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Sustainability and the Environment | The Careers Service Sustainability and the Environment – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector
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Sustainability and the environment are diverse topics that cut across many employment sectors. Career paths are not always easily defined and will depend on the area of work you are interested in as well as the type of organisation you wish to join.

An increase in environmental legislation has led to a greater number of opportunities within pollution control, waste management, recycling and carbon management. Likewise, increased public awareness of environmental issues has led to considerable investment in sustainable development and renewable energy sources. Many organisations have also realised that it is both practical and responsible to develop more efficient processes, use fewer natural resources and produce less waste. As such, sustainability and environmental work is no longer a niche market and has gradually been becoming more mainstream, with large companies providing sustainability reports and audits in the same way they provide financial and audit reports. However, competition can be fierce and vacancies rarely exist for inexperienced graduates. Postgraduate qualifications may be required and short-term and/or low-paid jobs can initially provide valuable experience.

The range of employers who recruit in this area is wide and includes the following sectors:

  • Voluntary and charity sector, e.g. wildlife and habitat conservation charities and environmental NGOs, pressure groups, expeditions, and trusts.
  • Public sector, e.g. regulatory bodies, such as local authorities, the Environment Agency, research institutes, educational establishments, and national parks and monuments.
  • Intergovernmental and international sector, e.g. United Nations (UNEP, UNDP, FAO, WFP), international environmental think tanks and research institutes, commissions and consultative bodies.
  • Private sector, ranging from sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams in large, multinational companies to those involved in environmental protection and resource management, such as the water and forestry industries, nuclear, gas, chemical, electricity, oil and mining companies, environmental consultancies, sustainability consultancies and research firms, eco-tourism businesses, and companies involved in renewable energy sources.

See also Careers Beyond Profit for advice on how to check out the ethics and values of an organisation.

Types of job
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Whilst the range of jobs in this sector is tremendously varied, people working in any area will be primarily concerned with the impact of people and industry on the environment – below are some examples:

Environmental conservation

Conservationists and ecologists work in a wide range of urban and rural environments to protect and improve the environment. Most begin their careers in field-based jobs, collecting and analysing data, and progress on to managing projects, liaising with stakeholders and developing strategy. There may also be a community education element to conservation roles.

The main employers are government bodies e.g. The Environment Agency, Natural England and DEFRA and local and national charities (find a list at Charity Choice).

It’s a competitive sector. Be prepared to build up experience through volunteering with conservation organisations. If you are interested in a specific organisation try to find out how they recruit (through an agency or specific websites?) so that you can target them in the most effective way. Use the resources listed at the bottom of the webpage to research your options.

Climate change

Many scientists are engaged in analysing and predicting climate change and developing models to assess its potential impact. The range of scientific disciplines is immense: remote sensing, atmosphere sampling and modelling, oceanography, study of ice caps, sea ice, glaciers and the extent of frozen tundra and carbon sequestration studies, to name a few. Experience of handling large datasets can be important. Non-technical roles also exist in creating strategies to mitigate the risks of climate change, in advocacy, campaigning and in education. Your work on climate change could be based in a university, a government body or the private sector. Charities and campaign groups are also active in this area.

Renewable energy

Please see our webpage on Energy careers for information about this popular sector.

Sustainability

Sustainable management of processes and resources is a growth area as businesses and governments strive to meet national and EU environmental impact targets. Opportunities exist in carbon management, as well as in the development of cleaner industrial processes, sustainable procurement, low carbon energy generation and improved energy efficiency. Many businesses and government bodies are develop sustainability policies and procedure. Some produce these in-house, others turn to the growing numbers of sustainability consulting firms.

Environmental protection & control

This involves pollution prevention and control, ensuring compliance with laws and regulations regarding industrial and other waste. The Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are the UK’s governmental agencies responsible for administering laws to control and reduce pollution. Large companies may have in-house teams looking after this area, but much of the work is undertaken by specialist consulting firms.

Environmental scientists & engineers

People working in this sector apply science and engineering principles to improve the environment, to clean up polluted sites and to provide clean water, air and land. They are often responsible for designing public and industrial water treatment systems, as well as conducting hazardous waste management studies, providing advice and developing regulations. They are concerned with environmental issues, such as the effects of acid rain, pollution and ozone depletion. See the Engineering, Energy and Scientific R&D web pages and the Prospects website for more information.

A large number of companies also promote holidays as ‘Eco-tourism’ – see The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) for more information.

Environmental law & litigation

Practitioners are concerned with a body of law that seeks to protect the environment that may be affected, impacted or endangered by human activities. Some environmental laws regulate the quantity and nature of the impact of human activities. An example might be setting allowable levels of pollution or requiring permits for potentially harmful activities.

Other environmental laws are preventive in nature and seek to assess the possible impacts before the human activities can occur. While many countries worldwide have accumulated impressive sets of environmental laws, their implementation has often been poor. Nowadays, environmental law is seen as a critical means of promoting sustainable development. Policy concepts such as the precautionary principle, public participation, environmental justice and the “polluter pays” principle have informed many environmental law reforms in this respect.

The environmental law sector encompasses legal careers in a variety of public and private organisations, including providing legal advice, prosecuting offenders for breaches of environmental law, and advising on environmental law and policy initiatives. For more information see our pages on Solicitors and Barristers, as well as the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) and Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD).

Environmental policy

Policy is usually decided at a national or international level. International Environmental Co-operation involves assessing global, regional and national environmental conditions and trends, addressing existing and emerging environmental issues at the global and regional levels and bringing environmental experts together. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment. It works with other United Nations entities, international organisations, national governments, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and civil society to achieve this.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Environment Directorate works together with the 30 member countries of the OECD and selected non-members to improve country environmental policies.

Organic Agriculture

Research and opportunities associated with Organic Agriculture are increasing, as demand for organically produced food rises. Organic farming systems have been designed to produce food with care for human health, the environment and animal welfare. For more information see World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

Environmental and special interest advocacy

Working with pressure groups often means adopting a highly visible public profile, although not all groups are frontline. Opportunities in many of the smaller groups for paid work are few, but volunteers are often needed. The purpose of the groups is to increase awareness of particular issues, and to campaign directly for change.

Entry points
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Building relevant experience (see below) is key for accessing many careers in sustainability and the environment. This could be through relevant student societies, volunteering, internships, choice of academic papers or projects or perhaps via a relevant course of postgraduate study.

A postgraduate qualification is often required to follow a career in this sector. Further study may be at either Masters or PhD level, depending on the particular career you wish to pursue. For example, whilst a PhD is important for a career in research, taught Masters courses are popular when entering the field of environmental consultancy. Not all environmental lawyers or consultants studied law, or specifically environmental law, at undergraduate level – however they are all qualified solicitors or barristers (in the UK), so it is worth exploring the different degrees, courses and qualification options available.

There are a wide range of specialist courses at the Masters level, providing a focus on particular environmental issues. Consider:

  • How relevant is the course to the environmental field within which you want to work?
  • What do students leaving the course go on to do? Contact the institution offering the course and ask about destinations data.
  • Does the course have a strong practical element? Often, vocational courses that have a strong practical element and/or project placements in environmental organisations (through which you can make valuable contacts with potential employers) will provide you with enhanced job prospects.
  • Talk to employers and find out which courses they particularly recommend.
Skills & experience
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Skills needed

Environmental work is of particular interest to life scientists (eg: those who have studied subjects such as biology, biochemistry, zoology etc.), as the sector has expanded and diversified so has the range of opportunity available to graduates of all disciplines. Apart from having a good degree and a real commitment to the work, other useful skills include the following:

  • The ability to work in a team
  • Strong communication skills
  • Computer literacy
  • Relevant environmental/practical knowledge and experience
  • Appropriate postgraduate qualifications or experience of the sector
  • Self-confidence – particularly if you are in a role in which you need to convince others about an environmental concern
  • In some areas, a degree of commercial awareness
  • And, if you are thinking of working internationally, an additional language can be an asset.

Getting experience

For most roles in this sector it is essential that you try to proactively find relevant work experience, even on a voluntary basis.

Volunteering

Work-shadowing and information interviewing

Talking to people about their work provides valuable insights and helps you to develop hone your career ideas and strategy. Work-shadowing can be a useful way of finding out more about a particular area, as well as providing a source of contacts. Be prepared to be proactive in your search and make speculative applications. Research organisations to approach using the resources listed below, and use alumni networks on LinkedIn and the Oxford Alumni Community to identify Oxford graduates to approach for a conversation.

Internships

You will find some of these advertised on CareerConnect and on graduate careers websites such as Prospects, Target Jobs and Gradcracker. Many large organisations post opportunities on Twitter and on their Facebook and LinkedIn pages so it is worth using social media to keep an eye on your chosen sector.

Smaller companies may not have a regular advertised internship programme, and will either advertise ad hoc as positions arise or they may rely on speculative applications.

  • The Summer Internship Programme run by The Careers Service offers placements in a wide range of organisations, all over the world.
  • The Micro-Internship Programme offers short-term work experience placements, which take place in 9th or 10th week. Each internship gives you the opportunity to observe and assist with a notable project and research-based projects are often available.

Student societies and college activities

  • Many College JCR/MCR committees have an “Environment Officer” or similar post, or seek volunteers to set up and/or, manage recycling schemes.
  • The Oxford Climate Society organises events, seminars, publications and campaigning. They have an excellent newsletter too.
  • Oxford Networks for the Environment links researchers and other groups across the University.
  • Oxford Waste Society
  • Student Switch Off. Become a student ambassador for the campaign run at Oxford by the Environmental Sustainability team but nationally by the National Union of Students.
  • Green Impact is an environmental programme that enables staff and students to play an active role in improving the sustainable practices of their building, department or college.
  • Sustainability Skills Bank offers small projects for students to contribute to sustainability across the University.

Expeditions

You may come across a number of charities and other organisations that offer opportunities to get involved with environmental and sustainable development projects, often in countries that would be difficult to visit independently. Some of these programmes charge students to take part. While we have seen students who have gained useful experience  through these programme, particularly in the conservation sector, the costs involved can be prohibitive for many and we would encourage you to book an appointment with a Careers Adviser to explore all of your options.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer, the status of the employer and the location of your employer as employment laws vary from country to country. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship in the UK, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a job
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Many environmental organisations are small, and have only occasional vacancies that arise on a sporadic basis, so you may have to be proactive and contact companies you are interested in yourself. See our webpage on Making Speculative Approaches.

The lack of large mainstream graduate recruiters in the sector makes it essential that you network as much as possible, and let your contacts know if you are available for work. Likewise, be aware of current environmental issues. Often, if you are willing to work on a short-term, voluntary basis for an employer, then you are in a stronger position should a paid vacancy arise.

Other sources of job opportunities include the New Scientist and The Guardian, both available at the Careers Service. You will also find vacancies on the internet, for example on the Environmental Data Services (ENDS) website and the environment and sustainability recruitment website ACRE. In addition, many environmental charities advertise jobs on their websites, e.g. TCV and Friends of the Earth. Local and county councils will also advertise environment-related positions on their respective websites.

Our resources
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Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Green Careers – Choosing Work for a Sustainable Future, Jim Cassio & Alice Rush

Journals

We subscribe to the following journals in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • New Scientist

Podcasts of past events

Careers In Conservation, Ecology And Sustainability

Andy Holyoak, Principal Ecologist, Aspect Ecology, 1.00 – 17.05
Alice Baker, Project Officer, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and experience in international conservation, 17.24 – 30.38
Jack Randall, wildlife TV producer & host for National Geographic, 30.44 – 43.14

Careers in Environment & Renewables

Interested in finding out more about careers in the Environment? Listen to Nick King, an environment professional with over 30 years experience in sustainable development, climate change mitigation and adaptation, talk about his extensive career working in both the UK and abroad and providing advice on developing your career in this sector.

External resources
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General information and vacancies

Sector vacancies

Institutes, directories and research councils

Environmental conservation and management

Environmental protection and control

Sustainable development and renewable energy

Environmental law

International environmental co-operation

Organic agriculture

Pressure groups

Equality, diversity & positive action
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A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they are a Disability Confident employer or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s website on discrimination.

  • STEM Disability Committee provides support for disabled students and workers in science, technology, engineering and maths. Use the portal section of their website for a comprehensive set of links to relevant groups and projects.
  • WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology. Their extensive website showcases case studies of female role models in technical roles, has a forum (GetSET) for women in science, engineering and technology and links to opportunities for mentoring.

See also Careers Beyond Profit for advice on how to check out the ethics and values of an organisation.

This information was last updated on 28 May 2020.
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