James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

How to Find a PhD in Conservation (and choose the right one)

As I’ve said many times before (probably to justify why my own PhD took so long!), conservation is really hard. Very smart people have been working away for years, and yet globally, we’re still hemorrhaging biodiversity. If you were to solely focus on the negatives, it might get depressing; but we are making progress.

Now, more than ever, is an exciting time to become a conservationist, and along with the many, many ways into conservation, a PhD is one of the many roads you can take.

Why study for a PhD in conservation?

When I first applied for a PhD, I thought it was at long, long last, an opportunity to earn a small income for doing something I loved. In the UK at least, the stipend is something like £14-16,000 a year, tax free. It’s not a lot, but after paying to study for an undergraduate degree (which more recently is >£9000 a year!) it seems like a big step in the right direction.

I thought being accepted was a validation of all I had learned so far, and that I was, essentially, being employed to do a good job of investigating the conservation genetics of dwarf birch. OK, it wasn’t the most exciting species, and it’s not even that rare, but the approach was cutting edge, and crikey it was something to get stuck into.

But the longer and longer I studied, the more I began to realise that a PhD is not about doing a job. Instead, it’s about continuing to learn. They often say that by the end of your PhD (3-4 years in the UK) you could do it all again in six months. A PhD is about having time to learn – learning how to apply for grants, how to design experiments, how to speak about your work, how to conduct fieldwork and perform analyses, and then how to re-do, but better.

It’s about learning how to accept experimental failure, journal rejection and criticism from peers; how to handle big data, understand new concepts and make your code reproducible. If you have a successful career ahead of you, then as you get busier and busier these are the things that you’re likely to have less and less time to learn in the future. Even in the few years you study for a PhD, the technology changes phenomenally.

PhDs vs Real Jobs

I’ve seen a lot of great aspiring conservationists put off by the idea of committing to continue studying, when you are at least in your early 20s, and perhaps older. Shouldn’t you just get a real job?

In my view, the great thing about PhDs is that your job is to learn and develop new skills. You can treat it as professionally as you like – many folks work more or less 9-5, attend meetings, take career development training courses.

In the UK, you don’t have to pay tax on your stipend, so the pay doesn’t look so shocking after all.

After weighing it all up, if you want it to be, it’s not that different from a conventional job – and if you’re lucky, you’ll have what so few people manage: Work that you enjoy.

Where to Find PhD’s in Conservation Science Advertised

FindaPhD.com – A great first port of call.

NERC DTPs – In the UK, lots of PhDs are now awarded as part of Doctoral Training Partnerships. It’s worth understanding how they work. Lots of universities then advertise their places, here’s UCL as an example.

Jobs.co.uk – Also advertises lot of PhD opportunities

PhD Portal.com – Covering PhDs from further afield, too.

Do You Need a Masters or PhD to Work in Conservation?

Tips for Applying for a Conservation PhD

Above all have a passion for what you study.

Understand that publishing is important.

Types of Funding (and why you probably shouldn’t take a self-funded post)

Aside from the obvious fact that most people couldn’t afford to take a self funded PhD, there’s two even more important reasons to think carefully about taking a self-funded position.

1) To produce good quality research, you not only need a good candidate (you, hopefully), but also need a good project. Project applications are assessed in many of the same ways as candidates and papers – good ones, that are well designed, achievable, and will produce meaningful research get funded. Bad ones (or often ones that are quite good, but not quite good enough), don’t get funded. It’s these latter ones that are sometimes advertised as self funded. So to paraphrase, a PhD that already has funding attached is likely to be a better project – and that will give you a great head start.*

2) Having funding from an organisation like NERC or BBSRC – big UK research councils can be very helpful as it opens up further opportunities. These councils often run heavily subsidized training courses, with students they fund being given priority. Just because you have another funder (or your own funding), doesn’t mean you won’t be able to do training courses, you might just have to work a little harder for it.

3) Lastly, PhD funding isn’t just about money for you – the stipend. It also encompasses all of the money to do your research. Now you definitely don’t need a lot of money to do great research or discover something novel, but, it might improves your chances. So do investigate what level of funding a prospective PhD comes with, and what you might be able to do with that.

*As with everything in science, there are exceptions, but I think this is a useful yardstick.

If you’re not sure about a PhD..

You could try an MRES. What is an MRES?

“Master of Research degrees are relatively new but getting increasingly popular. In contrast to other Master’s programmes such as the Master of Science or Master of Arts, the Master of Research is especially focused on preparing students for doctoral research.

The programme structure is hence usually more flexible and involves a comparably large dissertation based on independent research or a practice-led research project. The Master of Research can be similar to a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and be awarded to students on the way to / instead of a Ph.D.” – MastersPortal.eu

You can find a list of them, here.

The Importance of Stupidity

Finally, and most importantly, don’t worry if you feel stupid.

“Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid.” – Martin Schwartz

If you knew what you were doing all the time, it wouldn’t be called research.