If you enjoy working with data and are interested in the environment, a career as an ecologist may be for you

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. They 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, 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 involved in policy and management work.

Responsibilities

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.

Salary

  • Starting salaries vary considerably from £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

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.
  • 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.

Qualifications

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
  • ecology
  • environmental biology
  • environmental management
  • geography
  • marine biology
  • zoology.

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.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • 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.

Work experience

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, but if not, try to take as many practical modules as possible.

Joining relevant societies will provide you with opportunities to get involved in ecological projects. You can also search for voluntary posts through job websites and the websites of conservation organisations. Volunteering, or undertaking an internship in your area of interest will give you invaluable experience and enable you to make useful contacts.

There are many opportunities to volunteer overseas and you will usually find adverts for these on environmental 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.

Employers

A range of organisations employ ecologists including:

Nature conservation agencies:

Other governmental and statutory bodies:

Scientific bodies:

Conservation and ecology NGOs and voluntary organisations, for example:

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:

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.

Professional development

You will be given training on the job, although new entrants are expected to have basic skills in surveying and identification, gained through their 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.

Through membership of professional bodies such as the CIEEM and the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) you can access training events and conferences and support for your continuing professional development (CPD).

If you wish to study at postgraduate level, you can choose from a variety of courses, including ecology and environmental management. 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) and the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI).

Career prospects

Competition for positions is fierce throughout the sector.

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. More senior positions usually mean more office-based work with managerial tasks, including budget planning and people management.

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 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.