Getting into Ecological Consultancy: Degree vs Experience

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Logo: Caledonian Conservation Ltd

By Chris Cathrine

Slow-worm held in gloved hand at rail works site © Caledonian Conservation Ltd
Slow-worm at rail works site © Caledonian Conservation Ltd

Academic qualifications or experience? It’s a big question, and a difficult one to answer.

I still remember trying to break into an ecology career after leaving university 16 years ago – competition was tough, and I seemed to be filling in endless application forms. Now I am the Director of my own ecological consultancy, Caledonian Conservation Ltd. Established 10 years ago, I have recruited for employees several times now, and I can see that the market is even more challenging than when I entered it. Caledonian Conservation Ltd has a great staff retention rate – being a small company we all need to be flexible and pitch in, helping each other out. That requires a specific person – if the fit is wrong, it can unbalance the entire team.

Chris Cathrine (Director) Bugvac Invertebrate Survey © Caledonian Conservation Ltd
Chris Cathrine (Director) Bugvac Invertebrate Survey © Caledonian Conservation Ltd

From having been involved in recruitment at other consultancies earlier in my career, and attending university career days alongside larger multi-disciplinary consultancies, I am aware that what I look for in an employee often differs from other organisations. I’ve heard representatives from larger consultancies emphasise the importance of attaining a Masters degree before they will consider applicants for graduate roles. I don’t have a Masters degree myself – I stopped after achieving my Honours degree, as I really didn’t enjoy academia. However, I have built up a wealth of experience (through my own interests and volunteering), which started before university, and am now a respected authority in a number of fields. I’ve since published papers and been contracted to write technical guidance by government agencies and charities. I am a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, and was honoured when I was recently invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It is probably unsurprising, therefore, that I am more interested in people’s experience and enthusiasm than in their academic qualifications (although the two can definitely go together). Basically, I hope that my example is encouraging to those budding ecologists who excel in understanding their subject, but are perhaps less academically minded.

Scottish primrose © Caledonian Conservation Ltd
Scottish primrose © Caledonian Conservation Ltd

So, degree vs experience? If you’re looking to work for a company like Caledonian Conservation Ltd, I would suggest weighting your effort towards experience, although at least an Honours degree can be helpful (but I have employed excellent people lacking even this level of qualification based on their experience). There’s a limit to how far you can go in terms of career progression in a small company, but the diversity of work can be extremely interesting and rewarding – I know that variety is one of the things my employees enjoy the most, alongside the shared ethos, and camaraderie. If you’re hoping to forge a career with big consultancy, with clear progression, then academic qualifications may initially be the area you choose to focus on, but gaining experience will still put you ahead of competitors – particularly if you manage to gain protected species survey licences (e.g. bats, great crested newts, Schedule 1 birds etc). And it is really important that you do set yourself apart – when I recruit, I usually receive about 200 applications for any single job, and most tend to meet the essential criteria, so in that situation I am looking for those who have something more to offer. Membership of our professional body, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and other societies can be a great advantage.

Claudia Gebhardt (Principal Ecologist) Great Crested Newt Surveys © Caledonian Conservation Ltd
Claudia Gebhardt (Principal Ecologist) Great Crested Newt Surveys © Caledonian Conservation Ltd

Experience in ecology is great, and definitely something all employers will be looking for to a greater or lesser extent. However, I also value other forms of experience – someone who has done a career change often has a lot of useful skills to bring to ecological consultancy, as well as a different perspective which can be extremely useful when tackling complex challenges. Communication and other people skills are very important when it comes to talking to clients and stakeholders, producing reports, or being an Ecological or Environmental Clerk of Works – the person who helps construction or other contractors to undertake their work without breach of wildlife or environmental law. As an employer it is difficult to gauge which applicants will bring these skills, and previous work or some forms of volunteering can be a good indicator. I know my work in retail customer services helped me develop a lot of conflict management skills which I apply as an ecological consultant today!

Another area which is difficult to assess based on applications is whether the applicant really will be willing to work anti-social hours, in remote locations, and safely. If there are examples of this in work or voluntary experience, it gives confidence before asking to interview. Similarly, a First Aid qualification is encouraging, particularly an outdoors one.

I would also encourage people to be honest in applications. On some occasions applicants have been invited to interview where it comes out they really do not have the skills or level of experience they had written on their application, and that’s stressful for them, and wastes everyone’s time. Recognising your limitations and knowing when to ask for help is a strength in my view.

Tailoring your application to the employer is really important. A larger company is likely to have a more rigid application process where it will be looking for set criteria, whereas a small company like Caledonian Conservation Ltd may be giving more thought to the whole person, and how they will fit in a small team. If you’re at an earlier stage, it may be worth considering what sort of ecology career you are aiming for, and then choosing to focus on academic qualifications or on gaining experience more. Ultimately, there’s no simple answer!

Chris Cathrine, Director of Caledonian Conservation Ltd

07789 771166

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