A Career in Environmental Science – Endless Possibilities

Why do we still ask young people ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Should we maybe ask ‘Who do you want to help’ or ‘What cause do you want to champion’?

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The reality is that the kids of today will inherit a vastly different world to the one we have and are growing up with the constant background conversation of climate change, global warming, and growing extinction rates, sobering stuff right! These topics are definitely having an impact on how our kids see themselves in our world, society, and the way they perceive their future and considering a career in Environmental Science could provide endless possibilities in their futures.

The reality is that almost every profession is changing and now has a multitude of sub-specialties that can throw you into a world vastly different than the one you thought your training or education would land you in, which was the case when I was a new graduate but it is only getting more complex with time. 

A few months back I was invited to a high school careers night as an invited guest. I had no children at the school, nor am I an ‘old’ girl’. I was invited purely to talk to the students and try to help them better understand my profession. Most of the conversation started the same way, I would ask ‘what area are you interested in’ and the response was usually a variation of ‘environment’ or ‘agriculture’, not surprising since I live in a regional city that attracts a lot of boarding students from more rural farming communities. What struck me was how little these kids knew about the plethora of options open to them under those two, very broad fields. 

I had mistakenly thought that somehow in the last 20 years, since I was in their shoes the universe would have instilled the young adults with more worldly wisdom, enabling them to march full tilt into their future with precise knowledge of where they were going and exactly what aspects of my field they were going to devote their time to (for the first little while anyway). Now, don’t get me wrong these kids were really switched on and way more discerning than I was at the same age, and the event that I was attending was designed to help answer some of these questions for them. I had just thought that the careers advice component of schooling would have matured over the last 20 years to help them better than it had helped me. The fact that I was attending this event spoke loudly about the progression in the field, however, I was still puzzled as to how come the kids felt confused and directionless. So, I’ve decided to write down some advice based on my 16 years of experience in the environmental field. 

A Career as an Environmental Scientist

When it comes to the environmental field, most people who choose to study Environmental Science in the early 2000’s wanted to become National Parks Rangers (or at least it seemed that way), or something similar. Most of us found out quite quickly after graduation that those jobs were very rare and usually required many years of un-paid volunteer work before you even get your big toe in the door. I believe that things in this regard haven’t changed much since. Once this career path was off the table it became much harder to decide what direction to follow. Whilst there were so many options, I mostly had no clue as to which ones would suit me. 

My advice for high school students and undergraduate students is that your first choice is actually quite simple. How much outdoor field work do you want to do? And can you maintain this level of field work throughout your career? I am now the owner of an environmental consulting company and in my experience, as an employer, most environmental graduates are looking for a job as close to 50/50 split as possible. If this is you then your next choice is, do you want a brown or a green environmental job? 

Brown jobs are where you’re dealing with the human impacts on the environment, clean-up of the damage or managing its extent of impact and possibly all this is done to allow more human impact. At first glance, this might seem like a very undesirable career for a greenie at heart who loves bushwalking, scuba diving and camping but the reality is that humans drive development and development in the right way is extremely rewarding and super exciting to be a part of.  

What does an environmental scientist do?

So What are Your Options?

If you’re a bit of an adrenalin junkie like me then you might relish this kind of fast-paced job. If this sounds like you, some of your options include; 

  • Construction environmental coordinator 
  • Infrastructure Sustainability professional
  • Contaminated Land Consultant; or 
  • Mine site Environmental Officer.  

If you like the idea of a good chunk of field work, but aren’t so keen on the fast-paced high-pressure environment then you could consider a role as a; 

  • Waste management officer 
  • Feed lot or abattoir environmental manager 
  • Ecologist 
  • Environmental officer in state or federal government (EPA, TfNSW, OEH)  
  • Hydrogeologist; and 
  • Soil Conservation Service Officer. 

If your answer was ‘hell no’ that still sounds way too stressful, and your green through and through then your next question to answer is ‘do you like research or not’. This can be a very hard question to answer when your only experience of research is that which is done to complete an undergrad assignment or honours thesis. If you do however think you might like research, ask yourself ‘am I’; 

  • methodical 
  • Patient 
  • driven by attention to detail 
  • able to do repetitive tasks quickly over and over and over (obviously not me) 
  • able to get to a conclusion and make a decision i.e. – not suffer from analysis paralysis 
  • a creative problem solver. 

Obviously, if you answered yes to most of these, then research is probably for you and you could pursue a career in an academic field with a university or in a more research-based role with a product development company. This might take the form of a role in; 

  • the areas of plant breeding 
  • seed development and sales 
  • lab technician; or 
  • government policy or a not for profit where research is a big component of the service like a Cooperative Research Centre, Environmental Institute, ANSTO or the CSIRO. 

If you’re like me and love investigating research findings but find the tedium of coming up with the conclusion, boring as watching paint dry, then maybe you should consider a career doing something else in the ‘green’ side of things. It’s possible that you could love applying your environmental knowledge to something completely different, like;  

  • an eco-tourism venture 
  • sustainable food production solutions 
  • ecology 
  • hydrology 
  • environmental technology development 
  • scientist on an Antarctic cruise ship (keep an eye out for my article on this topic) 
  • Council environmental officer 
  • role with the United Nations, Asian Development Bank, or the fabled; 
  • National Parks ranger. 

Get More Information

So, there it is, a decision tree or quick ‘how to’ for someone trying to narrow down their choices in the environmental field. My suggestions are based on my personal experience and are nowhere near exhaustive. Therefore, to get more information, a great place to start is the job advertisements on Seek, NRM Jobs, www.environmentaljobs.com.auwww.ethicaljobs.com.auwww.greencareer.net.au, and https://au.indeed.com. If you look regularly over several months, you will get a great understanding of the jobs on offer right around Australia and possibly overseas. 

Choosing a career path linked to a job that is regularly advertised will make it somewhat easier to get a job straight out of uni, however, there are many jobs that are not advertised externally. In order to find out about these jobs you could research a company, not-for-profit, or government department that you are interested in, call or email them to get more information, or attend events hosted by that entity. You could also start off as an environmental consultant in a small to medium multi-disciplinary company, like mine, which will give you great experience across a huge array of different sub-fields and help you with gaining great experience. The reason why I think I small-medium company is the best type of experience you can get is because you will be exposed to almost every project that comes through the door. Therefore, you will get exposed to projects in the construction, impact assessment, contaminated land, hydrology, hydrogeology, ecology etc fields, very quickly. 

Hopefully, you have found my article entertaining and insightful. If you are interested to find out more about a career as an environmental consultant, visit our website and read our other blogs or register for our upcoming podcast. 

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