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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?).

But what’s It Like To Work In Conservation!?

So you think you want to work in conservation – but you’ve never really done it before, and wonder what day to day life is like? Look no further – Discover Conservation has been amassing interviews with real life conservationists, in the field, around the world.

For example, Andrew Snyder writes about studying reptiles and amphibians in Guyana, Luke Massey is a conservation photographer in Zambia and Kalli Doubleday studies human-tiger conflict in India.

It’s the perfect resource for the aspiring conservation to discover their passion, and they give away grants for first time conservationists, too.

DiscoverConservation

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.

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

Notes in the rainforest

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.

Looking For Something More Specific?

10 Things To Consider In A Conservation Volunteering Opportunity

I often get emails from school and university students looking for conservation fieldwork experience. I try to offer as much practical advice as I can, but telling the difference between some of the many, many, volunteering opportunities available is difficult.

In hindsight and with experience, the positives and negatives become clearer, but when you’re just starting out it can be confusing. I’ve already mentioned a few of the conservation organizations I really rate, but here’s a few questions to ask yourself when evaluating the merits of any conservation volunteering opportunity… Read more.

20 Tips For First-time Conservation Bloggers

I started a website simply as a place to put photographs from expeditions. I never really planned to start writing, but it has slowly morphed into what you see today. I think it’s important not to follow a prescribed ‘route’ into blogging, because it’s largely about learning things for yourself and sharing them with others.

That being said, there’s a few things I know now that would have made life easier at the beginning. I really believe that the more conservation, environment, wildlife and nature bloggers out there, the more mainstream environmentalism will become. That can only be a good thing. So I hope a few of these tips help the tempted conservation bloggers among you take your first steps…Read more.

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. spike
    spike12-17-2014

    After a long slog to get a foothold in the industry, I can offer my own tips, the ones that people don’t usually tell you about:
    https://adventuresinconservation.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/ten-other-tips-for-getting-a-job-in-conservation/

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. Robert McAskew
    Robert McAskew09-07-2015

    I would very much like to share my experience of recruitment within the third sector. I live and work in the UK, for a national wildlife charity, and I can honestly say, I have never known an HR department to be without nepotism. My advice is DO NOT waste your time filling in job applications for jobs advertised on websites like environmentjob or the countryside jobs service, all these organisations are doing is fulfilling their equal opportunities duty to share the job far and wide, which I think is absolutely scandalous. Super keen, hardworking graduates spend hours and hours filling in job applications, and if they’re invited to an ‘interview’ they have to spend hours and hours preparing or even putting together a powerpoint presentation. I refuse to be a part of the recruitment process as I know how unfair and corrupt it is, in the UK anyway. My advice is to volunteer for an organisations and keep close communication with your line managers so that you get the heads up on any position in the organisation, provided you’ve demonstrated the goods, you WILL be chosen over anyone and everybody, no matter how many qualifications they’ve got. I’d say conservation jobs are filled on the basis of 60% knowledge/skills/experience and 40% personal recommendation (i.e. how well they know you). Good luck!

    • Holly
      Holly05-28-2016

      Hi James, I was reading a comment from Robert who lives in the UK about graduates applying for jobs through recruitment sites vs volunteering for experience and getting a job that way. I haven’t been to university but I was considering going to study conservation science with forestry. I’m 22 and would first need to do A Levels then go to uni which is 5 years in total. I recently saw a 12 month apprenticeship for a national park where you gain a Level 2 City and Guilds qualification with the hope of further employment after. Not to map out my life, but I’ve been travelling and have volunteered on farms practicing permaculture. I have been practicing permaculture in my own garden and want to undertake a permaculture design course, with the hope of one day having more land where I can take on my own volunteers and educate others. However, I love learning and would love a job outdoors where I can learn as much as possible about all different types of landscapes/habitats. Money is not a deciding factor it’s time. I wouldn’t like to dedicate 5 years of my life in university (although I love to learn) to find out it doesn’t give me anymore of an opportunity to do what I’m passionate about that doing apprenticeships/volunteering etc. If I knew that going to uni is going to give me a good advantage then I would be happy doing this.

      So, do you believe 5 years in a classroom (with a recognized qualification at the end) vs 5 years volunteering/undertaking an apprenticeship is better?

  11. James_Borrell
    James_Borrell09-13-2015

    Thanks Robert, I do tend to agree! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  12. Lyss
    Lyss09-30-2015

    I got my degree in cognitive science though I’ve always wanted to do biology. It sounds like volunteering can give one an in, along with good experience, but is it still possible to land a job in conservation field research if I volunteer but don’t have the proper degree? I’m stuck in an odd spot where I can’t get another degree, nor an internship while I’m not in school, but it’s a field (ha) I really want to get into.

    I was fortunate enough to participate in a month long field research program in college, but it was for an anthropology course so I’m not sure if it counts for much.

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell09-30-2015

      I would say there’s lots of god field ecologists without degrees. Degrees give you one type of very valuable knowledge, it’s definitely useful, but it’s no substitute for field experience. I would say anthropology is a great start, there’s lots of similarities – I meet a lot of anthropologists.

  13. Goutam
    Goutam10-02-2015

    Hello James,
    Thank you for the wonderful post. Got lot of information on Conservation. From my childhood, I have the passion and love for wildlife. I completed my engineering in Computer science and have around 7 years of experience as software engineer. I want to work as wildlife conservationist and would like to know more details on how can I achieve the same. I don’t know how and where to start. Awaiting your reply. Thanks in advance.

  14. Pablo Luciano Gómez de Mayora García
    Pablo Luciano Gómez de Mayora García12-13-2015

    Well hello James,

    This is one outstanding blog, Ive just found you on the internet while looking for info on a vets role in conservation of wild species (since im a second year spanish vet student). I just wanted to congratulate you on your good work and maybe ask if you would happen to know how could a future veterinarian with a PhD on ethology possibly end up working on conservation? Best regards and thanks in advance

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell02-02-2016

      Hi Pablo, afraid I don’t know that much about veterinary work, but ethology sounds like a great skill to have. Remember, if you can’t find a project or job that’s suitable – nothing to stop you setting up your own 😉

  15. Tommaso
    Tommaso01-27-2016

    Dear James,

    I found this blog very interesting and I’m reading it with passion. Besides explaining pro and cons of a conservation job, It touches some personal choices a person face when thinking about its working role in the society.
    Passion and respect for nature is something I value a lot, since it’s my deepest passion.
    What i find really hard is to mix this deep passion, that I can explain only up to a certain level (and that’s what makes an interest a passion i think), with a rationale decision about what to do for work (to earn money). I like nature and I would like to communicate with people this passion, I’ve a bsc and an msc in economics and I’m getting in touch with ecological economics, thinking about doing a Phd.
    My question is, do you think is it enough a love for nature and an interest in the dynamics between enviroment and society to apply for a phd? Do you never get bored about learning very important things, without having a feedback about the direct impact you have on the conservation? Is it possible to get in touch with people through the passion for nature, while doing a phd?

    Thanks for the attention!!
    Tommaso

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell02-02-2016

      Hi Tommaso, I think you’ve hit on a challenge that lots of people face. If you have a passion, keep trying and eventually you’ll find a way to mix it with something that you can earn money doing…

      Remember conservation (and economics) are slow things, so feedback and impact take time. You have to take pleasure in the small successes I think.

      Sounds like you have a good plan, good luck!

      • yahiya
        yahiya02-09-2016

        how to get job in this field?

  16. yahiya
    yahiya02-09-2016

    i’m very much interested in wildlife conservating, how can i get a job in this?

  17. Andrea
    Andrea02-10-2016

    Hello! What a wonderful find. Id like to see if I could have your opinion? I’ve been struggling trying to find “the right path”, i am 24 years old and I speak english, french, and spanish all fluently. I’ve studied cultural anthropology and now currently doing a masters in competitive intelligence. Recently, i had a sort of ephiphany and this wild and lovely idea of exploring the conservation field. I love being with animals and most of all I want to understand/communicate/and explore the reasons why humans poach, and trophy hunt, … I would like to get involved in the FIGHT against poaching by mobilizing a campaign and educating others about other economic alternatives. I have thought of maybe taking up a online distance masters degree in ANTHROZOOLOGY at the University of Exeter and at the same time doing an internship abroad.. This could perhaps be a good step in the right direction? Its a new sort of field but it sounds exactly what I want to explore. Human-animal interaction… conflict… without all the science technical mess (not my thing!). Do you know anything about this field? And thank you for reading my rant, I just feel like im embarking on something new here and wanted to share with an expert! Thank you.

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell02-18-2016

      Hi Andrea, great that your so enthusiastic. I’d say that poaching and trophy hunting are very complex issues, so learning about them looks like a good move – though I’d caution against writing off science. One of the problems is that lots of people have extremely passionate opinions and views, many of which seem plausible…. but it takes science to work out what might really work. Exeter’s a great university.

  18. Tejender singh
    Tejender singh04-14-2016

    sir i am 12th pass student from India and i want to become a wildlife expert. please help me so that i can make my dream true.

  19. stuart
    stuart05-10-2016

    I’m 39 years old and have a mortgage etc… No qualifications but as I’m getting older I feel more need to help the environment. Where would I start? Or is it too late to gain qualifications that could possibly get me a job helping the environment?

  20. alekhya
    alekhya05-11-2016

    Thank u James!!! Its a wonderful blog that you r maitaining here for all those youngsters out there ready to jump into wildlife conservation. I am so very passionate about being a wildlife conservationist and I am also doing a course in forestry management, our college being one of its kind in Asia to offer that course. I am never bothered about high pay but I know this is the way for me. Though I am doing a masters degree now which may help me to get into wildlife, I am afraid I lack the necessary field experience and I have been seeing too much of negative feedback abt less vacancies in this field. I guess you could enlighten me with a few more blog posts of yours.

  21. Natasha Rajpurohit
    Natasha Rajpurohit06-17-2016

    Hello. I m Natasha, 21 yrsold.Thanks alot James.
    But m still confused, right now m studying BAMS I.e bachelor in ayurved medicine and surgery from India . But I m interested in wildlife and animal behaviour. What should and how should I start.. Plz rply

  22. Antara Tewary
    Antara Tewary06-28-2016

    i have a bachelor’s degree in technology, but my passion lies in wildlife conservation. is there any way i can pursue that?

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