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
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.
– 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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
And who knows what amazing sights,
species and places you'll end up seeing.