As an ecologist, you are responsible for helping further the understanding of how natural and human changes to the environment can influence ecosystems.
Working as an ecologist will allow you to interpret and analyse the cause and effect relationships between species and habitats. You’ll find yourself conducting surveys to monitor and record correlations, carrying out field tests and filing data-heavy reports, on behalf of companies, governments or not-for-profit environmental groups.
Depending on your level of experience and speciality, one ecologist’s day can be quite different from another's. Ecologists who have just started out in their field will spend more time conducting field surveys and gaining on-the-job training by carrying out environmental impact assessments.
Senior ecologists can find themselves becoming more involved in policy and management - spending more time in the office than on field and lab work.
Responsibilities may vary between a senior marine ecologist and an ecologist that specialises in conservation. However, there are common responsibilities that crop up in job descriptions for all ecologists:
- Conduct field surveys: In order to analyse any ecological data, surveys have to be taken to collect information about the numbers and distribution of organisms. Your taxonomy abilities will be key here as it will help you understand the structure and function of an ecological community.
- Utilise habitat surveying techniques: Get to grips with technology like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), aerial photography, records and maps to enhance and interpret data.
- Write reports: Writing reports and issuing recommendations are a part of every ecologist’s job. Some of you may be asked to write legislation that complies with European and UK environmental policies - so it’s important to keep up to date with these.
- Collaborate: You’ll be working, advising and building relationships with colleagues, clients and politicians throughout your career, ensuring people are kept updated on the latest ecological findings.
- Strong report-writing skills
- Project management skills
- Communication skills
- A keen analytical mind
- Good field and surveying skills
- Up-to-date knowledge of environmental legislation
- Good understanding of statistics, with the ability to present, analyse and record them
- Ability to use GIS and other niche software for recording, analysing and presenting data and reports
Ecologists need a master’s degree in a science subject or a degree in ecology or environmental sciences. A background in environmental management, conservation and statistics are beneficial as these will provide you with the knowledge base for the skills you'll be using on the job.
Qualifications will differ depending on speciality. Some may need a specific marine biology degree to follow their marine ecologist career whilst others may find their general background in chemistry, geology, climatology or biology will suffice to help them progress into the role of an ecologist.
Your working hours depend on the work you are doing. If you're in the field studying or collecting data on species that are nocturnal, then your hours will be scheduled around that. If you are in a senior position and stick to office conditions, you may find yourself working in tandem with the project deadlines that you have set.
Research shows that ecologists can earn between £22,000 and £30,000 from a graduate level. With more experience, ecologists can earn up to £40,000 in senior positions.
Your next steps
As an ecologist, the most common next career step is to become a senior or principal ecologist - getting more involved in policy and management work. From there you can expand your range and work towards becoming a consultant.
With further ecological experience, your knowledge can lead to careers that diversify beyond the typical ecology field. For example, if you have a talent for writing, there are opportunities for you to write for scientific publications.
And if you’ve ever wanted to teach, you can look into the educational pathway by becoming a lecturer.
Industry advice for future ecologists
- Understand and get to grips with environmental policies: It is important that ecologists are aware of environmental policies as their work commonly has to comply with EU and UK environmental legislation.
- Develop your network using LinkedIn or CIEEM memberships to develop a helpful list of industry contacts. This will increase job possibilities and study opportunities to move forward in this area.
- If you’re between jobs or first starting out, find work experience or volunteering opportunities to give you an edge in this competitive industry. Check out local wildlife trusts or conservation bodies to see if they need an extra hand to brush up on your field work skills.
- Gain a basic understanding of GIS technology and cartography. It will help you understand the relationships and correlations that can occur between habitats, species, geology, the general environment and its effect on ecology as a whole.
- Attend courses that can help develop your ecological skills. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) has a professional development programme for its members and offers tailored courses. It also runs industry relevant conferences that will help keep your skills up-to-date.