Ecologists are scientists who investigate the interaction of plants, animals and ecosystems.
Ecologists contribute to the preservation of the natural world. They specialise in one of the many ecosystems of the planet (oceans, forests, urban environments, deserts, mountains, etc.) or in different types of fauna and flora.
Ecologists are employed by a wide array of public and private bodies and can occupy very different positions, from a technical job in a laboratory to an advisory role on environmental policy issues.
The public sector (government agencies such as Natural England, museums, botanical gardens and local authorities) provides many opportunities for ecologists to maintain and improve natural sites, advise on legislation and support eco-friendly initiatives.
Private sector industries employing ecologists (usually as freelance consultants) include:
- Mining and oil extraction
- Food production
- Waste collection and disposal
- Water use and supply
- Civil engineering (road and infrastructure building)
There is also a growing number of ecological consultancies that help private companies to comply with increasingly complex environmental legislation.
A number of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) involved in environment protection employ ecologists. Some own and manage nature reserves (Wildlife Trusts), others pursue campaigning to raise awareness of environmental issues (Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Environment Council, etc.), while other are dedicated to research (the British Ecological Society, the Botanical Society of the British Isles, etc).
Ecologists can work in research departments of universities and organisations funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) or government bodies. They usually hold postgraduate or doctoral degrees and lecture as well as carry on their own research.
Finally, some ecologists work in the media industry, as journalists, authors of books on environmental questions, editors of scientific journals, or public relation (PR) officers for campaigning groups. That branch of industry is especially competitive, and candidates often need a journalistic degree in addition to their scientific qualification.
Starting salaries average £20,000 per year but can vary hugely according to the employer and the candidate's qualifications.
At senior level in the public sector, ecologists can expect to earn around £40,000 per year.
Duties may include:
- Classify fauna and flora
- Monitor air, water and soil quality
- Carry out field surveys using a range of specialist techniques including Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and satellite photography
- Analyse collected data with the help of industry standard technology
- Produce written reports
- Provide advice as to how a natural habitat can be affected by building, farming or mining plans (Environmental Impact Assessment)
- Keep abreast of UK and European environmental policies, and of new ecological techniques and methods
- Provide scientific evidence to back up the implementation of new legislation
- Campaign for the protection of endangered animal and plant species
- Designate and manage natural sites (nature reserves, parks, botanic gardens) and legally protected sites (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty)
- Liaise with other scientists, policymakers and the press
- Educate the general public on the importance of preserving ecosystems
To become an ecologist, you will normally need at least an undergraduate degree in one of the following disciplines:
- Earth science
- Marine science
- Biological science
- Environmental management
You will increase your employment prospects if you specialise in an area of ecology with a postgraduate qualification.
You will be required to undertake continuing professional development (CDP) to learn about the latest ecological techniques and legislation.
- Passion for the natural environment
- Interest in fieldwork
- Taxonomic skills
- Analytical skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Computer literacy
- Excellent oral and written communication skills
- High standards of accuracy and attention to detail
It is essential to have a clean driving licence as you will often be required to move to and from different field sites that may be inaccessible by public transport.
You must be prepared to spend periods of time working away from home as field work involves a great amount of travelling. Your place of work will depend on your specialisation: you could be working in marine environments, deserts, mountains, cities, etc. You may have to work in harsh conditions so you will need to be very fit and resilient.
Voluntary experience is a must to enter the highly competitive job race and get invaluable networking opportunities.
You can join one of the many local and national organisations that deal with conservation of the environment, from Wildlife Trusts in your area to the British Ecological Society (BES) or government agencies responsible for the conservation of wildlife and natural habitats.
Becoming a member of the BES and the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) will give you opportunities to meet professionals and gain skills to enhance employment prospects.
Major public sector employers include:
You can set up your own consultancy with other freelance ecologists, or progress within your own company to a management role, leading a team of scientists.
Dr Mick Hanley, 47, is Lecturer in Terrestrial Ecology at the University of Plymouth.
How long have you been in this particular job?
For 7 years.
What did you do before this job?
I was a postdoctoral researcher for 10 years - it’s a non-permanent position for research scientists working at the university.
How did you end up doing this job?
The natural progression if you want to stay in scientific research is to get a permanent job as a university lecturer. It’s not the only way to be an ecologist, but my interest in ecology is as a science rather than as a way to save the planet (although you can’t do the latter without understanding how ecosystems work).
What academic qualifications do you have?
My highest qualification is a PhD - all university lecturers should have this qualification. I also did an MSc in ecology in Durham and my first degree was in Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Do you think that university prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
I never left university, so I don’t live in the real world!
What area(s) of ecology do you specialise in?
My main area of work is in plant-animal interactions; broadly speaking, I focus on why certain animals eat or pollinate certain plants and what are the repercussions (for us) if these relationships break down.
What do you do in a typical working day?
No such thing! I can tell you that in order to get all my teaching, admin and research done, I’ll typically work a 60+ hour week and office hours for me are 7.45 a.m. to 5 p.m. without any breaks.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
For someone wanting to become an academic – tenacity. It is very difficult to get a job as a university lecturer in ecology anywhere in the world and you have to keep plugging away until something happens or the money runs out. Given the state of the planet, being an ecologist also demands a rather sanguine approach to life; if we let biodiversity loss and the imminent collapse of the world’s ecosystems get to us, we’d all top ourselves.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
Yes! In the last 12 months alone I have been to Spain, Australia, the USA, South Africa and Germany, all on research or teaching trips. Inevitably, you get to go to places that have lots of great wildlife to look at.
What do you like about the job?
Although I enjoy teaching, the thing that gets me out of bed is the creativity of research. It’s often been said that science done properly is an art and it’s certainly the case that seeing an idea through from conception, through experimental design and data collection, to finished published science, is an incredibly satisfying feeling. The fact that I get to do my research on plants and animals in different parts of the world only adds to the sense of wonder about finding out how our planet works.
What do you dislike about the job?
For years, people have told me that “working in the environment” must be a great way of making money because it’s all so important. The reality is that while governments talk a good game, the funding for my kind of research work (and money devoted to practical conservation) is pitiful. While it’s nice to be valued in monetary terms for your ability and experience, no ecologist anywhere does the job for the money, but what really irks is that there is little or no money to pay for the work we do.
I could also go on about recent changes in higher education funding in the UK, but that’s a generic issue common to all university lecturers. Suffice to say that Nick Clegg has few friends in the university sector!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
If you think you can stand having next to no money or job security for the first ten years of your career, simply to enjoy the thrill of doing scientific research on organisms that often do the opposite of what you expected, then being an ecologist is for you!
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
City banker – then I could retire on the salary and bonuses after two years and go back to being a gentleman naturalist like Darwin.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour - this is very helpful for job seekers?
Starting salary for my job is about £30,000 a year – sounds OK but you’ll have to do two or three degrees to get near that!