What do employers look for in a graduate ecologist?

It is a very daunting time when you are nearing graduation and you begin thinking about your future career. In ecology, it is absolutely essential to hone in on those most sought-after skills BEFORE you finish your studies (hindsight is always a wonderful thing). But this means you need to actually know what employers look for in a graduate ecologist and what kind of jobs are typically available at this entry level. Here, I share some great advice straight from the horse’s mouth…

Every employer will be looking for something different in their graduate hires. Some will want what they’ve always had, some are eager for diversity within their organisation, whilst others may only hire at entry-level on the rare occasion they meet a gem of a person. There is also, of course, the issue of the economy. If you end up being anything like me in 2009 then the peak of a recession will do no favours for those starting out in an ecological career.

Yet, there are always commonalities, the basics, that the majority of employers will expect you to have and the wonderful guys at BSG Ecology wrote a great blog about what they personally look for in a graduate ecologist. For me, this was one of the most informative and useful bits of advice that I read whilst job hunting and a something I could have really done with reading years ago!

So, I have pulled a few of the key bits out that I think are really worth a read, but if you want to check out the entire article, you can read it on the BSG Ecology website.

Standing out from the crowd

It’s the same for any job, there is always big competition.  An Ecologist job advertisement is no different and tends to elicit a very large response. BSG consider the best candidates to have already started positioning themselves for consultancy work during their academic studies, not when they graduate and suddenly think about getting a job. Consider your interests and career prospects throughout your studies and how you can enhance your application by gaining further skills and experience of the following…

The Phase 1 habitat survey

The staple survey technique for many ecological consultancies is the ‘extended Phase 1.’  The Phase 1 is typically the first survey undertaken on a site, and provides the foundation (along with desk study) for determining the scope of ecological survey work that is recommended.

Never heard of a Phase 1 habitat survey? Read about them here in a lovely blog from Wild Frontier Ecology. In a nutshell, this method broadly classifies habitats based on their dominant and abundant plant species and communities. As a result, employers will find it desirable for a graduate to have an understanding of these surveys, experience conducting them, as well as an ability to identify common plants and understand the typical habitat types they occur in. So you’d better get working on those botany skills!

Know your protected species

Let’s face it, as a consultant the majority of work is driven by law or policy of sorts. Therefore, knowing the species that are legally protected and having demonstrable experience surveying for them gives any graduate a bump up over their peers. Having secured one or more European Protected Species survey licences is even better.

…species protected under European law, such as hazel dormouse, great crested newt, otter and bats, and species subject to domestic protection including badger, common reptiles and water vole…

Widespread species are bound to be more valuable to any employer than those species that are regionally or habitat specific. Yet, if you know that you are seeking work in a particular part of the country, they may be very significant in helping secure work. In addition, experience with freshwater sampling would also see you as a favourable choice:

Other particularly useful experience is in the sampling and identification of freshwater invertebrates, as changes in invertebrate communities during the development process provide an indication of changes in water quality.

Birds – useful, but less advantageous

The ability to identify birds by sight and sound is very useful in an ecologist grade recruit, as an element of bird survey work is typically required to inform all large-scale developments…


At present, despite the fact that they are very useful, ornithological field skills are probably less advantageous in a potential recruit than an equivalent level of proficiency in botanical or protected species survey.

New technologies

Just like other industries, ecology is reaping the benefits of modern technologies to enhance the way we monitor species as well as how we capture, analyse and present our findings (albeit a little slower than other sectors!). So if you have the chance, take up a GIS module at University or sign up for an evening class, try some innovative nocturnal surveying technologies too.

Don’t underestimate soft skills

Within a consultancy, building strong relationships with clients is essential. A charity will typically need to engage with volunteers and members of the public. Either side of the fence, communication is key. As is the ability to work under pressure, juggle numerous priorities at the same time and have good written English. This will be assessed in both the application and the interview process and shouldn’t be underestimated.

The willingness to learn

No consultancy should expect a recent graduate to be proficient in everything, so harbouring real drive, determination and eagerness to learn will go a long way. A good organisation will be keen to support the learning and development of all their staff and one way to check this, as well as show your ambition, is to ask in the interview how they do just that.

Remember, every company is different and every graduate will have different career ambitions and interests. There’s a place for everyone, so make sure you don’t just apply for any and every job you see – research the company and use the interview to get a feel about whether they are a good fit for you, not just if you are a good fit for them.

Good luck!

ps. Don’t forget to read the entire blog post from BSG Ecology here.

If you’re an employer and have some other career skills or tips you’d like to share, do let me know and I’ll add them to the blog!

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