Ecologists are concerned with ecosystems as a whole, the abundance and distribution of organisms (people, plants, animals), and the relationships between organisms and their environment.
Ecologists usually choose a specialist area (e.g. freshwater, marine, terrestrial, fauna, flora) and then carry out a range of tasks relating to that area.
When starting out, ecologists often conduct surveys to identify, record and monitor species and their habitats. With career progression, work is likely to become more wide-ranging, with senior ecologists getting more involved in policy and management work.
It is important that ecologists are aware of environmental policies as their work commonly has to comply with European and UK environmental legislation.
The exact work of an ecologist depends on the nature of the employer and the purpose of the work. For example, an ecologist may be involved in environmental impact assessments, which are required by law for planning permission.
Alternatively, they may collect and manage biological information for national databases, e.g. the National Biodiversity Network (NBN), or produce comprehensive lists of species that need to be monitored and protected as part of the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework.
Common work activities across roles may include:
- conducting field surveys to collect information about the numbers and distribution of organisms;
- taxonomy - classifying organisms;
- applying sampling strategies and employing a range of habitat survey techniques, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), aerial photography, records and maps;
- carrying out environmental impact assessments;
- analysing and interpreting data, using specialist software programs;
- habitat management and creation;
- writing reports and issuing recommendations;
- liaising with and advising site managers, engineers, planners and others associated with a survey;
- building relationships with stakeholders, including members of the public;
- carrying out research;
- undertaking teaching in schools or in field centres;
- keeping up to date with new environmental policies and legislation;
- contributing ideas about changes to policy and legislation, based on ecological findings.
- Starting salaries vary considerably from about £17,000 to £20,000 depending on the employer and your own skills and experience.
- Ecologists with a few years' experience may earn between £22,000 and £30,000.
- Senior/principal ecologists can expect to earn £30,000 to £40,000 plus.
Higher salaries are more likely in consultancy positions.
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 seniority. More senior positions, as with most jobs, tend to mean more office-based management work. Hours can be dictated by the species types you are working with, for example, bat surveys being 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.
- Conservation sites include Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Ramsar sites (see Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), property of The Wildlife Trusts, land owned by the National Trust and farmland or any habitat identified as being in need of protection.
- Surveys are generally conducted by a small team, usually two people, although you may have to work alone. Ecologists are likely to be 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 required in order 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.
- The more specialised your area of work, and the more qualified you are, the more likely you are to find paid work abroad.
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 for 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 and conference rates for students. 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 around the world.
You will need to demonstrate:
- enthusiasm about, 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;
- 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.
Pre-entry experience is essential and helps 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, but if not, try to take as many practical modules as possible.
In addition, join relevant societies that provide opportunities with ecological projects and look for voluntary posts through job websites. Volunteering in your area of interest provides invaluable experience and the opportunity to network and make contacts.
Check the websites of environment and conservation organisations to see if they provide internships. For example, a work-based traineeship on species identification is run by the Natural History Museum. It's also worth contacting these organisations speculatively to find out what volunteering or work experience opportunities they offer. Many organisations recruit volunteers to work on a variety of projects in the field, see the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI).
If you want to work overseas, it's important to gain experience in comparable climates. To do this, try to arrange a period of research or voluntary work abroad as part of your degree. Other ways to gain experience include contacting organisations such as the WWF and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that offer voluntary work.
Voluntary positions may be advertised on environmental job websites and in your careers service and university department. However, you will need to raise significant funds for these programmes. When considering any volunteering, make sure it gives you training and experience in your chosen field of ecology so that it's relevant for future employment.
A range of organisations employ ecologists including:
Nature conservation agencies:
- Natural England
- Natural Resources Wales
- Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)
- Scottish Natural Heritage
Other governmental and statutory bodies:
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Environment Agency (EA)
- Forestry Commission
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- Local government, national park authorities and water authorities.
- 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, for example:
- The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
- Friends of the Earth
- Greenpeace UK
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
- Scottish Wildlife Trust
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT)
- The Wildlife Trusts
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:
- Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM)
- Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
- Countryside Jobs Service (CJS)
- ENDS jobsearch
- National press.
It is useful to build up a network of contacts through work experience and voluntary work. Write speculatively to organisations to enquire about both jobs and voluntary work.
You can extend your job search and network of contacts by engaging with professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.
Training is generally received on the job, although new entrants are expected to have basic skills in surveying and identification, gained through their degree and previous work experience.
There are also many external training courses you can do while working and a training budget may be provided for this by your employer. Mentoring support from an experienced colleague may be available.
Continuing professional development opportunities are available through membership of organisations such as the:
- Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM)
- Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA)
These professional bodies provide a range of training events and conferences each year on a variety of subjects.
There is a variety of postgraduate courses available in ecology and environmental management for those who don't already have a Masters or PhD. Specialist courses are also available, such as the MSc in Biological Recording, offered by Manchester Metropolitan University in association with the:
- Field Studies Council (FSC)
- Freshwater Biological Association
- Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI)
PhD students and postgraduate research assistants (RAs) who are members of the British Ecological Society can apply for funding to meet the costs of specialist field-training courses and publicise their research by presenting their work at workshops and conferences.
There are more structured opportunities for promotion in larger organisations where it is possible to progress to senior and principal ecologist. Otherwise, ecologists should expect to change locations or employers to progress.
Competition for positions is fierce throughout the sector.
More senior positions usually mean more office-based work with managerial tasks, including budget planning and people management.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is vital throughout your career as ecology is a rapidly developing field. With appropriate experience and qualifications it is possible to become a Chartered Ecologist (CEcol) and gain admission to the Register of Chartered Ecologists, which is held by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).
Alternatively, you can become a Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv) through one of the professional bodies licensed by the Society for the Environment (SocEnv).
There are opportunities for experienced ecologists to set up their own consultancies, working either on their own as freelance consultants offering specialist expertise, or together with other ecologists offering a broader-based consultancy.
Good financial and management skills are required if you are to make a success of a business.