I’ve been working in the environmental sector for 10 years now. Lately I’ve had a couple of emails from younger readers asking how to get an environmental job, or looking for advice in starting off in the environmental sector. It got me thinking that it would be useful to address these points in a blog post for anyone starting off in their career or looking to change career.
My experience is completely in the sustainable transport sector. It’s an area I’ve worked in since I graduated 10 years ago (ouch!). Even so, I hope my experience is sufficiently broad enough to help you navigate your way through the education and job hunting maze and help you find your perfect environmental job!
I studied Environmental Geography at the University of Aberdeen back in the day. Environmental Geography isn’t a course offered very much these days, but any social science or biological degree is a good choice for getting into the environmental sector. Geography, Sustainability, Geology, Biology, Ecology, Zoology, Botany, or anything else in the natural sciences is a good bet. Even courses such as Community Education, Teaching, Marketing and English are good degrees to have in gaining an environmental job. If there’s one thing I learned from my degree is that the key is emphasising your transferable skills!
Whilst you’re at university get involved and have fun! It’s not just about the studying! Join the student newspaper and write environmental articles for them. Join or set up an environmental group. Help organise environmental events. Get involved in student politics. I could go on! As well as helping you to meet people, any one of these things will look great on your CV.
I went on to study for a Masters in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh. A Masters isn’t necessary to get a job in the environmental sector unless you want to go into the world of academia. I did initially, working in academic research into the links between transport and climate change, but after a while I realised that at the time it wasn’t quite the career path for me. I don’t regret doing the course though – it has been useful in gaining other jobs.
Masters are expensive and there is no financial support available, apart from Career Development Loans, which you have to start paying back as soon as you graduate. I took a year out between finishing my Geography degree and starting my Masters, and I worked three jobs to save up to pay for my Masters fees, which at the time (11 years ago) were £5000.
Because I had been working I wasn’t eligible for the means tested Career Development Loan. I applied and got a big fat knock back even though I wasn’t rolling in cash, so in order to cover my living costs I had to work part time whilst studying, which wasn’t ideal. Even with working the hours I could I was still so poor I could barely afford to eat and had to walk a 4 mile round trip to get to uni and back because I couldn’t afford the bus. It wasn’t the most fun ever.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom: I really enjoyed the course, and I did land a good environmental job within months of graduating (said academic research job). Most of my classmates have gone on to a good environmental job. Some are lecturers, one works for the United Nations in the climate change division, some have set up environmental consultancies, and most others have directly related environmental jobs, so it has been worthwhile. It’s just hard work with not a lot of financial support.
Of course, university isn’t the only route into getting an environmental job. A lot of the environmental jobs I’ve seen advertised do say a degree is desirable but not essential, so if you can’t afford to go to university then all is not lost. There are lots of shorter term college courses out there, and there are alternative routes to getting into the environmental sector too.
One of the best alternative routes, and probably by far the most important thing you can do to help you get an environmental job, is volunteering. Granted, it’s not always easy finding the time, particularly if you are working another job to financially support yourself. Most organisations are completely flexible with volunteering opportunities, and even if you can only commit to two hours a week then it’s well worth offering your time.
Not only is volunteering a great way of gaining vital experience in the environmental sector, but it’s a great way to make contacts and make a name for yourself. I have known countless people who have gotten a job with an organisation after volunteering for them. Let’s face it, if you were an employer would you rather take a chance on someone you knew that was committed to the organisation versus someone that is a complete unknown? Even if any job opportunities don’t arise whilst you’re volunteering keep an eye out after you finish up: you never know what might come up.
Charities I’ve volunteered for in the past are sustainable transport charities Living Streets and Sustrans. Both were invaluable in getting my current environmental job. Although you don’t get paid for volunteering a lot of charities will pay your travel expenses and lunch expenses as a thank you for your time and to help ease the financial burden.
Internships weren’t really a thing when I was at university/after I graduated and I’m not sure how I feel about them. If you can get a paid internship then that’s fantastic, but I’d be wary of unpaid internships. Certainly I know I wouldn’t have been able to afford to take on an unpaid internship after graduating – especially a full time one. Personally I would prioritise finding a suitable volunteer position in hours you can fit in around paid work.
As an aside here, I also wouldn’t be fussy about the paid work you take on whilst job hunting/studying/volunteering/interning. I had all sorts of completely unrelated jobs during university and after graduating. I worked in shops, pubs, restaurants, cafes, call centres, cinemas, music venues, and theatres as well as a summer spent caring for the elderly. I’ve done it all and there’s no shame in it – we all have to make money to house, feed, clothe ourselves, etc. In fact the call centre work has bizarrely been a plus point whenever I’ve mentioned it in environmental job interviews. It all boils down to that key point – transferable skills – again!
Blogging wasn’t really a thing when I was younger. I don’t think I knew what a blog was until 2008! So while this isn’t something I did I would completely recommend setting up a blog or even guest blogging on other sites (like Huffington Post) to show your enthusiasm and commitment, and knowledge on your particular area of expertise. You can even put a link to it on your CV.
Other Tips and Advice On Gaining An Environmental Job
This one is aimed at school leavers and new graduates. If you’re interested in an environmental job or a volunteering position then, whatever you do, DO NOT get your parents to phone up or email an organisation about it on your behalf. Always do it yourself. It looks so bad on yourself when your mum phones up or emails about a possible volunteering position on your behalf. Trust me, the organisation will question your interest and enthusiasm. Be proactive and take matters into your own hands.
Environmental Job Sites I Love
There are a few really good environmental job sites out there that I love:
Environment Job – this is my favourite site; they have a wide range of jobs advertised and their weekly email service is fantastic
Goodmoves – this isn’t exclusively environmental jobs, but there are generally quite a few environmental jobs. I found my current job on Goodmoves! Although the search function covers the whole of the UK I have a feeling it’s mostly Scottish jobs listed on Goodmoves.
Notes On Having An Environmental Job
Don’t expect to be rich, especially if you’re working in the charity sector.
Particularly in the charity sector permanent contracts are few and far between. Fixed term contracts are the norm, and are often dependent on being able to secure external funding. I’ve been working on one year fixed term contracts for the last five years…
If you’re in the charity sector you will get very good at filling out grant application forms!
Expect job satisfaction to be very high!
Environmental jobs are always good conversation pieces. When someone asks you what you do they are usually very interested in learning about your job.
That’s the breadth of my knowledge on gaining an environmental job! Everyone’s pathway is different and I’d always suggest talking to a careers advisor – especially if you’re in higher education and can access them free of charge! Take advantage of these services whilst you can!
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