Environmental science careers are well suited to those with an organized, right brain dominant, approach to the world.
Being good at numbers helps, as does a methodical approach to problem solving but even better is a feel for lateral thinking and intuition.
The best environmental scientists understand the linearity of cause and effect but are not blinkered by it for they also see that nature is complex with weird and wonderful interconnectedness that is hard to unpick — and that a lack of linearity is OK.
Engineers do not make the best environmental scientists.
It also helps to be practical with a healthy dose of common sense. After all you might need to pitch a tent and be smart enough not to put it under a sausage tree or a coconut palm.
Can-do people and optimists do well in environmental science careers because there will be many times when the difficulties will make it all look too hard.
Here is the Ask Alloporus checklist of qualities that will help you make an environmental science careers and a living in the environment…
Here is a summary of my own rather eclectic career in the environment…
At school geography was my favourite subject — figuring out where things were and why seemed to make such sense to me. Biology was good too, so long as there was not too much chemistry in it.
When I discovered that there was a new type of degree called environmental science and read the names of the subjects it covered — geology, geochemistry, geomorphology, ecology, atmospheric physics, development studies, ecosystem management etc etc — in an instant I really wanted to study it. Only that meant getting the grades to go to university.
Somehow I squeaked in and completed a BSc degree in Environmental Science at University of East Anglia — one of the first intakes on this new subject and what a blast that was. Field excursions throughout Norfolk and residential courses in Devon, Ireland, Scotland and Spain were enough to get anyone excited.
That degree program sucked me into science so deep it was hard to get out. Fortunately the universe smiled on me in the form of a post-graduate doctoral scholarship for research in ecology. Now there is a real environmental science subject — how to unpick why organisms of all shapes and sizes do what they do to create nature.
After four years in amongst the everyday workings of soil animals I had ecology in the blood and with something of a nerdy fear of the real world all I could do was to keep at it.
PhD in hand I landed a dream job as a junior Research Fellow at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
Just a one-year contract on a salary that barely paid the rent but that mattered little, for it was the best experience a young researcher could have. What a country: great people, great places and more biology than any one person could take in.
I collected ecological data on cigar-sized millipedes, termites and rare woodlice that live only in the spray zone of Victoria Falls [Dr Livingstone would have found it most odd].
And before I had time to worry too much about what to do next I met the head of the Biology Department at the University of Botswana. He encouraged me to apply for a lectureship that, after the usual uneasy selection process, I was offered.
I spent the next 7 years teaching undergraduates biostatistics [you don’t want to know] and researching more termite, millipede and wildlife ecology. It was just the best time. My wish is that when I die my ashes are scattered among the grasslands and waterways of the Okavango Delta.
Dream jobs do not last forever for environmental science careers are like any other — they are made up of many jobs.
After a lengthy search and countless applications to academic institutions all around the English-speaking world I found a position at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
A lectureship to teach biodiversity, a new subject at the time and one that I still believe was misunderstood and then hijacked to become a synonym of conservation [big mistake that].
There was research too and I added environmental monitoring to the usual suspects. We managed to build a system that could use bugs [the animal kind] as a signature of environmental health. A handy tool that we thought could both save and even make money from the knowledge it created.
Always one for a risk, this idea became another career shift.
Academic work has great merit, as does the pursuit of learning that to this point had been the mainstay of this career.
Except the academic world can be narrow minded and conservative, not to mention that there is no money in it. The perks of the job are supposed to be sufficient remuneration.
For me this made the lure of commerce very strong. And despite the murmurs from my environmental academic colleagues who felt anything to do with commerce was devil talk I gave up my senior lectureship to found and run an environmental monitoring company.
Not too many academic careers suddenly turn to the right. This chapter was as intense as it was unexpected.
Business is uncompromising at the best of times and brutal on startups. It used up my reserves of enthusiasm and tenacity but we survived for four years helping clients understand….
Timing is everything in business. Your services must be wanted or about to be wanted. We were a decade early.
It is now the late naughties. I had stalled my academic career and my first cut as an entrepreneur went the way of the majority. It put my environmental career at a crossroads.
There was still best part of two decades of work energy left and a bucketful of experienced gained on three continents, so what next?
It was also the time of climate change — environmental people had forgotten biodiversity and now had carbon emissions on their minds. Showing the important career attributes of nimbleness and an eye for an opportunity, I decided to give consulting a go, beginning with the new world of carbon accounting.
It helped that part of my academic time in Botswana had included teaching carbon budgets as apart of an ecology course and that I knew about fieldwork and one end of an allometric equation from another [they are used to estimate the amount of carbon in trees]. So I spent time in the rainforests of south-east Asia, the huge cattle stations of central Australia and in Washington DC thrashing out details of carbon accounting methodologies with auditors.
Like all such things time soon passed as the world decided that carbon markets might not work after all. I had to rely on my natural resource management skills to keep my business running…
And so it has with technical reviews and scientific evaluations on many of the environmental issues covered on Ask Alloporus
Along the way I also managed to write down ideas [alloporus blog], explanations for the interweb [climate change wisdom, Ask Alloporus], seemingly endless technical reports [alloporus environmental reports] and even a book [Missing Something].
Communication skills are a handy thing to have if you want a career in environmental science.
I expect my own eclectic story still has a few pages to run but there are some things we can be pragmatic about if you think science for the environment is going to be your thing too...
And all the best to you for your environmental science careers, the environment needs many champions.
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