This originally appeared as an article in the December 2023 issue of CIEEM’s In Practice magazine. It is written by Owain Gabb CEnv MCIEEM, Rachel Bentley MCIEEM, Jennifer Dodd MCIEEM and Laura Roberts MCIEEM.

The CIEEM Early Careers Special Interest Group (SIG) was set up in 2022 to support those in the first few years of their ecological and environmental careers. The purpose of this article is to provide advice to those who are looking to achieve their first positions and start to establish themselves in their chosen career. Here the SIG provides guidance on how to develop key skills, produce attention-grabbing applications and CVs, and hints and tips to help you stand out from the crowd.


The CIEEM Early Careers Special Interest Group (SIG) was formed in 2022. The purpose of the Group is to provide advice and guidance to ecologists in the first few years of their professional career. The SIG committee is drawn from public, private and academic sector professionals; members include early career ecologists with recent experience of navigating their way into paid employment in ecology, lecturers coordinating university degree courses and directors of multi-disciplinary and independent ecological consultancies.

Since its inception, the Group has held a number of online events that have included question and answer sessions. Various common themes have emerged from these sessions. This article sets out to provide guidance to assist early careers staff with one of the main areas of concern: namely how to gain the correct experience to get your career off to a good start.

Getting the right experience

Early career posts are keenly contested, and whether you are looking to secure your first full-time role or to move into a new position that will advance you along your chosen career path, your chances of successfully securing any position, let alone the post you want, can feel very limited. How do you go about taking charge of your own destiny? Many discussions at SIG events to date have revolved around this question.

Frequently the SIG has been asked whether/what voluntary experience might be beneficial in helping develop relevant skills. Another key area for discussion has been the nature of seasonal or short-term paid opportunities that might help in developing skillsets and transitioning into full-time work.

An area that has attracted fewer questions, but one which goes hand in hand with these, is what you, as an early career ecologist, should be looking for in a prospective employer. If you are prepared to invest in your own development, you should expect your employer to do so too. This article therefore provides a little guidance as to what you should be looking for and the sorts of questions to ask at an interview that might help you make good decisions for your career development.

Selecting the most appropriate voluntary opportunities

Voluntary experience can help develop skillsets that set you apart from your peers when applying for jobs or looking to secure your next career move. There are numerous opportunities to volunteer for nature conservation organisations and special interest groups.

However, it is very important to have a clear view of the skills you want to gain and the advantages they might bring, and to choose what you do carefully.

An example (based on professional experience) is that mainstream ecological consultancy companies value botanical and protected species survey and monitoring experience highly, whereas involvement in practical land management work may be of less relevance to them (unless it relates to specialist work such as habitat creation). This might lead you to look for opportunities to join local natural history groups, such as the Botanical Society for the British Isles (BSBI), or local bat, dormouse or herpetological groups if looking for a consultancy career (although numerous other options are available). Conversely, a reserve management role might well start with voluntary work for land-owning charities, such as the National Trust, Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts or Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – to name but a few – by undertaking practical conservation work or public engagement on their sites. Part of your decision-making will necessarily also be about personal practicalities: voluntary work often requires a car to reach sites, and the timing of the most ideal work may not be compatible with your other commitments.

Additional guidance from the SIG with regard to volunteering is given here.

  • Show commitment. If you become involved in a specialist natural history-focused group that will help develop your technical skills, it is likely to be run by committed
    volunteers. If you attend regularly, assisting with both the more attractive and less glamorous tasks, your contribution will be greater. This will lead to people investing more time in you and providing references and recommendations for you where they can.
  • Continue your volunteering alongside your paid employment if it is possible to do so and it helps expand your skillset. Your profile and your network will also grow.
  • Whether the voluntary work is delivering exactly what you want or not, it often results in good networking. Given how small ecological networks tend to be (people working in the environment sector tend to only have a few degrees of separation), the importance of your own network and your reputation as a reliable individual will open up opportunities and increase your likelihood of gaining paid employment.
  • Do not take unpaid employment, particularly in consultancy. Consultants are paid for the work they do, and so should you.
  • Volunteering not only develops technical skills but also transferrable skills. Being able to demonstrate a range of transferrable skills, such as organisation and time keeping, is just as valuable to an employer as the knowledge you have learned and can bring to the job.
  • Keep a skills log of everything you have done. This will help you to identify the skills you have, what you need to work on and any gaps that need addressing (e.g. to help you secure a licence). Use the CIEEM Competency Framework to help you (see This list is an indispensable tool when it comes to applying for jobs and preparing for interviews.

Paid positions

Contrary to the perception of many of the graduate attendees at our SIG events, there are various opportunities for paid work for early career ecologists that enable them to build towards full-time positions during and following the completion of studies. You just need to know where to start looking. Examples are outlined below.

Many ecological consultancies need seasonal survey assistants. The support needed can be via contracts, more ad hoc arrangements (hourly/flexible support) or through internships.

  • Seasonal consultancy contracts of up to 6 months’ duration (April to September inclusive) are not uncommon. Many seasonal contracts that commence in the spring are advertised as early as the previous autumn.
  • Casual hourly rate work with consultancies is also commonly available. This often suits people with limited availability (due to family or non-ecological work commitments) transitioning towards a future career as an ecologist, or who are still in higher education. It is possible to work on an hourly rate basis across various different regional consultancies if you have the flexibility in terms of your time. This might also be an option if you are unable to secure a full-time seasonal contract immediately and has the benefit that you will get to know different people and be aware of opportunities arising across various companies.
  • Paid internships can be challenging to secure while still in university, with many of those that do exist arising from established arrangements between universities and ecological organisations. There are various reasons for this, including that longer contracts are often favoured by employers than the typical duration of an internship (due to the initial training costs they incur, the length of the survey season and because they can be used as a way of selecting potential permanent staff).

An alternative route in is through an apprenticeship. Opportunities for apprenticeships are present in the public sector and to a lesser extent in the third (charitable) and private sectors.

  • Organisations such as Natural England and the Environment Agency offer apprenticeships for current, eligible employees, including 2 year ecology Master’s degrees. The apprenticeships are paid for by the employer and are undertaken alongside an employee’s day job.
  • Ecological apprenticeships in the third sector can deliver wide-ranging and very valuable training. The Scottish Wildlife Trust is an example of an organisation that has offered structure training in the past (through their Developing Ecological Surveying Skills programme which involved full-time placements for a period of 18 months).
  • Some private sector companies are also starting to offer apprenticeship schemes, and it is worth searching for and reviewing these to determine what the qualifying criteria are, their duration and nature of the training involved.

Some tips to consider when trying to secure paid experience/an early career role include the following.

  • LinkedIn is useful for expanding your local network and becoming more aware of different organisations and the opportunities they offer.
  • Once you have identified organisations that offer ecological services in your area, it is always advisable to be proactive and persistent in your contact with them (unless you are told not to be!). Bear in mind that many professionals have a huge throughput of emails, so a lack of immediate response does not mean no opportunity. Work can develop from being in touch with the right contact at the right time.
  • When you get an opportunity that requires a CV, make sure it is concise, relevant and well-formatted, and that you accompany it with a letter than states exactly why you want the job you are applying for. It is very important to evidence the experience you have that makes you suitable for the position, and to draw on transferrable skills in doing so.
  • Note that public sector vacancies do not accept CVs in the UK or the Republic of Ireland. Instead, candidates are required to complete an online application form. Applications are scored based on answers to capability-based questions and are blind-sifted to make the application process as fair as possible. Subsequent interviews will likely be based on the capability questions presented at application stage and may include a technical test.
  • If you are tempted to use a recruitment consultant to help you secure an early career post, note that some organisations don’t accept approaches via recruiters, and that this avenue will lead to an increased cost to the employer.

There are numerous ways of finding out about opportunities. Established websites such as and the Countryside Job Service ( are good starting points. Jobs are also advertised by CIEEM, on company websites and via social media.

What to consider when choosing (to further) your studies

You may be considering beginning (e.g. an undergraduate degree) or further development of your formal education (e.g. via a Master’s degree or PhD). As with voluntary work, think carefully about the skillset that the programme is offering when selecting your course; one key aspect to check is that the programme will provide you with the skills and knowledge appropriate for the applied practical aspects of working in environmental consultancy.

CIEEM has accredited a series of undergraduate and postgraduate
degrees in England, Scotland and Wales. Accredited degrees are recognised as providing the appropriate skillset required for environmental consultancy as well as having better links between the industry and the development of appropriate and required skills.

In addition to formal education, there are also opportunities to develop specific skills via short courses. These opportunities are provided via multiple routes which may or may not have an associated cost. Below is a list of some organisations offering such courses.

  • The Freshwater Biological Association offers a range of courses which can provide accreditation for specific skills.
  • CIEEM offers a series of training events that provide skills directly used in environmental consultancy.
  • Buglife provides short courses for invertebrate identification.
  • The Field Studies Council provides a range of natural history and academic courses.
  • The BSBI has a range of online courses (including the Identiplant training course), training webinars and videos and also hosts field meetings and indoor training events.

What to look for in an employer

If you are considering whether to take a post that has been offered to you or whether to move on to another employer, you may want to ask whether the organisation you are considering has the following:

  • a robust time-off-in-lieu (TOIL) policy that is effectively implemented and health and safety-led (TOIL is accrued when individuals work outside ‘standard hours’ as defined by the policies of the employer and involves individuals taking time back to ensure they are able fully to rest and work effectively)
  • flexible working from both home and office
  • structured line management and mentoring/support processes delivered by experienced professionals
  • a graduate/early career training programme (covering technical and wider consultancy skills) plus provision for training to meet the differing needs and goals of individual staff members
  • varied work that will help you grow through different experiences
  • established health and safety policies, guidance and training
  • good project management systems that make hybrid working more straightforward and make delivery of outputs to clients easier
  • opportunities to work in the field and in the office throughout the year
  • career progression opportunities.

What other questions might you ask at interview?

  • If looking at a seasonal contract, ask what proportion of seasonal staff are kept on at the end of the contract period. Some companies have a seasonal ‘draft’ to do volume work and lay off most of them.
  • Ask whether you will have objectives for the contract period. If you will, will there be a clear framework to deliver against? This suggests the company is seriously considering retaining you from day one (and the question demonstrates to them that you are thinking about your future career).
  • Ask how many projects you will be working on, and the sorts of opportunities you will get through them. If it is one or two in the same sector, it would be logical to ask what range of opportunities you might have.

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