Careers – An IEEE OES panel at Oceans’18 in Charleston

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A panel discussion on careers was held as part of the Oceans 2018 conference at Charleston

23rd August 2019

Stephanie Kemna

“Take opportunities as they come, don’t worry too much about your career path”

This was the main take-away message at the IEEE OES Career Panel at Oceans’18 in Charleston on Wednesday October 24, 2018. The panel started at 7.30am, bright and early. In attendance was a small audience of students and young professionals who had managed to get out of bed on time.

The panel was made up of a group of individuals who were diverse in career choice and career level:

  • Dr. Fausto Ferreira (PhD’15 Electronics, Computer, Robotics & Telecommunications Engineering, Genova, IT), IEEE OES YP - Scientist, NATO STO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation, finishing Bachelor in marine law (Political Science, Pisa, IT),
  • Dr. John Potter (PhD’85 Glaciology & Oceanography, Cambridge, UK) - Researcher, professional, IEEE fellow,
  • Ms. Nicole LeBoeuf (MSc’05 Conservation Biology, Maryland, US) - Acting Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service,
  • Dr. Matthew Gilligan (PhD’80 Biology/Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Arizona, US) - Professor Emeritus, Marine Sciences, Savannah State University

Story Index:
  • The Panel and the takeaway message
  • Some key pieces of advice from the panel
  • Advice for students
  • Further advice for PhD students
  • Diversity

Stephanie Kemna, PhD,

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The panel introduced themselves first, informing the audience about how they got to be where they are today and some of their accomplishments. Subsequently, they answered a couple of questions from the audience and panel moderator, Brandy Armstrong. Having attended other career panels in the past, one of the things that stood out to me at this panel is that the panelists, instead of merely saying “follow your passion”, indicated where their career paths had taken strange turns. They did not have a 20-year plan, as many a graduate advisor and professor may advise you to figure out, and yet they have all had very interesting careers. Their advice to current students therefore also very much reflected this different attitude to career paths.

The Career Panel at Oceans 2018 conference, Charleston

Key pieces of advice from the panel:
Here are some sage pieces of advice from the panel:

  1. If you don’t have a clear plan about where your passion is, don’t let that keep you awake at night. It is more important to keep opportunities opening up, to maximize your flexibility and adaptability. Do not be afraid of changing or adapting - get comfortable with change and not knowing the potential outcomes of your choices - get comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone.
  2. Take opportunities as they come, do not worry too much about your career path.
  3. The only proper path to a career is the one that you choose, it is personal and internal, follow your drive, not external expectations. It does not have to be a straight (and fast) path - consider all that you will miss if you do not follow the twists and turns: the opportunities that can make your career more robust and resilient to setbacks and change, the additional skills you can learn, and experiences you can have.
  4. It may not be healthy to stay your whole life in the same place. Doing your Bachelor, Master, and PhD at different universities enables innovation, knowledge exchange and extends your network.
  5. Embrace diversity: in terms of your lab or team members, but also what you work on, who you work with and where you work.

Useful tips for students:


Specifically for students, Dr. Fausto Ferreira gave some advice on opportunities to take during your studies:

  1. Become a visiting student at another academic or research institute - go around as much as you can! And find a supervisor who allows, encourages and/or helps you to do so.
  2. Get travel grants for conferences, e.g. IEEE Oceans, and start networking.
  3. Get involved as a volunteer with academic and professional organizations, e.g. IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society 😉
  4. Try to widen your horizons; take courses in other fields. If you continue in academia, you will need the bigger picture to apply for grants and to work on real world problems.

"If you don’t have a clear plan about where your passion is, don’t let that keep you awake at night. It's more important to keep opportunities opening up, to maximize your flexibility and adaptability."

Further advice for PhD students:

  • When encountering tough times during your studies: do not give up, everyone experiences these hard moments - especially during the PhD, it is normal, you are not alone, do not let it overwhelm you.
  • Do not feel guilty about seeking out other opportunities, it is important to also do some networking, and not only do your research. If you spend some time on networking during your studies, then you also have less to worry about when you are graduating and looking for a job, because you can reach out to your network
  • Decide where you would like to work or go to school, go there, and insert yourself ‘like a retrovirus’ into the machinery of the organization. For example: start volunteering. Introduce yourself - there is nothing like a handshake to introduce yourself.


Another important take-away note from this panel was about including and improving diversity in the field. Dr. Matthew Gilligan, who recently received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics mentoring, gave some astute advice regarding involving more people of African American descent (at American institutes [1]) into the STEM field: it is not enough to say you are inviting them in, you need to actively reach out and draw these people in to the fields. While we are trying to increase the amount of women in STE(A)M fields, we should also actively try to involve people from other underrepresented groups, such as those of different heritage or LGBTQ [2] communities. That means seeking out those students in your classrooms, amongst those who apply for internships or jobs, and to try to counter your unconscious and implicit biases by inviting them into your projects and groups. A lot of times, these students would not have gotten the same opportunities as more traditionally privileged groups, and it is time we took a stance and bring about change. Instead of choosing the students who most remind you of your younger self, try and find some that are very different and that will increase diversity in your group or team. Dr. Gilligan also noted  with respect to mentoring; if one of your students is not doing well, it is not their fault, it is your fault for not asking why, and seeing if you cannot together do something about it.

The full video of the career panel is available at:

If you are interested in attending a career panel, keep an eye out for the upcoming Oceans conferences! If you would like to help organize (career or other panels), create questions, or discussion points, please reach out to

Good luck with your (future) careers and keep in mind: “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone”

By: Stephanie Kemna, PhD,

Click here to browse more articles covering Oceans conferences. Read coverage on a Hydrography workshop and Arctic research presented at Oceans 2019 conference, Young Professionals meetup and Student Poster Competition and more on Oceans 2019 Marseille at OES Beacon.

[1]This is important advice for giving members from any underrepresented groups in your respective country more opportunities.

[2]Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer