If you are pursuing an environmental career, it can be daunting to think about the future. Navigating the job market these days can be overwhelming and incredibly frustrating.
A worrisome “Catch 22” conundrum greets most people at stepping stone number one of an environmental career path. You need experience to get an entry-level position, but you need an entry-level position to gain experience. It can be disheartening.
But don’t lose hope – especially if you have some free time. There are various steps you can take now to improve your chances of getting that first position. Even if you have cleared the first employment hurdle and you already have your foot (or leg or torso) in the door, it never hurts to build your skills and knowledge.
The term “environmental careers” refers to a vast umbrella of opportunities that extend widely across multiple disciplines. You may or may not have an idea of where you are headed. And that itself can complicate your job search (not to mention add to your anxiety). But thankfully, the ideas in this article can also help you figure out (and confirm) your career path – which is great because this is one of the most helpful things you can do.
Check out our list of ideas for how you can advance your environmental career now.
1. Conduct Informational Interviews
If you can define “your dream job” or even just “a great job” you have taken an important step. From there you can define a step-by-step career pathway to arrive at your dream job. It can be difficult to figure this out on your own. So just ask someone who has already done it.
If you are interested in a specific position (or area of research for graduate school), do a little digging and find people who already do that work. Then reach out to them. You can find people through organizations or labs related to your interests. You can also reach out to people through Facebook professional groups in fields like the career networks in wildlife science and marine biology.
If you have a lot of dream jobs, talk to a lot of people. These discussions may also help you narrow down your interests.
Conducting an interview may sound scary. But face your fear! No one can tell you about a field better than a person who is living it. Simply put, informational interviews are one of the best ways to get real answers about what it takes to get to where you want to go.
2. Volunteer Somewhere
Volunteering can be a helpful step for people who are interested in an environmental career but lack the education and skills to get an entry level or seasonal job. Volunteering is a great way to gain some technical and specialized skills that you might need for these jobs but don’t have.
But more importantly, volunteering can help you gain important insight into a career.
See if you actually want to do it. Reality is often different from our perceptions. Volunteering can help you decide if a career path is really right for you (before you spend years in school preparing for it).
If you look around in your area, you will likely find environmental organizations and university research labs that have low-intensity opportunities for you to help with a project 5 or 10 hours per week.
If you are looking for something higher intensity, then organizations like conservation corps offer longer term, full time volunteer opportunities that include some financial and educational benefits.
3. Learn GIS
Geographic Information Systems. It is one of the most useful tools for environmental and conservation work.
It allows you to make sense of mountains of data. Much of environmental work is intrinsically linked to space (as in spatial position, not stars and planets and stuff… leave that to the astronomers), which makes GIS invaluable to many projects. It’s also an invaluable addition to your resume.
If you have time, you can learn GIS or build your skills if you have a background in it. Luckily, a multitude of online resources can help you accomplish this. Courses range from beginner to expert and from free to not-so-free.
Free GIS Resources
Esri is a great place to start.
Paid Courses and Certificate Programs
Certificate programs are a series of courses. They can provide a deeper education in GIS than individual online resources. They cost money – sometimes a lot of money – but they lead to an official certification that you can showcase on your resume.
Here’s a relatively inexpensive certification program (offered by UC Davis) through Coursera.
4. Build Your Specialized Skills
Ecology teaches us that specialization can lead to tremendous success. And there are many careers under the environmental umbrella that utilize very specialized skills.
Data Science Programs
For example, much of environmental work exists in the realm of science and data. R and Python are the 2 most widely used programs. You can spend 10 summers measuring tree trunks in Guatemala. But it won’t mean anything to anyone unless you can properly analyze all those carefully collected numbers.
But learning R or Python requires learning a new language. The language of programming. And this requires time and study. But, like GIS, there are numerous courses online to choose from. Datacamp has courses in all the major data science programs, and you can find courses on Coursera (R, Python) as well.
If you’re artistically inclined or have amazing attention for detail, scientific illustration might interest you. Though photography and videos are robust tools, there are still limitations. Scientific illustrators use art to help us visualize concepts and objects that are beyond the scope of the eyeball.
EdX offers this online course. There is a free audit option or an affordable certificate. You can also find internships or and graduate certificate programs at various universities and institutions. Like CSU Monterey Bay, California Academy of Sciences or University of Washington.
Learning CMR can boost your resume tremendously for wildlife-related jobs. Scientists use CRM to estimate wildlife populations. This data helps us assess the health of ecosystems so we can create sound management plans and policy.
CMR is not widely taught. But if you want to work in the wildlife profession, learning this specialized skill could help your career. This online course can help you learn the basics.
5. Read Journal Articles
Reading scientific journal articles on a daily basis can be a great way to increase your knowledge and broaden your understanding of the field. Everyday, scientific journals in your field of interest are publishing articles with new research findings and ideas.
When you read journal articles, it can help you in many ways. It can better inform you for school, interviews or jobs. It can broaden your understanding of your field which can help you develop your career path and research interests – it may even open your eyes to areas of your field that you didn’t know existed.
Reading journal articles is a great way to explore the possibilities of graduate school.
When you find an article that especially piques your interest, you can explore more articles through the references. This can be a great way to find research labs for graduate school. You can email study authors to ask questions about the study.
So how do you find journal articles to read? You can start off with the leading scientific journals in your area of interest (ask around if you need recommendations). If you don’t have library access to articles, you may want to select open-source options. Then, bookmark their table of contents webpages that show new articles each day as they are approved (or follow them in a reader application). For example, here is the table of contents page for the journal Ecology. Then each day, check in and review the new abstracts. When you find an interesting abstract, add the full article link to your “To Read List.” Try the “30 Articles in 30 Days Challenge.” Make reading journal articles a “habit”.
6. Attend Conferences
You don’t have to be at the forefront of your field to attend a conference. They are great opportunities for you to learn and stay updated about current research and professional developments.
Learning is a key goal here. But the connections you make at conferences can be just as valuable. It’s much easier to network when you have multiple people you want to connect with – all in the same spot.
Unfortunately, during COVID, these opportunities are limited. But they are not gone completely. Many of these events have moved to online platforms. You won’t be in the same physical space as these folks. But you can still work the virtual room to build your network.
WASET and Conference Next are great resources for finding conferences in different disciplines. There are many databases like these online. You can also find events by talking to people in your field. Ask a biologist friend or your ecology professor if they’ve got any conferences on their calendar. And maybe tag along…
7. Participate in Citizen Science
Citizen science projects are scientific research studies in which “ordinary” people are helping with the data collection.
These are great opportunities to practice and learn all kinds of valuable skills.
Among other things, you can assist with data entry, identify different organisms, or identify individual animals. You can get exposure to different aspects of science through these projects.
Zooniverse is great because it’s easy to browse specific topics and find an array of interesting studies. You can use the vast list to find things that really interest you. There’s a huge variety.
Find studies like SquirrelMapper, which tracks the selection for specific color morphs in your favorite rodent. Or Aurora Zoo, which looks at the tiniest shapes within the aurora borealis to better understand our atmosphere.
Citizen science projects can be powerful. Entirely new species have been discovered with crowdsourced science! It can help your career and it also feels really good to contribute. iNaturalist and eBird are other popular citizen science sites.
8. Practice Your Naturalist Skills
Seriously. Just go outside and remember why you wanted to get into this field.
Learn about the natural history of your area. Go on a walk and bring a field guide. Find a Nature Mystery and work to solve it. Keep a nature journal. Practice plant ID. Look closely at the rocks. Learn bird language. Practice tracking. Get connected.
So often, as we move forward in our careers, we narrow our focus to the specifics of our niche. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a lot of value in building expertise on a subject.
But backing up and remembering to look at the big picture will help you combat tunnel vision.
And it has the potential to invite epiphany in your own field. One of the major points we learn in our ecological and environmental classes is that everything is connected.
So pay attention to all of your surroundings and you just might discover those connections.