An overview of jobs in the environment and agriculture sector

Kieren Jacobs
Team GradAustralia
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Is a career in the environment and agriculture sector for you? To make it easier for you to answer that question, we’ve brought together a range of roles. So read on, see what’s involved, and, hopefully, get some sense of whether or not you would find a career in this sector stimulating and fulfilling.

Agricultural consultant

Agricultural consultants may have backgrounds in fields as diverse as mathematics, chemistry, and business. Farmers often solicit the services of agricultural consultants to address issues such as improving crop or livestock production, dealing with weeds or pests, improving soil health, and managing various business processes. Agricultural consultants spend much of their time traveling or stationed on-site at various client properties. They can expect to earn from $78,000 to $103,999 per year, depending on their employer and degree of experience.

Animal nutritionist

‘Food is medicine’ said Hippocrates—and this is as true for animals as it for us. An animal nutritionist is like a dietitian for humans, creating healthy meals that meet the dietary requirements of any animals in their care. To do so, they must take into consideration various factors, including: the species and breed of animal; the condition of the animal (particularly if it is suffering from a vitamin deficiency); the weight of the animal; and the activities in which the animal is involved (for example, milk production, reproduction, egg-laying).

While animal nutritionists needn’t have studied veterinary science, they do often work alongside veterinarians, as well as farmers, zookeepers, wildlife rehabilitators, and other animal professionals. Some animal nutritionists specialise, focusing on certain animal groups, such as fowl, exotic animals, horses, and so on. Animal nutritionists work in farming, pharmaceuticals, corporate research, laboratories, zoos, livestock feed manufacturers, and other environments concerned with the care of animals.

Ecologist

Ecologists research the relationships between different organisms, as well as the way they interact with their environments. Given the complexity of the biosphere, many ecologists focus on a specific type of environment (for example, freshwater habitats, wetlands, rainforests, or coastal zones) or on a specific type of organism (for example, threatened species, native flora, or reptiles).

The variety of environments in which an ecologist might work is matched by the variety of tasks they perform. These include conducting field surveys to count organisms, using taxonomy to categorise unidentified organisms, carrying out environmental impact assessments, teaching in schools, advising government bodies, and ensuring familiarity with all relevant environmental policies and legislation. Their research techniques range from analysing data with speciality software to using drones to conduct aerial surveys of certain environments.

Many ecologists are employed by the federal government, or state and local subsidiaries. For example, the federal Department of the Environment and Energy employs ecologists to study, among other things, the distribution of certain fauna (such as introduced rabbits and native vegetation) across the country. Similarly, the City of Sydney council’s urban ecology initiative has resulted from an effort by multiple ecologists to assess how humans and other organisms can best share urban environments.

Of course, ecologists may also find employment in private organisations from diverse sectors, including mining, manufacturing, law, agriculture, and building and construction. Their workplaces may be urban or regional, and include a range of habitats, including marshes, forests, grasslands, wildlife corridors, and office buildings.

Environmental engineer

Environmental engineers tackle the challenges posed by waste management. In this context, ‘waste’ is a broad term that applies to solid waste, wastewater, toxic waste, hazardous materials, and air pollution. Every industry produces waste in some form or another, and, as a result, the field of environmental engineering is very broad. Generally, its practitioners focus on one of three ‘environments’: air, land, or water.

By drawing on a nuanced understanding of physics, mathematics, ecology, and chemistry, environmental engineers seek to understand the relationship between industry and its environmental impact before advising on ecologically sound and economically viable solutions.

In doing so, they also aim to prevent or mitigate the consequences of poor waste management practices, which can include air pollution, water contamination, and public health crises. For example, they may work with a chemical processing plant to develop ways to render dangerous substances inert before they are disposed of responsibly.

Environmental engineers require a strong command of the physical sciences, and also benefit from excellent written and verbal communication skills.

Farm manager

A farm manager is the agricultural sector’s equivalent of a retail store manager—although a farm manager might not own the farm, he or she is still tasked with overseeing its day-to-day functions. This might mean assuming administrative responsibilities, such as hiring extra farmhands during the harvest. Alternatively, it often involves organising or performing other vital tasks, such as selecting crops and livestock, harvesting and selling crops, and responding to pests and other environmental factors.

Most farm managers have a tertiary qualification relevant to farming, such as a degree in agriculture, agribusiness, or animal science. However, it’s also possible to become a farm manager without a formal qualification by demonstrating experience with relevant skills such as crop production and animal husbandry. Farm managers work almost exclusively on farms, where they may also maintain a residence.  

Fisheries officer

Fishing is something of a national pastime in Australia. Our lakes, rivers, long coastlines, and deep seas teem with fish and other marine animals, from shellfish (which people catch, because they’re delicious) to sharks (which occasionally catch people, because apparently they are also delicious).

Broadly speaking, fisheries officers are responsible for maintaining this marine diversity by ensuring that fishermen obey all relevant rules and regulations. This often involves patrolling waterways to prevent unlawful behaviour; inspecting fishing vessels; overseeing leases for oyster, pearling, prawning, and fishing sites; inspecting shark nets; writing reports for courts, councils, and government bodies; educating the public about sustainability programs and other initiatives; and performing other duties related to the health of Australian fish stocks.

Due to the nature of their role, fisheries officers tend to work irregular hours, including weekends, nights, and public holidays. Though employed by state governments and local police forces, fisheries officers often represent the interests of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, which is at liberty to dispatch them to provide supervision or investigate complaints in any part of the country.

Hydrogeologist

Freshwater is vital to industry, agriculture, and, more generally, of course, to human survival. However, there may be less of it available than you think. Around 68 percent of the earth’s freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers, while rivers and lakes contain only one ten-thousandth of the available supply. Otherwise, some freshwater is found in the atmosphere, some in swamps, and some as precipitation. The rest—30 percent of the freshwater on earth—is underground, mostly within one kilometre of the earth’s surface.

Hydrogeologists are primarily responsible for protecting and managing this valuable supply of subterranean water. They seek to understand its distribution, flow, temperature, and quality. To do this, they use techniques such as drilling for core samples, performing environmental surveys, and creating complex computer simulations.

Hydrogeologists often work together with hydrologists, ecologists, and engineers to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of how subterranean freshwater interacts with natural formations, surface bodies of water (like rivers and streams), and man-made obstacles. They can then produce reports to guide various processes, from the construction of new mines (in which the goal is to avoid hitting the water table) to the sinking of new wells (in which case, one hopes to hit the water table).

Most hydrogeologists have a background in geology, engineering, geophysics, or another relevant science. They tend to work regular hours when employed by the public sector, and variable hours when employed by private organisations. Shifts can be especially long when conducting field work—and hydrogeologists are frequently expected to travel off-site. The good news is that this is, for the most part, a well-paid career that can take you to fascinating places both in Australia and abroad.  

Marine scientist

The oceans cover about seventy percent of our planet—and we’re only just beginning to understand them. Our slow progress is largely thanks to the work of marine scientists, who specialise in various aspects of the oceans, their life forms, and their interactions with coastal areas.

As a marine scientist, you’ll be able to address some of the most pressing issues of our times. How can we protect the oceans from the effects of climate change? What’s the best way to prevent overfishing, or reduce the effects of bycatch? What can be done to protect endangered species, reduce coastal erosion, reclaim discarded plastics, or address ocean acidification? Marine scientists face these questions, as well as many others, often guiding large-scale research projects in the hopes of uncovering the mysteries of the deep.

Marine scientists have a range of day-to-day responsibilities. These may include collecting data and samples, designing, overseeing, and sharing the results of scientific experiments, publishing academic papers, supervising research projects, advising public and private organisations, and staying abreast of new research and technologies. Of course, these pretty drab generalisations shouldn’t detract from the appealing specifics of marine science. From counting tortoises in the Maldives to tracking coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, this is a career that offers impressively diverse experiences.

Working hours for marine scientists can be long, unpredictable, or irregular, especially when on field trips. For example, much marine life can only be studied at night, or during certain parts of the year. Fields trips can be physically taxing, and you will likely need to be comfortable with the prospect of spending long periods of time at sea. With many research projects sponsored by grants, it’s not unusual for marine scientists to be employed as short-term contractors, switching roles and locations when the contracts expire—or once every 12 to 24 months. However, there are also permanent jobs available at universities, research facilities, nature reserves, government bodies, and so on.  

Soil scientist

Soil scientists view the earth’s soil as a finite natural resource, and specialise in developing new ways to understand its properties, with a view to increasing food production, improving water quality, restoring damaged lands, better treating waste, and achieving a variety of other environmental and industrial goals.

While soil science is a recognised sub-discipline, most soil scientists start out as microbiologists, chemists, agriculturalists, geologists, or physicists. Soil science itself contains two fields of study: pedology, or the study of soil in its natural setting, and edaphology, which considers soil in relation to various soil-dependent practices (such as farming).

‘Soil science’ mightn’t sound particularly interesting or impressive—it is, after all, the study of dirt. However, some of the most quietly influential scientists of the past century were those who helped us understand soil in new ways. For example, Norman Borlaug drew heavily on soil science to develop high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat that have saved over a billion lives; Selman Waksman won the Nobel Prize for studying soil microorganisms, which led him to identify more than 20 antibiotics; and soil scientist Daniel Hillel’s development of micro-irrigation techniques has increased agricultural output in the Middle East, and other dry areas of the world.

As a soil scientist, you will be responsible for carrying out field work, monitoring or supervising experimental research, writing research papers, and, more generally, applying your knowledge of soil, including its biological, physical, and chemical properties, as well as its variation from landscape to landscape. Given the complexity of their subject matter, soil scientists often work alongside geneticists, hydrologists, agronomists, environmental scientists, and other professionals. Your work may be performed on a consultant or contract basis, though it’s possible to achieve long-term career stability by seeking employment at universities, certain companies, and research institutions.

Sustainability consultant

The environment faces challenges that include climate change, population growth, deforestation, and various social, business, and political initiatives that very often have unpredictable consequences for fragile ecosystems. Broadly speaking, sustainability consultants aim to protect the environment from these challenges by helping clients find sustainable solutions to their problems. This means drawing on ideas from science, business, and many other disciplines and promoting outcomes that preserve ecological diversity, environmental integrity, and the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

To be a successful sustainability consultant, you’ll need to master the scientific, business, and legal issues related to a specific environmental issue. As you might expect, this makes sustainability consulting a broad field that attracts specialists from environmental science, chemistry, biology, marine science, engineering, and other disciplines related to the natural world. As sustainability consultants, they share the common goal of helping businesses act in an environmentally conscientious way, often while saving money and improving public relations.

While sustainability consultants may work for a variety of clients—from government bodies to mining companies—the majority are employed in the infrastructure, engineering, and construction sectors. Here, their responsibilities might include evaluating the carbon footprint of an organisation; assessing the environmental impact of a new construction site; contributing ideas about how to make new developments more energy efficient; and ensuring that clients comply with environmental and building regulations.

Other day-to-day responsibilities include collecting data; performing field and laboratory research; completing environmental assessments; writing advisory reports for clients; and keeping up to date with new research and technologies, so as to provide clients with cutting-edge solutions.

Sustainability consultants often work regular business hours, though their schedule may be interrupted by site visits and research obligations. This a new, dynamic, and increasingly important field of work, and the chances are that you will be able to make a positive difference to the environment and the community. Be prepared to exercise patience though: reconciling the competing demands of the law, your client, and the environment itself is often a difficult task.

Veterinary surgeon

Veterinary science, or veterinary medicine, is the branch of medicine that applies to domestic animals. As with human medicine, the application of veterinary science often involves a process of consultation, diagnosis, and treatment, with follow-up care for complex cases.  

Of course, it’s one thing to understand the complexities of the human body, and quite another to take on the entire animal kingdom. For this reason, veterinary science is a discipline that lends itself well to specialisation (for example, equine or bovine vets). By contrast, the veterinarian who treats pets at a local clinic is often a generalist physician who performs routine procedures (such as neutering and vaccinations) while referring complex or unusual cases to specialist practitioners.

Veterinarians are employed in a range of contexts, from family-style local clinics to industrial farms and university campuses. Their hours vary widely, but the basic requirements of the job are relatively stable: you’ll need a strong grasp of the sciences (especially chemistry and biology), a compassionate personality, and a high tolerance for things that might make other people squeamish (from delivering a newborn calf to euthanizing a family pet).

In Australia, veterinarians are generally required to complete five to six years of study as an undergraduate, followed by additional postgraduate study if you intend to specialise.

Waste management officer

Almost all organisations generate waste, whether that’s the tonnes of slurry produced by mining operations, the paper waste that comes out of law firms, or the food waste created within the hospitality industry. Waste management officers work with clients to manage the disposal of this waste, including the transportation of waste from collection sites to processing facilities, and the supervision of various programs designed to achieve sustainability outcomes.

These may include recycling initiatives, waste reclamation programs, or even the use of long-term disposal techniques that generate secondary resources. For example, organic matter can be stored in dedicated sites so that the methane gas it generates can be captured and used to generate electricity.

While degrees in waste management are available, many waste management officers have more general backgrounds in biology, chemistry, earth sciences, and various types of engineering. They can master specialist skills on the job. Their tasks include ensuring compliance with all legislation relevant to the handling, transportation, and processing of waste; monitoring the efficiency of waste services (for example, by overseeing waste collection teams); implementing strategies to reduce or eliminate air, land, and water contamination; and advising clients on how to set and accomplish affordable sustainability goals.

Generally, waste management officers work in professional office settings and, from there, provide directions to the various teams that report to them. However, off-site visits are common, and may include meeting with contractors, evaluating client needs, and inspecting waste processing facilities.

Waste management officers are expected to be familiar with various pieces of environmental legislation. They must also know the fundamentals of environmental science, so they can accurately predict the consequences of processing waste in different ways. It’s not unusual for them to work closely with ecologists, environmental scientists, water engineers, sustainability consultants, and other professionals who study our influence on the natural environment.

Water engineer

Water is a precious resource, and preserving, distributing, and treating it is duly considered to be a specialist task. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘water engineers’ have studied something called ‘water engineering’. On the contrary—most water engineers graduate from degrees in civil or environmental engineering, and then go on to specialise in projects related to water.

Water engineers help to manage water in various forms, such as freshwater, wastewater, sewerage, and floodwaters. Water engineers also help clients and employers oversee capital assets involved in water management, such as reservoirs, dams, pumping stations, water treatment facilities, seawalls, and stormwater drainage networks.

On a day-to-day basis, water engineers engage in various activities involving administration, monitoring, and management. Such activities might include preparing tender documents ahead of new construction projects; keeping abreast of new developments in the laws and technologies related to water; monitoring flood levels; writing technical and non-technical advisory reports for stakeholders; using computer simulations to model water-related processes (such as dam failures or the effects of floods); and managing a team of engineers, technicians, and site workers.

Water engineers tend to divide their time working between office environments, and performing various tasks on site. While water engineers ordinarily work regular hours, site work, imminent deadlines, or unpredictable phenomena (such as floods or heavy rains) can result in longer days or shift work.

Biosecurity officer

Biosecurity involves the network of rules and practices designed to help protect certain areas, prevent and respond to pests, diseases, weeds, and contaminants that threaten the economy or environment.

Biosecurity officers may work to protect state borders (for example, preventing the spread of the Queensland fruit fly south to NSW and other states). Alternatively, they may work work alongside quarantine officers to manage the movement of agricultural and horticultural produce into Australia, as well as the flow of animals, plants, food products, people, and machinery. This involves inspecting mail, parcels, cargo containers, ships, aircraft, and other commercial transportation.

Major concerns for biosecurity officers include preventing the spread of animal diseases, such as Avian Influenza (bird flu), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), and Newcastle disease; plant blights, such as sharka, citrus cankers, and Panama disease; invasive insects, such as gypsy moths and golden apple snails; and weeds, such as Madeira vine, climbing asparagus, and African Boxthorn.

To succeed as a biosecurity officer, you’ll need a strong grasp of target pests and diseases, including their telltale signs and likely carriers. You may work in a variety of settings, including airports, border crossings, ports, mail centres, and various field locations, where you can expect to analyse the impact of different biohazards. Biosecurity officers receive a government salary that ranges from $51,000 to $91,000 depending on experience and responsibilities.

Generally, biosecurity officers have a general education background that is supplemented by on-the-job training. However, you may be able to submit a more competitive application if you have studied agricultural sciences, biology, animal sciences, epidemiology, or a related subject.

Laboratory technician

If you have a background in science, and wish to participate in cutting-edge research and development, then you may find a career as a laboratory technician to be very fulfilling. As the title suggests, laboratory technicians oversee various laboratory-based experiments in physics, chemistry, biology, and the life sciences. Employed by government bodies, private organisations, universities, or research institutions, you’ll carry out investigations designed to generate advances in medicine and science.

In practice, this means assuming a broad range of responsibilities. Laboratory technicians routinely conduct experiments to generate precise data that can be used to guide further scientific research; prepare specimens and samples; operate laboratory equipment, such as centrifuges, spectrometers, microscopes, cell counters, and C02 incubators; enforce safety procedures and safety checks; write reports on the outcomes of their experiments; use computers to model experiments and generate graphs; and perform a range of other tasks related to experimental design and execution.

Of course, the specifics of the job will change depending on your employer. For example, if you work for a pharmaceutical organisation, you may spend a lot of time designing different chemical compounds intended to balance therapeutic efficacy, tolerability, and cost-effectiveness. By contrast, if you work for the government in agriculture, you may be expected to analyse water samples for evidence of contamination.

To succeed as a laboratory technician, experience in lab work is essential. Fortunately, this can be gained from a variety of academic areas, including chemistry, biology, physics, forensic science, pharmacology, and biotechnology. Once employed, you can expect to work standard hours in a sterile and closely monitored environment. You’ll need strong attention to detail, excellent communication skills, strong hand-eye coordination, and the ability to master new technical procedures with ease.

Policy officer

A policy defines the ways in which an organisation intends to act—this makes it different from a law or regulation, which mandate the ways in which an organisation must act. Policies, therefore, are more akin to an organisation’s goals or mission statements.

For government bodies, policies often guide elected officials towards the pursuit of certain outcomes. Within private organisations, policies provide employees with direction, allowing them to respond in a consistent manner to various challenges. In both cases, policies result from the work of policy officers—professionals whose job it is to investigate specific issues and advise colleagues who will implement the policies as legislation or workplace codes of conduct.

A policy officer is, essentially, a very focused researcher. Their specific responsibilities may vary depending on their employer. For example, a policy officer for the Department of Agriculture might spend more time meeting with stakeholders in the field than a policy officer within, say, a pharmaceutical company or the Treasury Department. Nevertheless, almost all policy officers have the same cluster of basic tasks, which include: identifying new policy areas, gathering relevant information by analysing data and conducting research, briefing colleagues, and drafting policies.

Policy officers primarily work in office settings. However, their work can see them attending conferences, meetings, and other events. Given the breadth of topics addressed by policies, many policy officers choose to specialise by offering their services to a specific type of employer (for example, charities and non-government organizations) or focusing on a particular subject area (this has given rise to areas of expertise such as ‘social policy’ and ‘environmental policy’).

There is no clear prerequisite degree for graduates who wish to move into policy work. However, it’s advantageous to have studied a subject relevant to the policy area (such as agriculture, public health, economics, and so on). Alternatively, one might benefit from experience with law, politics, social work, public administration, or economics.

The environment and agriculture sector offers a diverse range of career opportunities for uni grads. To search for graduate jobs and internships in the environment and agriculture sector, visit our website here.