A piece of life history
First, allow me to tell you a little bit about myself and the choices I have made during my education and career. After finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in Biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, I decided to stay in Utrecht and follow the Master’s programme called ‘Environmental Biology’. This Master’s programme offered the possibility to do two research internships; one inside and one outside of science. During the second and final year of my Master’s, I deliberately chose to do my final internship at an ecological consultancy. At that time I thought that a job in consultancy would fit me better than a job in science and therefore I figured it would be smart to test that hypothesis during my studies – rather than finding out later that I had made the wrong decision. I did indeed enjoy the project, and after my internship the consultancy firm (Bureau Waardenburg in the Netherlands; www.buwa.nl) asked me to stay. I happily agreed. Today I still work for Bureau Waardenburg and in seven years I was promoted from project assistant to senior project manager in bird ecology. Most of my work consists of performing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for large wind farm initiatives in the Netherlands. However, besides doing EIAs I have always tried to include as much (scientific) research (including fieldwork) in my projects as possible. After two years of working for Bureau Waardenburg, I was offered a permanent position.
A close link to society
One of the main differences between science and consultancy is the extent to which you are able to influence the focus of your projects or research. For me, one of the main advantages of consultancy is that the applicability of your work is more evident compared to (fundamental) science. I have always liked that close link with society. However, the downside of consultancy is that you are bound to solely address the questions of your client, as they are paying you to solve their problems. There is not much room for following up on your own ideas. Every hour has to be accounted for. This means that upfront you have to figure out how you are going to answer your client’s questions and how much time every step of the process will take. This has two important disadvantages: 1) you have to limit the number of hours that you spend on the assignment, otherwise a competing consultancy will get the job, and 2) if it takes you more time than you anticipated to get the job done, your company is losing money and will be unhappy with your performance. This also means that there is only limited time to do things other than funded projects, like for instance attending conferences, reading scientific literature or writing scientific papers. Luckily, Bureau Waardenburg is a very ‘science-minded’ consultancy so there is always room for negotiation. However, being a consultant will never give you the freedom to fill your (working) days without having to account for every hour that you make.
A different life - work balance
I always get the impression that particularly in science, many people are struggling to find the right balance between work and (other) life. For people who are struggling with this balance because they are simply so enormously passionate about their job that there is not much room for anything else, a job as a consultant won’t be a solution. However, for people who wonder whether they can keep up with their demanding science job, a more ‘normal’ job in consultancy might actually work. In my job – or actually, in my spare time – I can easily spend many extra hours reading literature, writing papers, attending meetings etc. However, I don’t have to do that to keep my job. To keep my job, I have to work my hours and deliver results within those hours. How I want to spend my time outside working hours is entirely my own business. Of course it helps my career if I spend some of my spare time on doing some extra work, and it definitely increases the chance of getting the nicer projects. However, the big difference with an academic career is that I don’t have to do it to maintain my position. For me, this is a huge benefit compared to a career in academics. I do not want to suggest that one of both ‘lifestyles’ is better, I think it all depends on your personal priorities and character. If you are passionate enough about doing science, the extra work won’t feel like work after all.
Finally, having a permanent position makes it easier to settle down, buy a house and build a life. Of course, again, it has to be your cup of tea to see that as an advantage. Maybe you are afraid that you will die of boredom if you settle down. In that case, just keep chasing your academic dream! However, I know that many people in science at some point get sick and tired of moving around the world, constantly leaving behind family and friends (old and new), moving from one short-term position to the next without having any guarantee that it will lead to a permanent position anytime soon. Although it can be a very nice way of living your life and you will definitely meet a lot of nice people and see beautiful parts of the world, I think that most people at some point need a bit more stability and a place to call home. My job as a consultant gives me the opportunity and luxury to do that and still, once in a while, unleash the science lover that lives somewhere inside of me and enjoy myself with a very science-related project. So in fact, I sort of feel like a part-time scientist, having the stability that a job as a consultant offers, which I am grateful for, because I think it fits me as a person very well.
I wish you a lot of wisdom in choosing your own career path!
Jonne Kleyheeg-Hartman is an ecological consultant with Bureau Waardenburg