I spent my time at university overwhelmingly afraid that this was as good as it was going to get.
Everyone says university is best the time of your life, but that wasn't always the case for me. As a student with anxiety and depression, I really struggled with the pressure of exams, coursework and difficult social situations. Though I found true friends at uni who stuck with me, I had social issues from start to finish: a situation with a particularly cruel housemate one year had me sleeping in my car before I was able to move out.
Things started to turn around towards the end of second year. A standout moment for me was when I braved it and went to the British Ecological Society Student Conference alone, where I learnt about Ecological Consultancy as a career path. As a result, I switched courses from Zoology to Ecology and Environment, and the prospect of graduate life in the field of Ecology began to give me hope. Switching courses, particularly so late in a degree, is a scary prospect, but I knew it was what I needed.
My uni didn’t have any conservation or ecology-focused societies, so there was no community outside of my degree to get involved in. After speaking to a few other students, my friend set up the Liverpool Animal Conservation Society, which I later took on and ended up being elected President of. I was finally excited to graduate and work with people who cared about animals just as much as me, in a field that suited me.
Thankfully, graduate life was not a grey pit of despair like so many had warned.
I left university with an MEcol and landed a job as a field assistant with an Ecology Consultancy. After my first season of work, I then had the opportunity to go to Ecuador for five months, volunteering as a bird guide and research assistant in exchange for free accommodation and food. I travelled, made friends, learnt Spanish and watched birds all day. I got to climb trees and check the nest of the El Oro Parakeet and put little bands on their legs. It was the start of me truly living my dream.
Now, my job placements involve habitat mapping and surveying protected species in areas where a new development is proposed. A typical work day might involve a reptile survey early in the morning, going home in the middle of the day, then staying up at work until midnight or later doing a bat survey. A dawn bat survey could even mean getting up at 3am to start work, but it’s fantastic. I’m never bored and there’s always something new to see.
I’ve learnt the importance of self-care, in whatever form works for you, and graduate life has given me the freedom and independence to focus on that.
I feel so lucky to have found something I really love, and I’m grateful that my uni was supportive of my decision to switch courses, or I wouldn’t be where I am now. Free from the pressure of exams and feeling trapped in toxic social situations, life post-graduation has seen me make leaps and bounds back into good health.
Since graduating, I make sure I go outside every day, even if it's just for a little bit. The link between spending time outdoors and good mental health is well-documented and so I now regularly go running and just spend time in nature. As a graduate, I’ve been able to control my time more and find the right balance of socialising. I push myself to do at least one thing on my to-do list each day, even if it’s just doing my washing when things are bad.
Luckily, work as an Ecological consultant has come with a lot of flexibility and, of course, I spend loads of time outside with like-minded people.
Something I thought was a weird hobby that no one else enjoyed is now my job. And, in pursuing this career, I’ve found my people.
I’ve been fascinated by birds, birding and wildlife since I was 9-years-old, but I used to think I was the only person my age who loved them. My whole life, it seemed everyone thought I was a complete freak for liking birds, to the point where I squashed that interest during my school life. Now, my career revolves around something I once thought was just an embarrassing hobby. And I spend my time surrounded by people who enjoy it as much as I do. There’s a great atmosphere amongst the teams I’ve worked with – I’ve finally found people who share the same passions as me for wildlife.
I’ve realised how essential it is to be independent, take initiative and trust myself.
I’m where I am now because I took a series of risks: I went to a conference alone to learn about Ecology, I switched courses late on in my degree, I took on the leadership of a conservation society and got involved in volunteering with local wildlife groups. Most of my employment has also been the result of sending out speculative CVs and getting placements that had never even been advertised.
In March, I am starting my first long-term, permanent job as a Graduate Ecologist. Having done lots of seasonal roles that lasted just a few months, this is a new challenge in a new place for me. Suddenly, graduate life is very real. I’ll have a desk in an office, I’m a professional. But I can’t wait.
For some people, university is incredible. Maybe it is the best time of their life. For me, I think the best time of my life is just starting. Alongside my job, I’m now also heavily involved in groups like Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature and, suddenly, after all the trouble I had at university, I have friends all over the country. I am so incredibly happy I took the risk and followed my passions. I would encourage anyone reading this who’s doubting, or unhappy with, the path they’re on to do the same.