From Environment & Sustainability undergraduate at Keele University straight to employment as Sustainability Project Officer

Interviewing early career environmentalists there’s a common challenge in moving from being a student to a paid career. Gaining experience alongside your studies or immediately after, often as a volunteer, is core to almost all the life stories of people I talk to. Kat Machin managed to get her life changing experience as part of her Zoology degree with a placement year, Kathryn Phillips whilst living at home and volunteering locally after graduation.

I took up a new position as Teaching Fellow in Environment and Sustainability at Keele University earlier this year. One of our final year BSc Environment & Sustainability students, Sarah Briggs, has just joined us in a permanent paid role as Sustainability Project Officer before even finishing her final year assessments.

Sarah is clear in identifying the volunteering and extra activities she has been involved with as being crucial: for her awareness of the world and opportunities; for skills development and experience; and for getting that job.

So what do you actually do as a Sustainability Project Officer?

Every day is so different and varied. I work with the Director of Education for Sustainability to promote and embed sustainability across the curriculum at Keele. We also work to integrate sustainability in the university’s culture through the co-curriculum and events for students. Day to day, the job is about making connections, building relationships, finding opportunities, and making things happen.

One thing we’re doing is an audit of all the modules taught across the university to identify where sustainability is already embedded as an element and where it can be added. This also provides an opportunity to improve communication about what we’re doing well at Keele in terms of Education for Sustainability. We’re creating a guide with module case studies, highlighting modules that have successfully embedded sustainability, with the aim to inspire module leaders to build sustainability into their own teaching and learning.

Going from an undergraduate straight to being a member of staff must be unusual. How did it happen?

The activities, societies, and volunteering I was involved in as a student gave me real-world experience of sustainability and gave me the confidence to apply for this job. If I’d just come in and attended course lectures, practicals and field trips, yes I would have gained great experience and hopefully a good degree, but I wouldn’t have had the additional experience that I could use as evidence in my application and draw on in the interview.

Keele puts great emphasis on employability and learning how to apply your skills with things like a second year work placement module for environmental students. But you need to take those opportunities and build on them – you get out what you put in. I completed my work placement at the council as a Recycling Officer, where I worked professionally to build relationships with the team, and made suggestions which were implemented to improve communications. That led on to paid work in the summer, providing vital work experience, useful money, and a great insight into the challenges of waste and recycling schemes, which is what I was working on.

What volunteering and extra work did you get involved with? And how did that fit in with being a full-time student?

I’ve always believed that if there’s an opportunity, take it, so I got involved with as much as I possibly could. Yes, as an undergraduate you’re busy, but you can always find some time to get involved with something, however small. The easiest way to get involved outside of lectures is attending lunchtime or evening seminars. You can go and listen to lecturers talk about their research and learn something completely new, just for fun, whether it’s environmental issues, politics, or astrophysics!

Volunteering with schools outreach is probably the next easiest thing to do. I volunteered to help run Solar Scrapheap Challenge workshops, for example, helping groups of kids build solar powered cars and race them. I ran workshops at 5 or 6 different schools, delivering a presentation and running the car-building session. The kids learned about the links between energy, global warming and the environment. I learned a huge amount about delivering sustainability sessions to different audiences and how to problem-solve when things don’t go to plan!

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Mindset is so important. If there’s one thing I would tell current undergraduates or anyone about to start university, it would be to think about the potential future value those experiences could have. Half a dozen schools visits, helping to organise the 2016 World Student Environment Network conference, and volunteering during Green Week is not much over 3 years compared to the work I did for my degree. But without that involvement, I don’t think I would have been a candidate for the job as Sustainability Project Officer, which is about getting out there and making things happen.

Participants of the 2016 World Student Environment Network conference held jointly by Keele and Sussex universities, which Sarah helped to organise

Sarah (right) being presented with the joint winner’s award at the Meliora International Student Sustainability Research Symposium.

Time and time again I see that it’s the extra things alongside a degree that make the difference in getting ahead. What should university applicants be thinking about when looking at places to study?

Where you do your degree is a very personal thing. You should think about what you want out of the university experience as well as the course. Big city universities put you right at the heart of urban sustainability issues and have things going on outside of the university, but campus universities like Keele have a unique ‘living laboratory’ feel – so much of our learning takes place right on our doorstep. Look at the groups you can get involved with, the activities you can join in with, and whether the university is really engaging itself with sustainability. And if the University doesn’t have a group or society already, don’t be afraid to be the one to make things happen and start something new.

Being able to take optional modules from right across the university was invaluable for broadening my perspective. Discovering the different views and ways of working in alternative disciplines can totally transform your perspective, and is very much what sustainability is about.

At the same time, you might realise during your course that you need to specialise for your dream job. If that might be the case, check if you can tailor your final year or a research project to focus on an area. It is worth making sure your study options are flexible because you might only discover that special passion once you’re studying.

There’s lots to think about from your story. What key advice would you give to someone about to start university or who is already there?

Firstly, get involved. Whether it’s extras on your degree programme, lunchtime talks in the department, university outreach, or Students’ Union volunteering. It can give you the experience that you need to fill the blank spaces on your application form and you can have fun in the process.

Secondly, make connections. You can only really connect with people by getting involved. It can be as simple as making the most of your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor. Good impressions are really useful when it comes to asking for references. It also means that academics have you in mind when they’re looking for someone to share an opportunity with. My course director encouraged me to apply to present my final year research project at the Meliora International Student Sustainability Research Symposium, for example. I won a joint award for the Best Symposium Presentation – my proudest achievement!

I’ve been so inspired by people I’ve connected with at Keele as a student, and now I’m Sustainability Project Officer, those existing connections make my job so much easier.

Adam Moolna was talking to Sarah Briggs, newly appointed Sustainability Project Officer at Keele University’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. Sarah made the successful transition straight from student to staff, completing her BSc Environment & Sustainability and taking up her new post before graduation. Adam works as a Teaching Fellow in Environment and Sustainability at Keele University and is the admissions tutor for BSc Environmental Science and BSc Environment & Sustainability.

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