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A closer look at the life of an early career ecologist

Author: Julia Kozlowska
Author: Julia Kozlowska

By Julia Kozlowska

Getting your foot in the door as an early career ecologist is infamously difficult. It often seems that job adverts everywhere just ask for ‘experience’. So, what are you supposed to do if, like me, you’ve recently graduated, or decided to change careers?

At the start of the year, I achieved my goal of being offered a permanent, full-time position as an ecologist, working at a large consultancy. Several months later, I am here to share with you how the job compares to my expectations of work in this sector, as well as to share some tips for how you can also start getting those interviews and job offers as an ecologist.

Ecological Consultancy – Expectations versus Reality

The life of an early career ecologist is mostly exactly what you would expect, fieldwork. It’s also what attracts so many people to this job when they read about it on graduate career advice websites and in job descriptions. For the first few years in this career the focus of the job is on being out in the field each day, doing practical survey work. As you develop your expertise and start climbing the ladder to more senior positions, the focus becomes heavier on consulting with clients, writing and reviewing reports, as well as organising surveys and the work of less senior staff.

A bottle of newts. A male and female great crested newt, and a male and female smooth newt caught in a bottle trap during a great crested newt survey (Julia K @wildandplantbased)
A bottle of newts. A male and female great crested newt, and a male and female smooth newt caught in a bottle trap during a great crested newt survey (Julia K @wildandplantbased)

The busy survey season starts in March and ends towards the end of October/November. At the start of the season, you are mostly knee deep in ponds surveying for great crested newts and setting up dormouse nesting tubes in hedges (if you are in a dormouse region). Towards the end of the season the main focus shifts to autumn bat surveys and finalising reports. Scattered throughout the whole season are also reptile surveys, water vole transects and habitat surveys such as Phase 1 or UKHab - but don’t worry - if you are not yet confident with botany your company isn’t likely to send you to survey complicated sites, more like an arable field with a hedgerow. If you come to the job with particular skill such as ornithology or aquatic surveys, you are likely to spend a good proportion of your time doing these.

With the survey work comes a great deal of driving from site to site, which can be nationwide, though the majority of surveys tend to be within a reasonable distance from the office. Generally – smaller companies tend to have a more local client base, whereas larger companies tend to have larger clients and work with them can give you an opportunity to travel and experience a lot of the UK.

Good morning! A lovely sunrise view at the end of a dawn bat survey. (Aaron Bailey @idoadventures)
Good morning! A lovely sunrise view at the end of a dawn bat survey. (Aaron Bailey @idoadventures)

The things that perhaps aren’t as clear from the job descriptions are the late-night / early morning hours a lot of surveys require – *hint* bats are nocturnal animals, and you can’t torch survey a pond for newts if it isn’t dark. However, for a lot of companies, this is combined with a completely flexible approach to working hours and an ability to work from home when doing desk-based work, which is one of my favourite aspects of the job. You can schedule your desk-based work for anytime, anywhere - whether it’s at home, the hotel you are staying at for a survey, or a local café. This means that, when doing late night surveys, you can rearrange your sleeping schedule to fit in around the work. The key here is to choose your employer wisely. Research their work ethos and employee reviews, and make sure to ask lots of questions at the interview. This will help ensure you end up working for a caring manager and company that won’t require you to work unsafe shifts, such as doing a full day shift immediately after you’ve spent most of the night doing bat or newt work.

My top tips for getting your first ecology job

1. Start calling yourself an ecologist before you’ve even landed the job. This is a tip I learnt from the lovely Sue Searle of EcologyTrainingUK and it really helps create a greater focus in your mind on following this career path. Your everyday actions create your identity. If you find that your actions don’t line up with your new identity as an ecologist, you feel a greater impulse to change this, to keep up to date with the latest developments in the field and to develop your knowledge and skills, which ultimately makes you more employable.

2. Gathering the right experience. A well-known way of getting your foot in the door within the ecological consultancy sector, are zero-hour jobs. You can accept zero-hour contracts at multiple companies at once. You will then be invited to surveys when they need an extra member of staff, which you can accept or decline. This is great way of getting some experience as well as getting your name known by companies, who will look to you when they have a new ecology position to fill. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be able to commit a weeknight or two every couple of weeks to do a survey, like I wasn’t, another way of getting the knowledge and experience you need to ace an interview, is by doing training courses in different surveying techniques delivered by specialist providers such as EcologyTrainingUK or Wildwood Ecology. You can then practice those techniques with your local wildlife group. Most counties have their own amphibian and reptile group, bat group and badger group you can get involved with. Make a 1-year plan of exactly what you are going to do each week and month to bring you closer to your goal.

3. Know your story and be able to describe it, as well as your passion for the job, with great enthusiasm. When writing cover letters and presenting yourself at interviews, it’s important that your passion and enthusiasm for the sector shines through. You want to show the employer that your interest in ecology already forms a big part of your life. There will be plenty of people applying, perhaps even some with more experience than you. However, a true passion for the job that shines through, alongside a plan of how you see yourself progressing for the next few years in this career, will help show an employer that you are the right person to invest their time and training into.

If you have any burning questions, or you’re still not sure whether ecology is the field for you, feel free to send me a message on the following platforms:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/julia-kozlowska

Instagram: @wildandplantbased

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