As the cost of college continues to rise, people often wonder if an advanced education is really necessary to get ahead in their particular field. To help gauge this, we ask hiring managers and organizational leaders across industries to tell us what qualities and experience—educational or otherwise—they look for when hiring new employees. In this installment of our “Ask an Employer” series, we interviewed Laura O’Gan, a network data manager for the National Park Service.
Name: Laura O’Gan
Company: National Park Service – Rocky Mountain Inventory and Monitoring Network (ROMN)
Title: Program Manager for the Data Management Program
-Natural Resource Management and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University
-Project Management Certificate, Colorado State University
-Coursework in information technology and GIS
Years on the job: 5
Number of employees managed: 13
Laura O’Gan has a lot on her plate. In addition to her daily responsibilities of collecting ecological data that helps inform park managers’ decisions, O’Gan also must stay up on the ever-evolving trends and techniques in her industry.
“I ensure collected and acquired data are credible and available for analysis and reporting,” she said. “We are experiencing a shift from published analytical reports to online data visualization. This allows the end user to explore data in whatever way they choose, as well as download the raw data.”
On top of that, O’Gan hires and manages employees in the data management program. In her interview she told us a little bit about what she looks for in employees, and how her own education has influenced her career.
What are your goals when hiring new employees?
A: My goal when hiring personnel for the data management program is to find an intelligent, quick learner who can work well within a team. I do not expect candidates to possess all the technical expertise listed in the job announcement, but I do require that the selected employee is capable of learning a wide variety of skills while on the job.
Do you find that candidates you end up selecting are aided by their educational backgrounds, such as a master’s or bachelor’s degree?
A: I definitely think there’s something to be said about acquiring a degree — if nothing more than that it shows they can handle the pressure of beginning and completing something. That says a lot. It shows me that they have drive, and that they can handle pressure. It is not a determining factor though.
Describe any emerging trends you have observed in your field.
A: Typically, most universities have structured their natural resources and computer science departments into separate silos. I am starting to see more individuals create a bridge for themselves between these disciplines.
I have hired employees who have majored in natural resources and minored in computer science, or have taken their electives in computer programming. However, this type of course combination is usually not advertised by universities as a standard education path.
These two majors do not typically overlap in any way, yet, from my experience, there are many jobs and careers out there where each of these skills would be desired. I could see these disciplines being offered potentially as one cohesive major in the future. Whichever college does that will crank out highly employable people.
When reviewing resumes and cover letters, how important is education?
A: Honestly, experience is worth more to me than education; however, education is often a requirement as well as a good foundation.
Why would you say that experience is worth more, and do you ever find that experience and education go hand in hand?
A: In the field of data management, education provides a needed foundation; however, I would not hire someone without experience. So, how do you get experience? Volunteer. You can find opportunities that will enhance your education with real world experience. This experience should prepare a person for the fast paced and diverse applications of data management.
By volunteering, do you mean internships and networking opportunities?
A: Yes, I think colleges provide a fair amount of those types of opportunities to meet people within the industry. The key is, the student needs to have the initiative to approach a professional or a professor about a potential opportunity.
What makes a resume rise to the top of the pile for you?
A: It is often hard to find a candidate who has knowledge, skills, and abilities in both natural resource management and information technology. GIS is the most common skill that bridges this gap. If I see an application that highlights natural resources, GIS, programming, and database design, then I will likely ask them for an interview.
What makes a resume sink to the bottom of the pile?
A: In a word: inconsistency. I create a quantitative rating system that I run each resume through before I even read the content. Attention to detail is critical for data management careers, so if I see multiple format styles or punctuation errors, then I deduct points from the applicant’s score. Only the highest scores will be granted an interview.
How has education influenced your own career?
A: My degree is from Colorado State University in natural resource management and conservation biology. I always hated technology until I took my first GIS course. I realized though my education that GIS was a way to apply math, statistics, logic, and art to natural resource principles. I began my career as a GIS technician, and have been taking various IT courses as I have progressed. My education in IT has enabled me to further my career in the direction of data management.
What tips would you give for someone considering going back to school?
A: Determine your career goal, research what skills you need to reach your goal, and go get those skills. Keep your eye on the prize and take courses that will build your resume in the direction you have chosen.
How valuable is a master’s degree in this line of work?
A: A master’s is certainly impressive, but experience competes stronger than the degree. This is because data management is a skill, not a science, although people will debate me on this topic. Skills can be mastered while working on the job, and through taking individual courses focused on a particular skill such as GIS, SQL, or Python.
What is the best career advice you have ever received and who was it from?
A: Actually, my response to the previous question about “tips” was a quote from my dad. He gave me that advice when I graduated high school, and I have planned my career based on his advice.
What other advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in this field?
Data management is very diverse field. I would expose yourself to as many opportunities as possible, even if you are just observing others. There are many free meet-up groups where people share their experiences on topics such as application development and GIS.