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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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  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.

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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.

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Bat hibernation survey – Pooles Cavern

It’s hibernation season, the time when some bat workers get to go and share, hone or acquire the skills required to spot and ID a bat in a hibernation roost, and collect valuable data for the local bat group records. As you’ll know if you read my recent blog on my experience with South Lancashire Bat Group, it’s far from straight forward and more like something you work on over years than simply learn to do.

That survey had a mix of Whiskered Brandt’s and Daubenton’s. Very useful as they look so similar. I came away from it with a rare air of something like confidence in bat ID.

So I was excited to find out that I was to get the chance to go out on a mini hibernation survey with one of our licensed bat workers here on my work placement. Helen surveys the site at near by Pools Cavern and arranged to take me and a couple of others there one lunch time recently.

I hadn’t heard of Pooles Cavern. It sounds big at first but I knew the visit was to be a relatively short one in comparison to the day spent scrabbling around in the Lancashire mudstone caves so my mind painted a picture of a short, over-hanging rock face next to a road.

My lazy brain always places things right on the edge of a road. On an excursion with some work friends to try and see red deer rutting my subconscious uttered a familiar “Oh right!” as it discovered we were going to have to walk to see the deer and that they would not in fact be rutting in a field next to a car park.

Turns out Pool’s Cavern is a full on show cave. The Wooky Hole of Derbyshire. This happens occasionally with my not being from here, I haven’t heard of any of the famous local places so someone will say “do you fancy coming along on this job to Chatsworth” and I’ll say yes expecting another farm or brown-field site and suddenly there’s a giant country house in front of me with grounds and nobility and everything!

We surveyed a section of the caves. Helen, Tom, Becky, Andy and me. It was good fun, there weren’t many other people there and the caves are a magnificent site, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

We found 7 bats. I say we, none for me. Most were spotted by Tom who clearly has a good eye for it. I can’t decided whether I’m just not good at spotting them in their hibernacula or whether I’d find more if I asserted myself more in getting to have first look at more of the area we’re surveying. I do tend to linger at the back of the line a bit. I’m also seriously considering getting my eyes tested as when others do find them there are times when they’re a little too far away for me to make out the ID features.

But enough excuses…

The group found 7 bats. They were all Natterer’s apart from one brown long-eared and one Daubenton’s.

Here is the best picture of the day. Taken by Andy on his phone. Further proof of how awesome camera phones are these days. This is of the Daubenton’s hanging conveniently in arms reach for this beautiful shot…

Natterers Bat Andy Keen

Now as great as it was seeing this and the Natterer’s (my first experience seeing Natterer’s in the flesh) it took the confidence I’d gained in separating Daubenton’s and Whiskered Brandt’s and turned it on its head. Adding this 3rd Myotis species to the mix upped the game of ID from medium to hard. Like the other two is has pale belly fur and like the Daubenton’s the pinkness of its face is an ID feature. It’s also a similar size to the Daubenton’s. Here are the ID features (courtesy of Steve from South Lancs group following an email conversation about the bat in the photo):

Thick fleshy ears
Ears too short for Natterer’s
Ears curled back – behaviour of a disturbed bat, and a trait of Daub’s (we saw it a lot with captive/rehab Daub’s)
Ears dark in colour, Natterer’s are always pinky
Fur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smoother
Greyish dorsal fur, indicative of juvenile – Natterer’s are more pale brown. (on W/B its very shaggy, and usually dark the base and golden or lighter tips- often visible as the fur is shaggy.)
On the pic there is a small bit of ventral fur above the wing, but not enough. Natterer’s bats have white ventral fur just above the forearm, between the pro-potagium and wrist
No white crescent of fur behind the ears
No reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
As I write this I notice that the three/four species in question are lined up on the BCT poster by my desk. A reminder that bat ID isn’t supposed to be easy…

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…but that’s part of the fun.

Bat Hibernation Survey – South Lancashire Bat Group

All week the weather forecasts had ended with a comment about a wet and windy Sunday. Wet and windy: Two words that you don’t want to hear associated with a day you plan to spend outside or in a cave.

This time last year it was cold and dry and still. The survey then had been physically challenging, heaving yourself in and out and around unusually shaped and composed environments. My arms and legs had got tired in new ways. I hadn’t taken quite enough food to stay at the optimum level of cheerful for the whole day. But it had been great and I had been looking forward to doing it again this year.

The hibernations are a treat because they come at a time when you haven’t seen any bats for a while. In our group you get invited to attend one if you have been particularly active in the group that year and if there is space in the limited number that these surveys are suitable for. So if you get an invite, you want to go, wet and windy or not.

I kitted myself up. Sunday was my first outing in my new thermal underwear. Like a secret mime artist I thermalled up, then wore a t-shirt, trousers, a fleece, waterproof trousers and a fat, high-viz waterproof jacket. I had woolly gloves and waterproof gardening gloves over the top. I had spare gloves, spare hoodie, spare long sleeved top, spare jumper. I had hiking boots and wellies, and a cag.

What would later occur to me was that wet days tend to be warmer than dry winter days and I would spend some time either being way to hot, or faffing about in the dark trying to get rid of a layer or two.

Baptiste picked me up at 09:30 in his Ford KA. Ever notice how many ecologists/conservationists drive Ford KAs? We picked up Andrea from Salford Quays and drove through the morning rain to the first site near Chorley.

As we drove up the narrow country path to the meeting point, a large 4-wheel drive met us coming the other way and refused to pull over and let us pass. So Baptiste had to carefully reverse his KA back down the length of the path. The driver of the other car said thanks on his way past as though we’d had a choice.

There were 8 of us on the survey: Steve, Fi, John, Brian, Leanne, Andrea, Baptiste and me. We suited up and strode off into the woods to the remains of some industrial buildings that have been a hibernation roost for many recorded years.

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The woodland was soaked with rain and rich in mosses and broom everywhere you looked, all taking advantage of the nutrients and growing on top of one another. Even the buildings we surveyed had stands of saplings growing from their roofs like bad hair.

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We split up into two groups. My group took the main building, gated off to protect the hibernating bats from inquisitive people. It was wet inside too, the rain finding its way through the old stones and dripping down our necks and in our eyes as we peered into every crack and crevice.

The technique for finding a hibernating bat comes more from practice than anything. You shine your torch into a space and peer in. You move the torch to illuminate the space from all angles and you try to focus and unfocus your eyes to take in every detail of what generally all looks like variations of the surface of whatever the structure is made of.

It’s hard. When you’re first shown a bat in these circumstances you may struggle to see it at all. “Look at the back past the sticking out bit of stone” someone will say. You can’t see it. “Move your head up a bit, you need to get right in as far as you can. See it now?” You still can’t. You don’t believe there is a bat in there. Someone else has a go and they see it. You try again. After a while you see it. A bit of leg and a slither of fur, 6ft away in a dark crack that you seem unable to keep your torch light on for more than a split second. “I see it!” You say. “Great!” They say. “So what do you think it is?”

The idea that you could ID a bat in those circumstances seems ridiculous at that point. You suspect they’re taking the piss. But they aren’t. What you discover is that if you over come the overwhelming appearance that it wouldn’t be possible to ID the bat, and think instead of the ID features (fur colour and shagginess, face colour and shape, ear shape and texture etc) you can make positive IDs to species in these conditions.

There were no hibernating bats in this building, or in the other structures that the other half of the team were checking. There were however, as I stuck my head up a hole and wriggled round to investigate a space with my torch, several herald moths and loads of mosquitoes which began dancing excitedly as they sensed the CO2 in my breath.

#herald #moth

But no bats. Not even in Simon’s Crack (there is a tradition in the group of name the locations of first bat finds after the person who found them), a rare and disappointing result. But our fortunes would improve later…

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We squelched back through the woods to the cars. The stream near by was hurling up water over the rapids. Quick snack then back on the road. The drive to the second site at Edgeworth, over undulating roads, through the pouring rain was a soporific one and I watched rivers of water running in the gutters on the road side as we drove. One drain had rain water fountaining up out of it.

It made me think of the SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) training session I’d had at work on Thursday and I tried to imagine what mitigation you could put into place here to make more of the rain stay where it landed.

We all met up again at Edgeworth and stood eating our lunch. I had a cheese, pickle and rain sandwich and pocketed a flap jack and a bottle of squash in my giant high-vis for later. We donned our caving helmets and got our trudge on along the path to the mouth of the cave. The entrance is set in a gully that to a fan of fantasy fiction strikes you as being the perfect place for an ambush. But there were no bandits, orks or mountain trolls, justs 8 bat workers in a variety of coloured caving helmets and a mish-mash of waterproof coats and overalls.

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Last year the cave entrance had a beautiful façade of icicles hanging above it, today it was running water and we descended through a beaded curtain of water into the gloom. One look back at daylight then off we trekked into the cave.

#icicle(above: last year)

 

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The cave network is a spacious one. Not much crawling around needed here. They have clearly seen some action too. There are the remains of parties gone by in the form of spent candles, discarded beer cans the brands and colours of which you don’t recognise, and extensive graffiti which looks like its been produced with a tin of paint and a brush rather than a can. The caves themselves remind me more than anything of the 2p machines you get in arcades where you attempt to push many 2ps over the edge by inserting one 2p, creating shelves of over hanging coins. The whole cave is like a giant 3D version of this with giant square coins that teeter, dead still and silent above you in the dark, and litter the floor, the result of past jackpots.

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#Lancashire #cave

#graffiti #cave #Lancashire #advice

The piles of fallen rock shift and slide about under your feet as you scramble as carefully as you can over the mounds, mindful that nothing you see is reliably secure. Your mind wants to reach out and pluck this or that stone splinter from where it juts between layers but your inner monologue repeatedly refuses it, imagining the ruinous domino run it could initiate.

#Edgeworth #cave #Lancashire

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We began the painstaking process of investigating every crack with our torches. You get into a rhythm, moving along a wall, crouching and stretching to see in as much as possible. Occasionally you look up and see 7 other torch lights moving around in the large, dark space. It looks absurdly surreal and strangely beautiful. There’s something satisfying about being somewhere like that with a specific job to do.

As time goes on you all start to develop what I refer to in my head as drunk legs and the sound of someone landing on their bum isn’t uncommon and is always followed by: “I’m alright!” Your arms get tired too as you push yourself up or balance on a boulder.

We found 18 bats, an excellent result. There were 13 Whiskered Brandt’s and 5 Daubentons. With each bat that is found, everyone has a look and tells Steve what they think it is and why. Then he tells you what it is and why. Impressively we were all right more than we were wrong. It’s so useful having this many of these similar looking bats together. Being told a Whiskered Brandt’s has a darker face than a Daubenton’s is nothing compared to seeing one, then the other, then other etc…

Steve has a habit of acting as though you might have got it wrong when you give your answer, forcing you to be bold and confident in your ID’ing. One example was where there were two bats hanging out in the open. I identified them both as Whiskered Brandt’s and he replied: “Really? Because one looks very different to the other”. “Dammit” I thought. Other people suggested one Whiskered Brandt’s and one Daubenton. “I did think they looked different” I chastised myself. But they were, as it turns out both Whiskered Brandt’s and I smiled satisfied in the dark.

#whiskeredBrandt #myotis #bat #Lancashire #cave #hibernation

#Edgeworth #cave #Lancashire

About an hour from the end I found my first hibernating bat. I hadn’t had any firsts the last year so it was an ace moment when I saw that clawed foot and wing between the rock. You get used to seeing rocks that look like bats. There are rocks in those caves that look more like bats than the bats you’re shown. I double checked. I was sure and called Steve over. This was an especially exciting find as it took our total for the day over the existing record and we successfully high-fived (no mean feat in the dark) in celebration.

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When we left the caves it was getting dark. We retraced our steps back to the car, torch lights bobbing along in a line and headed to the local pub for a celebratory drink then home. A excellent day, a productive survey, and a fantastic lesson in Whiskered Brandt and Daubenton’s bat ID.