Clare – Botanist and Ecologist
What attracted you to this job?
After having worked as a corporate lawyer for 10 years, working as a botanist and ecologist enables me to live in the countryside, work outdoors and do more regular hours rather than being stuck in an office in London all day (and night) long. I am self-employed, so I am my own boss and control when and where I work; but the down side is that do not have a guaranteed monthly salary. Working as an ecologist gives me a relaxed yet interesting job – a lifestyle that no amount of money can buy.
What does your typical day involve?
April – October: walking all day long surveying vegetation – identifying wild plants and plant communities, then after the survey work is finished, analysing the data using computer programmes and report writing.
November – March: a mix of teaching, report writing and literature research work on scientific projects.
What gives you the most job satisfaction?
Discovering rare or different types of vegetation, being able to use the species and vegetation types to ‘read’ the environmental conditions at a site, and advising clients on how to manage their land to improve its biodiversity. I get a kick from simple things like identifying a plant species that is regarded as difficult to correctly identify.
What do your friends and family think about your job?
They find it hard to understand how you can get paid to go walking and look for plants or animals all day long!
Few people know about careers in ecology, despite the fact that environmental issues are now a mainstream concern for most people. I often get asked ‘what is an ecologist’ and many people assume you are a political campaigner or environmentalist working for Greenpeace or similar. Obviously campaigning bodies do employ ecologists, but so does industry and developers.
Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance
It depends who you work for, for example, a charity may give you a better work-life balance than a commercial environmental consultancy. If you work for yourself like me, then you have excellent work-life balance as you can control your work load. Another point to consider is that Some animal groups such as birds and newts have to be surveyed at antisocial times of the day, often 10pm-12 midnight and early in the morning 4am-6am.
How did you get to where you are today?
Normally, to become an ecologist, you would do a BSc degree in ecology, biology, plant science, zoology, or a related life science (but not human biology or biomedical subjects as ecologists are interested in how plants and animals function and live, not humans).
However, I did Arts subjects for A levels and a law degree but built up lots of practical ecology and botany experience in my free time over a period of 5 or 6 years. I then did a MSc in plant science to change career. I think the most important A levels to do if you want to do an ecology degree are biology and geography, plus doing maths or statistics is useful as so much scientific work in all biosciences relies on using statistics.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?
You have to be fascinated by the huge variety in living things and enjoy identifying plants and animals and studying them in the wild. You also need to not mind working outdoors in all weathers and be willing to put in a lot of practice in improving your identification and surveying skills in your own time. You need to show this commitment by doing voluntary work surveying plants or animals with a local group. There is a shortage of ecologists able to identify specialist groups like mosses and liverworts, any insect group (other butterflies and dragonflies), lichens and algae.
What is the pay like in your field of work?
It depends who you are employed by – graduate ecologist starting salaries in the commercial sector start at around £18-23,000 but posts in the conservation sector are often around £15,000. There is intense competition for these jobs, therefore many aspiring ecologists end up volunteering for at least 1-2 years to get work experience and improve their identification skills, before they can secure their first job.
Salaries don’t rise much in the conservation sector and project officers with 10 years or more experience typically earn £20-25,000 a year on three year fixed term employment contracts. By contrast, in the commercial consultancy sector, if you are willing to become a largely desk-based project manager and do less survey work, salaries are typically between £30,000 and £45,000 with permanent contracts and benefits like health care and pensions, and directors of large ecology consultancies can earn in excess of £70,000.
What kind of hobbies do you do to relax?
My hobby has become my job and I don’t think when you are self-employed that you can distinguish ‘office hours’ – all day, every day is dominated by my love of studying plants. I do it to relax as well as to earn money.
Have there been any embarrassing moments?
No, but some dangerous ones! Working in remote areas and on unsafe terrain like on peat bogs requires skills that you don’t learn at school or college!