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Case Study: Catherine Cumming

Personal details
Degree:BSc Geography Profile picture
School(s): School of Geography and Geosciences
Year of Graduation:Jun-2011
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: Cambo Heritage Trust
Job title: Learning & Engagement Officer
Occupational Sector: Environmental Work
What has been your route to getting your current position?
In 4th year I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the environmental sector, so applied for a Master's at Edinburgh University in Environmental Management. On completion of my master's I wasn't sure which area to specialise in so I spent some time doing various short term contracts as a field assistant and tree surveyor whilst also undertaking conservation volunteering and wildlife surveys in my free time. I realised that I really enjoyed the practical work outside so found a voluntary position as a countryside ranger with the National Trust for Scotland. This quickly led to a seasonal job, and I did two summer seasons with the NTS, volunteering over the winter. I then worked as a Natural Networks trainee with The Conservation Volunteers in partnership with Edinburgh Council. By chance I saw the advert for my current job (the night before the deadline), applied on a whim and was promptly offered the job!
What does your job involve ?
My job is incredibly varied! The CHT is based on the Cambo Estate, a 1200 acre estate with formal gardens, woodland and coastline. I am responsible for the education provision on the Estate for all ages (0-100!) - both formal and informal, which includes events, workshops, school groups and family activities on four key themes: environment, heritage, sustainability and art. I also coordinate the volunteering programme, working with individuals and groups from all over the world and develop partnerships with the local community and other organisations. I also coordinate wildlife surveys for the estate. It's a full on job, but no two days are the same!
What are the best bits of your job ?
I got into this career because I love wildlife and conservation, and the opportunity to work in this field every day and share my interests with others and encourage them is hugely rewarding. Working with a wide variety of people is fantastic, and I'm constantly learning from the people I work with. I'm writing our education programme from scratch, and having ownership of this and developing something new is incredibly exciting. And of course, working in a beautiful estate with a beach 5 minutes from the office is a huge bonus!
Why were you successful?
I had a wide range of experience from previous posts covering everything from environmental education to estate management, and my previous post as a seasonal ranger in a castle and country park certainly helped to seal the deal. Having knowledge of the local area and connections with a number of local and national organisations which I could bring to the role also helped me get the job, as well as (of course) bags of enthusiasm and dedication to the field.
What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?
My geography degree gave me a background in environmental issues in Scotland, and an appreciation of differing opinions on land management practices - this has been vital when navigating the conservation sector as there are so many different stakeholders involved at all levels! Being able to think critically, write well and communicate complex topics in a simple way have been incredibly important in my work. My degree also gave me a grounding in time management, group working, and presentation skills. The emphasis on field work was also hugely beneficial when seeking employment in the conservation sector as I learnt practical surveying techniques and also the ability to keep smiling when you're soaked to the skin and can't feel your feet!
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?
Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Breaking into the sector can be incredibly hard and time consuming - you often need to be in the right place at the right time. Employers are more likely to hire someone they know through voluntary work so work with a number of organisations - at one point I was volunteering 7 days a week for 5 different organisations. You need to be enthusiastic and passionate about your topic and possess good wildlife id skills - there are a number of surveys you can take part in and free training courses available that can help you improve your skills. The conservation sector is huge and there are a wide range of jobs available so find out what interests you - be it education, surveying, estate management or a particular species, but be aware that you often need to show interest and experience in the whole spectrum and an awareness of the bigger picture! The work often involves evening and weekend work, but it doesn't feel like work if you spend it pond dipping with 6 year olds!