Elizabeth Clelan Furman University Alumni

Elizabeth Clelan '08

— Research Scientist

I would recommend finding a mentor early in your career. Identify someone who is established in the field you are most interested in and get to know them. Ask them how they achieved their successes.


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

If you asked me to describe my future career on the day I graduated Furman, that description would have looked nothing like my actual career today. There have been so many important moments in my professional journey that appeared unrelated on the surface, but all of the seemingly random dots fit together to bring me where I am.

Like many Furman students, I loved everything about college, especially academics and all of the incredible opportunities Furman provided. After an on-campus summer research internship, combined with the mentorship and encouragement from several professors, I decided I wanted to be a professor. I never really wanted to leave college, so I thought I wouldn't really have to by choosing that career path.

I began applying for Ph.D. programs in economics and chose a program with a strong economics of education concentration because all of my research at Furman had focused on that topic. I completed my coursework and started to transition to dissertation research and teaching undergraduate students, a routine that mirrored my future professional life as an academic.

The tension between teaching and research weighed heavily on me, and I quickly realized I could be great at doing one of my two jobs every semester, but not both. Some semesters I would pour all of my effort into teaching and my research would suffer, and in others, my students would bear the burden of my intense focus on dissertation research.

It took me until my fifth year in graduate school, when I was on the job market, to be open to considering other career fields. Being a professor was my dream and I thought if my career aspirations changed, I would be a failure. I started seeing a career counselor and he helped me realize it was okay if my plans changed.

My counselor helped me to prioritize the qualities of my future career that were most important to me and encouraged me to be open to a wider definition of what it meant to be an economist. I applied to over 120 universities, government, and private sector jobs over the course of a few months and interviewed for dozens of jobs, with the hope that my future career would reveal itself as I met with and talked to hundreds of people.

The economist jobs in the defense sector stood out to me because it seemed their research significantly influenced the design of policies and programs that could help our country's service members. In high school, the 9/11 attacks had a profound impact on me and I always hoped I could find a way to serve my country. I never knew those jobs were out there for economists, and if I had not approached my job search with an open mind, I may have never discovered my current job.

It was still extremely difficult to switch directions so abruptly. I remember crying on the phone with a university provost explaining I would not be coming out for an interview, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Working with our country's men and women in uniform is the greatest privilege.
What motivations fueled your career path?

The most important motivation for my career path is the ability to put my family first. One of the things I found most stressful about a career in academics was the tenure clock expiring at the same time I wanted to start a family and I saw many female academics struggling with this reality. It is my understanding this issue is improving across the academic profession, but it was not something I was willing to risk.

One appealing element about my current company is the presence of strong female economists and other researchers, demonstrating to me that the company created an environment encouraging women to be successful. I am extremely thankful for a loving husband who supports and encourages my career aspirations, which has been invaluable to my professional journey.

Another strong motivation for my current career path is the desire to do research that is going to actually influence policy. The research questions I explore have been specifically requested by our Department of Defense (DOD) sponsors and cover issues on which they are going to have to make important decisions. Thanks to the work of my team, I have witnessed a general ordering changes in policy based on our research results.

The ability to work in a team-oriented environment is a strong motivation for my current career path. Research can be a lonely journey, so I appreciate working with a collaborative team. There is also a cross-disciplinary approach to the way projects are designed at my company.

Another motivating career factor is the opportunity to interact with the subjects I am studying (people, aircraft, and ships) to develop more context for my data. For example, this past summer I spent several weeks aboard an aircraft carrier to observe the operations of different aircraft. This was not something I ever imagined I would be doing as an economist, but an incredible opportunity.

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

I would recommend finding a mentor early in your career. Identify someone who is established in the field you are most interested in and get to know them. Ask them how they achieved their successes. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a mentor was to save one hour each day to do something on your long-term to do list.

I would also recommend regularly connecting with a group of peers at your company where you can discuss any challenges you are facing or questions. Your fellow colleagues have had similar challenges and a group of your peers provides a safe space to receive/give advice, or at least make you feel like you are not alone. My company has formal and informal programming for all analysts that have been there less than two years. This group meets several times a week and it allows young analysts to get to know people from across the organization.

I also recommend getting involved in any group at your office that gives you a chance to interact with people across the company. Many organizations can be stove piped, so any opportunity you have to meet those in different divisions can help you when you least expect it. For example, I am a member of the Educational and Charitable Funds Committee at my company. These types of cross-divisional groups provide opportunities to engage with company leadership at early stages of your career.
How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

Networking is a key component to breaking into the defense community. One advantage of the Furman alumni network is the willingness of fellow alumni to take the time to talk to you. LinkedIn shows you if any alumni of your university work at a particular company and gives you the opportunity to reach out to those alumni directly. Several applicants have contacted me this way. If it looks like their resume is a good fit, I will pass it on to the hiring manager for a relevant position.

I would also recommend becoming proficient in data analysis and the relevant programming languages in your field. Force yourself to learn programming skills above and beyond what is required for your coursework. I would especially recommend concentrating your efforts on open source programming languages. These are becoming increasingly popular because they are free to use. These programming languages have extensive online communities where you can go for help as you are learning.

For someone just getting started

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

I wish I had known no one expects you to be an expert when you are just starting out. If I had realized this sooner, I would have been more comfortable early on. When I started in the defense industry, I knew little and was afraid to speak up in meetings if something did not make sense. I was terrified to ask what something meant. Once I realized it is okay to stop and ask for clarification, it made me able to get more out of my interactions with others throughout the day.
What additional education or certification is required/recommended?

Some might have the misconception that prior military service is required to be successful in the industry. Although service is highly valued experience, many companies are looking for employees who do not have prior military experience because they can be more objective in their analysis.

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

One of the most highly desirable skills I developed through a liberal arts education is a strong background in writing. It is surprising how little emphasis is placed on writing at many universities for those majoring in technical fields. Having this foundation gives you a leg up over some of your colleagues who have never had proper writing instruction.

If you cannot communicate your results and recommendations, your research is of little value. My company takes a cross-disciplinary approach to analysis. Experience across several different fields as an undergraduate made me more comfortable with that environment.
What are other courses you took or you wish you would have taken that would also add value in your career?

I have never taken a physics course and I wish I had thanks to its practical application to my current work. I know I cannot be an expert in everything and it is okay to ask for help, but I wish I had more of a foundation in some of the hard sciences.

I also wish I had taken the ArcGIS course at Furman, which used to be taught in the earth and environmental sciences department. There are many projects in my current job that require expertise in ArcGIS.


Were there particular courses within the economics department that were especially useful in helping you identify your career or that ended up helping you to be successful in your career (maybe unexpectedly)?

Economics of gender provided a thought foundation for much of the research I do today. I often work with problems associated with women in the military, and my approach to analyzing those types of issues was taught in that course.

The capstone research course each economics student was required to take senior year was also fundamental. The course required a research project that brought my coursework together and enabled me to reflect on the skills learned during my time at Furman.
Were there particular projects or activities from any of your economics courses that were especially useful?

Each time we were required to write a paper, I became a better communicator of my research and ideas. Encouraging the development of these writing skills continues to pay dividends today. In addition, several courses required us to learn programming languages that gave me a head start in some of my graduate courses. In my opinion, the more programming skills woven into the economics curriculum, the better, especially for those who wish to continue academic pursuits in the field.

Were there particular "engaged learning" experiences (e.g. internships, study away, research opportunities) that were especially useful?

I participated in the Hollingsworth Research Scholar program that gave me the opportunity to work on a small research team with one-on-one mentorship from a professor. That summer convinced me I wanted to attend graduate school in economics because I was able to experience what it was like to complete a research project from conception and present my findings at a professional research conference.

Furman also funded an internship for economic development work in my hometown. I worked with a nonprofit organization that otherwise could not have afforded to pay an intern. That summer I developed strong qualitative research skills through conducting focus groups, which is a skill I continue to use in my job today. When we cannot answer every question through quantitative data, we often turn to qualitative research methods.
Any other "highlights" from your experience in economics?

The economics department is a supportive and collaborative environment and the main reason why I initially wanted to be a professor. Furman provides unparalleled opportunities for research at the undergraduate level, which gives students who take advantage of those opportunities a leg up.

In graduate school, the most difficult thing for most of my peers was coming up with research topics for their dissertations. Because Furman taught me how to see the world through a researcher's eyes, I actually had too many dissertation ideas to execute them all. To this day, I keep a running list of random ideas for projects I hope to study at some point. I am so thankful to my major department for providing these opportunities that led me to my current career path.

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