Any environmental scientists around?
March 15, 2007 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Any environmental scientists around? I've been accepted into an MSc program in the UK for Environmental Management, and I'll be learning to do environmental impact assessment and environmental auditing. I've been doing a lot of reading on the subject but am having a difficult time finding descriptions of what it's really like to work in this field.

For example - how do I choose a specialization? Is it very competitive and difficult to find work? What is a typical day like? And most importantly - is it satisfying to work for big business or are there too many compromises involved? I ask because it seems like consultancies are constantly chasing after clients, and I wonder what this does to impartiality. Finally, after a few years of doing EIA and auditing, would I be well-placed to continue on to a PhD or would I be considered too "vocational" and not research-oriented? Thank you for any help you can give me.
posted by hazyjane to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is that there are lots of EC jobs out there (in the US at least). To be honest though, most of the people I know who have worked for them are not happy and move on as quickly as they can. You can always go back and do a PhD, so I wouldn't let that worry you. My preference, are Non-Profits who are mission driven and may help you not feel as if you compromise too much.
posted by batboy at 8:20 AM on March 15, 2007

I've been in consulting for about 6 years (In the States here too), and yes, we do have to follow the work around. The good news is that the winning the work part is generally left to the senior folks, and not the less experienced staff. We just get all the work done.

I have a few friends with MS degrees, and they do not always do the work that they specialized in, so I think your specialization question would depend on what your end goal is. For example, getting an MS for more pay/better job, versus getting one as a step to the Phd and eventual professorship.
posted by Big_B at 8:37 AM on March 15, 2007

I work in a consulting firm, and several of our disciplines involve environmental management, impact assessments, site assessments, and so forth. I am not a scientist; I work as a publisher and editor for these folks.

A typical day for a junior commercial remediation staffer with an M.Sc. might involve making a site visit to a former gas station site and picking out spots where boreholes would be drilled to determine soil contaminant levels, coming back to the office and dealing with clients by phone, working on that impact report that was due last week, and so forth.

A junior hydrogeology assessor might spend four weeks working eighteen-hour days in the frozen north determining the flow direction of aquitards for a Wal-Mart site that will be built regardless of the direction of flow.

Junior geomorphologists might be assigned by their (more senior) project manager to coordinate with subcontractors to ensure that his project to build greenspace around a culvert is being carried out to spec. You might even have to pitch in and help unload seedlings.

You might end up writing proposals, day in and day out, for senior staff and not even see your name at the bottom of one for years. Your two-page CV might appear in Appendix A, after everyone else's.

If you have a B.Sc., you'll probably do field work for fifteen years before you get a project manager role. If you have an M.Sc., you'll only be doing grunt work for six or seven years -- if you can get your registered professional designation. Ten years otherwise.

There is plenty of work out there. The pay is pretty good. You will probably have to compromise your green ethics, if you have them -- you're not going to be telling many clients that they cannot build that condominium on top of the contaminated brownfield; you'll be telling them that they can do it after the barest minimum of remediation. You won't be designing beautiful stream diversions with fishladders and ample greenspace. Your boss will be doing that, he'll be on a budget, and you'll be calling landscapers for the cheapest ornamental plant varieties available.

The vast majority of my co-workers love what they do. They can make a difference (seriously), but it's not the pie-in-the-sky job that many think it is when they first decide to get into environmental management.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:28 AM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with mostly everything solid-one-love posted, except for this:

If you have a B.Sc., you'll probably do field work for fifteen years before you get a project manager role. If you have an M.Sc., you'll only be doing grunt work for six or seven years -- if you can get your registered professional designation. Ten years otherwise

I have a BS and only did field work for ~5 years, then I switched jobs and became a junior manager. I also got my PG during the job switch, but I didn't use it as a bargaining tool until afterwards when I knew I passed.
posted by Big_B at 2:52 PM on March 15, 2007

Yeah. The company I work for has very low staff turnover for a consulting firm, so it's entirely possible that people here aren't getting manager roles as quickly as elsewhere in the real world.

That's one advantage of consulting, too -- if you don't like where you're working and you take another job six months or a year later, and churn through companies every year or two, almost nobody's going to bat an eye at your job history.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:40 PM on March 15, 2007

I also do this for a living, specializing in emergencies management (for the government). Solid-one-love has described the routine work of junior positions very well. I've just got a few things to add.

It's very important to get field time in and to "pay your dues". Doing office work only (writing EIAs, client reports, Type I assessments, etc...) is a dead-end. Doing lab work only can be a dead end (you can escape into lab research though). Ideally, you want to have experience in all three. The best people will understand everything about their subject. You don't get to be an expert on sampling from behind a desk. A lot of new folks seem to think that reading is a replacement for experience, it isn't.

Education does make a big difference. The real thing a doctorate gives you is credibility as a project lead. As well as the (narrow) focus on research, a Ph. D. is all about time management and finishing a big project. After hiring a bunch of people, I can say that there's a strong correlation between the seniority of degree and how quickly (or even if) someone can move into a PI or management role. There is a big difference between a new BSc and a doctorate. This difference can be overcome with experience, but it takes 10 to 15 years to get there (ie, longer than grad school).

What the consultancy principles or principle investigators do, what you would be training to do if you decide to pursue a higher degree, is quite varied. First is project management, getting the sampling, analysis and report-writing completed and out to the client. Second is client management: explaining results to clients (and giving evidence for them in court), dealing with problems, soliciting new work (& networking). Third is administration and personnel management. An important part of the job, but has to be minimized so that it doesn't consume your time.

Finally, it's important, even for private firms, to set aside time to do new science. Advancing the state of the art should always be in the back of your mind. Not only is this for the benefit of humanity and the environment, but also for the commercial reason that if you're not leading the field, you're following, and who wants to get work done by the second-best? So write papers, attend conferences and workshops (also great for networking and client solicitation), work on standards committees.

You can always go back to school. Also, what your doctorate (or master's) is in is not really important. Mine was in theoretical/physical chemistry, but my job touches on hydrodynamics, analytical chemistry, fluidics, toxicology, biology and sociology. You will grow into what ever position you end up in. Don't fret over your educational specialization too much.

Impartiality is always an issue for private consultancies. This is not to say that it's always a problem, but you do need a strong sense of professional ethics. There are certainly consultants who will write the report a client wants them to write. It's possible to shade meanings, limit findings and creatively interpret lab results. Read some of the papers on the Exxon Valdez cleanup to see how a single data set can be interpreted by different groups to give very different conclusions, for example. There are also consultants who are among the most forthright and honest people I know.
posted by bonehead at 9:41 AM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I did an MSc in Environmental Assessment at a UK university, for me it was a way of getting back on track after a poor BSc. The UK market for MSc programmes in environmental sciences is competitive enough that you should be able to get some flexibility into any MSc programme, and you'll often be able to dictate the general area of study for assignments in different modules (sometimes it won't make sense and you shouldn't try and force the issue but find an area that is of interest to you then focus there).What I did in terms of a speciality was to find something I was interested in and then try and link assessments in to that wherever possible. So I got into renewable energy and wherever essays/assignments where open choices I came up with something relevant to RE, this was especially important for the dissertation. It was this that got me on to a PhD studentship. I think I fared pretty well in comparison with my class mates in having somewhere to go immediately after finishing the programme, there's as still a lot of competition for jobs in the sector, and I'm willing to bet there's even more competitive since my graduation. Planning ahead may allow you to tailor your learning experience to achieving entry to a particular area more easily.
posted by biffa at 4:51 AM on March 20, 2007

If anyone is looking for work in this area by all means give me a shout.
posted by nthdegx at 2:44 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

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