Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang | Ecological Survey Techniques Course at the University of Oxford

Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang is the Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Ecological Survey Techniques. Here she tells Conservation Careers about the exciting one year, part-time course providing the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to conduct effective ecological field surveys and data analysis for a range of key taxa…

What is the Ecological Survey Techniques Programme at the University of Oxford?

The Ecological Survey Techniques Programme which I co-direct is a flexible study programme designed specifically for people who work full time or need to fit their study around other life commitments. It is modular and very flexible, and leads to the award of a Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques.

Our students start with a face-to-face module. Students come to Oxford and get to know each other as a cohort, which is so important for their experience as students, and for professional networking later on. We do lots of practical fieldwork, but the main core of the week is getting to grips with GIS, or Geographical Information Systems, using free software called QGIS. This is particularly beneficial to those of our students who need to update their technical toolkit to progress in their career.

All other modules are online. Two are compulsory. One is in data analysis, which is basically statistics, and they learn how to use an open source software package called R. We really emphasise open source software because it means there’s no licensing issues later on, and our graduates will have access to it, regardless of where they work.

The other compulsory module is field techniques for surveying vegetation and lets our students assess habitats of their target organisms in order to provide evidence-based decision-making and management.

Who is the programme aimed at?

It’s aimed at people who want to get more applied skills in ecological surveying in order to progress in their career or change career into the ecological sector. We have many students who have a background in ecology, but where their degree didn’t equip them with the practical research skills that environmental jobs require. The same goes for people who have experience in the industry, but would like to change their focus to work with and conserve organisms in their natural settings.

The Programme is well suited for people who might not have studied in a while, as the Department for Continuing Education has great expertise in adult education and professional development.

Who typically participates in the programme?

We have an enormous diversity of student stories. There are many people who don’t have an ecology background and want to make a sideways career move into ecology and conservation; the skills we teach them make them more competitive in the job market. There are also people who don’t have a first degree, but have amassed loads of experience in the field, and our course helps them get a formal qualification in recognition of their skills. What I am particularly pleased with is that the course reaches out to people who have had a career break, perhaps women who have taken time out of employment to raise a family, and helps them springboard back into their career with up-to-date skills.

There is also a large contingency of people who gain new skills with us to progress within their organisation.

How does the course help people in their careers?

It helps them by updating or developing their practical ecological skills. There has been much development in recent years in the use of technology in surveying, from RFID tagging of animals to canopy surveying with drones. Likewise, they may need to brush up on one particular group of organisms for a specific project within their organisation. So that’s when they can take an individual module independently as a stand-alone course, although I’m pleased to see that some subsequently decide to take up the whole PG Cert in the following academic year. They can then incorporate the course taken previously into their qualification, so that’s really nice.

Bird data collection sheet with RFID tagging data.

Bird data collection sheet with RFID tagging data.

What sorts of jobs do people go into following the course?

Many of our graduates go into ecological consulting, either with a new organisation or taking on a new role with their current employer. It really helps people who want to get away from a desk job and out into nature, focusing on living things.

There are also people who go on to manage nature reserves – in the UK or abroad – and use their surveying skills to implement evidence based conservation efforts. It is also common for people to use their new skills to progress onto Ecology Masters or PhD programmes, which is another way they can develop their career.

How can people apply or find out more?

They can find out all the details on our website, and if they still have more questions then our team and I are happy to reply to email enquiries.

Then they can apply online through the Oxford Graduate Admissions website.

Department website for our standalone courses and PGCert – http://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/professional/staticdetails.php?course=243

Central University Graduate Admissions Site for the PGCert in Ecological Survey Techniques – http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/courses/pgcert-ecological-survey-techniques

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