UCL Careers


Alumni Profile: Billy Knowles

Read about UCL alum Billy's story from studying a Masters in Public Administration at UCL to becoming a director for the Youth Environmental Service.

UCL alumni Billy Knowles.

31 March 2023

Billy's Introduction: I’m Billy Knowles, recovering strategy consultant and now director in charge of the Youth Environmental Service, a programme looking to create paid year-long environmental work placements for young people in the UK. As part of a wider career shift away from corporate consulting to do something more meaningful, I undertook a masters degree at UCL in 2021. 

Billy's time at UCL:

  1. What did you study here at UCL?  

A master’s in public administration with the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, which sits within the Bartlett School.

1a. What did you do outside of your studies (e.g., student societies, volunteering, part-time job, etc)?  

I volunteered alongside my master’s, working with a small group of people to develop the initial proposition for the Youth Environmental Service (then called the National Nature Service) which allowed us to secure funding and me to take on the role as a paid employee. 

Billy's Career Journey So Far: 

  1. What does your career path look like? What motivated you to pursue this line of work? How did you get from UCL to where you are today?  
    Who knows! I try not to have a clear career path in mind - I’ve found that setting where you want to go personally and focusing exclusively on getting there can be a distraction from doing great work right now. I’m more interested in making sure that what I do on a day-to-day basis has the greatest possible impact in areas that I think are important, with the hope that this leads me to new and exciting opportunities when they arise. I should caveat this with the recognition that I’m lucky enough to be at a point where I earn enough to live comfortably for the life I want to lead, which means I can focus on the role rather than the reward. 

2a. Have you been able to apply any of the skills and knowledge you gained from your degree to your role? If not, how did you go about developing these skills? 

Absolutely – my masters was largely structured around how to design and build radical policy innovations that create systemic change, and that’s exactly what we’re doing now. Being able to adopt a systems thinking lens in particular has been incredibly important, and having a solid grasp of a range of different policy issues means I’m able to translate theoretical ideas into real-world action. 

2b. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your career so far?  

Enjoy the journey and stop worrying about the destination – we’re told (and social media, particularly LinkedIn reinforces this) that we need to be the most successful, best paid, most senior person in our network. Too often that leads us to focus on playing the game, doing performative work and ticking boxes so we can climb the ladder. Instead, we need to remember that the best (and most satisfying) thing we can do with our work is to do it well, helping both people and planet flourish. 

  1. What does a normal working day look like for you? 
    It varies – I’m currently the only paid employee of the Youth Environmental Service, which means I’m responsible for everything, from putting together funding proposals, to developing and delivering learning and enrichment content for young people embarking on a career, working with our delivery partners to enable our first pilot of 95 young people working in the nature sector, and plotting a path to go from pilot to scaled programme. That means a lot of time behind my computer or on zoom calls with new and existing partners from across the sector, although I do try to get out and about and meet people in person and see the work happening on the ground wherever I can. 
  2. What is the most enjoyable part of your work? Equally, what is the most challenging part of your work? 

Doing something new and something exciting, with the potential to have a positive impact on young people, our society, and our planet gets me out of bed in the morning. I love the challenge and variety that every day brings, and having to work with other people to come up with new solutions that we believe are going to have a positive impact on our trainees, the organisations they work for, and our society/planet more generally. On the flip side, working alone can be incredibly lonely and isolating, and I miss having other who have the same level of detailed knowledge of the various issues we’re addressing. 

  1. What are currently the most topical issues that you see happening in your field of work? 

Finance – where its coming from, what conditions are attached, how to access it quickly and in a timely way, and how to ensure that it’s being put to the best possible use. We know that we have a lot of the solutions needed to avert environmental catastrophe, but the finance isn’t flowing fast enough to enable them. 

  1. What advice would you give to students and recent graduates who are looking to move into a career your sector? 
    Be wary of trying to emulate others - I’ve been phenomenally lucky at multiple stages with loads of factors that were out of my control combining to allow me to get to where I am. It would be unrealistic and unfair to suggest that all you need to do is follow the same steps I’ve taken. Instead I’d recommend focusing on two things: developing technical skills and expertise in areas that you are interested in, and focusing on finding roles that allow you to do the day-to-day work that you find most rewarding. That way you’ll be able to and want to have the maximum impact in your role, which will hopefully open up new doors and new opportunities that you couldn’t have planned. 

Focus on your future and book a one-to-one guidance appointment to plot the next steps in your career journey. Take a leap of faith and try something new and exciting whilst developing your transferrable skills and giving back. Check out the volunteering directory to find an opportunity suited to you!