My obsession with animals started at a young age. I got my first pet, Dolly the guinea pig, at the age of six and adored her. I was an adventurous child and liked nothing better than climbing trees or playing in splashy puddles – I just loved being outdoors, and getting all sorts of muddy. These formative experiences led me, at the age of 13, to decide on a career in wildlife conservation. I haven’t looked back since!
In this article, I’ve outlined the steps I took in my career, and paired this with some useful advice on how you can get that crucial first paid role in conservation.
Step 1: Knowledge
I had always wanted to go to university! I relish academic settings, and was eager to have my nose in a book for three years. However, if you want to go down the university route, I would urge you to do your research before you make any big decisions. Use resources like UCAS and the Times Higher Education Guide rankings to find an undergraduate degree that delivers exactly what you want and need, whilst also giving you the best value for money. For me, this meant avoiding broader degrees, like Zoology or Ecology. I knew I wanted to be a conservationist and so I chose to study a more specific degree: Conservation Biology at the University of Lincoln. I was even more selective when it came to choosing my Master's degree, and I eventually went for the Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation MSc at Nottingham Trent University.
"I was eager to pack skills in alongside learning the theory, and as a result, I developed a useful repertoire of practical conservation skills in both my degrees."
Considering the number of skills I would obtain from each course helped me to choose the right ones. I was eager to pack skills in alongside learning the theory, and as a result, I developed a useful repertoire of practical conservation skills (such as wildlife survey methods) in both my degrees. During my MSc, I enhanced my laboratory skills through a module on Conservation Genetics, and obtained a great foundation in some key data analysis software, including R and ArcGIS. I use many of these skills in my job today, and they gave my CV that extra boost when it came to applying for jobs.
If the traditional university experience is not for you, there are other ways to obtain the relevant knowledge. You can teach yourself, but it’s useful to have some sort of record of your learning. There are plenty of short and distance learning courses (below) that could fill this role. Alternatively, you could opt to learn on the job with some industry experience, which leads us to the next step.
Distance learning and short courses
Here is a selection of some of the best distance learning and short courses, if you'd prefer an alternative route into conservation!
- PGCert in Ecological Survey Techniques at the University of Oxford
- Distance Learning MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Edinburgh Napier University
- MSC in Biological Recording and Ecological Monitoring, and PGCert in Biological Recording, with the Field Studies Council at Manchester Metropolitan University
- Distance Learning MSc in Wildlife and Conservation Management at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC)
- Online Learning MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health at the University of Edinburgh
Step 2: Experience
Getting the right experience is vitally important. I remember the frustration of applying for roles that required experience, yet feeling at a loss because no one would give me the opportunity to get that experience. A vicious cycle! However, there is a way out of this: through volunteering. Working for free is never ideal, and there should undoubtedly be more opportunities for paid, experience-building roles in this sector. However, volunteering in your free time is still very common in conservation, and is often the best way to start building your portfolio.
"It's important to be selective with your voluntary placements. Ideally, the organisation and location where you volunteer should complement your career plans."
Similarly to finding the right degree, it's important to be selective with your voluntary placements. Ideally, the organisation and location where you volunteer should complement your career plans. It’s also worth noting that not all voluntary placements offer the same value, so dig into the detail a little. Enquire about how you will be spending your time, what tasks you’ll be doing, and assess how many different skills you’re likely to acquire.
If you're interested in working in a particular area of conservation, focus on finding voluntary roles to reflect that. I was more interested in the scientific side of conservation, so I chose to volunteer on a monitoring-specific placement in Abernethy forest, which ended up being instrumental in helping me to get my current job. If you're interested in the more practical roles in conservation, focus on placements that will pay for your training to obtain the right ‘tickets’. These can include certifications for chainsaws, brush cutting, and even 4X4 driving. Completing the training with a host organisation not only saves you money, but can offer you valuable insights and guidance from experienced professionals.
Many of my voluntary placements were based in the Scottish Highlands, and most of these were with the RSPB. It's no accident that this is where I ended up working! I chose to do a mix of short and long-term placements, which involved working in one place for a few months at a time. This allowed me to experience different reserves and encounter new teams, and helped me to expand and deepen my knowledge. I also did many of my short-term voluntary placements (1 to 2 weeks each) in the summers while at university, which definitely gave me the edge after graduation.
"Working in one place for a few months at a time allowed me to experience different reserves and encounter new teams, and helped me to expand and deepen my knowledge."
Step 3: Networking
This next step is perhaps less obvious: who you know can make all the difference in the small world of conservation, and much of your networking can be done while you’re building knowledge and gaining experience. If you decide that university is for you, while you’re there you can join relevant societies and groups (or even begin your own!), and meet like-minded people. You can also find ways to connect with others who are further along in their career, like PhD students and researchers. Most people will be more than happy to grab a coffee and have a chat with you about your career plans. Similarly, if you have visiting guest lecturers, set aside some time to introduce yourself and come armed with some questions – this is especially helpful if they are doing a similar job to the one you're aiming for in the future. Another great tip is to make the most of any extra-curricular activities – you’ll inevitably meet more people. Networking opportunities will also arise from your volunteering placements, so make sure you really utilise this. Ask to shadow members of staff from your host organisation at meetings, or when they attend events.
"Who you know can make all the difference in the small world of conservation, and much of your networking can be done while you're building knowledge and gaining experience."
Face-to-face interactions are often best, but they're not always possible. This is where digital networking comes in. Ensure that your social media is packed with relevant conservationists, and engage in conversations and discussions online. Following conservation blogs is especially useful, as this can give you insight into the different aspects of a conservation career, and will help you learn the right vocabulary to converse with these bloggers. This kind of digital networking means that when a new job opportunity comes up, you may have already made a good impression. Don't underestimate the value of this!
A sprinkle of luck
There is of course a degree of luck in getting your first paid role, as with any career. I experienced this first hand, as I progressed from an intern with the RSPB, to Capercaillie Project Assistant, to Capercaillie Advisory Officer – all within the space of a year. It’s true that there was an element of being in the right place at the right time when these opportunities opened up. However, far more importantly, I ensured that I was equipped with all the relevant knowledge and experience to make myself readily employable. My networking – in this case, shadowing a meeting – had led me to hear about the upcoming Capercaillie Project Assistant job opportunity early on, and I was also able to meet the recruiter. Both of these things gave me that extra head start!
In the end, you cannot rely on luck. But if you equip yourself properly and stay determined, there’s a good chance that the right opportunity will open up. Once you have that first role in the bag, there'll be no stopping you!