Sunday, 16 September 2018
Looking for a career in conservation?
There is fierce competition for jobs in conservation, so the big question is ‘how to make yourself stand out from the crowd?’ The answer is to put yourself in the shoes of the team tasked with sifting all those applications. I used to do this job as part of recruiting new staff, and it was incredibly difficult. Imagine that pile of anything upwards of 500 applicants for a job (there was one in the 1990s where I was told there were over 1,000 applicants! You must be clear why you have rejected people with very similar degrees, so you also must have a set of criteria against which to judge applicants. One of my criteria was ‘does the applicant actually show a real interest in wildlife? And ‘will this person bring something special into the team?’
As an applicant for jobs, have you ever turned the role around and then asked – would I stand out from the crowd? If not, how can I make myself more employable? I guess a MSc might help, but then an awful lot of people have a MSc. So, maybe a PhD? I am certainly aware of one job where I was eminently qualified but did not have a PhD and therefore did not make the shortlist. BUT, a PhD does not necessarily mean that the person will have what it really takes to work with people or to look at issues from a practical angle. Equally, there is a danger that a PhD will look at a job in a way that is too research orientated instead of being something that has to be delivered within a clear timescale. So, as an employer I would not leap to the conclusion that a PhD is essential. Where is the evidence of enthusiasm and personal drive?
Remember too, that although you will start your career in a non-managerial role, you may want to ascend the greasy pole! Getting suitable organising experience from an early age is often very helpful. You don’t have to be in work to get such experience. Participating in the running of a club or society at Uni is a good start. Then, there comes the post-Uni experience – clubs and societies are crying out for new, young and dynamic members. Their ranks may seem ‘crusty’ but that will change if you join, get involved and encourage other youngsters to join in. Why are those societies lacking young people? It is a vicious circle – the lack of younger members puts young people off joining, and so the society gets older still. You could break that mould and, in the process, put something positive on your CV both for today and for the future.
There are also skills that are in short supply. My former employer was stuffed full of birders (and no it was not RSPB), but there were precious few entomologists beyond those interested in dragonflies and Lepidoptera. Think about acquiring skills in a less well-frequented discipline. Yes, they are harder to break into because you need to think about keys, microscopes and maybe retaining specimens. BUT, in the process, you will acquire taxonomic skills and will also learn a lot more about ecology. The best ecologists I know are amongst Coleopterists, Hemipterists and (I would say that) especially Dipterists!
It will take years to become known as a top-ranking birder – there are so many also-rans! It will take a lot less time to become known in the circles of Dipterists, Coleopterists, Hymenopterists and Hemipterists. So, get involved with those groups. Everybody is getting worried that we don’t have a vibrant new youth base. We could have if there were new young leaders. Why not get involved with one (or more) of the Recording Schemes. Scheme organisers are on the lookout for bright young replacements – eventually we will retire and there will be vacancies for new ‘names’. It could be you, but you do need to put in the effort.
Remember too, that most societies have newsletters and journals that like short notes. Such notes and observations all count as ‘publications’ and although not top-stream peer-review, they do help you hone your writing skills and experience of ‘peer-review’ which may stand you in good stead should you think about a PhD. I’ve been hugely frustrated to see some really nice MSc projects that have never been written up but would have formed a very nice paper in the journals of one of the major non-vocational societies such as the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History and Dipterists Digest.
Does this resonate with you? If so, the world is your oyster. You don’t have to go abroad to develop the experience that can set you apart from the crowd; and you don’t have to wait. The sooner you get started the sooner you will be developing a name and reputation.
I don’t think I had a particularly outstanding career, but I have gained immensely from my engagement in the non-vocational world. As a 16-year old I joined the Committee of Mitcham Camera Club. By 25 I was on Cons Committee at Surrey Wildlife Trust and by 33 I was scheme organiser for the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. I’ve done a lot more besides and have gained hugely from the experience both professionally and socially. You could do the same or a lot better!