I have worked in conservation for about ten years now and have often been asked about the best ways to get a job in the field.
This blog is an attempt to answer some familiar questions and provide some guidance for others wishing to pursue a career in this sector, based on my personal experiences and from chatting to colleagues. It is by no means the be all and end all of ‘getting a job in conservation’ and no doubt you will get different advice from many other sources. I will try to respond to any questions and welcome comments from anyone wishing to contribute their own advice.
What do you want to do?
It is important to say that ‘working in conservation’ can cover a large range of career opportunities, and many colleagues I know have switched from one to another. Here are just a few:
Academia – carrying out novel research to promote our understanding of a species or system in order to more effectively preserve them. Usually associated with a university and PhD work.
Research assistant – often the person that does the fieldwork for the above academic. Involves more time getting dirty in the field, close to the species or ecosystem being studied. Less involved in the writing up and will frequently be on a short contract. Often requires a postdoc or significant experience.
Estate worker – carries out important manual work on reserves. Could be anything like path maintenance, reed-bed transplanting, pond creation, woodland management. A good, practical, muddy job with the rewarding aspect that you can often see your work directly benefiting wildlife.
Wardening – will generally involve a huge range of duties from dealing with the public and special interest groups, to manual work on your reserve, to wildlife monitoring. Many reserves have seasonal wardens to coincide with peak times for visitors and wildlife.
Public relations – could involve promoting a particular reserve or company, or focus on public interactions such as educational activities with school groups.
Policy - You want to make a real difference? Get into policy. The thankless task of assessing all the science and then presenting a plan to someone who doesn't understand or has a different agenda. I have nothing but respect for the activists and policy-formers trying to influence change on large scale.
My conservation career
Here is a brief review of the path I took to get to where I am now:
I have always had an interest in wildlife and the outdoors and was sure I wanted a job relating to that but didn’t know quite what. After school I took biology, chemistry and geography A-levels and then studied straight biology at university, with mediocre success. Following a research masters in science of the environment I was ready to move out of academia and into the real world.
After what felt like a long time volunteering I got my first conservation job as a seasonal warden on the Farne Islands, Northumberland and fell in love with islands and seabirds there. After a few years I continued the wardening work down in south Wales, to Skomer and then Skokholm islands, being responsible for overall running of the latter. In 2012 I got a dream job with the British Antarctic Survey to work as a zoological field assistant, collecting data on penguins and petrels on Bird Island, South Georgia.
Take a look at environmental recruitment websites such as countryside jobs service, environment jobs or stopdodo and you will see many asking for a degree in a relevant subject; ecology, environmental management, conservation science or such like. I studied straight biology as I was unsure of the career I wanted and thought (probably rightly) that a mainstream science would offer plenty of alternatives at a later date.
Prior to entering university I would say biology is an essential A-level subject and that one or both of chemistry and maths in support would be highly advantageous.
If university is not for you that shouldn't rule out any but the jobs in academia. There are many institutions offering courses in land management that will often give you a variety of practical skills to go alongside the theory.
Having said this, I have worked with people who have arrived in conservation from many different backgrounds: art school, accountancy and bus driving are three that spring to mind, and that leads me to my next point...
Volunteering - the most important thing!
It is an unfortunate fact that it is very difficult to get a job in conservation without some volunteering experience. I say unfortunate as this can be a disadvantage to those who are perhaps limited by location or finances, however for others it can somewhat level the playing field and filter the great from the mediocre.
Regular volunteering has huge benefits:
- Increase your knowledge. Spending time with experts on birds, mammals, plants, insects etc. will enhance your ID skills and knowledge. There are a lot of people graduating from university with a degree in ecology or conservation science whose knowledge of British species is surprisingly poor. Spending a bit of time with an expert will really make you stand out from the crowd.
- Learn new skills. As well as ID skills you may get the chance to learn new practical tasks as some organisations will put their most valued volunteers through courses; first aid, brushcutter use, bat identification. There are other skills you can learn just from hanging around with the right people and groups – bird ringing, vegetation classification. Any of these will make you more employable.
- Deciding what you want to do. As stated above there are many aspects to working in conservation. If possible spend some time shadowing a few different people on a local reserve. You might find you most enjoy the practical aspect of woodland management or get a real kick out of taking school groups round.
- Shows dedication. This is where it levels the playing field. While the rich kids are off playing at saving orangutans in Borneo you may be getting covered in mud and rain, moving large chunks of reed-bed from one boggy field to another. But believe me, when employers are looking through CVs, wondering who will work well in their team it is the latter that stands out.
- Making contacts. As in every single area of employment there is an element of who you know. Working in the seabird & UK islands scene it is rare that I meet someone in the same sphere of employment who I either haven't heard of or don't have friends in common.
I was relatively lucky in that I went through university with the first round of tuition fees, which seem fairly modest now. Although I have since accrued more interest on my student loan than I have paid it back (no one goes into conservation for the money) it was not the financially crippling burden it could be today. I would heartily recommend a few months volunteering in different areas to decide which aspect, if any, of conservation is for you before committing to it as a career.
Who can you volunteer with?
The vast majority of conservation bodies are charities who rely on volunteers to carry out their essential work. The best thing is to get in touch with your local reserve and ask about work parties they run. Purely a personal thing but I always found the Wildlife Trusts most grateful for volunteers and most likely to help develop your skills and employment potential, the RSPB pay their employees a laughably small amount but will often put long term volunteers through extremely useful training courses. The National Trust and John Muir Trust run a variety of work parties in some extremely exciting places.
Volunteering opportunities broadly fit into four categories:
- Local, ongoing work. Regular, seasonal maintenance work at a local reserve. I volunteered like this a lot while studying for my masters and while working part time. I would join the local Wildlife Trust group for one or two days a week for whatever maintenance or management tasks were required on the local reserves.
- A week away. A longer stint, usually with a group where accommodation and sometimes food will generally be provided. A charge may be asked for to cover housing and travel but bursaries are sometimes available for students and unemployed. When I worked on Skomer we asked for a small amount to cover maintenance and improvements of the volunteer accommodation. Groups of up to six would assist with visitor management, wildlife recording, footpath or building repairs. Whatever was needed that week or whatever relevant skills they possessed.
- Long term volunteering. On Skokholm I was assisted by two long term volunteers who would be present for two or three months, learning and taking part in all aspects of wardening and island life. As well as these experiences we provided accommodation and would put them through a first aid course. There were some very competent people who passed through that programme and I am pleased to say have gone on to have a variety of interesting jobs in conservation. Both the RSPB and National Trust run similar programmes aimed at developing the next generation of reserve wardens. Competition for these places can be fierce so previous volunteering experience, knowledge and personal connections can be important.
- The high-cost, exotic location. There are some good volunteer programmes abroad; I did one in the Seychelles for a few months, recording hawksbill turtle breeding success. For that I think they paid half my flights and provided basic accommodation. However, many of them charge a lot of money and I would try and contact someone else who has volunteered with them to find out what they got out of it. Did they genuinely get some important skills and experiences or did they just have a fun holiday while the company only wanted them for their money?
Many of these are now advertised as full jobs would be on sites such as countryside jobs service.
It can be tough...
Conservation is a growing interest as people recognise the value of the natural world, however that interest is not necessarily shared by government, particularly this current one, who will always cut environmental funding rather than investing in it. Hence conservation bodies are squeezed further and further, many operating on a skeleton staff. Jobs, certainly the ones I have been doing, tend to be short-contract, heavily contested and low paid (although I have done ok as usually I have had my accommodation provided).
But it's worth it.
That first job is difficult to get but keep volunteering, keep expanding your knowledge, skills and contacts and it will come. Once you get your first job it becomes so much easier and all sorts of options open up. I'm of the opinion that you never appreciate nature so much as when you really spend time amongst it, and that is equally true of a huge penguin colony as the small woodland at the end of your road. Working in any size reserve you find all sorts of life you never realised was there, get to see it change through the seasons and take pride when something you've done improves conditions.
And who knows what amazing sights, species and places you'll end up seeing.