Getting ahead in ecology: what many ecologists don’t know they don’t know…

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Logo: Career Ecologists

Ellie Benton-Best & Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams

Consultant ecologists face some unique challenges in progressing their careers. We have been exploring some of these challenges in our recent survey and the results are surprising. In this article, we share with you some of our findings.

How it all started

From conversations with friends and peers in a range of ecology roles we noticed patterns in the challenges faced to career progression. We wanted find out if this was unique to our circle or was universal within the sector. So, we set out to gather data (because we love data!) from a broad range of ecologists and employers/managers in the industry.

What we did

In 2019, we surveyed consultant ecologists in two groups. The first was for ecologists up to senior level. We asked them about their personal experiences of development and learning, as well as career progression. The second survey was completed by managers/employers in ecology. In this group were those responsible for teams, hiring, and budgets as well as their field work or specialism. We asked them specifically about hiring, the skills they most look for on their teams, and what they think is missing.

As you can imagine, the results were really fascinating and they gave us a great insight into what might be causing some of the issues we’ve noticed. These are the issues that can really get in the way of ecologists who are trying to grow their careers and could be stopping them from moving up to the next level or grade.

What we found

We had a great mix of respondents who work in organisations of all sizes – from individual contractors right up to people who work for the biggest multidisciplinary corporates. Of these, 78% said that career progression was on their mind at the moment. Unfortunately, 53% don’t think it is easy to progress.

Size of organisation data pie chart (Career Ecologists)

When we asked this group about how progression, promotion or opportunities do arise in their workplace, we heard answers around company structures and processes, and we also heard a lot of stories about the lack of transparency in companies, inconsistent ways of working and ‘the decisions being made by the higher ups’. What this suggests to us is that there are opportunities but that employees feel unable to decipher the ‘secret codes’ in order to get to where they really want to be.

It also came through loud and clear that people don’t understand what progression could mean for them. Another way of putting that is that people don’t see promotion as a good opportunity to carry on making a difference in and to the field of ecology. As people progressed, they saw experienced ecologists get caught up in the politics of an organisation, and lose the focus on the habitats and wildlife. For our respondents, this was a real deterrent to moving beyond their current grade – but we don’t think that it has to be this way.

When we asked what the barriers to promotion were, this trend and others started emerging:

Barriers to promotion pie chart (Career Ecologists)

Only 25% of this group thought that their skills were a barrier to promotion, followed by 38% who thought that their knowledge held them back. This didn’t really surprise us. Ecologists are generally passionate about their subject, love to learn and, in our experience, are diligent in keeping up with growing their technical knowledge and skills. So, if knowledge & skills aren’t the main issues, they think are holding them back, what are they?

Attributes (47%) or ‘Other’ reasons (50%) came up more often as what these ecologists saw as barriers to promotion. Comments in ‘other’ included cynicism about the way companies make decisions, through to awareness that what is needed to progress sometimes isn’t about ‘more knowledge of your topic’ but more awareness of how to do the business of doing business.

So, what do the ‘Bosses’ say?

One of the huge gaps that our second group, the managers/employers in ecology, told us about had a lot to do with non-technical skills. This backed up the data from our first group, affirming that it is generally less likely to be their technical knowledge and skills that are creating career stagnation. These non-technical (or non-ecology!) skills included things like business acumen, project management and communications skills.

Non technical skills required (Career Ecologists)


According to those leading ecology teams and making the key decisions around promotion, what contributes most to career progression and personal growth as an ecologist is a set of skills that have more to do with people and business than animals and habitat. However, the data shows that many ecologists place little-to-no value on these vital skills and their importance to progression is almost kept a secret. This we feel is the nub of the problem. There seems to a wide perception that these skills are either held or not held, rather than ones that can be taught and actively developed, just like learning anything new. And although some ecologists in larger organisations reported that this kind of training is available to them internally – a lot of them had not made the connection between soft skills and their own career development.

As a result of this data, our initial curiosity has now turned into a passion and desire to help people in Ecology develop and apply non-technical (also known as Soft Skills) in their every day roles, and create the growth and momentum to grow and progress in this amazing sector.

Are you being held back by some of these issues in your ecology career? Would you like to learn more about our findings and how we can use this data to enable you to progress further and faster in your ecology career? Join the Career Ecologists group on Facebook

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Posted On: 02/12/2020

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