10 tips for making yourself super employable after your ecology degree

This is my first blog for a while. I’ve been busy finishing my degree, preparing for and sitting exams, finishing my dissertation and other course work and starting a new job. The good news is I did well. I got a first (yay!) and a full time, permanent contract at the ecological consultancy of my choice (woo!). So five years on from stepping out of the unsatisfying familiar and into the unknown I can say I’ve made it to this particular destination. From here to ecology is now from there to here and for a little while at least I’ve been enjoying the feeling of a job well done that doesn’t have ‘but it could still all go wrong’ tagged on as a wary caveat. I like to think I represent what’s possible if you apply yourself, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a natural academic.

Looking back from this vantage point at the experience as a whole, I see now that I’ve made some smart decisions along the way which have made me employable. The degree was important but without making yourself employable what use is it? So this blog is my list of tips which you may want to consider trying while you’re preparing to break into the world of ecology. They worked for me, they might work for you…

 

  1. Self belief

I’m pretty sure that if I can do it you can do it. I’m not exceptionally clever and as it turns out I’m dyslexic and dyscalculiac. I just put the hours in that’s all. If you care about your chosen field (and why wouldn’t you?) and you work hard there is no reason why you can’t make it. I’ve met some impressive, successful, skilled people who’ve told me they’re the same. You don’t need a photographic memory or to have been doing this since you were 3. Doubts are natural but don’t dwell on them. Spend your time working, not worrying, and you’ll be fine.

  1. Start now

Whether you’re reading this before you’ve started uni, or you’re half way through your final year, right now is the time to follow these tips. The freedom of the uni timetable makes pursuing extracurricular stuff much easier than if you’re working nine to five, and the sooner you start the more you can do, and the more you can do the more likely you are to stand out when you’re applying for jobs.

  1. Volunteer/join stuff

You hear it a lot. You’re probably sick of hearing it but let me explain why it’s good and what you should try to get out of it. I remembering it seeming hard to find a way in to this world of voluntary work I was being told I should enter. Before you’ve done anything ‘volunteering’ is just a word but once you’re in more opportunities present themselves.

My way in was the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. I contacted them and signed up as a volunteer. They told me about different opportunities in the region and one of them seemed doable; a conservation work party once a month at a nature reserve near Bury. For the next few years I traveled there once a month and along with the regular locals I lopped, sawed, raked and dug. I helped put up and take down the gazebos, drank tea, ate and discussed biscuits and the weather…

I did it because I’d been told I should be volunteering and I believed it was good advice but I didn’t really grasp exactly why I was doing it.  I thought one day an employer would look at my CV and check I’d done some volunteering. That’s part of it but it’s skills employers are after. At Summerseat Nature Reserve I began learning to ID flowering plants. It was the place I first learned that Himalayan balsam is Himalayan balsam and what red Campion, wood sorrel and wood anemone look like (and lots more). It was a place I got to see change through the seasons and began to anticipate when the insects would return and then the birds, which plants flowered first and which ones last.

blog70

This was a really useful foundation to build upon, and the longer I did it, the more people I met in this voluntary world. They let me know about other interesting things that were happening in the region. I got invited to courses and events because I was a volunteer. Eventually I wasn’t doing things because I’d been told I should, I was developing interests in specific areas and curiosities about others I hadn’t tried yet.

If you do it right volunteering gives you transferrable skills, exposes you to new subjects and opportunities, and introduces you to nice, interesting people who can and are happy to help you. The idea of turning up somewhere on your own and meeting a load of new people might seem nerve racking at first and it’s true you may find yourself wondering what on earth you’re doing on a tram at 7am on a Sunday on your way to meet someone who’s offered you a lift to a site. It is never that bad. That anxiety always disappears as soon as you arrive and there have been so many days where I thought how glad I was I hadn’t sacked it off! After a while you get quite good at meeting new people. This is a more valuable skill than you might at first realise.

Notice hat and gloves match. #StyleIcon #bat #hibernation survey #NorthWales

  1. Buddy up

You are more likely to do stuff if you’ve arranged to do it with someone else. My partners in crime, pictured below, for the past few years have been Tom who I met on my degree and Fleur who I met at Summerseat Nature Reserve. The three of us attend courses and conservation groups together, or just meet up to practice ID’ing stuff. It’s a difficult thing to dissect but directly or indirectly I think we’ve all probably benefited professionally just by being a bit of an informal team in this way, and we are all now professional ecologists.

Moorhen carcus & Tom          Fleur and her new friend

  1. Seek advice 

Pick as many brains as you can. It’s a long, hard process getting the job you want but it’s pretty easy to persuade someone to have a chat with you and ask their advice on what you can do to make getting  the job you want more likely.  Most of the smart decisions I have made which have made me more employable have been me acting on someone’s advice.

  1. Act on it

There’s something in a lot of us that feels more comfortable intending to take someone’s advice in the future,  rather than acting on it right now. Anticipation Vs Experience. A local ecologist I met through the uni’s mentoring scheme in my foundation year gave me some of the most useful advice I’ve received during my uni experience. “Can you drive?” was his first question. You can’t be an ecologist without a driving licence and you might not pass first time so it’s a good idea to get your driving licence as soon as you can. He also suggested I attend the FSC (Field Studies Council) ‘Using a Flora’ course, join my local bat group and amphibian group and start working towards my bat and newt licences. I took it all and it’s played a big part in job interviews. Working towards gaining EPS (European Protected Species) licenses and becoming proficient in using flora keys is a lengthy process so why wait? It definitely helped me get the placement I wanted.

  1. Do a placement

If you can’t do a placement, sort out structured work experience for the holidays. Personally the year I spent in industry was the most useful thing I’ve done. It’s easier to get a placement somewhere than it is to get a job there. So you can end up working somewhere for a year that many professionals would love to work but can’t. You get to do the job you hope to end up in, so you enter the job market when you finish your studies with a degree AND experience. Employers love experience. You’ll find it easier to get a placement if you have some skills to offer, which you can gain through volunteering (see tip 3). So either through a structured placement year programme or independently, arrange some kind of work experience, and make it count. Like volunteering it’s not a box ticking exercise. Employers will want to know what you can do so make sure you learn from the people you work with and leave with a level of proficiency at actually doing the job. Aim to impress. Be a sponge.

  1. Work on your ID skills

It’s not a main focus in uni so it’s up to you to learn what is what and why. It can seem intimidating but you’ll be amazed how much you learn when you look back at yourself a year ago and see what you’ve achieved if you set your mind to it. Don’t be in a rush, you’ll never learn everything, there isn’t time. Don’t get freaked out when you meet someone who can ID every grass, rush and sedge going. They’ve been at it for years. If you learn a new species a week you’ll know hundreds in a few years, the more you learn the easier it gets and the more you’ll be able to ID.

upload

Learn to use a key. Buy a hand lens, they’re only a few quid online. Attend every ID course you hear about, there are lots of free/cheap ones if you’re in wildlife groups. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sink in straight away, just keep at it. There’s help out there. Facebook and Twitter have groups for everything you can think of and they’re often more than happy to help you out with an ID for something you’re stuck on. Take photos and put them on Flickr, Instagram etc. It becomes a useful reference. The more you can ID the more fun it gets. There is nothing better than knowing what things are.

  1. Do extra courses

Uni holidays are long so try and fit a course in if you can. They can be expensive but sometimes grants are available to help aspiring biological recorders. Check out the FSC, CIEEM, BSBI websites. There are some excellent courses available taught by world class tutors in beautiful surroundings. You meet interesting people and get all inspired, it’s great. There’s often cake too.

IMG_20120602_140946

Most wildlife groups run their own courses for members too. Having paid your subscription these are often free. Most areas have their own bat, mammal, reptile and amphibian, bird, botany and generalist groups. Google them.

#LesserSilverWaterBeetle  hunting...

upload

  1. Interviews

If you do all that you’ll definitely be more employable. Hopefully you’ll be the most employable person that gets interviewed by the employers you want to work for, but it counts for very little if you don’t communicate it in your interview. If you’re obviously passionate and enthusiastic about ecology, or whatever your chosen field is, you are more likely to get the job. And if you’ve spent the last 3-5 years throwing yourself into this, meeting people, trying things and developing your ID and survey skills, it will come across in your interviews. If you find interviews hard, seek out someone who will give you a mock interview and honest feedback. If the idea of that you with anxiety then it will probably really help and you should definitely do it.

WP_20150722_12_02_33_Pro

So that’s that. Call center monkey to ecology graduate and professional ecologist is 5 years. Whatever stage you’re at now: first year, final year, or sat at your desk wondering if if there’s more to life, I wish you the best of luck.

 

 

 

I hope you enjoyed this blog. If you have any questions or suggestions drop me a message. I’ll still be blogging now I’ve gone pro! But as it’s the start of a new chapter a few thank yous to; my lecturers at Manchester Metropolitan University, The volunteers at Summerseat Nature Reserve and staff at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Cheshire Active Naturalists, South Lancs Bat Group, the Lancashire branch of Butterfly Conservation, BSBI training and education grants, Field Studies Council, Penny Anderson Associates, NLG Ecology, and my wife Stacey. All of who helped a little or a lot, and combined got me where I wanted to be.

Advertisements

Summerseat Nature Reserve

Summerseat is special to me because it represents my first step into proactively pursuing a career in ecology. My plan was to change career from my job at the bank to a job in ecology and I was enrolled at Manchester Met. I knew that if I was to be in with a chance of getting a good job after graduation I would need to have a CV bursting with extracurricular activities. At this stage I was an enthusiastic amature but one without any real ID skills to speak of and without experience volunteering etc.

blog1

blog2

blog4

blog5

blog6

blog7

blog8

In the 3 years that have passed since then I have accrued weeks of experience and enough skills to secure me the work placement I am now employed at. Back then though I was on the outside looking in and the windows were opaque. I Googled ‘conservation volunteering’ and along with several dead ends I filled out a volunteer application form for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. A few days later I received a call from Catherine. I remember it was a lunch time and I walked out of the office and leant against the railings on the edge of the River Irwell and scribbled down the details of volunteer oportunities in my area.

blog9

blog10

blog11

blog12

blog13

blog14

blog15

blog16

There were plenty but most of them during in the week and I was still working full time at that stage. One stood out as possible, a comfortable sounding place called Summerseat which brought to mind The Last of the Summer Wine. I was to call Noell. I did. She said she’d expect me on the last Sunday of the month. Done.

blog17

blog18

blog19

blog20

blog21

blog22

blog23

I was quite nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. Stacey gave me a lift to the site in Bury and wished me luck. I walked along the long entrance path with my packed lunch and for the first time got a look at a place that I was to become very familiar with. And a person I was to become good friends with. Noell reminds me a bit of a younger version of my Grandma to look at. “Everyone gets a hug” she said matter of factly as though handing out hard hats.

blog24

blog25

blog26

blog27

blog28

blog29

blog30

The site sits on land which was formally the Ramsbottom Sewage Works. You wouldn’t guess, it doesn’t smell bad or anything. Its industrial past is easy to forget until you hit a brick in the ground with your spade, or find antique litter. It is comprised of a meadow and woodland which varies in composition. The ethos is to encourage local native species that can make it in the often rubbly, sometimes soft soil. United utilities own the land but due to toxins and heavy metals it is unsuitable for development. It became a nature reserve in the late 80s.

blog31

blog32

blog33

blog34

blog35

blog36

blog37

It is managed by a team of volunteers, no paid staff at all, lead by Noell. They are almost all pensioners and live locally though don’t be fooled, I discovered early on that I was far from the fittest person there. Derek for example is like a machine. He can saw and saw all day. My arms were wobbly after half an hour of trying to keep up with him as we cleared willow to add light to a section of woodland on my first day.

 blog38

blog39

blog40

blog41

blog42

blog43

blog44

blog45

First job of the day is always to erect the gazebos. Any regular attendees are well versed in the proceedure and they’re generally up in minutes. They provide the base where lunch is had and multiple teas and biscuits are consumed and discussed.

blog46

blog47

blog48

blog49

blog50

blog51

blog52

Composition wise the site contains a variety of ferns, fungi, lichens and flowering plants which arrive either by design or more often on their own, deposited by wind or bird. A lucky few have seen the Roe Deer and the occasional fox can be glimpsed or sniffed. It’s not a huge site but the woodland is dense enough that you can wander a short way in and feel completely alone. I make regular solo walks around the site at lunch time on work days and have been treated to the site of big, fluffy deer bottom bouncing away through the trees.

blog53

blog54

blog55

blog56

blog58

blog59

blog60

As my ecology callendar had become more and more busy I still try where possible to make it to Summerseat on the last Sunday of the month. I’ve made friends there and it’s somewhere I’ve had the chance to observe the seasons change in a way that is so usfull from an ecological understanding perspective. The same things appear at the same times, you see them as shoots, adults and then in decline. You sense the arrival of the winged insects and then the birds and know spring is arriving. On my first visit in November I was introduced to candle-snuff fungus and a year to the day I saw it again.

blog61

blog62

blog63

blog64

blog65

blog66

blog67

But the greening of the site is always a suprise. You have an idea that it’ll be greener than last month but you always underestimate it. It’s as though nature started with a sprinkle and then with a shrug just emptied the whole box of green over the site. Magnificent!

blog68

blog69

blog70

blog71

blog72

blog73

blog74

I’ve written this blog entry in bits over a few weeks, returning to the draft to add a paragraph here and there and eventually to insert the photos which I’d  been uploading to a now defunct photo blog I’d been keeping elsewhere last year. What occurs to me as I add the photos is that I’ve been snapping the site like I’m in love with it, infatuated. I have more photos of Summerseat Nature Reserve than I do my wife. Month after month photographing the same features and reveling in how they change subtley as the air begins to warm.

I’d intended to at one point to keep a record throughout a whole year, every month. Things keep getting in the way. I’ve been on newt courses or bat hybernation surveys, botanical ID courses… I suppose it’s inevitable that I should go less and less as I have the oportunity to do more, but I hope I don’t forget where it all started. On this perculear, charming little site in Summerseat, Ramsbottom, near Bury, with Noell and Geoff and Derek and Linda, Barry and Sheila, Jack, Helen and Ig, Alex and Fleur and John and Cherry and everyone…

Cocks-foot in flower

Silverweed

Fox-and-Cubs

upload

Yellow Rattle

upload

upload

Dissertation Blog entry #4. Survey day 3. 2013.

No rest for the wicked. Up at 7am for scrambled eggs with Stacey before packing up and hitting the pedals. Saturday, my first of two days at Hale Golf Course. Or rather the woods behind Hale Golf Course to be more specific. I like the ride out to Hale for a couple of reasons. Firstly it takes me through Wythenshawe Park which is lovely. Wythenshawe doesn’t have a great reputation these days and is known more as the largest council estate in Europe than as somewhere with pleasant green spaces, but the park is huge and well looked after with many old trees, vast expanses of grass and an old Tudor style building which I’m always too busy to stop and find out what it is, but it all looks very nice. It reminds you that a deprived area might not once have been and that it might not always be. Secondly the ride takes me through a posh part of Hale where every house looks like a Grand Design and has a name like The Poplars. As you turn into Hale Golf Club you see the sign ‘since 1903’ and you realise that Hale has always been posh!

I arrived there at 10am and locked my bike up outside the shop as I had when I visited the site before. I feel slightly self conscious as I do this wondering if I’m breaching a club rule. I read the rule book to a Bowls Club once while I was working at the bank and it had all sorts of rules like that you had to wear a tie, and no women. Everyone at Hale Golf Club seems very nice though. I didn’t see anyone wearing a tie and there were lots of women. You enter the woods by walking across the first hole. Again you wonder if someone is going to tell you off but they don’t, of course, it’s a clearly marked public right of way. Into the woods I went and relaxed in surroundings I feel better equipped to deal with.

Site 5

I headed to my grassland sites first. As is becoming increasing apparent, things grow faster than I expect and fields that were knee high a couple of weeks ago are now chest high jungles. I made my way to the bit with the most Balsam at the back and in the absence of any floor space set about hanging my stuff on the Willow tree there for convenience…

Research Tree

The Balsam was denser here than the other plots I’d surveyed at the other sites. This will be quicker and easier I thought. I was wrong. Here’s something new I’ve learned about Himalayan Balsam; for ever one large plant there can be a dozen small ones hanging around underneath it. The second line of defense waiting for something to happen to their general so they can spring into action. So the pulling here became a lengthy and precise process like mowing your lawn with a pair of eyebrow tweezers.

Site 5, plot 1

But pluck it I did! I got two plots done in that meadow meaning I now have my target of 10 for grassland Balsam plots. Ten down, loads more woodland and riverbank to go… As I left the meadow I came to a spot where inundated met the as yet not inundated. There amongst the grass, towered over by the mighty wall of the advancing Balsam was the familiar, delicate form of Lesser Stitchwort. It looked both vulnerable and defiant in the face of such floral adversity.

Lesser Stitchwort standing his ground on the Balsam frontier.

My next few plots were on the banks of the Bollin accessible through the woods. This involved some minor acrobatics on my part, surveying at an oblique angle like a goat with a clipboard. I congratulated myself on my excellent balancing skills and noted that I hardly ever fall over. I came across these two plants which I am yet to identify:

Answers on a postcard
upload

And my surveys included some other new species to the project in Ground Ivy and Red Campion which had been conspicuously absent up to then. I pulled a lot of Balsam on these plots, creating the Olympus Mons of Balsam piles in the woods

Site 6

Then I went looking for some good woodland plots. I tripped on a tree root and went flailing into a large boggy area sending my kit in all directions and covering me in mud. So much for never falling over. The event was witnessed only by a robin who promptly flew away, presumably to tell everyone else.

I completed one more woodland plot. As I did I met a bull dog called Dave who apparently never barks according to his owners, and a couple going for a walk with their little boy who was sat on his dad’s shoulders. They stopped and asked my what I was up to. They were familiar with the different invasive species in the area and interested in the conservation efforts happening which made for an encouraging end to the survey day.  At 5pm I packed up and headed back up the footpath towards the golf course. Daylight unfiltered by the canopy appeared dazzling as I left the woods, munching down a hand full of Skittles to give me the energy to get home.

upload

 

Species identified on this survey:

  • Cleavers
  • Enchanter’s Nightshade
  • Bramble
  • Nettles
  • Cow Parsley
  • Ivy
  • Ground Ivy
  • Wood Avens
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Willowherb spp.
  • Hogweed
  • Ash
  • Red Campion
  • Blue Bells
  • 2 as yet unidentified higher plants
  • 2 as yet unidentified grasses

Notany to Botany

Someone told me the other day that before the industrial revolution the average person could name and recognize over 200 plants, and that now the average person can only name 50. The sad thing is that what surprised me about the quote was that the average person could name as many as 5o now. I suspect it’s less and until a year or so ago I was probably one of them.

I have always liked plants. I brought a tiny money plant from the school market when I was 5 and nurtured it for 20 years, until she (I called her Elvis first, changing it to Elvisa when she flowered for the first time) surcomed to mealybugs and died. I watched David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants and was enthralled and inspired but I never seemed to learn and retain any information which would enable me to tell what things were when I saw them.

IMG_0449

I developed a fondness for cacti as people in the 90s were inclined to do but that doesn’t help you when you’re walking about outside in England and you want to know what things are. Walks in the countryside had the feeling of listening to someone talk to you in a foreign language which you didn’t speak a word of. Everything starts to look the same when you don’t know what to look for and you end up clinging to the hand full of species you at least think you know. You see buttercups and daisies everywhere you look, in a sea of out of focus green.

When I started at Manchester Met Uni as a mature student in 2010 I signed up to a program called Mentor Match. The uni had a list of professionals who were prepared to mentor students with ambitions to enter their field. I found an ecologist called Richard on the list and was matched up with him. We met for a coffee in Chorlton and he gave me advice of how best to supplement my degree with extra curricular stuff. I have followed all of Richard’s advice so far and it’s all been good but one thing in particular stands out.

He recommended I do a Field Studies Council Course called Using a Flora. As he said it he absentmindedly waved an enormous book at me and suggested it would help me identify flowers. There was a course I could do which would teach me how to identify flowers? This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise but before you enter the world of ecology you don’t have a clue what goes on in it and certainly at that stage I was disproportionately surprised quite often.

I signed up to the course and in the summer holidays on 2012 I caught a train to London Euston, a tube to Liverpool Street and another train to Manningtree when taxi took me to the FSC centre at Flatford Mill. Stepping out of a taxi into a Constable painting is surreal. I spent I think four days there with a group of 11 ecologists, most of whom were doing the course as part of a masters. It became clear early on that I was out of my depth but I had nothing to lose so worked as hard as I could. The days were long followed by nights in my room going over and writing up my notes.

IMG_20120602_140946

The tutor was Ros Bennett, my hero. I had my brain turned upside down over those few days. It was the most challenging educational pursuit I’d attempted before or since and I felt like I learned more in those four days than in the 31 years previously. When it was over I wished I could stay and do it again. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

IMG_20120603_162507

IMG_20120602_170647

IMG_20120602_124044

I returned to Manchester armed with my copies of Stace and Rose and set about keying out everything I could find. I’d told friends I was going on a course which would teach me to use a book which would mean I could identify any plant in the UK. I returned knowing that that had been incredibly naive. The plant kingdom I had discovered, does not wish to be identified and makes it as difficult for you as possible. But I was different now. I had a grasp of plant anatomy, a few useful tricks to getting quickly to family for common families, and the confidence to use my keys. These are the tools Ros had equipped me with and they are so valuable.

A year on I am still a beginner working my way through the common plants you need to know before you start getting clever. I enjoy all the ecological things I do, but it’s plants that I think about the most. I pick flowers I don’t recognize out of walls on my walk home, and my small concrete yard is full of old, cracked, giant plastic plant pots with wild flowers and grasses growing in for me to enjoy and examine through their life cycle. This has lead to an ongoing and fruitless battle with an apparently never ending army of tiny slugs hell bent on destroying my garden.

IMG_20120621_144702

I applied for a grant through the BSBI to fund another flower ID course, was successful and in May this year I journeyed down to the FSC center in Slapton, Devon for another of Ros’ courses. This time Woodland Plants. I didn’t tell anyone else on the course that it was my birthday on the Saturday there. At one point that day the group of us on this course were stood on a country lane looking at a hedgerow. Ros asked if anyone could describe the inflorescence of the Greater Stitchwort growing there. I replied that it was a dichasial cyme. “I’m SO proud of you!” she said semi-seriously and I lit up like a Christmas tree. Best birthday ever!

IMG_20130518_092443

The point though is that while I am still continuously reminded of how much I don’t know, and often dazzled by how much people I meet do know, it wasn’t so long ago that I felt completely lost when it came to botany. A couple of years hard work is all you need to get you started. Prepare to be humbled, intimidated and occasionally demoralized. In return, in not too long you gain momentum and inspiration and a hobby that you can enjoy for free, pretty much any where.