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5 essential tips for budding conservationists

Its finally happening. I try and remain professional as I open the email and not let the excitement get away from me. My first one. The first time I have been in this position. After spending months and years applying for conservation jobs, I am actually now recruiting. And I am recruiting for a position that I had myself only a 2 years ago (Capercaillie Assistant). How bizarre. How immensely satisfying. I may have given myself a mental high five. Fully deserved I feel.

It got me thinking though, I have learnt so much about this industry. I have made all the mistakes after all. So I have described 5 tips that were essential in me obtaining this dream job. After all, I now spend my springs huddled in a hide metres from the iconic male capercaillie and watch him put on the most magnificent display as the rising sun bounces off his feathers, fully at home in an ancient Highland pine forest. And I get paid for this. How did I do it? Read on....

1. Choose your studies wisely

Now, I should start by saying that you don't need to go to University to have a career in conservation. It really depends on what you want to do. If you want a more practical role, perhaps as a warden on a reserve, then I would think carefully before paying those extortionate university fees. In this case, as I will explain more fully in the next point, practical experience within the industry is often invaluable. You may get some of this experience at University but there may be cheaper options out there too. However, if its the science that makes you tick and you are considering having a more academic career, such as a researcher, then a degree would be more appropriate. Not that I'm underselling University. I fully enjoyed University and learnt a huge amount. I'm just dispelling the myth that this is completely necessary to enter this career path.

If you decide University is for you, then I would choose your course carefully. Unique courses stand out. For instance, for my undergraduate I studied 'Conservation Biology', which was the only course with that title at the time. My postgraduate was even more specific, with the title 'Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation'. This really demonstrated to employers what I wanted to do. I want to conserve endangered species.

Do your research and spend time looking at the nitty gritty of what these courses have to offer. Does it include lots of practical experience? Does it include experience within the industry? Will you get any practical certificates? Will you have access you new technologies that you can learn you use? What kind of options are there for your dissertation/thesis? Does it include any networking with industry stakeholders? Is the university afflicted with an organisation/s that you would like to work with? I could go on. My point is, don't presume you need a degree, but if you decide to go to university, choose your course carefully.

My MSc graduation

2. Pack in experience

Experience, experience, experience. This is what every employer is looking for across the industry. Not just any experience. Relevant experience from the industry, preferably in a role that is similar to that which you are applying for. Also ideally in a location that you would like to work. For instance, if you want to work with UK wildlife, a 2 week volunteer placement working turtles in Greece may not be as useful. Not matter how exciting!

How do you get this experience? Volunteering. Most conservationists I know have started their careers this way. If I only had one piece of advice to give, this would be it. Many conservation organisations offer volunteer placements. The RSPB is a great example as it offers a rich variety of options. You could volunteer once a week at your local nature reserve or live and work on a reserve as a residential volunteer.

How much volunteering should you do? This is not an exact science. Basically, volunteer until you get a job and the more the better. I would advise a mix of shorter term and longer term placements. This means you get to experiences different sites, pick up a multitude of skills, meet plenty of people but also show commitment and development through sticking at a longer term placement, which could provide a useful reference. Pack volunteering in wherever you can. I volunteered whilst still at University (during holidays) and also between short term seasonal paid contracts. Sometimes, this volunteering will have to be funded by perhaps more mundane jobs (I was a waitresses for years..) but its so worth it. Its also a way of testing how you feel about certain jobs before you get too committed. And its fun!

3. Network

I feel like networking is standard across industries so this is no surprise. I would advice taking advantage of any networking opportunities and when you do, ensure you leave a good impression. Conservation is a small world!

For example, I asked to shadow some staff at meetings whilst I was an intern at RSPB Abernethy to learn more about the reserve/wider area work. This meant that I was present at a meeting when the upcoming role of a Capercaillie Assistant was mentioned. Given this head start, I furiously researched capercaillie and spent a lot of time with my manager working on my application before it was even advertised. I succeeded in getting this job. Which is how I am now Capercaillie Officer, which I wouldn't have had a hope of getting without working as the assistant for months. Now, I'm not saying that this advantage it the reason I got this job, but it couldn't have hurt. Seize any opportunity and, if they don't present themselves to you, create them.

4. Apply and apply well

You will never get the job unless you apply. This seems obvious but is surprisingly overlooked. Its cliché but it really can never hurt to put an application in. Even if all it does is register the name in the back of some recruiters mind so that you become recognised. You will appear committed. I was told on more than one occasion that my name was recognised by recruiters. It may help.

Now, I have to add the caveat that you should still be realistic with your applications. If the job requires a PhD, 10 years prior experience and specialist certified skills that you don't have, then this may not be worth the time for an entry applicant. However, if you have a reasonable chance, with some of the experience/skills listed, then give it a go. I honed my application style with practise so this improved over time. I also always requested feedback on my applications which really helped. If you get to interview, this is even better practise. You don't really want your first interview to be for your dream job and you fall down at the handshake...

Think what the recruiter is looking for. Really think about it. Stick closely to the role profile describing what they are seeking. Don't presume anything e.g. don't presume that stating you like hiking means you will be noted as having navigational experience. Write every experience/skill out explicitly. Make it easy for the recruiter to score your application and formatting your application carefully can really help this. I learnt to use the all role requirements as headings and added comments on my suitability under each one. Even if I didn't fit the criteria exactly, I would provide some relatable experience where possible. You never want to sell yourself short, even if it does make your application a bit of an essay!

5. Be determined

Determination is essential. There will be what feels like endless rejection. You may have to postpone buying a car or going on fancy holidays to fund volunteer placements. The volunteering will not always be glamorous (I once had to pick up dog poo for a morning!). Juggling paid work, volunteering and your studies may be a logistical nightmare. You will question your life choices on more than one occasion. But this is what you're banking on. If you feel this way, then I promise that at least most of your peers will be feeling the same way. Some people choose not to keep going. This was a decision taken by many of my peers starting out. It is, after all, a competitive process like any industry. So just keep going. Hang on to whatever it is that made you want to work in conservation in the first place. For me, from the age of 13 I have wanted to save endangered species. Now I am doing just that.

So, after making myself a cup of tea, I settle down to read the applications. I empathise deeply with the applicant's quite obvious enthusiasm and perhaps a note of desperation creeping through (but that may be my interpretation!). We can only hire one but I sincerely wish the applicants, and any budding conservationists, the best of luck. You may be paid to huddle in a hide and monitor your own majestic species sooner than you think...


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