A career as an environmental consultant (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is an email interview I conducted with Brian Gaas, who got a Ph.D. in oceanography and then went into environmental consulting. It’s part 4 in our series on non-academic careers for ecologists. For links to earlier posts in the series, go here. Thanks very much to Brian for taking the time to answer my questions.


1. When and how did you decide to go into environmental consulting?

In my case, it was more a matter of chance than design. I was in Ph.D. program for oceanography, and decided early on that I did not want to follow the traditional academic route. After graduate school, I followed my wife to Calgary (Alberta, Canada) so she could begin her own career. There aren’t a lot of extant oceans in Alberta these days, so I looked for a career that would allow me to continue working in the aquatic sciences. Given the large presence of natural resource extraction companies operating out of Calgary, environmental consulting provided that avenue for me. I’m now in my 4th year as a consultant.

2. Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your non-academic career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?

I was fortunate to have a graduate advisor who accepted the fact that I didn’t want to be an academic. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after graduate school instead of academia. My advisor forwarded me job postings from oceanography journals and magazines (both of which can have extensive career postings) that were related to my interests and talents. I was also encouraged to speak to industry representatives at conferences and meetings. In hindsight (and here’s my own piece of unsolicited advice), I should have spent some time looking at job posting boards to see what types of positions were available for people with my background. That would have given me a better sense of what was out there, and allowed me to align my education with the requirements of the positions that looked interesting.

3. Tell readers a bit about your current position, how you found it, and what attracted you to it.

I was hired as a “water quality specialist.” And just what is a water quality specialist? In general, we’re concerned with identifying and predicting changes in the aquatic chemistry and lower trophic levels of surface waters. For the most part, the projects we deal with are related to natural resource extraction (energy and metals/minerals). Within that overall scope, I personally focus on the linkages between aerial deposition and surface water chemistry, especially acidification and eutrophication. My work involves a lot of aquatic chemistry but it is interdisciplinary; a standard environmental impact assessment for the aerial deposition section combines aspects of aquatic chemistry, meteorology and air chemistry, soil chemistry, hydrology, and vegetation.

I found the opening for my position the old-fashioned way… at least, old-fashioned for the internet age: I combed through numerous corporate and government job boards. In addition to the job boards, I would look at the “careers” section of companies’ websites that were mentioned in job postings, in case they had additional jobs listed that I didn’t catch during my job board searches.

I applied for the position because it met the three major criteria I had identified for myself: 1) it was in Calgary, 2) it required a science degree, and 3) the overall topic was at least somewhat related to my field.

4. In what ways do you find your current position to be a change from academia? Are there aspects of the position that are a “culture shock” or that have required some adjustment on your part?

Interestingly, the first part of this question was asked as part of my job interview. There are some definite differences between life in the consulting world and that of academia. The most obvious difference is that, as a consultant, you are providing a service (data accumulation and interpretation) and a product (reports) to a client. With that in mind, your work tends to have a relatively narrow scope, defined timelines, and specific budgets for each major task. A single person is almost always managing or working on multiple projects at one time, and there is a lot of delegation of work. Each hour of work done for a project needs to be accounted for (so it can be billed to the client), so there is a strong emphasis on efficiency and time-management that isn’t as important in academia. In general, I have found the questions that we address for clients are often larger in scope and are addressed more simply and generally than they would be in an academic setting. The “answers” to the questions addressed in consulting reports, as well as the questions themselves, are often driven more by regulatory requirements than by the pursuit for more in-depth knowledge on a topic.

I’m still adjusting to the consulting mindset. The questions we address in our reports are not simple, but we rarely have the time or budget to answer them to the same degree that an academic publication might require. Qualitative answers are generally more acceptable in consulting than in academia, and there is an emphasis on consistency in methods between projects that isn’t present (and perhaps even discouraged to some degree) in academia.

5. In what ways has your academic background helped you in your current position?

The most obvious benefit is in the acquisition of additional book knowledge, such as aquatic chemistry or various data analysis techniques. Almost more importantly, though, graduate school provided me with experience in thinking critically and in reviewing other people’s work. Given the time and money constraints of consulting, there is often a tendency to do things in a standard and consistent way to maximize efficiency. My academic background has provided me tools and experience to look critically at the “standard way,” see where untested assumptions are, design ways to approach questions from different avenues, and come up with additional questions that should be asked.

6. Any regrets about not pursuing an academic career path? Could you see yourself ever going back to academia at some point?

Yes and no. I miss the freedom to choose my own projects and the ability to explore interesting aspects of the data, even if those aspects fall outside the scope of the project. In academia, you are expected to take the time to learn new things that are related to your work, whereas you might not have the luxury to do so on a project with a small budget and tight deadline. On the other hand, the work I do in consulting has direct relevance to the “real world.” I know that many people will read the reports I write, and that those reports will be used to make critical decisions about a project.

I do not foresee myself going into a full-time academic position. I have not really found myself lacking opportunities to learn new skills (though finding the time to do it is another matter), and I believe that I am making valuable contributions to my group, the company, the clients, and stakeholders by bringing my particular skills and knowledge base to the projects I work on, especially when there is some flexibility to expand the scope of the work. I’m not sure I would feel the same level of satisfaction if the work I did was primarily relegated to the academic community. That said, I would like to strengthen my ties to the academia, and address some of those “I should really publish that!” projects. The questions that we address in our consulting reports are very closely linked to questions being explored by through university and government research programs, and there is a great potential for collaboration between industry and academia, especially here in Alberta.

7. Anything about your current position that came as a surprise to you?

I think the biggest surprise to me was the emphasis on project management. While much of the work my group does is performed by technical specialists, the upper levels (i.e., those who are paid more) are in management roles and tend not to crunch numbers or write standard reports. A level of technical expertise is assumed at each level, but the management aspect of the job is emphasized as you progress upwards. If you are identified as being very strong technically, there are some upper level positions that focus on data analysis and interpretation.

8. Anything else you want to say to readers considering environmental consulting, or a non-academic career path more generally?

In part, it’s advice for anyone going through the academic post-secondary education process:

  1. Take as much math as you can. It doesn’t matter if you are going into physics or biology, academia or industry – there will be a use for it. From population genetics to hydrodynamic modeling, math can (and will!) show up in your work and you’ll be that much more prepared. This applies doubly so in the life sciences!
  2. Related to #1, take a statistics course. You probably don’t need to know how to calculate the probability of picking 3 red jelly beans out of a jar with 10 black ones (with replacement, of course!), but you should be comfortable with t-tests, interpreting p-values and similar topics.
  3. Learn two programming languages. If you’re in the natural sciences (as opposed to computer sciences), then learning a technical language like Matlab or R is probably your best bet (though there’s still a use for Fortran). Your second language should be Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), the language that drives the Microsoft suite of products. Why VBA? Because Microsoft’s Excel is ubiquitous, VBA can make huge improvements on efficiency, and increased efficiency makes employers happy (as well as employees who have to manually make repetitive changes to massive tables of data).
  4. Consulting is definitely one of those places where a scientist needs to be able to communicate technical findings to a general audience. Like much science in general, the author needs to be able to convince the reader that the conclusions follow from the data and the interpretation. Find ways to practice your writing skills (in my case, it was taking a minor in philosophy).
  5. As a consultant, your schedule is often not going to be your own. Because you are selling both a service and a product, your time schedules are often going to be dictated by the needs of the client. Those timetables are often much tighter than desired, and putting in overtime is not uncommon.

5 thoughts on “A career as an environmental consultant (guest post)

  1. Brian, if you’re reading comments, one additional question: is your particular consulting job family-friendly? You mentioned that overtime is not uncommon. How much overtime? How frequently? Do you get “light” weeks to compensate for ones where you had to do a lot of overtime? Do you have to travel a lot? Thanks!

    • Hello Margaret-

      That’s an excellent set of follow-up questions!

      Our standard work week is 37.5 hours. Most technical folks probably put in closer to 38-39 in a usual week, with those numbers increasing with the number of projects you have to manage and/or the closer to a deadline one is. A week with a lot of overtime starts clocking in at 40-45, and anything over 45 is getting pretty ridiculous. It’s somewhat rare for me to end up with a 45hr week (perhaps once every few months, when there’s a big deadline). In my company and at my pay grade, we are allowed to stockpile overtime and cash it in later as something akin to paid time off. It’s primarily deadlines that really control the number of hours you put in; we’re pretty good at managing time and tasks across the members of the group so people have the right amount of work to keep them busy (but not crazy busy). However, that doesn’t help much when client has a hard deadline, there’s a lot to do, and the timeline isn’t really suitable for the amount of work (which usually results from forces outside our control, like a delay in getting external information). There is an expectation that you’ll put in the hours needed to meet the deadline.

      The work I do is very portable, which allows me to work at home when necessary to deal with house/car/kid issues, or spend more time away when traveling (by dedicating some of the holiday to work time). On the other hand, you have to be careful about declaring your availability when traveling; since work is portable, there’s a tendency to have work follow you around.

      We have dedicated field technicians who perform routine field work (population and habitat surveys), with a small portion of water quality folks that go into the field. Since the field technicians can collect water for me, I am almost never in the field but rather spend my time on the data analysis and reporting side of the work.

      • Thanks for the reply, Brian. Sounds quite manageable. I always think of consulting as being 50+ hour weeks with travel every other week. Good to know that there’s some variation…

  2. Pingback: Non-academic careers for ecologists: data science (guest post) | Dynamic Ecology

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