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Environmental Scientist

Environmental science seeks to understand the natural world and how it is affected by human activities. It is a vast field, addressing issues such as land management and conservation, climate change, flood control, population growth and alternative energy supplies.

Environmental scientists have expertise in the physical environment and the living environment. Their work helps to ensure sustainable development by monitoring the state of the environment and developing and implementing practices that minimise the damage caused to the world and its resources.

They may work in a number of different areas including conservations, energy, engineering, waste management, water quality, flood defence, air quality and business environmental management.

They usually work as part of a team, advising colleagues or managers and writing reports or making presentations. Many scientists work as consultants, assisting with environmental impact assessments.

Working hours and environment depend on the role. Some work standard full-time hours, but many work longer hours especially on projects requiring intensive research or analysis. Some work is likely to be carried out in an office or laboratory. Fieldwork may involve working in locations in the UK or abroad.

Salaries range from around £15,000 a year to £50,000 or more.

An environmental scientist needs:

  • a sound background in science, biology or geography
  • the ability to analyse and interpret data
  • the ability to explain technical subjects to non-scientific people
  • to have a practical outlook and to enjoy working outdoors
  • an interest in environmental issues.

The main employers include local authorities, environmental agencies, water companies, consultancies, engineering and construction firms, and environmental lobbying organisations.

Most entrants have a degree in environmental science or related subjects. It is also possible to take a first degree in any science subject, followed by postgraduate study in a specialist area of environmental science. Entry to degree courses may vary and applicants should check directly with individual colleges and universities.

Degrees in environmental science cover techniques in research, field survey work and data analysis, and most courses offer fieldwork opportunities.

A career as an environmental scientist requires continuing professional development (CPD) in order to ensure that knowledge and skills are continually updated. There are a number of professional bodies that offer qualifications and membership.

Environmental scientists may progress to take on project and team management responsibilities. They might also choose to move into consultancy work. There may be opportunities to work abroad.

What is the work like?

Environmental science seeks to understand the natural world and, particularly, how it is affected by human activities. Environmental scientists have expertise in the physical environment (land, air and water) and the living environment (plants, animals and people).

Their work helps to ensure sustainable development by monitoring the state of the environment and developing and implementing practices that minimise the damage caused to the world and its resources. It addresses issues such as land management, conservation, climate change, flood control, population growth and alternative energy supplies. Increasing concern about these issues has resulted in a growth in environmental science.

An environmental scientist may work in a range of different areas, including:

  • studying the conservation of plants and animals, working to protect their natural habitats and promote biodiversity
  • developing renewable energy supplies, advising oil and gas companies on the likely effects of a new pipeline or monitoring wildlife near a refinery
  • helping to identify, minimise and manage environmental effects arising from development proposals, for example housing, power stations and airport runways
  • advising on the environmental effects of waste disposal and developing new methods
  • collecting and analysing water samples to see if they meet safety and environmental standards, investigating the cause of abnormalities and proposing solutions
  • working to protect communities from rising water levels by improving flood defences
  • assessing air quality to see if it meets safety and environmental standards, investigating the cause of abnormalities and proposing solutions
  • helping businesses identify how they affect the environment and how they can operate in a way that minimises and manages these effects.

Environmental scientists usually work as part of a team. They often advise colleagues or managers, some of whom may not have a scientific background, by writing reports or making presentations.

An increasing number of scientists work as consultants, as part of a firm or on a freelance basis. In many cases they are brought in to assist with environmental impact assessments, which are required for many developments before permission is granted.

Hours and environment

The working hours and environment depend on the role. A few environmental scientists work standard full-time hours. However, particularly those who work as consultants or project workers may require intensive research or analysis which could involve working longer hours.

Some work is likely to be carried out in an office or laboratory. Fieldwork may involve working in locations in the UK or abroad. These could range from construction sites in the UK to tropical rainforests, depending on the role.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • A new entrant may earn around £15,000 a year.
  • With experience, earnings may rise to around £27,000.
  • Senior environmental scientists with management responsibilities may earn £50,000 or more.

Skills and personal qualities

An environmental scientist needs:

  • a sound background in science, biology or geography
  • an inquisitive nature and good research skills
  • a precise and methodical approach
  • planning and problem-solving skills
  • the ability to analyse and interpret data
  • to be able to communicate effectively with all kinds of people
  • the ability to explain technical subjects to non-scientific people
  • to work well as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • to have a practical outlook and enjoy working outdoors.

Interests

It helps to be interested in:

  • science
  • geography
  • environmental issues.

Getting in

Environmental scientists are employed by a wide range of organisations. The main employers include local authorities, environmental agencies, water companies, consultancies, engineering and construction firms, university research centres and environmental lobbying organisations. An increasing number of scientists work on a consultancy basis.

The number of environmental science posts is rising. However, competition is also increasing as more people undertake study in this field.

Work experience, either paid or voluntary, may help when applying for jobs. Experience on a placement may also be useful. It may be possible to volunteer for environmental charities or for a local council. StudentForce for Sustainability offers a national advice service on careers in sustainable development and arranges paid and voluntary placements in central and eastern England for young people.

Entry routes

Most entrants have a relevant degree. It is also possible to take a first degree in any science subject, followed by postgraduate study in a specialist area of environmental science.

There are many UK degree courses in environmental science and related subjects, such as sustainable development or environmental management. Successful applicants have often spent time working as volunteers for relevant organisations to show commitment to the subject.

To study for a first degree, candidates usually need at least two A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C). Relevant subjects include science, mathematics and geography. Alternative qualifications in relevant subjects may be accepted. Those without the usual qualifications can take an Access course. However, entry requirements do vary and applicants should check with individual colleges and universities.

A postgraduate degree requires a good first degree (usually a first or 2.1).

Degrees in environmental science cover techniques in research, field survey work and data analysis. Most courses offer fieldwork opportunities which can sometimes be abroad. Some courses include work placement experience.

Training

A career as an environmental scientist requires a commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) in order to ensure that knowledge and skills are kept updated.

Environmental scientists are also able to achieve Chartered Environmentalist status. There are currently 23 professional bodies and learned societies who are licensed to accredit their members with the Chartered Environmentalist qualification. For further information visit www.socenv.org.uk.

Getting on

Environmental scientists may progress to take on project and team management responsibilities. Depending on the size of the organisation, they may need to change employer in order to progress. They might also choose to move into consultancy work or into research or teaching in a university.

There may be opportunities for environmental scientists to work abroad.

Further information

British Geological Survey, Kingsley Dunham Centre, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG. 0115 936 3100. Website: www.bgs.ac.uk

The Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), 15 John Street, London WC1N 2EB. 020 7831 3110. Websites: www.ciwem.org and www.environmentalcareers.org.uk

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Customer Contact Unit, Eastbury House, 30-34 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TL. 0845 933 5577. Website: www.defra.gov.uk

The Environment Agency, National Recruitment Service, Richard Fairclough House, Knutsford Road, Latchford, Warrington WA4 1HT. 01925 542050. Website: www.environment-agency.gov.uk

The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM), 43 Southgate Street, Winchester SO23 9EH. 01962 868626. Website: www.ieem.net

The Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), St Nicholas House, 70 Newport, Lincoln LN1 3DP. 01522 540069. Website: www.iema.net

The Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES), Suite 7, 38 Ebury Street, London SW1W 0LU. 020 7730 5516. Website: www.ies-uk.org.uk

Lantra, Lantra House, Stoneleigh Park, Near Coventry, Warwickshire CV8 2LG. 0845 707 8007. Websites: www.lantra.co.uk, www.lantracoursefinder.co.uk

Society for the Environment, The Old School House, Long Street, Atherstone CV9 1AH. 0845 337 2951. Website: www.socenv.org.uk

StudentForce for Sustainability, Oakham Railway Station, Station Approach, Oakham LE15 6QT. 01572 723419. Website: www.studentforce.org.uk

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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