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Biodiversity Technical Officer

Age: 27

Organisation: Environment Agency

 Alex McDonald - Biodiversity Technical Officer

Why did you decide on a career in ecology/environmental management, and when did you decide?

I’d always been really interested in nature and where things live and why. I never liked the idea of sitting in an office all day and really wanted a job that involved outdoors work but that would also in some ways make a difference. I think I decided just before choosing my A-levels that that was the kind of thing I’d like to do but had no idea what type of jobs were available.

How did you get started in the sector?  What qualifications and experience did you have? Have you gained any additional qualifications since?

I have a BSc (Hons) in Marine Biology & Coastal Ecology (mainly because the sea sounded exotic coming from West Yorkshire!) and an MSc in Aquatic Biology & Resource Management. Since leaving University I have done a wide variety of jobs to try to gain more experience. These included field studies instructor for an adventure holiday company, histology for an aquatic eco-toxicology project, working on a wildlife tour boat, running environmental education and conservation working parties on an island in the Bristol Channel and working with schools on sustainability issues including biodiversity. Whilst doing my MSc I also volunteered for the local wildlife trust working at the biological records centre.

How long have you been in your current role?

About one year.

What does a typical day involve? What are your responsibilities?

The day can be very varied - from helping with a crayfish translocation to commenting on a planning application or attending a local Biodiversity Action Plan meeting. My key responsibilities involve: commenting on internal and external consultations that could impact on rivers; working with other EA departments and organisations on river restoration projects and trying to improve the value of rivers for biodiversity; providing input to local biodiversity networks; responding to incidents where needed.

What do you think are the most important skills for someone in your role to have? 

You need a solid understanding of ecology and the ability to think about what a particular pressure could mean for an ecosystem. You also need to be good at interpreting ecological data and recognising the limits of the data. Being happy to work outdoors in all weathers helps, as well as being a ‘people person’ as the work involves trying to influence a lot of individuals, departments and organisations to effect biodiversity gains.

Describe the aspects of your job you find particularly rewarding and those you find challenging?

I like being able to provide input to planning applications and working out how to get the best deal for biodiversity. At present there is a lot to learn, especially in terms of river restoration techniques: what works and what doesn’t. This is challenging at the moment, but I’m hoping I can develop some good skills over time.

Describe your career progression so far and any plans you have for the future

I have had a lot of temporary jobs; these provided a good opportunity to gain experience in a variety of work environments and to work out what I like doing. My previous job working with schools on sustainability allowed me to gain skills in project management, partnership working and managing budgets. I left this to work at the EA as I really wanted to work in ecology and also work for an organisation where there was opportunity for progression. I’m not sure of my plans for the future, but I would perhaps like to work for the national biodiversity team or go more into the projects and partnerships side of EA work.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone seeking a career in the sector?

When I was doing my BSc nobody told us how competitive this sector was to get a job in. You have to build up your practical experience to stand out. Volunteering for your local wildlife trust is a good place to start or see if you can do a work based placement through your University. Even if you have to take a temporary job that you don’t really want, look on it as a good learning experience and take every opportunity you can get to gain transferable skills such as project management, as this will help you to get that job you really want a little further down the line.