Becoming an ecologist-my story
Looking to pursue a career in ecology?
I started my journey into the sector whilst I was still studying for my degree, and nearly 4 years later I think I have found a great consultancy to work with that cares about my professional development and wellbeing. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, so here are some things I learnt along the way.
Is it right for you?
Ecology is a great ‘best of both worlds’ career, with the majority of roles having around a 50/50 split of fieldwork and desk-based work. The desk-based work requires transferrable skills such as project management and working with clients, so if you already have a bit of office experience in any sector, this will work in your favour. When it comes to surveying, it’s beneficial to have experience with certain protected species, but for many entry level seasonal positions, if you can demonstrate that you have experience surveying taxa of any kind, this is enough to demonstrate that you can apply your skill to the surveys needed in ecology. In comparison, many practical habitat management roles such as ‘ranger’ or ‘warden’ are so competitive that, in my experience, you need to have the exact skills and experience required for that job.
One thing I like about working in ecology is how it suits such a wide range of individuals. Whilst I excelled in taxonomy, fieldwork and science communication, I struggled with essays and exams at university. When I started my first role in ecology, I was pleased to learn that the reporting style is concise, uniform and, importantly, needs to be written in a way that is professional but clear and translatable to clients. There are many in the sector who have come from less scientific backgrounds but have always had a passion for wildlife and taxonomy; and equally there are many people that come into the sector having gained a PhD, so it suits both those highly academic and those less so.
Even within ecology, roles can be very different, so it’s worth having a good look around at different companies and calling ahead of your application to get a feel for how the job will pan out. Some can be largely desk-based, with fieldwork subcontracted out, and some, you will require staying away from home for weeks on end to carry out surveys. The role that suits you will be out there – you may just have to do some digging to make sure of a good fit.
Still interested? Great!
If you are reading this, as a current undergraduate or perhaps thinking of a career change and beginning a new course, my big top tip is to take full advantage of your situation and use it to gain as much experience as possible. For many, university, although stressful at points, can be some of the best 3 years of our lives. It can therefore be easy to just have the mindset of “oh I’ll just worry about getting a job when I’ve finished”. However, getting into the ecology sector does require you to have some experience that you will most likely have to gain by volunteering. This is much harder, although not impossible, to do once you find yourself needing a full-time job, and having less time to commit to unpaid work.
There will rarely be a time where you get month long holidays multiple times a year, so take full advantage of having this in between term time. In the summer before my final year at university, I volunteered with my local Wildlife Trust weekly, and returned to it at Christmas and Easter too. Although it is hard to find the time to commit to so much voluntary work, continuous attendance really demonstrates that you will have gained valuable knowledge and that you are passionate about wildlife. Even during term time, whilst busy during my third year, there was always time to volunteer for at least half a day per week.
Choosing placements and modules
If your course offers a placement year option, this is a huge opportunity to get a big chunk of experience under your belt. Really take time to think about what placements would provide you with useful experience and skills for a job in the UK, if that’s what you’re aiming for!. I truly believe my placement on a RSPB reserve helped me get a foot in the door in ecology, due to spending a large portion of my time surveying a range of taxa; from birds to moths and butterflies.
Although I hadn’t surveyed for protected species, this demonstrated an ability to work independently, following a standardised methodology. Finishing this placement in May, I was then fortunate to secure a seasonal role as a surveyor for a consultancy before I had even finished my degree! There are lots of placements like this on offer across the country, and it’s much easier to do these stints of unpaid work when you have a government loan. Countryside Jobs Service is a great place to find these placements, along with the big NGO wildlife charities such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust. Some local councils also run similar placement opportunities.
University courses will often offer the opportunity to select certain modules; enabling you to tailor your degree experience to a career in ecology. During my final year, there was a wide range of intensive modules from which to choose. Having spent the summer working for a consultancy, I had a greater understanding of what would be the most beneficial courses. I opted for GIS, bat ecology and survey techniques, and science communication.
Your university professors will often have links with lots of different organisations and projects. If one is working on something that sounds interesting, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask if they may know of or have any opportunities for you to help and get involved with.
Most universities will offer free careers advice, including help with CVs and interviews. My own also offered this for 3 years following graduation which was really useful.
If you have finished your degree, and are now looking at applying for jobs, it’s definitely worth having a good read around of different roles and types of companies. This will help you understand what experience is required, and the range of work out there (it’s vast!). Consultancy can range from tiny family run companies where the majority of work is for private homeowners, to large multi-disciplinary companies that not only do ecology, but habitat contracting, sustainability consulting, and a range of other things. The work here will more likely be big, long term jobs large infrastructure projects.
Think one step ahead
My first role as an assistant became largely desk-based, fairly early on in my role, and there will be a number of companies that sub-contract the majority of their fieldwork, leaving the report writing and project management to their in-house staff. For me, a more field based role is what I prefer, especially early on in my career, but when I started looking into applying for different roles with another company, I realised that my lack of fieldwork experience could hinder me. Although on paper, I had just over a year’s experience of working in a consultancy, when it came to interview, I was tripped up by the fact my survey knowledge wasn’t up to scratch. It was at this point that I realised it would have been beneficial to know what the usual requirements were for assistant and then consultant roles, so that I could ensure the experience I was gaining or applying for would actually help me get on that ladder.
In whatever sector we work in, employers will always try and make their role and workplace sound appealing, so of course it’s hard to know what it will actually turn out like. But once you are in your first role, perhaps just give yourself a mental list of questions to help you know whether the role is giving you a good starting point, or if you may need to bump up your experience with external training, for example. These could be things like:
“Am I getting to survey a range of species, or just one main one?”
“Am I getting experience both in the field but also doing some simple office work, such as data entry or desk studies?”
“Am I getting to work with and learn from skilled ecologists who hold protected species licences?”
My second role in ecology was technically a step down, but I knew at this point it was important to focus on what I would gain from the role, rather than the title. As a Trainee Ecologist with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, I spent a full season carrying out a wide range of surveys, from invertebrate to amphibian, bats to reptiles. My senior colleagues all had some kind of specialism and it was invaluable to get the opportunity to shadow and learn from them. This experience combined with the project management I did in my first ecology role, helped me get the role I am in now, and I hope to soon be able to progress to consultant level.
I hope this has been insightful and wish you all the best on your journey into the sector.