What motivates you to pursue a career as an ecologist? Is it because you are interested in studying the relationship between plants, animals and the environment? Or you want to help conserve wildlife and ‘save the planet’? Becoming an ecologist is undoubtedly a rich and fulfilling career path. But the long tradition of upper class amateur naturalists casts a long shadow over the profession. This history means that an ecological career can present particular challenges to first-generation students and those from working class backgrounds. These barriers intersect with those encountered by other marginalised groups such as gender, sexual orientation, nationality, race, ethnicity, and disability to hinder entry and progress in the otherwise exciting field of ecology.
The Socioeconomic Equality and Diversity (SEED) Network is a new British Ecological Society (BES) initiative that supports ecologists from under-represented socioeconomic groups . We aim to highlight socioeconomic barriers, and build a supportive community of ecologists, who are the first in their family to go to university (first-generation) or working class/from a working-class background. We are currently focusing on barriers within the UK, but acknowledge that these problems are interacting, diverse, complex, and global. Our vision is a future where everyone has equal opportunities to contribute to ecology, regardless of wealth or class. As a network, we hope to provide support for members and encourage conversations about class in ecology, where acknowledgement and actions on these issues are currently low .
I serve as a co-chair for the SEED network. I am a first-generation ecologist from a working class background, and I have been awarded degrees at a BSc, MSc, and PhD level. Currently, I am employed as a postdoctoral researcher in Sweden. Through speaking to other ecologists, I have come to understand the extent of the barriers I faced. I thought these were usual and didn’t realise that other students didn’t experience such difficulties.
What are the barriers that a first-generation and/or working class individual may experience in ecology?
These barriers for first-generation/working class primarily stem from to the lack of financial means, reluctance to take financial risk because of a lack of a safety net, and because of the lack of representation. These barriers collectively hinder their ability to undertake activities that ensure they are competitive in the field of ecology, including access to education and work experience or volunteering.
Access to education
Those from working class families are less likely to go to university. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that students from deprived households are three times less likely to get a degree compared to wealthy households . The picture is similar for young people with non-graduate parents, who are half as likely to obtain a degree than those who have a graduate parent .
When working class or first-generation students do go to university, they are less likely to attend prestigious universities. Recent research shows that students eligible for free school meals are less likely to attend prestigious universities . This is also the case for first-generation students, who are less likely to attend prestigious universities and are more likely to study degrees like law, economics, and management that have higher earning potential .
There is also a higher attainment gap. For first-generation students, undergraduate attainment rates are consistently lower than compared to their peers with parents who went to university [6,7]. A 2020 report from the Office of Students reveals that around 60% of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds obtain a 2:1 or first-class degree, compared to around 84% of their wealthier counterparts .
Of those students who do get degrees, first-generation students are less likely to continue on to postgraduate studies . This is also the case for working class students . But positively, there has been a slight increase in the number of working class students pursuing postgraduate degrees since the introduction of loans, from 6% in 2013-2014 to 12.9% in 2017-2018, although they still face disadvantages .
But why is this important? Jobs in ecology often require a minimum of a Bachelor’s level degree, and more commonly, a Master’s level degree. Therefore, it reduces the ability of working class and first-generation young people to get an ecology-related job, and it also affects their opportunity to study for a PhD . These findings shed light on the obstacles faced by first-generation and lower socio-economic background individuals in their search for higher education, ultimately impeding their entry into the field of ecology.
Pursuing a degree can be financially challenging, especially for students from less affluent backgrounds who lack a financial safety net, often relying on student loans with the added burden of repayment. But beyond tuition and living expenses, there are also hidden costs, like ‘optional’ field courses which often require substantial payments (£1000 or more) to attend. My Bachelor’s optional field course to Borneo cost £1500, which I couldn’t afford, so I chose the alternative course to Devon for £200. Additionally, students may feel pressure to dress like an ecologist. So, they buy branded clothes and costly equipment to fit in. Yes, of course, these things are not necessary for becoming an ecologist, but it affects perceptions of what ecology is and the ability to take part in certain activities.
So, how do students navigate this? They may need to work alongside to cover living expenses. A 2023 UK Student Academic Experience Survey reported that 55% of students were in paid employment . For all my degrees, I have had a part time-job, sometimes even two. I thought that was normal.
Financial barriers are also present in ecology-related jobs. Many jobs require a driver’s license and car, both expensive to acquire and maintain. Membership fees (e.g. CIEEM) and licenses add to the financial burden, especially for those without a financial safety net. Some positions require up-front payments for expenses like food and travel, which are then later reimbursed. Moreover, individuals may find themselves financially locked in due to training reimbursement obligations, limiting their job flexibility and adding to the financial strain. These financial hurdles highlight the challenges that individuals face when pursuing ecology-related roles, extending beyond job requirements.
Low-paying positions and volunteering
Ecology jobs are often low paid, creating financial barriers that prevent individuals from gaining experience and advancing in your career. Entry-level positions and internships do not pay well, or in some cases abroad they are unpaid . In this competitive field, there is pressure to take on volunteering roles to get the essential skills and knowledge needed for the job, but finding the time and funding whilst working or studying can be difficult and unsustainable. At 5am every Sunday I would go bird ringing before my 11am day job. But bird ringing in Watford does not sound as exciting as joining pay-for-volunteering schemes like Operation Wallacea. These schemes often come with hefty costs, as I discovered through a quick website check, revealing around a $5000 expense for a six-week expedition for dissertation purposes in Madagascar . Unfortunately, volunteering experiences or internships abroad overshadow an individual’s ability and motivation to do the job, and it can also affect evaluation for jobs as well.
For a long time, I did not acknowledge that I was first-generation and from a working class background. The lack of representation of people like me in ecology contributed to feelings of not belonging and doubting my abilities and qualifications to succeed. I faced challenges in navigating the educational system due to a lack of guidance and support from those who had prior experiences, making the process of applying to university more difficult. I chose to study Zoology without a clear sense of the career path I would follow, driven primarily by my passion for science. At the time, I was unaware of the financial support initiatives like bursaries or scholarships. Similarly, I did not recognise how the potential benefits of having a mentor with experience of university could help me navigate the system. The lack of representation in the field can discourage individuals from pursuing a career in ecology and hinder their progress, as well as of the entire field.
What will SEED do?
Our role as the SEED network is to highlight the socioeconomic barriers and build a supportive community of ecologists of working class and first-generation ecologists. Tackling these barriers requires concerted efforts from academic institutions, businesses, organisations, and the ecological community. Initiating conversations about class within ecology serves as an important first step to breaking the green ceiling. For those interested in learning more about the SEED network you can sign up for our mailing list through this link: SEED Network Mailing List.
Dr Ciara Dwyer is an ecologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Environmental and Climate Science, Sweden. Ciara is also co-chair of the British Ecological Society’s SEED network.
Blog posts on the CIEEM website are the views and opinions of the author(s) credited. They do not necessarily represent the views or position of CIEEM. The CIEEM blog is intended to be a space in which we publish thought-provoking and discussion-stimulating articles. If you’d like to write a blog sharing your own experiences or views, we’d love to hear from you at SophieLowe@cieem.net.