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Cultivating a career in botany with Jake Schwebel

Jake Schwebel (pronouns: he/him) is a botanist working for an environmental consultancy firm in Sydney, Australia. Despite originally completing a Bachelor of Zoology with a primary interest of studying and working with animals, Jake started his career working in the field of bush regeneration, which provided him with an opportunity for him to get to know his plant species. Embracing the wonderful world of plant identification was a foot in the door for Jake who after finishing university accepted a role in botanical consulting and continues to work within the field. Jake shares his experience working as a botanist as well as his top tips for starting out in this space.

Cultivating a career in botany with Jake Schwebel | #itsawildlife

STARTING OUT IN PLANT IDENTIFICATION

Plants are in the too hard basket for so many of us partly because of the high abundance and wide diversity of plant species to learn, but also partly because of the limited resources available on how to start. Jake says –

“In botany we learn about the term plant blindness – because even though plants outnumber animals by far, most people lean towards studying animals and don’t learn about plants”

Although there are many different avenues to take towards a career in botany, Jake has three simple tips to get you started in plant identification from his experience:

  • Spend time in nature, with plants, regularly

“In terms of a good starting point, I think it’s just a matter of being out there every day and having a job in nature. Bush regeneration is a good excuse to be surrounded by plants”

  • Start at a family level

“It’s something I didn’t pick up for a long time, but learning your plant families is much more important than starting at genus or species level – and it’s much more manageable”

  • Phone a friend

“Head out into the bush, take some cuttings or photos of plants you find and then sit down with a book to identify them to family-level”

There’s an expanding number of resources out there to help with plant identification: books and online resources like FloraBase, Plant Net and iNaturalist can be super helpful!

  • Don’t be deterred by latin

There are hundreds, if not thousands of plants with the same/similar common names, so when it comes to plants, using their latin names is just a fact of life – so embrace it!

And for those of us who consider ourselves to be more of a zoology person, Jake explains that a knowledge of plants can be helpful for understanding animals, and that the work of a consulting botanist can still involve fauna!

“Even though my job title is technically botanist, we do heaps of fauna work – so you don’t have to choose between plants and animals, you might just specialize in one group or the other”

After all, you never know if you don’t try – and often, like most aspects of ecology, the more you find out about something, the more addictive it becomes – and very soon you’re deep down the rabbit hole of the plant world! Jake says –

“Grab a book and get out there.”

LANDING A PAID POSITION IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL FIELD

Degrees can be an exercise in tick and flick for many more practical roles but they can also be helpful for getting your foot in the door. Instead, gaining practical experience in the field is a sure way to build your skills and experience as well as a network of people within the industry is an extremely helpful place to start. For Jake, this experience came from bush regeneration which he highly recommends.

Jake, like so many people, had no idea environmental consulting was even a career option until he started his undergraduate degree at university. Prior to this, the only career path he knew was through academia.

“When I found out about consulting, I thought, okay, this is potentially a more stable way that I can still be involved in the ecology space rather than following the path of academia”

Environmental consulting is all about trying to mitigate the impacts of development and working with clients to ensure that there are good outcomes for the environment and threatened species in the process. Jake’s day-to-day job involves a large number of targeted threatened flora surveys, especially when working on high level assessments to consider threatened species, and if they’re found, figuring out how to mitigate the risk to them.

“Sometimes that means we say no, just don’t develop the area in the first place because a threatened species is here, but other times we consider alternatives to keep a bit of bush so it’s being protected in some way, shape or form.”

Environmental consultancy is not just a good foot in the door for entry level positions – there’s also potential to move into higher positions as your skills and experiences develop. This line of work is a career by which people can have for decades. As you become more and more experienced, the higher the complexity of the projects you work on become. Whilst environmental consulting varies from state to state due to differing laws and regulations, learning legislation is an integral part of environmental consulting – But don’t let this deter you! Jake’s knowledge of legislation was limited when he first started consulting, but by simply learning on the job, it has become like second nature.

Environmental consulting is by some considered to be a “blacklisted” job or career path. Some people are of the idea that environmental consultants are just aiding in the removal of vegetation to support development. However, consider this –

If environmental consultants were not around to help mitigate the environmental impacts that can occur from development, how many threatened species would be driven further towards extinction? How much land would be unlawfully cleared without any repercussions?

By working with developers, environmental consultants ensure that these developments work with the environment, rather than against it. Without these consultants, developers wouldn’t stop to even think about the environmental catastrophes they may cause, which simply put, is non-sustainable. 

CAREER ADVICE FOR BOTANISTS

“Honestly, just go for it – everyone starts somewhere”

“I remember early on when I was considering this career path, I was hesitant because a lot of people will tell you: “good luck” or “have fun with that”, but try to take that in your stride and prove ’em wrong in a sense”

“The first thing is to not get worried and pursue what you want to do – don’t let other people talk you out of it”

So, once you’ve decided on a career in the environmental sciences, Jake recommends the following steps:

  • Enroll in an environmental undergraduate degree, majoring in whatever you’re most interested in – Most jobs (especially environmental consulting) don’t necessarily care what ‘type’ of science degree you have, so don’t waste your time doing something you hate just because you think it’ll make your CV look the ‘tiniest’ bit better, do something you genuinely enjoy!
  • Seek out practical experiences to enhance your skills – for Jake, this was bush regeneration!
  • Apply for everything you’re interested in – and don’t be deterred if you don’t hear back. Even if you don’t think you fit the job description – there’s no harm in throwing your hat in the ring!

“To be honest, I would’ve applied for 50 things before I heard back so just keep applying.”

“Don’t be deterred by something that says five-years-experience required if you have three or four. A lot of the times, the job advert lists their best-case scenario and it doesn’t mean they just want those people, they’ll often still consider people with less experience”

“Try not to sell yourself short, you may not think you have the experience if you received it from volunteering, but every experience matters – so keep applying and putting your name out there, that’s all you can really do!”

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Jake? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation or you can follow Jake @jakeschwebel and his consultancy, Biosis @Biosisau on Instagram.

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