Alumna interviews - Environmental and Resource Economics
Saving the world
Hanna-Liisa Kangas was supposed to become an environmental chemist until a doctor forbade her from setting foot in a laboratory. After many twists and turns, Kangas did wind up in an influential position, working with the issues dear to her heart.
“I started studying chemistry at the University of Helsinki because I thought I could use it to save the world. Then I became allergic to the reagents used at the lab, and my doctor told me never to set foot in a laboratory again. He said it would be too dangerous for me,” says Hanna-Liisa Kangas.
Kangas still wanted to study an environmental field, and started to look for interesting disciplines which did not require laboratory work. This meant ecology, forestry sciences and biology had to be dismissed outright.
“Then I discovered environmental economics. And so, through a series of strange coincidences, I wound up studying environmental economics at the Department of Economics and Management,” Kangas explains.
An accidental choice led to a dissertation
Kangas sees her introduction to the world of environmental economics as a happy coincidence.
“I’ve really come to like this field. Professor Markku Ollikainen in particular was an immense help to me when I was looking for a job, working on my Bachelor’s or trying to find a Master’s thesis topic,” Kangas says.
She wanted to complete her University studies as quickly as possible.
“I was 24 when I enrolled, and for some reason I thought I was incredibly old. I wanted to get through the undergraduate stage as quickly as possible and get started with my doctoral studies,” Kangas recounts.
Her career has been research-focused.
"I wrote my thesis for a project at the University, which took a year. After that, I went to work at the Finnish Forest Research Institute, where I participated in a climate project focusing on renewable bioenergy and forest carbon for about five years. I started working on my dissertation for the University of Helsinki around the same time," Kangas explains.
Becoming a top professional
Without her dissertation, Kangas would have been unlikely to land her current job.
“I’m interested in climate politics and policies that promote renewable energy, and I want to become a top professional in these topics. This has also made it possible for me to work as an expert in this field,” says Kangas.
After her dissertation, Kangas worked as a climate coordinator at WWF Finland.
“I was in charge of the climate and energy work WWF does in Finland. I had an extensive range of duties, but most of them had to do with political involvement and lobbying, meeting with decision-makers. We were also running a campaign which sought to involve consumers and companies in climate-friendly action and politics,” Kangas explains.
At the moment, Kangas is working at Finnish Environment Institute as a Senior Research Scientist. Her jobs have given Kangas the opportunity to work for a better world.
“It’s rewarding to be working with such a big environmental challenges. I’m not working to increase a company’s profit margin, I’m working to ensure a better life for coming generations. This means there’s a pretty intense motivation,” Kangas says.
Unusual degrees are a trump card on the job market
Her studies have played a major role in Kangas’s professional success.
“Thanks to my education I can speak the language they use in the corporate world and in politics. I can speak to both politicians and companies. We have only lately started to understand the full breadth of the significance the economy has in environmental problems, particularly in climate and energy issues. These issues are often based on the fundamental points and theories of environmental economics, and understanding them makes it possible for me to keep pace with global developments,” Kangas muses.
She would have wanted to include more communications and interaction skills in her degree.
“Communications skills aren’t really emphasised at the University, which is a shame. They are a huge part of the world of work, and something we need every day, whether we’re in a meeting, doing interviews, or writing letters to the editor or media releases. During my studies, I took every communications course I could find, but they were focused on the academic world, and most graduates will not go on to work as researchers,” Kangas points out.
She also wishes there would have been more emphasis on teamwork skills.
“In their current form, studies at the University largely consist of working and studying independently. However, at work, I hardly ever do anything alone. It’s always a group, so group work skills are important. We should know how to share successes and failures with others,” Kangas says.
Go with what interests you
Kangas wants to encourage students to choose exactly the kinds of courses they are interested in.
“Don’t think about what will boost your career or which subjects you should take for that. Turn that thinking around and think about what interests you, no matter how far apart the different topics may be. For me, a combination of chemistry and environmental economics was a good one. It’s these unexpected combinations of subjects that make degrees a little unusual, which means they can help you stand out on the job market,” Kangas states.
Education is a springboard for a career
Kiira Happonen discovered her specialisation in energy. Studies in environmental economics gave her the foundation for her career.
“At the end of upper secondary school, I was interested in environmental studies, but the hard sciences, biology or chemistry, didn't seem appealing. Then I discovered environmental economics which combines both the environment and economics, a field that had fascinated me for some time,” says Kiira Happonen.
Happonen studied environmental economics as a major subject at the Department of Economics and Management between 2005 and 2012.
“My primary minor subject was economics, as it supported my major subject studies. My other minor subject was English philology, as it was one of the disciplines I originally considered. In addition, I completed the multidisciplinary minor subject module in environmental studies,” Happonen explains.
Happonen had no specific target schedule for her graduation.
“In the beginning, I completed studies at a fairly brisk pace, close to 80 credits per year. Later I slowed down a little, as I went to South Dakota for a one-semester student exchange, and then I worked for a year and a half while writing my Master’s thesis. But graduating in five years was never a necessity for me,” Happonen points out.
She says the discipline of environmental economics has a good atmosphere.
“It’s a fairly small discipline, so the professors and teachers were always easy to reach. We had quite a bit of interaction, from casual chats to course feedback and planning future courses. I was very happy there,” Happonen says.
Motivated by renewable energy
Happonen discovered her own specialisation towards the end of her Bachelor’s degree studies.
“I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on bioethanol. After that, I did a traineeship at the Energy Department of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. These two things combined to spark my interest in the energy business and energy issues. After that, I worked on renewable energy subsidies at the University for one summer, and then got a summer job at the energy company Helen Ltd in the same field,” says Happonen.
After that she wrote a Master’s thesis on biofuels and found her current job at Helen Ltd.
“My first job at Helen was an expert position in energy production planning. I also became involved in the company’s development programme towards a carbon-neutral future, primarily in terms of biofuels. For the last three years I have been working as a portfolio manager in Helen’s portfolio management team. My work consists of electricity price hedging, derivative trading and electricity and fuel market analysis. I also participate in fuel procurement, my focus being on wood pellets. In addition to actually sourcing wood pellets, I closely follow the biofuel markets and still take part in the company’s biofuel-related projects,” Happonen says.
Happonen has liked her work because she has learned so many new things.
“For example, I have learned things about power plant technology and the energy market that were never discussed at the University. The energy field is undergoing a sea change, and the objectives relating to the climate and renewable energy create certain constraints for our operations. It’s interesting to be a part of developing new solutions for how biofuels are used, for example.”
Learning by doing
According to Happonen, previous experience is important for finding jobs.
“My studies in environmental economics were a solid foundation, but my previous work experience was also very significant. In addition to my theses themselves, the fact that I wrote my Master’s thesis for the company I’m currently working at surely had something to do with me getting this job. Similarly, my previous experience in energy issues was a deciding factor when I got the first summer job in my field.”
According to Happonen, the University can provide students with useful skills for the future.
“For example, understanding the basic principles of emissions trading and the subsidy mechanisms for renewable energy has been an asset in my work. The University hones information-seeking skills and the ability to filter out the irrelevant. I have also found use for the mathematics that was required for my environmental economics studies. In general I have benefitted from having competence in both economics and environmental and climate policy,” Happonen muses.
In addition, she believes the choice of summer jobs and Master’s thesis topic can be defining factors in determining the future career. However, she would have wanted to get more IT skills with her degree.
“Do focus on learning to use Excel and other similar software, as you will be using them every day. Also consider that work may be hectic and involve multitasking, so you should not get too tied up in the details. You have to get the job done on schedule as well as you can, while during my studies I had time to hone everything to perfection and focus on the outcome,” Happonen says.
Hobbies for personal growth
During her studies, Happonen served in elected positions at both her student nation and her subject-specific student organisation.
“These positions taught me organisational skills, responsibility and teamwork. Working in a subject-specific organisation also meant that I could network with students in my field, who can later prove to be valuable professional contacts,” Happonen points out.
She advises students to manage their career dreams.
“Don’t expect to find a job that exactly corresponds to your degree, or that your degree will give you all the skills you will need at work. I think education is more of a springboard and a good foundation for a career, but you can’t go into working life expecting to only do things you’ve learned at university. It’s a good thing to have to do other things and learn something new,” says Happonen.