Want to know how to get started in an environmental career, or how to get an environmental job? Let me share my experience.

I’ve been working in the environmental sector for 15 years now.  Lately, I’ve had a couple of emails from younger readers asking how to get an environmental job. Or from those 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!

College/University Routes to Get An Environmental Job

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Undergraduate Level

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!

Personally, I studied Environmental Geography at the University of Aberdeen. It was a really good course, that gave me a great widespread overview of environmental policy and practice.

Whilst you’re at university get involved and have fun!  It’s not just about 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.

Masters Level

A Masters isn’t necessary to get a job in the environmental sector unless you want to go into the world of academia, or want to specialise in a particular field.  I did initially, so I went on to study for a Masters in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh.  

After graduating, I worked in academic research, looking into the links between transport and climate change. However, 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, there are no two ways about it.  I took a year out between finishing my Geography degree and starting my Masters. Here I worked three jobs to save up to pay for my Masters fees. I also worked part-time whilst I studied – a Saturday job in a shop.

It was worth it. 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 great environmental jobs.  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.

Alternative Routes to Get An Environmental Job

Of course, university isn’t the only route in to getting an environmental job.  A lot of the environmental jobs I’ve seen advertised do say a degree is desirable but not essential. Therefore, if you can’t afford to go to university or don’t want 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.

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Volunteering

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

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. However, I would be very 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

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 to show your enthusiasm and commitment, and knowledge on your particular area of expertise is a great step.  You can even put a link to it on your CV.

Other Tips and Advice

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
  • Environment Jobs – not as comprehensive as Environment Job, but worth a look in case different opportunities pop up on here.
  • 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.

Things To Consider About Jobs in the Environmental Sector

It’s not all roses in the environmental sector. There are a few points about working in the environmental sector that I don’t love, so I think these are good points to bear in mind before deciding if an environmental career is for you.

The Down Sides

For a start, particularly in the charity sector where a lot of environmental jobs tend to be, permanent contracts are few and far between.  This is because many environmental projects, and therefore jobs, rely on external funding. As such, 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 ten years and it does drag you down not knowing from one year to the next what your working situation will be.

Don’t expect to be rich, especially if you’re working in the charity sector. I find wages to be on the lower end of the spectrum, and there often isn’t much scope for career progression like in some industries.

If you’re in the charity sector you will get very good at filling out grant application forms! It’s an unavoidable part of life. This post on how to support your local environmental charity gives you a bit more insight into this. All I will say is that if you don’t like filling in forms, and writing reports then maybe it’s not the area for you.

The Plus Points

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Do expect job satisfaction to be very high, especially if you are working on a project that provides tangible outcomes. I’ve worked on adult cycle training programmes, and set up walking groups, and seeing the impact that learning to ride a bike has on someone is worth the bad points a million times over.

I’ve also found that environmental jobs are always good conversation pieces.  When someone asks you what you do, I always get asked a ton of questions. Compared to when someone tells you that they’re an accountant, it’s certainly a much more interesting topic! No offense to accountants!

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!

Missed anything?  Pop it in the comments below!

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