Where are they now? Alex Cole, an Ecologist

After finishing my GCSEs I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, or even what I wanted to study at university! However, I knew I liked science, in particular Biology, and I wanted a job where I would be able to work outside and wouldn’t be at a desk full time. I ended up choosing A levels in Biology, Chemistry, Psychology and Philosophy & Ethics. I picked Chemistry as I knew Maths and Physics weren’t strong subjects for me, but universities often want students to have studied two science based subjects at A level in order to do a science degree. I had never studied Psychology or Philosophy & Ethics but they were both subjects I was interested in and I decided this was important. I studied all four of these subjects at AS level and continued with Biology, Chemistry and Psychology to A level.

During my second year of college I decided to take a gap year before university. I spent 10 weeks in Fiji doing conservation work, scuba diving and helping to run a research camp. It was great fun and I met some lifelong friends. When I returned home I was able to get a job as a receptionist through a temping company.

I struggled to decided exactly which path to take at university, I began by looking at Marine Biology courses, however, once I realised how much Oceanography (and Physics!) was involved I began to look at Biology and Zoology courses. I ended up choosing Swansea University and a course which allowed me to defer my decision until second year where I chose Zoology.

Having completed my BSc I realised that it was likely that I would need a master’s degree to get a job doing something I enjoyed. Although, having worked really hard during my undergrad degree and not knowing when I would have the opportunity again once I started work, I decided to take another year out to go travelling and save some money. I earnt a place on a month long course in Madagascar covering Tropical Biology and Conservation with the Tropical Biology Association who work in conjunction with Cambridge university. I also travelled to Australia and New Zealand before returning to my trusty receptionist job!

I decided to stay at Swansea University to complete my masters, a decision which was helped by the option to apply for a grant to cover my fees. I completed a taught masters in Environmental Biology: Conservation and Resource Management over one year. During this final year at university I decided that I wanted to work as an Ecologist. I applied for numerous jobs around the country and not long after returning home had a telephone interview for a small company with two offices in Worcester and Hertfordshire. The telephone interview went well and I was invited to a three hour interview with 3 other candidates. This included an interview with the Director of Ecology and another senior member of staff, two practical assignments and a discussion with the rest of the candidates. The next morning I received a phone call to tell me I had got the job!

Two and a half years later and I have been promoted from Assistant Ecologist to Ecologist. My job generally involves working with clients who are applying for planning permission for development. This can be a small scale bat survey for someone who is looking to convert their loft, to surveys of huge arable sites for a house builder. I start by visiting the site to carry out Phase 1 Habitat Surveys – mapping the habitats present and looking for signs of protected species, then when I’m back in the office I write technical reports, advising clients whether they need further survey work for protected species or habitats and how to mitigate for the work they are doing. The protected species surveys can be tiring as they often involve working at night but it’s really rewarding when you see a great crested newt or watch a bat return to roost. I use specialist software to draw plans to accompany my reports as well as for analysing bat calls that have been recorded using our bat detectors. March to October is the busiest time of year as an ecologist and I often work away 2-3 nights a week. Winter is quieter as lots of species are hibernating, but there is still plenty to do in the office including prepping equipment for the following survey season!

Alex Cole, Ecologist