Ptyxis Ecology - Our Botany Blog

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Ecology careers

Want a career in ecology?

As a professional ecologist and botanist, and a trained teacher, I often get asked for advice on ecology careers. Training is a major part of my freelance work, and I teach undergraduates and postgraduates at Newcastle University. I also sit on the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s (IEEM) working group on the ecology skills gap, a project addressing the fact that many biology and ecology degree courses do not train students in the vocational skills that employers are looking for.

Working in nature conservation is extremely competitive. There are currently more opportunities in commercial ecological consultancies, working mainly for the corporate sector (such as property developers, wind energy companies etc), but also for local authorities and government agencies. To maximise your opportunities during your early career, you will need to be prepared to develop your CV by volunteering and to move around the country for work.

Top tips for careers in ecology

What is your summer project about? If you want a job in the UK ecology sector, make sure you do a project on British or Irish habitats and /or species! Although the large ecological consultancies do require ecologists to conduct survey work abroad, this is generally in Europe or North America. If you do a project on African or Asian ecology, expect to work for organizations who work in Africa or Asia, such as universities or international charities. You will not be attractive to the British conservation sector or commercial consultancies.

Build up the evidence for your skills by volunteering. You need to make time to do this at weekends; it is at least worth as much as a high grade degree, arguably more. There are plenty of first class honours graduates without jobs because they have not got any work experience. You need to show that you have the skills listed in IEEM’s booklet ‘what every graduate should know’ which is available from

Botany – by which I mean plant identification and survey skills – is in demand. Consultancies are very short of young graduates who are proficient botanists. Join BSBI, attend their field meetings and put this on your CV. No one expects you to be an expert overnight; but you do need to show a serious commitment to improving your field identification skills and going on BSBI meetings demonstrates this. BSBI also offer a one day test and a certificate, called a Field Skills Identification Qualification or FISQ, to evidence how good a botanist you really are, which also looks good on your CV. See

Whether you plan to be a mammal ecologist, entomologist or an ornithologist, all commercial consultancies need graduates who can do a Phase 1 habitat survey. Find out about this by reading the survey handbook (it’s amazing how many interview candidtates don’t do this!); go on a short course (The Field Studies Council and IEEM both run Phase 1 habitat survey courses); do a voluntary Phase 1 survey for your local Wildlife Trust to prove to employers that you can really do it!

Be careful when you choose an MSc course. Having an MSc will not assist you in finding a job if you still have little or no work experience. Look for an MSc that has a strong vocational element: training in ecological survey methods combined with business skills, like project management and negotiation skills, which you will need in the workplace.

Good luck!!

Clare O'Reilly



At 27 July 2008 at 05:26 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who has recently retrained and gained work in Ecology, I feel I must add a few things. Anyone hoping to work in Ecology must expect: a low salary; lots of time away from home; and certainly at the start of a career, almost no control over when and where you will be sent to work; and a lot of report writing.

Of course you will spend a lot of time in the countryside, which is fantastic, but this is only part of the picture and I think anyone hoping to pursue a career in Ecology should dig around and get a good handle on what this part of the environmental sector is actually like on a week-to-week basis.

At 27 July 2008 at 06:19 , Blogger John & Clare O'Reilly said...

I agree with the last comment - you need to check out what a job is really like! But my thoughts were deliberately positive tips on how to enhance your CV and get your first job in ecology. Any career has draw backs, like the amount of travelling, but as someone who has career-changed to become an ecologist, leaving a high salary and secure career with pension, I love my job and wouldn't swap it for any other for the world! I still can't believe I actually get paid to do it - no matter how low the salary - it is a priviledge to be able to (just!) earn my living doing something I love. I used to botanise as a hobby and getting to do it more than the odd snatched weekend here and there was a dream! That's a key point : you need to be truely passionate about working as an ecologist; interviewers can pick up on this and you can't fake it!


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