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

12 Tips For A Career In Conservation

“I think it is far more important to save one square mile of wilderness, anywhere, by any means, than to produce another book on the subject.”


1. Don’t think of it as a career, it’s a passion. Conservation has been described as a thoroughly depressing business, and that’s probably pretty accurate. It’s a bit of a daft losing battle, with the odd success. Fortunately though that means there’s plenty of work to do – an economist might describe it as an emerging market. Exciting.

2. Don’t worry if GCSE and A Level Biology don’t float your boat. Unfortunately, learning about loops of Henley or plant growth hormones isn’t the most wildly exciting of topics, I never really enjoyed practical’s either, but bear with them, it gets better.

3. Read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, at as young an age as possible, soak up everything it says and look at the world from a new perspective. Don’t worry, it’s over 30 years old and he wasn’t quite as controversial back then.

4. Go on an expedition, before you go to University. Take a ‘Gap Year’ if you like, but you can quite readily squeeze a useful experience into those long summer holidays. Most importantly, get involved with something worthwhile.

5. Forget the megafauna. Conservation charities promote work on tigers, pandas and polar bears because no-one will donate money to save an aphid. But the bare bones of conservation works on understanding the little things, because that’s the best place to start.

6. Say yes to things, take any and every opportunity to try something, even if it’s probably not relevant or doesn’t sound interesting. Better to look back and make that call, than to never have had the chance.

7. Work hard. It might not all be about grades on a piece of paper, but it’s far easier to be taken seriously and offered an opportunity if you have those pieces of paper to back you up.

8. Start at the bottom. Science is made up of repetition, repetition, repetition; so when you’re starting out you’re often doing the boring bits over and over again. Remember, that’s you’re part of something much bigger and exciting, it’s worth it in the end.

9. Talk about it.  Traditionally, scientists aren’t always seen as the most riveting of conversationalists, now there’s a growing need for communication with the public in all aspects of science.  Get involved with it early on.

10. Don’t chase money. Conservation is rarely glamorous and well paid, if it all gets too much, sign up to Milkround and put in that KPMG application.

11. Remember, it’s the real world. Issues aren’t black and white and text book solutions don’t always work, (but that’s part of the fun).

12. Be happy, doing what you love.

If you have any tips for someone hoping to work in conservation, let me know and I’ll add them to the list!

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