A look into Ecology Careers | Neil Middleton

“My most helpful advice for people looking at ecology careers would be: to reach for your goals. Be determined, be consistent, do not other people tell you that something is not possible. But realistically, you need to work very hard at the right things in order to achieve at a high level”, said Neil Middleton when speaking of ecology careers.

Neil Middleton has over 35 years of experience within the service, financial and ecological sectors, performing a variety of leadership, managerial, technical, customer service, people development, consultancy, marketing and financial roles. He is the managing director of two companies operating within the UK: Time For Bespoke Solutions, a business consultancy/training company he established in 2006, and BatAbility Courses & Tuition, a business that provides people development solutions. In addition, he is a co-owner of Echoes Ecology Ltd, a company that he founded in 2006.

How did you work up to where you are today?

Firstly, I started to work in the service sector, for an insurance company in the UK. I did this for twenty-four years; but the opportunity to leave and do something different and more inspiring occurred. Therefore, in 2006, I set up two businesses (Echoes Ecology Ltd, and Time For Bespoke Solutions Ltd). Prior to this I had set up a voluntary bat research project within the Central Belt of Scotland (Bat & The Millennium Link).

During that experience, I started to become more interested in ecology consultancy, because I had a strong interest for bats, birds and other aspects of natural history. Prior to setting up Echoes Ecology, I had attended a lot of training courses, and carried out much self-development in order to acquire all the required knowledge. So as you can see, I didn’t make the conventional rout into the sector via a university education.

What do you love most about being an ecologist?

I had always had, since childhood, an interest in natural history, in particular birds and mammals. I have been lucky because through a lifetime of acquired skills, knowledge and experience has meant that I was able to start a business within the sector, from which I have got much satisfaction.

However, I think that there are two things, which may be very helpful, in order to succeed in the ecology sector. Firstly, studying animals, being passionate about it, learning about it as much as you can. And secondly, a strong interest for the hardest of all species that is going to impact upon your career: the human being.

I have been fortunate to collaborated with many excellent people along my journey, but also I have met some people who have disappointed me (no doubt, some people have been disappointed me when they have met me, also!). In an ecology office, you are surrounded by other people: your boss; your colleagues; your customers. If these people do not interact well with each other, and do not develop good levels of communication, then this could make working life difficult and ineffective. After that, it may be very complicated to find a way in order to solve the problems.

Are there any downsides of ecology careers?

According to my opinion, there are two downsides. First of all, from an employee perspective. When you carry out many protected species surveys (e.g. bats, amphibians, birds) in a professional environment and following correct guidance, you will potentially have to work many hours, and any time within a 24 hour day, from March to September. This can be really tough during the survey season, because it means that your sleep patterns will be impacted upon, as well as your personal interaction with family and friends.

This aspect of the ecology sector is very difficult to accept, but it depends from person to person, because not all of us can live a very anti-social spring, summer and autumn. However, if you are truly passionate in what you are doing, if you are able to pursue the cause and work well within a team, you can have an extremely rewarding career. It does however take commitment, drive, passion and effort. But, if you are someone who doesn’t like working long hours, you are going to find that it is tough going. Successful ecologist, in general, accept the hard and tiring aspects of the job, and are able to work in challenging conditions.

Someone who comes into the sector straight from university, has already acquired much knowledge, but they do not necessarily realise the difficult hours and the hard working conditions, they will face when they arrive in the ecology sector.

Therefore, you can be very knowledge-able about your area of interest, but you must also face up to with the strong conditions which the job requires. One thing that ecology consultancies struggle with is that people from university are often not ‘ready’, based on their university studies alone, to walk into a job within this sector. This is, because they, have not always been taught about the subjects, methods and approaches relevant to protected. Also they have not been given the practical experience to any high level, if at all. For instance, I have seen many CVs showing the candidate has good university qualifications, but this alone, for many ecological consultancies, is not enough for someone looking to start their career off at a full time level within a business.

The ecology consultancy sector needs people who have acquired practical experience in the field, relating to the relevant species, and with a high level of inter-personal skills. It is a business environment after all, so if you want to be employed, you must think: “how can I be employable?”.

For instance, you can develop skills on some IT software packages relevant to the sectors (e.g. bat call analysis software). You can develop your business acumen, and learn about communication within the workplace. With these skills you may become more attractive for an entry level position within the ecology sector.

All summed up, university qualifications are fantastic, but on their own quite often they are not the full answer to someone wishing to have a successful career with our ecology sector. Thus, to be employable and successful, you must have good technical knowledge, a lot practical experience, and as importantly have a good level of non-technical skills (e.g. communication, organisation, team working).

In the UK this can be done by finding a seasonal position within the ecology sector.

What advice would you give to people looking at ecology careers?

In the UK, fifteen years ago, there were not nearly as many opportunities within the ecological consultancy sector as there is today.

Indeed, even today, within the academic world, it is not unusual to find that no-one has mentioned consultancy as a potential route to many students. I know people who had never heard of, or considered, our sector until they commenced with their job search after qualification. In my opinion, this is sad. The university system (and to be fair some do) must be able to cover with student the knowledge and skills useful for our sector. Granted, if you are extremely strong and knowledgeable (despite your further education training), on a particular species group, then you will be employable. However, most students do not fit into this category and hence the search for a job can be frustrating.

Secondly, when you start your academic path, you must think about the end result you are seeking to achieve (a job in your area of interest!). You are after all, a costumer (for 4-5 years) of the academic world, and your education is being paid for in some way. Think about what kind of knowledge you can potentially get during this time. To receive a relevant degree is very important but you should also seek training and experience in something that you are passionate about, albeit something connected to your studies. Do not leave it to the university to define you – e.g. do voluntary work in the conservation or private sector, before university ends.

In conclusion be determined, be consistent and do not leave it to others to put everything on a plate for you. You can also be a lucky one and land your dream job. But, for almost all of us, that level of luck only arrives at your doorstep after a lot of hard work and a well thought out approach to launching and developing a successful career in the sector of your choice.

Author details:
Ms. Valentina Iesari (MSc. of Biological Sciences LM-6)

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Organisational Manager