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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.” – Edward Abbey


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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  1. Dr Jonny Miller
    Dr Jonny Miller03-20-2012

    Hi James, great piece. As a conservation biologist myself, I definitely think number 4 is crucial – get yourself out there to see what conservation work is like, and chances are you’ll get a taste for it! At the very least, you’ll have an interesting and rewarding experience.

    There are loads of volunteer opportunities out there ( is one such organisation offering opportunities with a huge range of fauna and flora).

    As for points 9 and 10, you’re definitely on to something – with myself for example, people are much more interested to hear about my work with primates in South America than my (much better paid) work with pharmaceutical companies in my earlier career path. And that brings me to another point – it’s never too late to get involved in conservation, no matter what your earlier career moves.

    Science is better understood nowadays as being passionate, dedicated and often adventurous! Good luck to all those who are involved in or are considering a career move into conservation biology.

    • James Borrell
      James Borrell03-20-2012

      Thanks for the comment Dr Miller, just had a look at your site and I have to say, great photos and a really interesting project you’re involved with, good luck!

      • Dr Jonny Miller
        Dr Jonny Miller03-20-2012

        Thanks James (please, call me Jonny!). I look forward to reading more about your expeditions, all the best!

  2. waheed

    hi james.. Great piece.
    All true..
    Best of luck

  3. Serena Star Leonard
    Serena Star Leonard09-12-2012

    Awesome, I love this list! We spent a week in a turtle conservation project in Costa Rica and it was one of the most incredible experiences I have had the privilege of having. I will check out that book asap 🙂

    • James_Borrell

      Thanks for the comment Serena, your work in Costa Rica wasn’t at Tortuguero by any chance? I like your site by the way, good ethos!

  4. Jennifer

    Hi James,
    Really nice post, simple and to the point. Hopefully it will inspire others to get involved and follow their passions. From my experience there are many way to get into an area if you are really dedicated and flexible. Thinking outside the box is essential and people will admire you for that. I look forward to hearing more about your ideas and work.

  5. conservation-careers (@conservcareers)
    conservation-careers (@conservcareers)10-21-2013

    Great advice James – thanks! We’re collating similar advice from conservations working around the world at : Do take a look. Perhaps you’d like to share your careers story with us? Thanks, Nick

  6. James_Borrell

    Hi Nick, thanks for the message, that looks like a very useful page. I would be happy to share my short story (so far!).


  7. Cheyenne

    Wow, thank you for the awesome list! As an aspiring conservation biologist, websites like yours are a diamond in the rough to find! I’m planning on going on my first expedition this summer, and all of this advice is absolutely great.

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