Sean Porse earned his M.S. degree from the Jackson School of Geosciences in December 2013. After graduating, Sean worked at the BEG in the Gulf Coast Carbon Center, where he participated in field campaigns for groundwater sampling in southeast Texas and shallow seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. In late spring 2014, Sean accepted a Research Associate position with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA. His work at PNNL centered on developing deep (e.g., 1.5 km) monitoring networks at a carbon capture and storage site (CCS) in Illinois by examining core and cuttings, groundwater samples, suites of logs, and inputting such data into multi-phase computational models. In January 2015, Sean left PNNL for a position with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Geothermal Technologies Office in Washington, D.C.
Describe your current position at the Department of Energy.
I work in the Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) group for the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) at DOE. My position entails multiple responsibilities including: 1) overseeing a set of research projects funded through the GTO being conducted at DOE national laboratories (e.g., PNNL), and U.S. universities seeking to advance different aspects of EGS, 2) working on a team developing the FORGE project, an EGS-focused R&D site that will hopefully be a watershed step towards commercializing experimental geothermal technologies, and 3) lead the program’s participation and work on DOE-wide cross cutting initiatives involving supercritical CO2.
What is your area of research and how did you become interested in the topic?
My research at UT Austin and at PNNL focused on using single and multi-phase models to evaluate the efficiency in detecting different monitoring parameters at CCS and CO2 enhanced oil recovery fields. My master’s research involved field data collection (with lots of help from colleagues at the Gulf Coast Carbon Center), as well as laboratory analyses for rock compositions. Ultimately, I used this data as inputs for my computations models, which ended up being a nice blend of field, lab, and computational work that I built on at PNNL working with more sophisticated multi-phase models.
I became interested in the topic of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions mitigation while working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after I graduated from undergrad in 2008. At EPA, I worked in a program that regulated the injection of fluids, including CO2, and through that position I made contacts with folks at the Gulf Coast Carbon Center, which eventually led me to UT.
What does a typical day look for you?
So far, my days have been a nice variety of typical office work with meetings, email correspondence, document writing, research collaboration, and lots of training. I have really enjoyed working with researchers at the respective labs and universities; I’m working with them to help shape and cultivate future GTO research directions which is fun (and hopefully impactful!). This sort of interaction doesn’t just happen over the phone though; one of the great things about my job is the opportunity to visit different research and university facilities for projects that we fund.
As a Presidential Management Fellow, I will also have the opportunity to do short-term rotations in other offices, agencies, and even other laboratories here in D.C. or across the country within my first two years here at DOE, which is definitely exciting.
What has your experience been like working for the government and national labs?
Having now had experience at both the federal government and national labs level, there are certainly similarities but also some important differences as well. Working at PNNL was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a diverse group of geoscientists, ecologist, biologists, and chemists doing a wide variety of research. The beauty of working for a national lab is that you are only limited by your own initiative. In addition to my normal work at PNNL, I was able to participate on a really neat field project examining salmon transportation systems along the Columbia River. Such a work environment can also be a drawback, however. If work is slow and research opportunities are relatively few, it can be difficult to fill your time and as essentially a contractor, that is really important. It is really advantageous to be the controller of your own destiny and have a diverse set of research funding.
Working for the federal government has a lot of benefits; you interact with a diverse group of scientists focusing on policy and technology development, you have an opportunity to play a direct role in national research development efforts, and you get to work on really broad, exciting research initiatives such as FORGE. The government can also have its drawbacks however; bureaucracy is something of a way of life and it can be frustrating when politics complicate projects. But, if you have initiative (and patience to learn the system), you can find a really rewarding career in the government.
In what capacity do you work with other geoscientists?
At DOE my program lead is a geologist, and most of my immediate colleagues are geologists and engineers. There is a definite interest in the GTO towards having team members with technical backgrounds to oversee national research and development efforts; it really helps towards developing projects that are efficient, timely, and answer important scientific questions in geothermal energy.
What are the opportunities like at DOE for people with a bachelor’s degree vs. master’s vs. PhD?
There are many, many ways to get into the federal government (and DOE in particular) for those with bachelor’s, master’s, and PhDs. I interact with colleagues from all three levels of higher education on a daily basis. For those with bachelor’s, programs such as the ORISE fellows program are a great way to get research and specific program experience, with opportunities in almost any technical office in the federal government. For those with master’s degrees, fellowships such as the Presidential Management Fellowship are great opportunities to get a diverse exposure to a variety of government offices in a two year period. Many folks in DOE have PhDs as well at the technical and managerial level, and I know a lot of PhD colleagues who have participated in AAAS fellowships, or NSF funded programs. Overall, there are a lot of opportunities at all levels for those with bachelor’s, master’s, and PhDs.
How did you find your current position?
I found my position through the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) Program. The PMF program is a fellowship that, upon acceptance, allows you to apply for government jobs from a much smaller pool of applicants. Competition can be pretty stiff to become a finalist, with thousands of people applying for somewhere around 500 finalist positions. Getting to that stage though is very helpful because it hurdles a huge amount of red tape.
Such opportunities can be within your specific area of interest, or more broadly related. I am a PMF-STEM, meaning that I focused on STEM-related job opportunities, which is how I ended up finding the job advertisement for the Technology Manager position in GTO. You can find out more information about the PMF program at pmf.gov.
What traits, skills and experiences do employers in your field look for in candidates? What made you a successful candidate?
Being accepted as a PMF means I went through an extensive application process, including an initial online application and evaluation, along with a subsequent in-person assessment prior to my selection as a finalist. Being selected as a finalist and the general requirements for my current position absolutely overlap. Some ideal qualifications can include: strong writing and communication skills, ability to apply a scientific background to technical problems, having very good time management skills, and being able to work in teams in an absolute must. I have also found that my prior experience with USEPA was specifically useful for my current position; some of our projects require environmental permits and assessments, and having an understanding of the regulatory structure at the federal and state level has been valuable.
What publications, professional organizations or events would be helpful to students?
One conference that I attended while at UT was the AGU Science Policy Conference, which was held in Washington, DC. It was much smaller than the AGU Fall Meeting, probably 400 participants at most, but I found it very useful for gaining connections in the public sector, and some different perspectives on how AGU’s members can impact science policy on a national level.
Are there any important certifications or licensees that are important in your field?
Such licenses/certifications as P.G. or P.E. aren’t a requirement for jobs here in DOE, but they can certainly help demonstrate technical qualifications for a prospective job.
What is your advice to an undergraduate student considering whether to take time off or go straight through to graduate school?
I took 3 years between graduating undergrad and attending UT for my master’s, and it was hugely valuable for me to do so. If I would have pursued a graduate degree immediately after undergrad, I would not be in the energy field, nor would I have had exposure to the great program at JSG. In many ways, taking the time between degrees helped me focus on what I really enjoyed about the earth sciences and an ideal career path in general. In short, it was an invaluable step taking time between my degrees.
Were there any classes or specific skills from college that you find especially useful in your current work?
While not as useful at my current position in DOE, I found Luc Lavier’s MATLAB class to be very useful for my graduate work and my research at PNNL. I used it almost every day, and it opened up new techniques for efficient data processing and management. I’m trying to keep sharp with it here at DOE too as well though!
Any other advice for students at the Jackson School?
Variety is the spice of life, as they say. When looking for jobs, make sure to pursue multiple opportunities at once. While it can be more hectic time and organization-wise, cultivating multiple job prospects ensures that if a top choice does not work out, there are other quality opportunities to pursue.