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So you want to become an ecologist?

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Introduction

If you’re reading this, you are probably only too aware that 41% of UK species have declined since 1970. Of the 8,431 species assessed using modern criteria, 15% are threatened with extinction. This suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world1.

Alongside agricultural management, climate change caused by human activities and pollution, urbanisation is one of the most significant pressures acting on terrestrial and freshwater nature in the UK. I use urbanisation to include changes of land use for the benefit of human activities including the construction or re-development of buildings and infrastructure.

A videoscope being used by a licensed ecologist to inspect a tree for bats (Chris Greenwood)
A videoscope being used by a licensed ecologist to inspect a tree for bats (Chris Greenwood)

Changes to land use are subject to legislation in increasing volume and complexity. New environmental laws, regulations, and a raft of planning policies in the UK, has resulted in a corresponding growth in the ecological consultancy sector.

Ecological consultancies provide expertise on environmental issues relating to legislation and planning policy to industry, government agencies and individuals. Their services include surveys, assessments, habitat management and restoration guidance. So, is this a career for you?

The Role of an Ecological Consultant

Given the complexities of legislation and planning policy and a recognised drive to halt and restore biodiversity loss, the role of, and need for, a skilled ecological consultant is in high demand. Experienced ecologists are particularly sought after. Hopefully the above has demonstrated the need for an ecological consultant, so let’s take a closer look at the role before focusing on the skills, behaviours and traits desired by their employers.

If you look at the job description for an entry level ecological consultant (or consultant ecologist if you prefer), then you’re going to see some sort of variation on these key tasks:

  • Ecological surveying including preliminary ecological assessments and protected species surveys and assessments.
  • Preparation and production of ecological reports.
  • Site supervision / Ecological Clerk of Works (ECoW) duties.

You will be expected to survey a site for its ecological value and provide a report and may even undertake some site supervision at a later stage. But what does that mean in terms of demonstrating or obtaining the essential or desirable skills to a potential employer?

As an early career ecologist, you may have already obtained a working knowledge and reasonable understanding of the skills employers are looking for; either through a university degree, a background in nature conservation, or possibly some field experience. But it’s how you demonstrate both your current level and capability to develop and enhance these skills to an employer that’s maybe even more important.

Assistant Ecologist involved in a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Wildwood Ecology)
Assistant Ecologist involved in a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Wildwood Ecology)

The qualities we seek in an individual are likely to include:

  • Reliability
  • Resilience
  • Open-mindedness
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Self-awareness
  • Tenacity
  • Focus
  • Innovation
  • Pragmatism
  • Honesty (goes without saying)

You may have the essential and desirable skills employers seek, but if you do not possess the right qualities that demonstrate how you may obtain results, then there may be a potential mismatch. Alarm bells will start to ring, and we then ask ourselves “how would this person uphold our values, get on with their colleagues and interact with our clients?”

Exclusively for CJS, I have created a Skills Wheel for Ecological Consultants. It’s a free tool to help you identify which of the key skill areas you may need to focus on. To gain your free copy send an email to hello@ecologyacademy.co.uk. I will then send you a free copy for you to use, throughout your career.

Accelerate your career opportunities

To ensure you thrive within a company, you need to spend time getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the employer. Ask yourself, which areas do I need to focus more on than others? Would I like working for this company? How could I add value? What would I learn or contribute towards during my time with this employer?

Although it seems like an additional task on top of an already stressful situation of applying for a job, it can increase the likelihood of getting the right match between employee and employer: A long-term win-win situation that surely is worth a little bit of investment to get that flywheel moving.

Assuming you’re okay with maximising your chances of success, then you need to start with a career plan. Having a plan at the early stages of your career will help you focus on any missing skills, traits, and behaviours you may need to obtain. It will also identify those you may already have and therefore may not need to repeat (even though they may be enjoyable).

Conversely, not having a plan of where you’re going is akin to sailing a rudderless ship. You will of course end up going somewhere, but it may not be the place you wanted to be, or it may have taken you longer than anticipated to get there.

Equally, don’t get hooked on creating the perfect plan. There is no such thing. And although planning matters, there is even one more critical thing you need to do, and that’s implement your plan. Without putting that plan into action, then you are highly unlikely to achieve your goal.

To help you, the Ecology Academy has designed a career planning mini course to help you set not only goals for your professional career, but also for other areas of your life. You can get it now, for FREE, within our subscription Dipper Club. All you need to do is click on this link and subscribe to the club with a one month free trial and then only £4.95 per month thereafter. Enjoy a range of other mini courses, videos, audios, and other resources to help you throughout your career as an ecologist.

An ecologist setting out reptile sheets on a grassland site (Chris Greenwood)
An ecologist setting out reptile sheets on a grassland site (Chris Greenwood)

To help you further decide which role and employer is right for you, the final section of this article provides an overview of the different employment routes that ecological consultants can take or switch between. Bear in mind that these are my insights. Be open-minded and seek other opinions before making up your own mind!

Freelance ecologist

By their very nature, freelance ecologists are individuals working in what is commonly known as the ‘gig economy’. The work is considered small-scale and often local.

However, even in this business format people often form collaborations and partnerships to win and deliver work. If you’re a specialist, for example as an entomologist, you probably will have to travel to find work and may have to spend evenings or even days away from home at a time.

Being a freelance ecologist is not going to make you rich. It’s much more of a lifestyle business. But if you enjoy the work, and that’s all that matters, then that’s great.

Small-sized companies

A small ecological consultancy is defined by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management as up to 10 ecological employees.

They have structure and processes in place, although they may not be formally written down. There is a greater chance of training and support, and potential full-time opportunities arising from seasonal work, you are the right fit for the team and share similar values.

The work is varied and enjoyable. You work with a small team and, depending on your employer, your voice matters. You feel trusted, valued, and supported. The work is hard and long during the months between April and October, but it should be rewarding.

Small consultancies make up the bulk of the employers for ecologists within the UK. Their staff structure is highly varied, but they are likely to have a small number (perhaps 1-2) of highly experienced members of ecological staff at Senior or Principal Ecologist level, working alongside less experienced ecologists (perhaps 3-5) at Junior/Graduate Ecologist and Ecologist level. They may also recruit on a seasonal basis to assist with the busy field survey season.

Small consultancy employers want junior staff who can ‘hit the ground running’, which means that they expect an awful lot from their employees and competition for jobs within these companies is fierce. So, to stand a chance with these employers you need to have the essential and desirable skills or demonstrate other traits that they may value over them.

Medium-sized companies

A medium ecological consultancy is defined by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management as employing between 11 and 40 ecological employees. They may have many offices across the UK and will work on larger or more complex projects but can also accommodate smaller-scale work too. And so, working for this type of employer is very appealing.

Typically, the medium sized companies will have additional services they offer their clients, such as landscape architecture, arboriculture and quite possibly other environmental services such as air, noise and pollution services. The larger projects and multidisciplinary practice lend themselves to producing a larger bulk of the Environmental Impact Assessments and projects you may find yourself involved with may last years, not months.

As an employee, you will be expected to work hard and have a high degree of professional and commercial aptitude for the role, alongside your exceptional ecological skills. As such, medium ecological consultancies employ a larger proportion of senior members of staff and may only employ a relatively small number of entry level staff. If you can secure a position with a medium sized consultancy, then you have a higher level of job security as they can ride out short-term turbulences in the development and construction sector, but of course are not immune from prolonged recession and downturn in market confidence.

As you can imagine, securing a role within a medium-sized consultancy as a new ecologist is severely fierce and you really do need to demonstrate you have the right skill set, aptitude, and commitment to thrive in this competitive arena.

Volunteering with a Wildlife Trust (Sofie Borek)
Volunteering with a Wildlife Trust (Sofie Borek)

Large-sized companies

A large ecological consultancy is defined by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management as employing over 40 ecological employees. They will have many offices across the UK and globally and their work is concentrated on large and more complex projects, particularly nationally significant infrastructure projects.

It can be extremely challenging as you will liaise daily with people outside of ecology including civil engineers and other large contractors. Your role, as you progress, will be that of a project manager and not necessarily day-to-day ecological surveys.

This type of employer is looking for a range of skills and hence you will find a balance between entry level and senior members of staff, depending on not only the company you work for, but the office you are located in. Be prepared to be sent away, with very little notice. As such, this type of employer is not great if you want a family life early on in your career, but the financial package and benefits you receive may be worth it as they do reward those who get stuff done! They are profit driven and hence highly commercial and you will be expected to find a solution. You should therefore be able to think independently, be confident, focused and have high standards.

As these types of companies want to maximise efficiencies, then they have a strong recruitment selection and job retention processes. They want you to stay and they will support you all the way if you have what it takes. Once you get in, it’s difficult to get out as they are so supportive, and you will unlikely find another company to match the benefits or their pay scale at a similar level. However, they fear loss of profits and so if there is even a whiff of a recession, then they will drop you quickly.

By Richard Dodd, The Ecology Academy

Email: hello@ecologyacademy.co.uk

Find out more about Sofie Borek’s journey in to a career in ecology at https://wildwoodecology.com/2021/08/24/becoming-an-ecologist-my-story/

Footnote

1 RSPB’s State of Nature Report 2019: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/state-of-nature-report/ 

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