Ecologists help to protect and restore the natural environment by providing important information about how human activity affects individual species and ecosystems
As an ecologist, you'll be concerned with ecosystems - the abundance and distribution of organisms (people, plants, animals), and the relationships between organisms and their environment. In this role, you'll usually specialise in a particular area, such as freshwater, marine, terrestrial, fauna or flora, and carry out a range of tasks relating to that area.
When starting out, you'll conduct surveys to identify, record, and monitor species and their habitats. With career progression, your work will become more wide-ranging, and in a senior role you may get involved in policy and management work.
As an ecologist, you'll need to:
- conduct field surveys to collect biological information about the numbers and distribution of organisms - this may be for a database such as the National Biodiversity Network (NBN)
- carry out taxonomy - the classification of organisms
- apply sampling strategies and employ a range of habitat survey techniques, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), aerial photography, records and maps
- carry out environmental impact assessments
- analyse and interpret data, using specialist software programs
- work on habitat management and creation
- write reports and issue recommendations
- liaise with, and advise, site managers, engineers, planners and others associated with a survey
- build relationships with stakeholders, including members of the public
- carry out research
- undertake teaching in schools or in field centres
- keep up to date with new environmental policies and legislation
- contribute ideas about changes to policy and legislation, based on ecological findings.
- An assistant ecologist role is usually in the region of £18,000 to £22,000, depending on experience.
- With a few years' experience you could earn between £22,000 and £30,000.
- As a senior/principal ecologist, you can expect to earn in the range of £30,000 to £45,000.
Consultancy positions may attract higher salaries.
Additional benefits such as a pension, health insurance and company car may be available.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours and conditions vary according to the type of role and your level of seniority. More senior positions, as with most jobs, tend to mean more office-based management work. Hours can be dictated by the species you're working with, such as bat surveys which need to be conducted at night.
Environmental consultancy working hours vary depending on impending deadlines, which create busier periods.
What to expect
- Job opportunities occur across the country in both urban and rural areas, and overseas work may be occasionally necessary.
- Sites include a huge range of different habitats, from woodland to marine and intertidal environments, such as grassland, heath, mire, peat bogs, river wildlife corridors, brownfield sites, salt marshes, cliff tops, fens and sand dunes.
- Surveys are generally conducted by a small team, usually two people, although you may have to work alone. It's likely you'll work as part of a larger multidisciplinary team including conservation officers, engineers, rangers and administrative staff.
- Field-based survey work can be physically demanding, and patience is often needed to obtain and collect the necessary data. Work is carried out in all weather conditions.
- A driving licence is required for most jobs to travel to survey sites. Some positions, particularly consultancy work, which is often project-based, require extensive travel in the UK and occasionally overseas.
A degree in a biological science or environmental subject is generally required. In particular, the following degree subjects may increase your chances:
- applied life sciences
- biology (specialising in ecology)
- botany/plant science
- conservation biology
- environmental biology
- environmental management
- marine biology
Some employers look for candidates with postgraduate qualifications (an MSc or PhD), particularly for work requiring specialist knowledge, e.g. consultancy work or academic research/teaching. Search postgraduate course in ecology.
It's helpful to join your local Wildlife Trust and become a member of a relevant professional body, such as the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM), which has reduced membership rates for students, and free membership for students studying CIEEM accredited degrees. Membership provides the opportunity to meet and network with potential employers and other ecological and environmental professionals.
Look out for skills-based courses, which provide an opportunity to get extra skills valued by employers, offered by organisations such as the:
If you have a PhD, there are research positions in many universities worldwide.
You'll need to show:
- enthusiasm and fascination for animals and plants
- expertise in one or more groups of living organisms
- capacity to identify different species as appropriate to the role
- experience in/enthusiasm for undertaking fieldwork in sometimes harsh conditions
- competence in understanding and using statistics and other ecological data
- the ability to use computer software for recording, analysing and presenting data and reports
- excellent written communication, research and presentation skills
- experience of report writing
- confidence in using survey techniques and identification keys
- teamworking and project management skills
- self-motivation, energy and drive
- an objective approach to working in conservation
- a full driving licence - you'll need this to drive to sites and projects.
Pre-entry experience is essential and helps you to develop vital field survey skills. There are many ways to gain relevant and quality experience. Some degree courses include a period of field-based work experience - if yours doesn't, try to take as many practical modules as possible.
Joining relevant societies will provide you with opportunities to get involved in ecological projects and you can find volunteering opportunities through job websites and the websites of conservation organisations.
There are also many opportunities to volunteer overseas, and you'll usually find adverts for these on environmental websites and in your careers service and university department. However, you'll need to raise significant funds for these programmes, so make sure completing one will give you relevant training and experience for your chosen field.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Competition can be fierce in this sector, so gaining as much experience in ecological surveying as you can is essential.
A range of organisations employ ecologists, including:
Nature conservation agencies:
Other governmental and statutory bodies include:
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Environment Agency (EA)
- Forestry England
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
You can also find opportunities with your local government, national park authorities and water authorities.
Scientific bodies include:
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and its research centres, including the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the British Antarctic Survey, and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).
- The Marine Biological Association (MBA)
- Freshwater Biological Association
Conservation and ecology NGOs and voluntary organisations also hire ecologists. For example:
- Friends of the Earth
- Greenpeace UK
- National Trust
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
- Scottish Wildlife Trust
- The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
- The Wildlife Trusts
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT)
Other employers include the media and public relations, educational institutions and businesses and industry. Biological survey work is also carried out by consultancies working for any of the organisations above or for commercial concerns, such as construction firms, including highway construction, landfill companies and renewable energy companies developing wind farms.
Environmental consultancies are listed in the ENDS Environmental Consultancy Directory.
Look for job vacancies at:
Applying speculatively to organisations to enquire about jobs or voluntary work can be effective.
Try to build up a network of contacts from any work activities you get involved in. LinkedIn is also a useful tool for connecting you with professionals in the field and for searching for work opportunities.
You'll be given training on the job, although employers will generally expect you to have basic skills in surveying and identification, gained from your degree and previous work experience.
Look for external training courses you can do while working. A training budget may be provided for this by your employer. Mentoring support from an experienced colleague may be available.
You can access training events, conferences and support for your continuing professional development (CPD) through membership of professional bodies such as the CIEEM and the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).
If you wish to study at postgraduate level, you can choose from a variety of courses, including sustainable ecology and ecology and conservation.
More structured progression is usually possible in larger organisations where you can work toward the position of senior and principal ecologist. Otherwise, changing locations or employers may help you to progress.
In senior positions you'll usually be more office based, handling managerial tasks, including budget planning and people management.
With appropriate experience and qualifications it's possible to become a Chartered Ecologist (CEcol) and gain admission to the Register of Chartered Ecologists, which is held by the CIEEM. Alternatively, you can become a Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv) through one of the professional bodies licensed by the Society for the Environment (SocEnv).
Once you've gained enough experience you could set up your own consultancy, working either on your own as a freelance consultant offering specialist expertise, or together with other ecologists offering a broader-based consultancy service.