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Special Report: Environmental Careers Guide


Nancy Thomson
Nancy Thomson
Nancy Thomson

Managing director, Thomson Ecology

Thomson Ecology is a biodiversity consultancy I founded in 2004 with two other directors. Since then, it has grown into a business with 75 staff. We offer ecology services, including consultancy and wildlife surveys, to a range of clients and my goal is to run a first-class business providing a first-class service. Now, I feel more like an entrepreneur than an ecologist.

I get a huge reward from positive client feedback. I also like being the boss because I can get things done quickly and I enjoy the freedom and independence. It is also satisfying to see young ecologists developing, taking on huge responsibilities and becoming successful. The downsides are few, but it can get stressful and I dislike the poor work-life balance that can come with running a business.

Initially, I took a geography degree at North London University before starting my career. I also took some time out to do an MBA at Cranfield School of Management, specialising in marketing and corporate strategy.

My career path has largely been one of working in environmental consultancy roles, before focusing on ecology consultancy. I chose this field because I believe maintaining biodiversity is one of the biggest challenges facing all countries. It is of far greater importance than most people understand, particularly with respect to the changes caused by global warming and I wanted to specialise in that niche area.

To those looking to work in an environmental role, the best advice I could offer would be to follow a pure science first degree, such as chemistry, physics, botany or zoology, and then take a more specialist second degree in an environmental science.

Charlie Thomas
Charlie Thomas
Charlie Thomas

Fund manager, SRI and governance team, Jupiter Asset Management

I initially developed my interest in environmental issues at Nottingham University, where I did a degree in environmental biology. I then did an MSc in environmental technology at Imperial College London, before spending three years working for BP, initially as a climate change adviser.

I have also worked for the UN Environment Programme and other financial institutions. I joined Jupiter’s socially responsible investment team in 2000 and since September 2003 I have been lead fund manager of the Jupiter Green Investment Trust and the Jupiter Ecology Fund. I also manage a fund invested in climate change solutions.

I like the combination of financial and environmental issues and it’s good to meet influential people in ‘green’ companies. We’re also still in the early wave of green investing, so it’s fascinating to consider the longer-term trends.
In my area, you do have to be passionate about what you do. I see myself as an environmentalist and that drives me. There are a few downsides, notably that it’s hard to switch off and also, that we’re highly information driven and you can sometimes feel bombarded with data.

As a fund manager, I’m driven by the same motives as any other fund manager, but I do it in the specialist ‘green investing’ area. To make the right decisions, I need to have an in-depth knowledge of the wider green agenda and how that impacts investments. I take a proactive approach to picking stocks. When buying and selling shares, I have to consider the financial factors, as well as the technology, product or service provided by the company, its management style and its growth prospects.

I run globally focused funds, so there’s a lot to consider. My typical day involves a 7.45am start, where I’ll catch up on the UK and European news, followed by the overnight news from Asia, before focusing on the US in the afternoon. I supplement this desk-based research with a lot of meetings with companies. I’ll conduct perhaps 450 meetings a year, which is about two per day, so it can get very busy.

My advice for anyone looking to get into the environmental investment field is to decide which particular area you’d like to focus on and become a specialist, rather than a generalist.

Environmental issues will become ever more embedded in fund management, and while the green investment space is fairly small, it is growing, so there are a growing number of opportunities.

Gaining the right qualifications and skills is key. Gaining experience is also important, though that can sometimes be hard, initially. But, be patient; if you’re committed, the opportunities will come your way.

Caroline May
Caroline May
Caroline May

Partner, Norton Rose

I’m a specialist environmental and health and safety lawyer, heading up the Norton Rose environment, safety and planning team.

I cover all aspects of environmental law and have particular experience working on urban regeneration and brownfield projects, as well as large energy projects. I have worked on several precedent-making cases and advised on the development of national and EU environmental law and policy. I also advise corporate clients and trade and industry groups and my work involves liaison with government, regulatory authorities, NGOs and lobby groups.  

The role has many positive aspects. It’s an interesting and complex field, often dealing with new laws, concepts and their application. It is also wide-ranging and no two cases are the same. Furthermore, practising environmental law means I get out into the ‘real world’. I often make site visits, in the UK and internationally.

The downsides are few, but the hours can be long and the ability to juggle several cases can be challenging. The tendency for environmental lawyers to be brought into transactions at the last minute can also be frustrating, requiring decision-making under tight deadlines. Nevertheless, our specialism can unlock deals for clients and add value to them, and that I find rewarding.    

Environmental law chose me, rather than the other way round. I qualified as a litigation lawyer at Clifford Chance and handled a number of high-profile toxic tort cases, two of which involved landfill and dioxins. At this time, ‘environmental law’ was developing as a specialist field, with the advent of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. My experience enhanced my reputation as an environmental lawyer, as the specialism developed.

After Clifford Chance, I moved to take up a partnership at Lawrence Graham, before moving to Hammonds, where I headed the national safety, health and environment team, and then on to Norton Rose.

For those looking to enter the field, the best advice I could give would be to seek a wide range of experience first and then specialise. Environmental law is a developing area and more opportunities will emerge. It is now possible to have a varied career, be it in private practice, industry, government or NGOs. The key is to be interested in your subject and to keep on top of it.

I don’t think there will ever be huge armies of environmental lawyers in private practice, but we are now given the same recognition as other specialists and new niches are developing all the time. Climate change, carbon finance and renewable energy are all emerging specialisms and the larger private practice firms will increasingly need to carry specialists in these areas.

ED Dearnley
Ed Dearnley
Ed Dearnley

Policy officer, Environmental Protection UK

As a policy officer, my role involves developing Environmental Protection UK’s policy position on air quality and climate change. Working with the membership and the policy committees, we aim to influence central and local government policy, through effective research and lobbying, running events and producing guidance.

My role has a number of distinct positives, not least that working for a small organisation allows you to get straight to the proverbial coalface and take on a wide variety of interesting work. I feel I’m ‘well plugged in’ to the work of the organisation and our partners, and can help to make a real difference.

The downsides are few, but policy changes can take a long time to have an effect and that can be frustrating at times. Working for a small NGO can mean a tight funding environment and the need to pitch in for administrative tasks, but the interesting work and friendly environment far outweigh the negatives.

I have always felt something of a connection with environmental issues and after studying sciences at A-level, I wanted to apply my studies in an environmental context. I did a degree in environmental science at the University of Sussex, before going to work for Cotswolds District Council as a project officer, where I managed the council’s home energy initiatives. I then worked for the Severn Wye Energy Agency, an NGO, as a project officer where I supported the work of several local authorities on combating climate change.

My current role focuses on local environmental quality issues, and while climate change has come to the fore as a national and indeed global issue, a great deal remains to be done at a local level.

For those seeking an environmental role, I would say be optimistic, despite the recession making the jobs market tough at the moment. The field is set to expand further and while it can be difficult to get that first job, hands-on experience with a local organisation, NGO or local authority will certainly help. Part-time voluntary opportunities, internships and paid work placements are all options worth exploring.

Claire Sproats
Claire Sproats
Claire Sproats

Scientific officer, contaminated land, South Cambridgeshire District Council  

As a contaminated land officer my role divides into two broad areas. A proactive part basically involves looking at sites that may be contaminated and carrying out desk-based research and site investigations. The reactive part revolves around considering planning applications where land contamination may be an issue.

To me, the attractions of the job include the daily variety. I could never have done a solely desk-based job and getting out into the field is an attractive aspect. In a nutshell, you can’t see contaminated land from a desk – you have to get out there. Each site is unique and presents different challenges. While contaminated land can be an emotive issue, particularly when it impacts people’s homes, helping to improve the environment is a key aspect of the role, for me.     

I studied maths, geography and geology at A-level and wanted to take geology further but also head in a direction with good career prospects. I decided to do a degree in applied environmental geology, at Portsmouth, where I first gained an insight into the issues surrounding contaminated land. I followed this with an MSc in hydrogeology at Reading to specialise further.

My first role in the field was with QDS Environmental, a groundwater remediation specialists based in Guildford, where I worked as a project scientist. I gained valuable ‘hands-on’ experience through being out in the field designing, installing and running remediation systems on petrol stations and gas and chemical works.

In 2007, I moved to the regulatory side, into my current role with South Cambridgeshire District Council. I think it’s important to gain an appreciation of the practical aspects of contaminated land as well as the regulatory side.     

My advice for anyone considering a career in an environmental field is to carefully consider the courses available. Take a look at what people who study particular areas go on to work in and consider the employment prospects of the various options. Gaining work experience is also advantageous. You can’t just learn it all from books and field experience is undoubtedly a good thing to acquire.