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Student Insights: Biology and environmental change graduate

Discover the student perspective on studying biology and the environment at degree level and beyond.

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With issues of sustainability, climate change, conservation and the environment becoming increasingly important we wanted to delve deeper into the student experience of studying in these fields. We spoke to graduate student, Niall O’Donoghue, who studied biology for his undergraduate degree, and environmental change and international development at postgraduate level.


Niall now works as a government advisor for flood and coastal risk management in the UK. In this interview we hear about his interests in sustainability and what he’s learnt from studying at the University of Sheffield.


What made you want to pursue environmental change and international development at a master’s level?

I have always been most interested in issues related to sustainability and the environment. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree in biology, I found that when it came to moving beyond simply understanding environmental issues and on to developing solutions to them, a purely scientific perspective was insufficient. I realised that effective environmental management is as much about the management of human processes and understanding human societies as it is about natural processes and animal/plant communities.


What do you see as the key issues for the creation of a sustainable society?

The pathways to a sustainable global society are highly interdisciplinary in nature - political, economic and social considerations are just as important, if not more so, than the scientific and technological elements.


In order to tackle the most monumental challenges that humanity has ever faced, the form of climate change and environmental degradation, a holistic approach that views environmental protection and regeneration through a lens of social justice, political empowerment, economic reform, amongst other things, is required.


What was your master’s degree at the University of Sheffield like?

The Masters in Environmental Change and International Development at the University of Sheffield effectively blends social and environmental sciences, challenges its students to approach sustainability and development in new ways, and offered great opportunities for field work around the globe. Taking on modules ranging from development theory to urban planning, statistical analysis to interview techniques gave me a broad, solid foundation of understanding and skills.


For more advice, check out our full subject guide on earth and environmental sciences and read all about an international student’s experience of studying environmental science and sustainability in Australia.


What skills do you feel are essential for your line of work?

Analysis is the core of my work, so being able to interpret data and identify underlying processes is important. Just as important is the ability to translate that technical information into a coherent narrative which is understandable by a diverse audience, with consideration of their priorities, expertise and objectives.


Being able to understand the ‘big picture’ in terms of policy and politics, how it is changing, and how your ‘small picture’ of work fits into it is also essential to delivering added value to the organisation. Decent maths and excel, database and statistical skills are always valuable.


Make sure to brush up on some of the skills employers look for in graduates and matching your study and career plans.


What are some of your key responsibilities/projects that you work on in your role?

Some of the key skills and responsibilities are:

  • Data management
  • Data analysis
  • Programme management
  • Risk management
  • Project management


Providing insight and advice to senior staff around optimal funding approaches to maximise flood risk management benefits for communities and businesses in England is also critical.


What advice would you give to others aspiring to work within environmental sustainability?

Sustainability is about sustaining life, whether that’s natural, social, economic, political, individual, or communal life.


Humans are a major part of any ecological system and cannot be excluded from an environmental solution. Human rights, democracy, equality and community are the foundations of sustainability.


Any other tips you might have for students looking to enter into this field.

Project management, geographical mapping skills (GIS), statistical and software skills are valuable. These are general skills that are likely to help you get jobs in the field. Don’t skip modules because they sound boring at the time! Don’t worry if you can’t decide how to specialise, there are plenty of good causes to work on.


Ready to find your course in sustainability or environmental science? You can also use our course matcher tool to see courses based on your preferences. Don’t forget you can also stay up to date with our international student news bulletin.

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