into the economy. It’s only about a million people, so it’s much smaller than Cairo. It’s very organized; there’s a master plan for how they’re going to develop over the next several decades. So it’s a really structured place.
The other big difference is that Abu Dhabi is only 15% Emirati. Everyone else is an expat. From India, from the Philippines, from Pakistan, from Africa, from Europe, from America. So it was going from being in a place where you are surrounded by Egyptians and everyone speaks Arabic to being in a cosmopolitan, worldly city where English is the universal language.
And personally, you were also shifting in your career.
Because it was a global company, there was some sense of stability, but it was a very small office of 12 people, so it was sort of entrepreneurial and free-wheeling.
I did a wide range of projects. I’d go onto construction sites for multi-billion dollar construction projects and sort of audit the performance: how are people interacting with the environment, what controls are in place, what does health and safety look like?
I was doing projects where I was in the field, on-site. I was doing impact assessments for major projects – oil and gas, mining, power, infrastructure asking: What are the impacts to the surrounding people? To the air? To the water?
I also did a lot of sustainability strategy and reporting for the national oil company and for a large plastics manufacturer. So it was – especially those latter experiences, the sustainability-related work – much more strategic. What decisions are we making? What trade-offs, how are we prioritizing these issues?
What was living in Abu Dhabi like?
I moved to Abu Dhabi, and I didn’t know anyone within 700 or 800 miles. I mean, not a soul. There was only one other American in the office, who I think was in his fifties. So we hung out a lot together.
You develop this habit of saying yes. If someone invites you along, it’s, “Absolutely.” And you don’t turn down the opportunity to make friends, which I think was actually a really good lesson and is something that has stuck with me quite a bit. It took a good eight months to get life fully situated there.
It takes a while, but step by step, bit by bit, I could build out a really, really nice life for myself with a lot of friends. It is a small town, so you bump into people. Once you’re out and about and starting to get connected to people, it all multiplies and builds on itself.
So what was the next step for you?
My work there was built on the themes of natural resources and how we interact with them, so I had moved away from the pure science to more of a business strategy.
Because of that, I decided to come back to the US to get an MBA.
Was it hard to leave?
It was. And that’s frankly sort of why I felt like I needed to leave. It was a great life and it’s very easy to slip into and be really comfortable with. And I felt like if I spent another year or two there, that I would be a lifelong expat and potentially a lifelong expat in Abu Dhabi. That felt like a pretty serious step, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with saying I was going to spend the rest of my life in Abu Dhabi.
How was business school at Harvard? Did you go to Harvard because – well, it’s Harvard?
Because I was in the Middle East, I didn’t visit any of the schools I applied to. I saw a couple when I was back over Christmas, but I had never set foot on the Harvard campus until the first day of orientation.
Harvard really focuses on training general managers, giving you a broad set of knowledge and experience, and they do that in part through the case studies method, where you read about a business challenge and then you discuss it.
Over the course of two years, you read 600, 700 cases. So you just pick up a lot of really broad knowledge pretty quickly, which seemed like a really great approach to me. You learn about different industries, different companies, different challenges. You learn finance, you learn marketing, you learn strategy.
What were you planning to do after completing your degree?
I saw two possible paths upon graduation. One was to work with a new company that was either commercializing a new technology or developing new innovative projects. Something where it was going to be small, new and innovative, and growing with the new technologies and projects tied into energy and natural resources.
The other path was to stay in the consulting world and do more strategy around sustainability, around operations for these energy and natural resource companies. They have a lot of complexity in terms of the operation, a lot of complexity in terms of what’s happening with the environment, what’s happening with governments, what’s happening with local people – and because there are such big projects – there’s huge capital expenses to build these, and they’re around for years and years. If you do things right, it’s a huge opportunity. Staying in that world was part of the vision.
Which path did you end up pursuing?
I ended up doing both! After graduation, there was a long job search. I couldn’t quite say, “This is exactly what I want.” The challenge of not having a tightly defined goal is that it’s hard for other people to help you. If you say, “I’m looking for A,” people can point you to A, or they can point you to people who know about A. When you say something like, “I’m interested in alphabets,” then you aren’t quite as sure about what you’re looking for or how to find right information.
The plus side of that is by having a thorough job search where I was really looking broadly is that I met a lot of really interesting people, a lot of really interesting companies. I know so much more now than I did before the job search. And it’s great, because I still talk with some of those people.
Other people come to me for job advice and I send them back to my contacts. So I’ve sort of built this nice set of contacts who I will actually continue talking to, which is really good.
At the end of that search, I ended up joining a company in DC that was developing and financing solar projects. One of those two paths that I had envisioned was developing energy projects. I was doing business development: finding new projects, evaluating new projects, new partners and investors, studying new markets, doing all of that external stuff – how do we grow, how do we find the next project – so that was really interesting.
And now what’s your current job?
I just started this new job two weeks ago! I’ve returned to the company that I worked for in Abu Dhabi, but I’m in a different office, with different people and a different role, as well.
I had stayed in touch with these people even after I left Abu Dhabi. They had an opportunity on their team that’s doing more sustainability strategy, which is the other path I had envisioned. They had a job on that team, here in DC, and they thought that I’d be a good match for that.
Did you have any highs and lows during your job search?
I spent longer than expected looking for a job, while in school and after school. I spent part of that time living on an air mattress at the foot of my sister’s bed in San Francisco – so there were highs and lows.
For the right opportunity to come along, it is a matter of timing and staying in touch with people. The timing might be right, but that window may close if you haven’t stayed in touch with people and if you haven’t put in the legwork.
I had just been swapping notes with one of the people there when this opportunity opened up, and it was completely fortuitous that we were swapping emails that week. But that’s sort of the way it goes sometimes.
Did you think you’d have this kind of career path?
At no point in this journey would I have ever predicted what my next step was. When I went to Brown, I would have never guessed I was going to Alaska, or certainly not from Alaska to Egypt. When I look backwards, it all makes sense and I can understand the story of why I got from one point to the next.
What advice do you have for students just about to graduate, or who have just graduated?
One of the themes in why I took different opportunities was that I was looking for an adventure. I was looking for a great life experience. And I was really lucky in that my parents supported me going to do ridiculous stuff and having adventures.
In your twenties, you may be single, you may not have kids so if you’re going to go do something wild and crazy to have stories to pass on to grandkids, this is a pretty good time to build those stories.
The job search and finding those adventures can be really hard and bleak, and I spent a long time looking – I didn’t have a job when I was graduating from Brown until one week before graduation.
It gets a little stressful and the only thing that really works is going out and just doing it. You have to get up and play ball.