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Want a job in Sustainability? UCL's Senior Sustainability Manager shares her career journey.

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2 February 2018

The environment sector is all about problem solving, finding your first job is just the first thing to crack! Joanna Marshall-Cook reflects on how she got into the sustainability field, and shares her top career tips!

Joanna is Senior Sustainability Manager at UCL.  UCL occupies over 250 buildings, has over 40,000 staff and students and is currently undertaking a £1.2 billion investment in its Bloomsbury Estate. She is overseeing our transition to a low carbon institution; engaging the UCL community to self-deliver sustainability, embedding carbon reductions into the Estates Transformation programme, and integrating circular economy principles throughout the organisation.

How did you get into sustainability?

When I was doing my A-Levels I loved science; finding out how things worked and about the natural world. My two favourite subjects were Biology and Chemistry so I naively thought why not a degree in Biochemistry. Three years later and I never wanted to see a laboratory again – so it’s slightly ironic that I now spend quite a lot of time in them, but with a totally different purpose.

All of my friends on my course were going into pharmaceuticals or training to be a Doctor and I knew neither of those were for me. I had been involved in People and Planet while at University and a career saving the planet seemed ideal, but I had no idea where to start. I spent my summer after graduation applying for all sorts of environmentally related jobs from checking water tanks for legionella to Environmental Health jobs. Many rejection letters and rejection silences later I found a job door knocking on doors in North London to encourage people to recycle more of their rubbish. This doesn’t sound like the best job in the world, but it was actually my big break and in fact I know so many people who have got into the environment sector through this route. Whilst tramping the streets of North London I was applying for lots of other jobs (with the hope of finding something better paid that didn’t involve talking about foil packaging). After a couple of months I was lucky enough to get a job with a not for profit consultancy providing advice to Developers, Architects and Planners about making new homes more sustainable. I didn’t have any prior knowledge of this, so it was a steep learning curve! As part of this job I also did a couple of secondments, one working with a local council to help them assess planning applications that were made to them to ensure that they met their sustainability policies.

After about 3 years I decided I wanted to spend less time working on new buildings and to focus on getting our existing housing stock up to scratch. I started working for BioRegional (an entrepreneurial sustainability charity). My main project whilst there was to turn an ordinary suburb of South London into a zero carbon hub, partly through connecting existing homes in the area to waste heat from a landfill site. This was a really interesting project to try and get off the ground as it involved a lot of engagement with local people and politicians and big companies, I was also doing the background energy modelling to make sure the project would work. I also had the opportunity to work with B&Q on their zero carbon strategy for all of their UK shops and design an exhibition to encourage residents to save energy, as well as project managing two innovative retrofit project – liasing with residents, builders and engineers to try and end up with the.

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Both my consultant role and at BioRegional involved quite a lot of fundraising and I wanted my next role to be less about raising money and more about doing, and that’s how I ended up working in UCL’s Estate’s department. This has been my favourite role so far, partly due to the wide variety of things I end up doing on a daily basis. My day could be broadly themed as persuading people to do things they didn’t realise they wanted to do, but might include:

  • Designing consultation events for our new Carbon Management Plan
  • Negotiating with our Estates team to put in low energy fume cupboards
  • Measuring-up space for new cycle parking spaces
  • Trying to understand high performance computing enough to see how we can reduce its energy consumption.
  • Working with academics on an environment themed lecture series
  • Liaising with our maintenance team to work out whether it would be possible to install a boiler running on waste coffee.

What are your top tips for students wanting a career in the sustainability field?

Looking back I think I was really lucky to get into the sector without doing any preparatory work, if I was doing it again I’d definitely try to get more experience before starting, I’d also look at doing some voluntary work in the Sector, join UCL’s People and Planet group or your local Transition Town Network. I’d also see if you can make some of your course more relevant to the environment, perhaps through your dissertation. You could even see if you could do your dissertation in conjunction with a charity or at UCL. For example we've had students do research on our estate, from trialing new energy technologies to researching our waste streams.

But the most important thing is definitely an internship in the area that you like (even if it’s only one day a week) or find a job doing something quite basic in the sector – like my doorstepping. Green UCL frequently has internship opportunities, so follow us for future opportunities.

Finally, why not set-up your own project, nothing looks better on a C.V. than someone who’s taken the initiative to start something, however small.

I’d also recommend thinking about what type of skills you like using and are good at – for example negotiating, writing, designing or numbers and make sure whatever job you target it uses those skills.

Good luck!


Get in touch with us if you have an idea for a sustainability project at UCL! 

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Talk to Joanna and the rest of the team at the UCL Sustainability Careers Fair, 6th Feb, South Cloisters, 12- 3pm for further careers advice!