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How to.. Get a Job in Conservation (and love your work)

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If as a child you sat enthralled by every natural history documentary, Sir David Attenborough was your idol and you dreamed of growing up to work with wildlife – then perhaps a job in conservation is for you.

Read on for a practical guide on how to get a job in conservation. (Note: This article is regularly updated, get in touch with any suggested additions.

The Pros & Cons of a Job in Conservation

Pros:

  • You really can make a difference.
  • Conservation jobs often involve working outdoors.
  • You may get to visit wild and wonderful places.
  • No two days are the same.
  • You find yourself working with people who have the same values.
  • At the end of the day, it’s immensely rewarding.

Cons:

  • Unfortunately, most of the time it will feel like you can’t make a difference.
  • For every day in the field, you may well have to spend several behind a desk, in the lab or at meetings.
  • Fieldwork – in the driving wind and rain – can take it’s toll.
  • You might long for the stability and normality of an ordinary 9-5.
  • Normal people will think you’re fighting a lost cause.
  • A job in conservation is extremely unlikely to make you rich.

How to Get Started in Conservation (building experience!)

Many useful things can be taught in the classroom, but when it comes to topics like conservation and the environment, there is really no substitute for experience. Put your free time and summer holidays to good use with some of the following and you will be grateful for the experience when you come to finding a job later.

  • Volunteer for as many things as possible. Try anything once, find your niche and your motivation.
  • Take the plunge and join your first expedition (not sure how?).

Should You Work For Free? (the long running debate about volunteering and unpaid internships)

There has been a lot of discussion in conservation (and lots of other fields) around whether you should be willing to work for free, particularly when starting out.

On the one hand, many argue that it gives a huge number of early career conservationists a chance to start gaining valuable practical experience. Conservation, as an industry is poor. Many NGOs have a small staff and there are a huge number of people willing to work for free.

But on the other side of the argument, many point out that we should be showing that we value our early career conservationists more, by paying them. Unpaid internships may also favour the wealthier in society that can afford to not earn an income for a period. Some even say that the proliferation of volunteer positions is exploitation.

My Take On The Issue

Ultimately I think it’s up to you as an individual – only do what you feel comfortable with. However, I have worked in a lot of unpaid positions and I think it’s a very valuable thing to do. My reasoning is three-fold:

Firstly, when I was starting out, my priority was to gain experience, not earn money. I could earn money in supermarkets or working as a waiter (and I did), it was dull, but straight forward. Gaining experience in conservation, was harder, but I could do that in my spare time. Remember that I started with no experience, so getting paid was unlikely. Instead, I took the view that I was being paid in knowledge and experience. For me, that was far more valuable.

At the same time, remember that we’re willing to pay quite a lot for undergraduate and masters courses. Whilst very worthwhile, the cost of a year at university could certainly cover your costs for at least a year on an unpaid internship or volunteer position, and you’re likely to gain a whole host of valuable experience. Remember that you don’t always have to follow the conventional path.

Lastly, from personal experience, lots of people that start out as volunteers or interns end up being offered paid jobs by those same organisations, a few months down the line. Think about it; having worked there, you now have exactly the experience they are looking for, and they have confidence that you’re a hard working highly motivated individual (if you are!).

Resources: 8 Reasons to go on Your First Expedition (and one not to)

Should You Take A Masters or PhD?

Academically there are lots of advantages to having a Masters or PhD in terms of getting a job later. They can however cost quite a lot of money and of course take several years. The best place to start looking is findamasters.com or findaphd.com.

Notes in the rainforest

When it comes to a PhD you should ask yourself a few questions:

1. Do you enjoy the university/academic environment (and want to continue)?

2. Will it help you get to where you want to go (or would practical experience be more useful instead)?

3. Are you happy to manage your own time? With a PhD comes flexibility, but also responsibility.

4. Are you willing or able to pay more fees (Masters) or earn a lot less than your friends (PhD) for 3-4 years?

My own baised opinion (I’m taking a PhD) is that it’s a fantastic way to learn a useful variety of skills. From project management, to persistence, applying to grants and of course in depth knowledge of your chosen field.

In short, if you get the chance, jump at it.

… But What if You Didn’t Study Biology at University?

People That We Need More in Conservation (Already have a job and looking for a career change?)

The original conservation movement was very much based on environmentalists and to a certain extent scientists. These days, the people and skills need to diversify if conservation is to be competitive and successful…

Why?

Because conservation isn’t just about asking very nicely for more nature reserves…

Conservation organisations are huge (Businessmen!), they need to be run efficiently on limited resources (Accountants!).

They need to reach out and share their ideas (Marketing!), especially with the younger impressionable generations (education!).

They need to come up with new ideas and solutions (engineers!),and be able to scale those up and up and up so that they will work nationally and internationally (politicians!).

And of course we need to educate (Teachers!), because an educated next generation will more readily realise the value of our natural world.

Resources: On Graduating and ‘The Real World’ (It’s OK to do something different)

Tips on Finding a Dream Job in Conservation

Network. Approach people or organizations you would like to work for. Maintain a professional LinkedIn profile, and consider Twitter too! (top 100 conservation twitter accounts to follow)

Start Early. Don’t wait until you graduate to search for a job. Gain experience as early as possible. This doesn’t have to be with a top conservation organisation necessarily… Write a blog, join a society, take part in citizen science!

Keep up to Date. Follow progress and developments of projects around the world. RSS Feeds are great for this. Here’s some useful websites and people to follow for starters

Work for free. Many are reluctant to do this, so you will immediately have an advantage. At best, you will be highly valued and possibly offered a more permanent position. At worst, you have gained some valuable transferable experience.

Be persistent (but not annoying). Put yourself in the right places at the right time. Don’t be disheartened if at first you don’t succeed, learn from every experience.

Learn to Accept Failure. Learn from your mistakes and start over. Working in conservation is at once the most and least rewarding thing you can do.

It probably won’t happen over night. It probably won’t make you rich, and you probably won’t be famous. But when you go to sleep at night you’ll know, that you’ve got one of the best job in the world.

If you can’t find the right opportunity, then make your own. Develop an idea for a field research project, ask for feedback (and take it on board), and then apply for funding from one of these organisations. If you’re unsuccessful, improve your idea and try again.

Where to Find Jobs in Conservation

There’s plenty of websites devoted to conservation and environment jobs, but if you know quite specifically what you would like to do, then it’s often easier to approach them directly.

How To Get Real Life Conservation Experience

I maintain a list of conservation organisations that I think do really worthwhile work, in incredible places right around the world.

There’s no quick fix, fast way in, or magic bullet though. Often it takes hard work, saving up, volunteering – but it’s worth it. Another important point, is that if you’re going to spend hard earned money to volunteer overseas, you should ask a few of these questions beforehand.

If you’re desperate to start something now, then take the plunge with citizen science.

N.B. Reasons NOT to Work in Conservation

For all the positive reasons to work in conservation, the realist in me has to suggest several not to.

For the money. This really needs little explanation, put simply, you are unlikely to get rich in conservation. If a sizeable salary is your thing (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then you could always get the same satisfaction later in life by donating to charities or NGOs of your choice. In fact, we could probably do with a few wealthy characters doing just that!

Because you like animals. Whilst liking animals is definitely a positive for someone who wants to work in conservation, it shouldn’t be the sole reason. A lot of volunteer opportunities involve captive animal orphanages and sanctuaries. Whilst for reintroductions or rare species breeding programs these can play a part, they are expensive and offer very little to the larger conservation picture. Conservationists often need to face harsh realities, make very tough decisions and prioritise the use of limited funds.

Conservation is Often About Killing the ‘Wrong’ Things. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. One of the biggest threats to native flora and fauna around the world, are a minority of invasive species. Whilst (occasionally) this is a natural occurrence, industrious human activity has undoubtedly sped this process up significantly.

In Summary – Good luck!

If you’ve made it this far, then a career in conservation is obviously something that you’re seriously interested in. My final piece of advice is this; don’t listen to anyone that says you can’t. You most definitely, can.

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  1. loveoceania
    loveoceania09-26-2013

    Cheers James for this summary why it is rewarding to become a conservationist. I have decided four years ago and it was probably the best thing I have done so far 😉

  2. ILacher
    ILacher09-27-2013

    Hi, I just saw this via the Sierra Club’s facebook page and wanted to guide you toward another blog post that features an academic paper I co-authored titled “Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers”. I thought it might be of interest to you or your readers.

    Here is the link to the blog post: http://conservationbytes.com/2012/12/04/advice-for-getting-your-dream-job-in-conservation-science/

  3. Jack Larriviere
    Jack Larriviere10-21-2013

    I received my bachelors degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation 4 years ago. Since that time, I have worked various seasonal positions all over the U.S., gaining much experience. I have worked for State, Federal, and private environmental firms. My main focus has been Avian Conservation/population studies, but have found myself working in Wetlands research; which I find I have little interest in. I have been contemplating going back to graduate school for a Masters degree. I’m wondering whether or not it’s would be worth the extra education/schooling to find better jobs or should I just stay in the field working. My question is: how important is an advanced degree to employers when looking for mid-level/senior biologists? I am leaning more towards a career with a small to mid-sized environmental firm. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  4. Nick Askew
    Nick Askew10-26-2013

    Great advice James. I’m collating conservation careers advice for a new website – do you fancy sharing some of your experience with us? Pretty please! Nick http://www.conservation-careers.com/

  5. Adria
    Adria10-26-2013

    Hi James, thanks for the advice! I totally agree that now it’s not only about Biologist/scientist who do care/involve with conservation. My experience in working with one of the large-scaled NGOs told me that it’s the Marketing and Communications team that holds one of the very very important position. I thought the NGO I’m working at was filled with scientists/science graduates. I met a lot of Comms/International Relations/Law/Economy graduates instead. I don’t know if this also happens to the smale-scaled NGO, but the truth is that not all NGO are research-oriented. Most of them probably won’t think that your species-oriented fascinating. It’s most of time about the humans. Community outreach, it is.

  6. Toby
    Toby09-24-2014

    Hi James, I am 21 years old and I am about to start a course in Ecology and Wildlife conservation at the University of the West of England. Do you think that degrees such as this are worthwhile? I am very passionate about conservation but I am not that academic therefore I don’t think I would do a Masters or a PHD. Would this degree be enough to work in conservation? Also are there any other routes into the world of conservation other than university?

  7. likitha
    likitha05-19-2015

    Thank you so much for sharing…….my goal is to become a wild life conservationist but dnt knw how to start it ….this post is great for people like me
    …..plz suggest me how to take this path…i hv done b.tech n working as developer..my age is 22yr…..cn i start a career in wildlife……plz reply

  8. Madhvendra Singh Rathore
    Madhvendra Singh Rathore07-17-2015

    Hey I am 15 years old and a wildlife enthusiast and I believe I want to be in the same line of profession as you.
    What training/experience/degrees should one have to do this job?

    • nickaskew
      nickaskew07-17-2015

      Conservationists are a clever bunch. When asked what their highest ranking qualification is, survey respondents stated: Doctorate (19%), Postgraduate (42%), Undergraduate (34%) and School level (6%). In reality, the type of qualification depends upon your chosen career path, with PhDs being especially useful for science and research for example. If you’re not sure what you’ll need, ask people working in your chosen field and read the educational requirements in job descriptions carefully.

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