Are you a recent graduate hoping to begin a career in marine conservation? Or are you looking to switch paths and move into this field? If so, read on for some useful and relevant advice on getting your start in the world of marine conservation, including the key qualifications, skills, and experience recruiters are looking for in prospective employees.

We’ve spoken with an array of professionals (listed below) to get their top tips on how to begin your career in marine conservation. We would like to say a big thank you to them all for taking the time to share their valuable insights and advice with us.

  • Marcus Williams is the Curator at the National Marine Aquarium (NMA), which is the largest aquarium in the UK, and part of the Ocean Conservation Trust charity dedicated to connecting people with the ocean.
  • Alison Rose is the Centre Manager at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Scottish Dolphin Centre. The WDC is a charity dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins.
  • Catherine Gunby is the Director of Fidra, an environmental charity working to reduce plastic waste and chemical pollution in our seas, on our beaches, and in the wider environment.
  • Anna Plumeridge is the Senior Scientist at North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NWIFCA). Their vision is to lead, champion, and manage a sustainable marine environment and inshore fisheries.
  • Scott Gudrich is the Founder & Director of Plover Rovers, a group of marine and coastal scientists and professionals who are passionate about bringing science and citizens together.

Our interview panel demonstrates the breadth of this sector – organisations within the marine conservation field can be charities, non-profits, businesses, local authorities, or governmental bodies.

To add even more variety into the mix, your area of work could be anything from research, policy, consultancy, academia or campaigning, to aquaculture, aquariums, outreach, laboratory work, and surveying (to name just a few!). The location of jobs varies greatly too. Some are desk-based, others are boat-based. Some involve diving, and some involve lots of national and international travel.

The variety of the sector can be both exciting and daunting to someone in the early stages of their career, but never fear – if you want to work in marine conservation, there are lots of practical steps you can take to boost your chances of success.

“Remember that your career journey will have lots of different stages, so focus on working hard, developing your skills, gaining valuable experience and getting the right qualifications.”

It’s worth noting upfront that this is a very competitive sector. It’s going to be hard work, and getting the job you want will require a lot of determination, commitment, and focus. Don’t forget, too, that it’s likely you'll have quite a few jobs in your lifetime, so don’t worry if your first job isn’t what you ultimately want to do, or even if it’s not what you’re truly interested in!

Remember that your career journey will have lots of different stages, so focus on working hard, developing your skills, gaining valuable experience, and getting the right qualifications. And to help you do just that, we’ve rounded up the most useful advice from our interviewees! Read on for answers to the most important questions you will have as you prepare for your career in marine conservation.

What level of education is needed for a career in marine conservation?

If you’re beginning to think that a career in marine conservation might be for you, you may be wondering what kind of education or qualifications will set you on the right path. Do you need an undergraduate degree? What about a Master's or a PhD? How about professional qualifications?

“For early career applicants we would ideally look for someone with a degree. A postgraduate degree would be a significant advantage, as would practical skills.” – Catherine Gunby, Fidra

Surprisingly, our panel’s answers to these questions were not quite as clear cut as you might think. We've discovered there isn’t one set answer, and the kind of qualifications you’ll need might differ, depending upon the organisation you’re applying to. However, the general consensus was that having an undergraduate degree in marine biology or in a related discipline is either essential, or highly desirable.

It was agreed that postgraduate degrees are beneficial, but they aren’t an essential requirement for any of the organisations we spoke with (although it’s worth noting that a Master’s and a PhD is highly likely to be needed for a career in academic research).

Catherine Gunby at Fidra says: “For early career applicants we would ideally look for someone with a degree. A postgraduate degree would be a significant advantage, as would practical skills.”

Diving at the National Marine Aquarium. Credit NMA

Some of our professionals emphasised that they place more value on an applicant’s personal skills and qualities than their qualifications. National Diplomas – which are vocational courses that incorporate practical and theoretical elements – “stand out just as much as a degree,” in the eyes of Marcus Williams from the National Marine Aquarium (NMA). Working in an aquarium is very hands on, making practical experience highly valuable. Alison Rose notes that “most of the roles we hire for are public facing, so the level of qualifications needed are probably less important than in other areas of the sector.”

However, if you already have your degree but are still finding it hard to get your first break, now is the time to really think about your skillset, and how you can improve and expand on it.

What are the main skills that applicants should possess?

The responses to this question were also varied, but we identified some key overriding themes that appeared across all the panel’s answers. They are:

  1. Initiative. We’ve found that employers want someone who is proactive and able to get the job done without being constantly micromanaged. You need to be “willing to take responsibility for whatever you’re doing” (Scott Gudrich, Plover Rovers), and taking initiative is vital when you’re approaching new tasks and problem solving.
  2. Adaptability. This is especially important in a job that involves encountering new and unpredictable situations. Marcus notes that a cool head is necessary for success: “It’s great if you can demonstrate that when a problem occurs, you’re able to stop, be calm and think of a solution... it’s no good panicking, it’s not going to get you anywhere.”
  3. Having good communication and social skills. Being personable is key, because employers want their new recruit to fit in well with the team. A group that works effectively together, with each person playing their part to get the job done, is ideal. Marcus says that he especially prizes “the ability to appreciate that everyone’s got their own idiosyncrasies, and to not think you’re the centre of the universe. A team ethos is really important.” This also needs to extend beyond your colleagues: it’s also very important to be able to communicate and engage with people outside of your organisation. For Catherine at Fidra, the “ability to communicate and influence people” is necessary, as much of the work we do is around influencing different audiences”. Remember that good communication skills aren’t just verbal – Catherine also mentions that you need to have “excellent research and writing skills” too.

Other skills

There are also more hands-on skills that you may be thinking about as you prepare for your career in marine conservation – for example, diving. There is a persistent myth that all marine biologists need to have diving qualifications, but this isn’t true – most roles are predominantly office-based, and do not involve any diving at all.

However, for some parts of the sector, diving is a prerequisite. Marcus says that in the aquariums industry, “the deal breaker is being able to dive… that’s how most people get rejected when they apply, they don’t have diving”. Be sure that you’re ahead of the game when you’re writing your applications by brushing up on your industry knowledge, and find out whether diving is an essential part of the job you’re interested in.

“Volunteering and taking courses are also excellent ways to add new skills to your repertoire!”

To prepare for your job hunt, Alison Rose recommends that you “look on environmentjob for marine conservation roles, and the skills required, and try to see on your CV where the gaps are and what you can do to fill them.”

This is a great piece of advice – what better way to know which skills employers want? Once you’ve given some thought to the skills you do have, take some time to think of examples where you have demonstrated them. For example, think of a time when you had to communicate clearly to someone, or when you demonstrated your initiative by handling a difficult situation.

Make a note of these key examples, and refer to them in applications or interviews to highlight your skillset. Once you’ve identified some key skills that you don’t have, think about how you can rectify this. For example, you could get a job in a different part of the sector, or undertake another kind of paid work entirely, in order to gain some more experience of working in a professional environment under your belt. Volunteering and taking courses are also excellent ways to add new skills to your repertoire!

For a lot of jobs in the marine conservation sector, acquiring data analysis skills using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) like ArcGIS and QGIS can be very useful. You need to pay to use the ArcGIS software, but if you’re affiliated with a university or company that already uses ArcGIS, you should already have access. If not, don’t worry – QGIS is free and open source.

Replit, learn Python & R 

As far as programming for data analysis is concerned, both Python and R are popular. Replit is a great way to play around with programming languages, including R and Python, without going through the pain of installing them on your own computer. See the resources below for a small selection of courses on programming and GIS.

How can I acquire new skills and experience?

All of our interviewees advocate for volunteering as a great way to acquire new skills, yet they also emphasise that they understand not everyone is able to spend large amounts of time volunteering, especially if they have to work full time to pay the bills. However, most of the panel agreed that being able to spare even a little bit of time each month volunteering – maybe one evening a week, or a day off – looks fantastic on your application.

It can sometimes appear even more impressive if you’re juggling your volunteering work alongside a full-time job, and it demonstrates to employers that you’re passionate about the sector!

Plover Rover volunteers, June 2021 

Alison Rose also mentions the availability of a wide array of online courses – many of which are free – as these are another great way to expand your skillset. As Alison says, “it’s always good to get more training courses under your belt.” Take a look through the resources below for a useful list of options.

Volunteering

Courses

Once you’ve had a chance to build up your experience and knowledge, it’s now time to focus on selling yourself in your application.

How can I make my application stand out?

When you’re applying for a new role, chances are you’ll be up against dozens (maybe even hundreds) of other applicants. So how do you make sure your application catches the employer’s eye?

From interviewing our panel of marine conservation professionals, we’ve summarised the key attributes of stand-out applications. These include:

Clearly showing how you meet the person specification. One of the most common points was that recruiters want applicants to read the job description and person specification carefully, and then mark off how they meet each requirement in their application. You don’t want to make recruiters work to determine whether you fit their requirements, so make it very clear to them that you do! As Alison says, “if we can see that an applicant matches really well with what we’re looking for in the job description and person specification, then it would be pretty clear to us they deserve an interview.”

⏰ Handy Tip

The next time you’re completing a job application, set a family member or friend a 10-second challenge. Ask them to choose one requirement from the person specification and pick out where you have displayed that qualification/skill/attribute in your application. If they can’t find it in that time, then there's a good chance it’s not clear enough!

Demonstrating that you understand the organisation and job. A trap that many fall into is reusing material that’s been tailored to previous applications: “as a recruiter you can tell” (Scott Gudrich). Recruiters want to hire people that show a genuine interest in the job, so take the time to mould each application to the opportunity. This involves research, and an understanding of the organisation you’re applying to. You need to be clear in your mind (and in your application) what the organisation does, the purpose of the role they’re advertising, and specifically why you want to work for them. Scott mentions that “surprisingly, many people don’t do that.”

Showing that you’re excited by the role. You also need to show that you’re excited about, and interested in, the role. Anyone can say they love marine conservation, but what recruiters really want to see is how you’ve demonstrated that in what you do” (Anna Plumeridge, NWIFCA). Don’t just tell recruiters that you want to work for their organisation and that you want this job, tell them what you’ve done that showcases your passion for the industry, and show how you can bring this to the role.

Being succinct. You’ll need to make your application as clear and succinct as possible for the people reviewing it. This was important for many members of our panel: they are incredibly busy, and do not have time to read lots of long, waffly applications! So remember, keep it to the point whilst not missing out key information. If a sentence adds no value to your application or the point has already been made elsewhere, get rid of it.

No spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. As Catherine points out, applications should be thoroughly checked for any spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Always ensure that you carefully proofread your application, as employers will be paying attention to your written communication skills! Ask someone else to cast an eye over your finished application, as they're more likely to spot things you’ve missed.

If you ever have any questions about an advertised role, you can contact the hiring manager prior to applying if their contact information is available. Anna welcomes genuine questions from prospective candidates: “I’ve had a few people contact me directly to ask me things, it really helps open up a dialogue between people and remembering who they are.”

How important is networking?

In general, our panellists thought that networking is a positive thing, and many of our professionals highlighted the possibility of making new connections and leaving a lasting impact on others through networking.

“It’s everything!” – Scott Gudrich, Plover Rovers

Many of our interviewees mentioned that at the beginning of your career, you probably won't be aware of the different roles available, and how each organisation fits into the complex jigsaw that is marine conservation. Anna even pointed out that roles with the same job title can vary greatly between organisations. Alison believes that networking “widens your view and allows you to understand the range of jobs and organisations out there.”

There are various ways you can network with others. For in-person networking, conferences are ideal, as you have the opportunity to speak face to face with a range of people. You can also network digitally, for example through LinkedIn. If you are planning to network, the best option is probably a combination of both: as Scott says, face to face networking is something that will never be completely replaced by online networking, as you can just tell if you hit it off with someone.” Just remember though, keep your networking professional and polite, as you don’t want to annoy potential employers!

Don't worry too much if you don’t know where to start with networking, because it will come naturally once you are established in a new position, where you may be invited to events with networking opportunities. Networking isn’t the ‘be all and end all', either: it’s just an added bonus.

Any final things I should know?

It’s worth bearing in mind that marine conservation is an incredibly large sector, and it’s OK if you don’t know exactly what you want to do when you’re starting out.

“At the early stage of your career it’s important to embrace different opportunities so you can begin to understand and reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses,” – Catherine Gunby, Fidra

This can be overwhelming, but once you begin working or volunteering, it will start to become apparent where your interests and skills lie. On the other hand, if you do know exactly what you want to do, be careful not to narrow your perspective so much that you miss other opportunities. Sometimes you might need to be flexible, and it may be a while before you can get your dream job.

As Catherine tells us, “at the early stage of your career it's important to embrace different opportunities so you can begin to understand and reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses,” and once you’ve gained enough varied experience, you’ll have a better shot at achieving your ideal role. One of our panel even suggested finding someone who has the type of job you’d love, finding out how they got there, then trying to emulate their career path.

It can be disheartening if you don’t get the job you want at first, but as Anna advises, “keep going”. Sometimes, if you don’t get offered a job, it’s got nothing to do with who you are, it’s just that they have found someone who they know is going to fit in better with their team.” So don’t give up! As Scott says, “life is a journey… nothing is failure, it’s always just the next step.”

Any questions?

Have we missed something out? Get in touch.


🌊  If you’re ready to take the plunge, view our current marine conservation jobs.