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Ecologist guide to courses
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Ecologist guide to courses

Matilda Lee

5th January, 2011

The path to many green careers begins as a student. Here are the Ecologist's tips for ensuring that your degree or educational course takes you where you want to go

Youth is wasted on the young, as the saying goes. It's one of life's Catch-22s that you are presented with the opportunities to decide your future long before the responsibilities of adult life kick in.

A degree, for example, is a great opportunity to expand your horizons and discover your true calling. But with the price of an education set to go up and up, you need to know that it's going to take you where you need to go.  

For those of us in the relatively new but quickly expanding environmental field it's even trickier. There are now hundreds of environmental courses in the UK. How do you choose the one that will lead to your dream green job? 

Smart by nature

As a general introduction, the Eden Project's website Real Cool Futures offers a rich array of information on real-life green careers and the people who have them. The experiences of students who have taken environmental courses and the less well-trodden path towards a green career also provide valuable lessons.

For Hermione Taylor, founder of The Donation (due to launch in February 2011), the MSc in environmental technology at Imperial College that she chose on the advice of a good friend was vital to the start of her career.

The course covered a lot of ground, and, to her surpise, the green career she had planned to pursue took an entirely new direction. ‘In terms of where it got me now, my thesis was tailored towards what I wanted to do and has totally made possible setting up my own social enterprise.

‘When I started the masters, I wanted to get into the policy and consulting world, but while I was on the course I came up with the idea of a new form of sponsorship, replacing cash with pledges for carbon-saving actions. I decided to do my thesis on climate-change pledge schemes. I wanted to see how reliable it was, so for my masters I surveyed and interviewed users of the schemes. I didn't have to interview for my job, because I created the company myself, but the credibility it gave me to say I did this research for Imperial is invaluable.'

Gap in market

In the case of Ed Perrin, a 2008 graduate of the environmental sciences MSc from Trinity College Dublin, there is far too little information for people interested in doing a environmental degree course and landing a green job of their choice.

‘I realised about two years into my undergraduate education that I wanted to be an environmental consultant, but had no idea how to get there. I scoured the internet for courses with a good reputation. It was a struggle; there is no independent database to find a masters that has the best reputation, ticks boxes and is certain to make you employable. I just emailed a lot of people and found the course at Trinity, which was advertised as leading to a job with an environmental consultancy.'

It was lucky for Gemma Sutton that her undergraduate environmental science degree at Coventry University led her to stay on for an MSc in sustainable agriculture. 'I'd done my first degree there. The lecturers in sustainable agriculture were great and there were links with Garden Organic, where I worked for a while.

‘I had a lot of support from the lecturers, who were really friendly, helpful, and accessible. My course was based on research; there weren't many lectures. I now work for the university as a research assistant in the geography department's sustainable agriculture and food-applied research group. The lecturer notified me that the position was available.'

Career counselling

Which leads to one of the golden rules in gaining a foothold in the marketplace, green or otherwise: it's not what you know, it's who you know. It's important to do research into the opportunities for networking - both informal and formal - that your potential course may offer. 

One of Hermione Taylor's first discoveries on her course was the existence of an ‘environmental mafia' - a far-reaching and tight-knit alumni network all across environmental industries. ‘From them, you can get a good idea of what goes on in the field,' she says.

Every Thursday a guest speaker come in, from former students to ministers to high-fliers in the field. The question-and-answer session that followed gave students insight into a number of environmental  industries and allowed them to rub shoulders with potential employers.

The wine and nibbles at the end also helped grease the wheels of conversation.

'There were 140 of us on the course, we got to know each other very well - partly because we were plied with alcohol!' Hermione says.

This wasn't the case for Ed: 'One thing that struck me is that academics aren't the best to give advice to students about being an environmental professional. Sure, if you want a PhD or post doc. I came out with a well-rounded education but nothing particularly useful in a professional capacity.'

Looking back

While Ed may not have had strong networking opportunities, the knowledge that his course provided him with on a broad range of environmental issues has been invaluable in his job.

‘I've been working in the environmental industry for three years now. The main skill I need as an environmental impact assessment consultant at URS/Scott Wilson is to be an efficient manager of information. You can't get a qualification for that.' 

Ed's experience may also have been a blessing in disguise. 'It's my pipe-dream to set up an environmental course database, based on feedback and points awarded by the students who went there. I'd like there to be a forum where my experience could be helpful to other students.'

Watch this space.

Useful information

The Ecologist has profiled many examples of students making a difference, from banning bottled water in student union shops to starting a university eco society.

Even if you're not on a green course, the idea of 'greening' your university is such a hot issue that the student group People & Planet has its own Green League Table for all to see how universities fare on green issues.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs EditorAdd to StumbleUpon

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