Curriculum is Currency for MS Student’s Career Aspirations

by |September 24, 2015
Chris Meissner

MS in Sustainability Management student Chris Meissner

Current student Chris Meissner started the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program to make a career change from strategy and corporate development into water related issues. However, upon beginning the program, Chris realized that the complex nature of sustainability demands a multi-disciplinary practitioner. With just one semester left, Chris is focusing on sustainable finance as a way “to create true progress in addressing sustainability issues,” while working in private equity and as a board member at a sustainable products company.

1. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management? 

I started to look at Columbia’s programs as a way to facilitate a career change I was looking to make. I had previously completed an MBA and had worked for 10 years in strategy and corporate development for a global telecommunications company, but was looking to make a switch into an area to which I felt more passionate and connected. I originally entered Columbia under the Certification in Sustainable Water Management program, as I wanted to specialize in water issues, but quickly realized that sustainability problems are complex and multi-disciplinary, requiring practitioners to have a broader range of knowledge in order to be truly effective in this space. I was particularly attracted to the MSSM program’s wide selection of classes, its affiliation with the Earth Institute, and the variety of backgrounds I saw in the MSSM student body.

2. What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?

My goal has shifted somewhat since I entered the program. I now would like to work in the sustainable finance field, focusing on how private capital can be directed and leveraged to create true progress in addressing sustainability issues. I am hoping to focus on the particular challenges around water issues, but now understand that it is ineffective to think about these issues in isolation, so have broadened my scope, skill sets and knowledge on a range of topics (energy, agriculture, etc.) accordingly.

3. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?

I believe the most important sustainability challenge is getting all levels of society (governments, businesses, the public, etc.) to start focusing on the true economic value of the ecosystem services upon which we all depend on for survival. Acknowledging these “true” values would create a different way of estimating costs for environmental resources and externalities, which may not change behavior completely, but at least would create a more realistic and sustainable view of costs and benefits for economic activities. The fact that most Americans still consider water a “free” resource is just one example of the type of thinking that needs to be changed.

4. What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?

The most important skill that I have acquired through the program so far is the ability to analyze sustainability issues in a holistic way, incorporating perspectives including policy issues, economic considerations, environmental implications and social behaviors. Also, the chance in many of my classes to hear from successful sustainability practitioners in the field today (particularly in the Practicum on Sustainable Leadership class) has allowed me to develop a strong tool kit of techniques for addressing sustainability issues within organizations. On the technical side, the program has allowed me to sharpen my analysis and modeling skills and given me the opportunity to become familiar with the broad range of sustainability metrics and reporting systems used today.

5. How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?

I currently have a fellowship with a small private equity company called GCH Partners where I am helping them to develop a communications strategy for their clients on the opportunities and risks around investing in the water space. I am also on the board of a small sustainable products company called Unitensil where I am trying to help them market and launch their products. In both opportunities, I am able to apply the analytical skills and multi-disciplinary focus on sustainability issues to enhance my work.

6. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in with your fellow students?

Unfortunately, with two small boys at home and a working spouse, it has been difficult for me to engage in all of the extracurricular opportunities available through Columbia and the MSSM program. I have participated in and enjoyed many of the conferences, guest speakers and topic discussions available throughout the Columbia community.

7. What is your favorite class in the program so far and why?

My favorite class so far has been Sustainable Finance with Bruce Kahn. I liked this class because, even though I had a financial background already, Professor Kahn created an environment where we could really challenge how sustainability issues could be realistically addressed within financial markets and institutions. For me, these are key skills for all sustainability students to have, which is a message I conveyed repeatedly to students as a curriculum and grading assistant for this class as well.

8. How do you intend to utilize your degree to further your career?

After having already successfully “completed” one career, for me the MSSM program provides an accelerated path to transition to a new career focus. With my focus on sustainable finance, Columbia’s reputation, location and broad alumni base are all key assets that enhance my career opportunities.

9. How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefited you professionally and personally?

Through both my previous work experience and my MBA I can attest to the fact that the networking opportunity with both fellow students and Columbia staff is really one of the most valuable elements of any program. This is particularly true for someone a little older like myself with an extensive work history. I have found the group projects to be one of the more useful parts of the program, as it allowed me to focus time and effort on specific issues that I felt would be useful for my personal career development. Working with my fellow students from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets has only enhanced this process further.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.  


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