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Turn a science degree into a license to make a difference

When discussing my career choice recently I was reflecting with friends how a whole generation of young Australians wanted to be marine biologists. I think it had something to do with Alby Mangles, Harry Butler and the Leyland Bros snorkeling together on the Great Barrier Reef, or Totally Wild. I got as far as choosing between terrestrial ecology and marine ecology for my honours thesis, and I chose terrestrial ecology because I liked scuba diving too much to make it my job…[more on that later]


Some data backing up a claim I have made

Clearly that whole generation didn’t become biologists, only 0.4% of Australia’s population has a graduate degree in environmental studies[1].

If you are graduating this year, that means you are entering a pool of about 104,000 people qualified to practice with scientific credentials. A small proportion of the cohort goes on to undertake honours and post-graduate training, but the majority seek to enter the workforce directly.

There are three things which can help you stand-out from the pack, smooth your entry to the workforce, get a job you actually want to do and make a real impact in what you choose to do…

Communications Skills

Well-structured scientific writing, from the sentences to the references, is par for the course (for those who haven’t partaken in golf from time-to-time, that is pretty good in itself). To differentiate yourself employers want to see evidence that you present-well publically (‘good presentation or representation skills’), have a fantastic handle on how to leverage social media for campaigns or positioning (‘understand modern communication techniques’ – an old-school way of saying ‘can you tell us how to communicate in up-to-date ways’), and have good old-fashioned writing and story-telling skills (‘engage stakeholders effectively’).

Of course the best way to demonstrate these capabilities is to publish your own material – either in third party mediums or in your own online platforms (e.g. your twitter, facebook, or blog). If you want to promote your own media for reference, ensure you do so with the clear expectation that your opinions and positions are open to influence and informed by your work and life experiences. Some sort of peer-reviewed publication is also always very highly regarded as it demonstrates experience in the practice of peer review, refinement, and publication.

Project Management Skills

Going into either the workforce or higher-education project-based learning (e.g. traditional honours or PhD), ‘project management skills’ are fundamental. Increasingly, a majority of the work involved the ‘environment’ sector is project-based – be it consulting, not-for-profit, NRM Group programme delivery, government programme or academic research realms. There are few roles now where people are paid to simply ‘train and retain’ capacity – to hang around in case something happens[2].

To be crystal clear, we are talking about experience or training in activities like:

  • goal(s) setting (what exactly are we setting out to achieve in this unit of work),
  • planning (these milestones need to occur before the next ones, before we get to the end of the project),
  • estimating (e.g. it will take x person y hours to do this, and she is worth $z/hr + various material and overhead costs),
  • budgeting (bringing estimates and planning together – when we add up all the ), and then;
  • making it externally relevant and ever-improving (monitoring, evaluation and communication – bringing it all together and helping everyone understand why it is important).

OK, project management is not sexy. Not sexy like reintroducing long-lost fauna, or surveying the last population of a threated plant species, or running a gel on something that is interesting to run gel on, but it is fundamental to an employee or research student being useful and rewarding, and worth keeping around.

Volunteer Experience

Back in the old-days when it was difficult to get a job in our field, there was only one pathway – by extensive volunteering first.

There is no downside in volunteering, it took me to Christmas Island monitoring Red Crabs before their population was decimated by ants, surveying egrets on Heron Island and French Polynesia, searching for Plesiastria in Sydney Harbour, and scuba-diving for turbo-paced snails in the oceanic torrents of Botany Bay and fringing reefs (the latter relieving my desire to be a marine biologist professionally). As a volunteer director of the Ecological Society of Australia I will get to Alice Springs for the first time this year!

Paid work experience is always useful, and whether paid or not, it is important to demonstrate you can engage in small-team environments, follow instructions and proactively solve problems rather than creating and bringing them to somebody else’s attention.

Paid experience is good, but volunteering experience is often better, because it has the edge – the edge that you actually care about the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

The Final Word

These skills and experiences are necessary to maximize the potential of scientific training. However, of fundamental importance, are the quantitative and critical thinking capabilities developed throughout scientific training – without those the rest are generic.

Bring them all together and you have a potent mix of capability. A combination that is an enabler for passionate graduates to prosecute a career of positive influence and action about causes they care deeply about – the reason we did our degrees in the first place.



[1] Taking this ABS population data with the then Australian population and extrapolating to this year’s population

[2] Regulatory roles are a clear exception – and even within those – there are project-based activities

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, there are more university graduates out there with biology and environmental degrees than there are jobs in these fields. You need to stand out as a biologist to make it or emphasize the soft skills you`ve developed and move elsewhere.

    August 12, 2014
  2. I found this informative, as I’m currently a biology undergraduate, albeit in the US. But I think the prospects are the same most places and I will keep this advice in mind while I continue with my studies–and I’ll keep honing my up-to-date communication skills here!

    August 12, 2014
  3. David Salt #

    Very sage advice Jason. The one thing I would add is that it’s the networks you build while cultivating this experience that will get you a paying job and a career. Be active in building your network (and then adding value to it) and you will find it all so much easier.

    August 12, 2014

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