Here we introduce the first in a three-part series that aims to assist those seeking a career in ecology in making the best early steps.
In this article we consider the options following school; Part II will present a number of young ecologists who have forged successful careers and describes the formative choices they made; and Part III will highlight current opportunities and identify the best places to look for both employment and voluntary opportunities.
Opting for the right path…
Every year there seem to be more and more options available to those interested in pursuing a career in ecology/conservation, and every year there seems to be more people interested in entering these professions, but how do you go about it and which route is best for you?
Ecology is a wide and varied field, from the intricacies of professional taxonomy to engaging children in environmental education, and from the day to day running of nature reserves to assessing the environmental impacts of proposed developments. Broadly speaking, careers in ecology can be split into five sectors (though there are, of course, exceptions to the rule and much overlap):
(Forest Schools, Field Study Centres and teaching)
(writing, public engagement, radio and TV)
(conservation research and academia)
(ecological/environmental consultancies and developers)
(reserve/national park wardens and ecologists, and other Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) staff)
(local and international tour and day-trip guiding, eco-tourism)
We all have our own strengths, be it communication, an analytical mind, practical skills, project organisation and management or identification and thorough ecological knowledge that may make one of the above fields a more logical choice than others. It makes a lot of sense to try and identify your strengths and play to them when starting out on your chosen career path. Although it is important to focus on your strengths, you may, of course, also find that you develop additional skills as you progress, which you can incorporate into new roles.
We are currently in a period where a Degree is viewed as being essential for progression into most careers; whilst it is a necessity for some sectors, and highly recommended in other, it is not necessarily the be all and end all from some careers within ecology, and if an academic path does not suite you, do not despair!
Many young ecologists feel they must follow a set path; school, university (Degree then possibly post graduate education, whether it is a Masters or a PhD), experience (voluntary or paid) and then a job (hopefully). It is the most fail-safe route to take but it by no means guarantees you a job at the end. In fact, very little guarantees a job these days, but there are ways of maximising your chances of securing one.
It would be wrong to devalue Degrees as they provide a pivotal step for many young people in bridging the gap between life at home and life on your own in the big wide world. Universities should open your mind to possibilities, to opportunities and to accepting alternative ways of doing things, but many of these things can be learnt within the industry without the need of a degree. They do, however, provide an unbridled opportunity to access literature and the minds of many brilliant people, which in itself is a very good reason to go!
What If I don’t want to go to university?
The list of possibilities is almost endless. For starters you could take a gap year; it’s an amazing opportunity (and one which becomes increasingly difficult to find time for as you get older) to learn about, and see the world; a well spent gap year can provide you with invaluable experiences and teach you many new skills. If you spend your gap year at home then you could combine work with volunteering at a location that interests you. You may even be able to save some money to then spend on other opportunities further afield, of which there are many.
We are generally more exposed to the more commercial gap year opportunities that charge large amounts of money for extended periods in rainforests or similarly extreme environments, however there are plentiful opportunities to join lesser-known organisations undertaking amazing research in some incredible places. To find these it takes time, effort, and a lot of hassling but it’s well worth it. One of the best ways to start is to identify what you most enjoy and where you would like to work.
You could approach The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, a local zoo, a university or reserve to find out if you could work or volunteer there, the worst they can do is say no, or suggest other locations or organisations to approach. They may even offer you paid work if you’re lucky. There are of course many other options available if you stay at home such as joining a practical skills course, attending evening classes or even trying to get a job at the bottom of a company and working your way up. The single most important thing to ensure is that you are maximise your time and that you enjoy yourself in the process.
And what if I do want to go to university?
Well, as has already been said University provides a brilliant opportunity to meet new people, both fellow students with similar enthusiasm as well knowledgeable staff who are willing to share their time with you, expand your knowledge, and help develop you in the path you chose.
Make the most of university. Many have excellent ecology clubs and societies. Sandwich courses offer the chance to experience a year in industry and many participants have found this leads to a job on leaving university. Choosing a university in a good location for ecology often helps further inspire your interest as well as meeting fellow ecologists outwith the university circle.
Many undergraduate courses offer superb field trips which shouldn’t necessarily be judged by their exoticness and cost; some of the best and most informative, fun and captivating are in the UK and Ireland. We would always encourage you to make the most of your three or four years and not just do the minimum required to get a degree.
So what other options do you have?
A vast array! We will highlight the myriad opportunities available in Part III from organised expeditions to volunteer positions with NGOs and everything in between.
How best to proceed?
Your biggest assets are your initiative, application of your knowledge and skills, and your enthusiasm. If you apply all these correctly they will go a long way towards getting you into your perfect career.
There is a common misconception these days that everyone deserves the same opportunities.Opportunities are to be worked for and those who show the most initiative will undoubtedly shine through. If you are shy, don’t worry. Most potential employers recognise peoples’ skills whether you are an extrovert or introvert.
Useful experiences that can help gain you experience
Experience is the key word here. It’s the original catch 22 situation; you want experience yet you can’t get any because you don’t have any! There are many opportunities that you can take though which will allow you to learn and develop skills thus putting you in a strong position as you progress through your career. Simply helping out on a nature reserve or with surveys is experience. Signing up to BTO, RSPB or Butterfly Conservation surveys is a brilliant way of expanding your knowledge and getting an understanding of survey techniques, as well as meeting local people with similar interests. If you know people undertaking research projects or running summer forest schools, why not help out with these? Often the biggest and most difficult step is motivating yourself to pursue these opportunities. But, you need to stand out from the crowd, others will be pursuing these opportunities so make sure you don’t miss out…Email people, ‘phone people, visit reserves that are close to you and talk to staff, or contact the local university.
These ad hoc and often informal experiences are incredibly valuable, but there are also many schemes in place that allow ecologists to develop their skills. Some are short-term, others long-term residential. Some offer skills training, whilst others teach on the job. If you are lucky you may be able to find one that covers board, lodging or even pays a stipend, whilst many will charge you for the experience. Over the past decade there has been an increasing number of universities offering ecology or similar degrees with a year in industry, again another good way of getting experience and qualifications.
Social media for good and bad
Social media is ingrained in daily life these days and used correctly it can be a superb resource. For instance, follow the organizations you like on Twitter and turn on the notification settings so that if any job or volunteering opportunities come up you’ll be first to know. ‘Like’ key pages on Facebook so that you’re also up-to-date with all that’s happening within organisations.
There is also a downside to social media. It can be a public portal into the lives of the user. Employers will check social media profiles to get a better idea of how you use your time, and what your interests are. It’s a great way of displaying an interest but just remember to keep your privacy setting high or be mindful about what you post. Its’ also worth remembering that the overuse of social media can be seen as unhealthy or compromising, especially if its apparent you’re tweeting whilst seemingly at work!
Having a career in ecology should be exciting and interesting. In general people chose a career in this discipline as they have an underlying interest in the subject, which should mean that working within the profession is more rewarding. As with any career the starting blocks can prove difficult to put in place, the opportunities few and far between and the competition high, but with a concerted effort and an open mind you should be able to get a foot in the door and take the first steps along an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable career path.
In Part II we will bring you examples of up and coming ecologists and how they have got to where they are. In Part III we will highlight opportunities available and where to look.