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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.

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?).

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.

Notes in the rainforest

When it comes to a PhD you should ask yourself two questions.

1. Are you sufficiently interested in a specific topic to justify spending three years studying it.

2. Are you willing to earn a lot less than many of your friends for 3-4 years (but gain all the benefits of still being a student!)

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!).

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! (25 conservationists to follow on Twitter)

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.

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.

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 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 make very tough decisions, prioritising 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.

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Advice, Examples and Inspiration (people who have done it!)

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About the Author

James_BorrellJames is a conservation biologist with a passion for expeditions and adventure having been involved in projects on four continents. In the UK James regularly speaks in schools to inspire and engage young people in science. He's normally happiest when out in the field, or in a comfy chair with an enormous pile of data.View all posts by James_Borrell →

  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?

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