Whether you’re 21 years old, in your 40s, or not far from retirement, if you’ve just decided that it’s time to go to university, and potentially change careers from what you’ve been doing so far, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s what happened to me. I found myself in the fortunate position to consider studying for an undergraduate degree in my 30s – a dream of mine that I hadn’t yet fulfilled – yet I was surprised to realised I wasn’t clear about exactly which course I was going to apply for. This is a quick guide for other potential mature students and those contemplating a career change to help you discover for yourself which degree course might be right for you. If you have already got an undergraduate degree, you can use this advice to search for ‘conversion masters’ courses or similar, that are ideal for helping people change careers.

Image credit: author’s own. The author at a university offer-holder open day

If you have a future career in mind already

If you know what you’d like your future career to be, and perhaps even have some future job titles in mind, a great place to start is searching job advertisement websites to discover which skills, experience and qualifications are usually essential or preferred. If you’re looking for a career with lots of fieldwork, you may notice many jobs require prior experience in the field or even specific field skills. You can then search courses to see if they include these experiences as part of the degree itself.

You could also explore LinkedIn to search for people who are currently in the type of job you’d like to be in. You could reach out to those people to ask them what they’d recommend to someone who’d like to get into similar work and you can explore what they’ve advertised on their profile to see what career steps they’ve made. Everyone is different, though, and the vast majority of people have not had a linear, predictable career path! So be reassured that there is no one ‘right’ course or perfect combination of career steps. Prioritise essential qualifications or skills that jobs need and begin your course search from there.

What if a course doesn’t have a skill I’m looking to learn?

Degrees cannot cover every possible topic that every student might need in the future. However, one of the key benefits of studying for a university degree is they are designed to help you ‘learn how to learn’ so you can continue self-directed learning well after your course has finished. For example, you may learn where to find – and how to critique – the latest research about a new conservation strategy.

There will always be something new to learn, but be reassured that it’s also always possible to take short courses or join webinars to understand the basics or top-up if you need to. CIEEM offers many of these options, and so do other professional societies and organisations such as the Field Studies Council (great for species ID courses and certification), and colleges to name a few.

What learning experience can a course offer?

Courses with field work? Controlled laboratory research? In-person group workshops with fellow students? Purely online? Which is for you? It can be tricky to know, especially if you haven’t been in a learning environment recently or your lifestyle has changed over the years.

A good way to answer this is to ask yourself how you learn best. For many people, experiential learning where there are opportunities to be immersed in learning first-hand in the field, in the lab, or in discussions in a workshop with other students will make learning come to life. For others, watching talks online and reading are already intuitive ways they learn and want to continue exploring in their own time and space. And, there are many people who like a mixture of both.

Consider how much time you will have to spare to study, too, and include commute times when considering ‘contact time’ in university courses. For example, a lecture may be 1 hour long, but the commute might double or triple that time out of your day.

Some courses are offered part-time to help with flexibility, but not all of them. If you apply for an in-person course, remember that the evidence shows that the more you attend in-person, the better your chances of good degree grades on average. (Similar is likely true of active engagement with online courses.) So, if the course offers in-person lectures that are recorded, be aware that catching up via recordings is best as a back-up, not as a primary strategy, because it’s all too easy to disengage from the course and lose momentum when not interacting live.

That being said, some people are self-motivated learners and much prefer the flexibility to plan their own study times and might benefit most if the content is pre-recorded to access at times of day that suit them best and fit around their other commitments. If you feel this is you, consider blended or fully online degree courses that specialise in this way of learning. These universities may have better online learning platforms, too, to maximise your experience and even support you in connecting with other students remotely to enhance your learning.

When do you want to start your studies?

It is a good idea to think about when you’d prefer to begin studying for a degree course and then work out when you need to apply by. The application method for most undergraduate courses in the UK is via UCAS. It’s a good idea to browse their website and become familiar with the timelines and what information you’ll need to prepare in order to apply. Postgraduate courses usually require direct applications to the university.

Remember that you will most likely need to write a personal statement and ask a former employer or teacher to be a reference for you (and explain to them what you’re planning to do so they are better able to write a suitable reference for you). These two parts of the application may take some time, especially if you haven’t done either recently.

What if I need more personalised advice about courses?

I recommend attending any university open days for courses that might appeal to you, whether they’re held in-person or online. Come prepared with questions to ask when you’re there. Also, listen to the questions and answers others have, too, as sometimes this can offer even more insight.

Reach out to the admissions team at the university/ies you’re considering, and they will help guide you, too, and possibly put you in contact with actual lecturers and course leaders who can give you even more information about the courses. I also recommend reaching out to ask the admissions team how they will view the age of your last academic qualifications.

Admissions teams can’t give you a prediction on whether or not you’ll get offered a place, but they will be able to give you general tips such as how recent your prerequisite qualifications must be.

Need more resources?

Here are a few places you can find guidance on careers related to ecology and environmental management:

About Joanna

Joanna is a prize-winning, award-earning Zoology finalist at the University of Nottingham (it was no surprise when her academic tutor described her as ‘hugely enthusiastic’!) She is a student member of CIEEM, a committee member for a local nature reserve, and lifelong autodidact. As a recent career-changer, she has accrued 15+ years of experience and skills in the intersection between technology, data and marketing, and plans to advance these skills by studying for a Masters in Data Science with the aim of applying them in the conservation, ecology and/or environment sectors. She is currently seeking long-term, part-time work in a related role that is remote or hybrid while studying part-time. Her passions include rewilding, EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion), horses and very amateur wildlife photography.

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