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David Thompkins - How might you get a career in conservation without getting embroiled in Academia?

I’m writing this blog with the intention of helping young people to see how they might be able to get on in conservation without going to university. I went to university, but I’m aware it’s not a viable for many people for various reasons. I’m also aware that many people don’t have the financial freedom to go off and do unpaid internships for a year, so those people might feel like they can’t find a way in at the moment. On the flipside, I think that some of this is relevant to people who are part way through or just starting university courses. Either way, what I’d love to avoid is being approached by a mentee who says “I’ve just finished my degree and I’m struggling to get a job” (which is what I thought in 2009!). So, I’m hoping this blog can also help those who are thinking (or should be!) “How can I make sure I get a job shortly after graduating in two years?”.

To start with its worth remembering that conservation is, in many ways, no different in its structure than many other sectors. There are people working in communications, as project managers, scientists, as reserve managers, as fundraisers and everything else in between. For many of these roles you need a strong academic background to help make or influence decisions and research, but for many other roles there are more important traits such as having a strong commitment to nature, being a good communicator, being a good problem solver, etc. So, while a university education is vital for many key roles, I don’t see it as a one-way ticket to a career in conservation. I’m going to try to explore some options available to young people looking to get into on-the-ground-conservation (not policy, legislation, advocacy, consultancy etc) with NGO’s or national agencies without having to go to university. These are just my personal ideas and none of them are foolproof or a substitution for hard work and commitment. I’ve tried to base my ideas around kitting people out with the sort of skills they might need for a variety of roles.

The first key point is volunteering. Nowadays volunteering roles are more varied than ever, so the key here is using volunteering to gain a variety of skills and to work with different people or organisations whilst still working part or full time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that going to a couple of Sunday morning work parties at your local nature reserve over the course of a year will give you a significant leg up, it probably won’t. Instead, see if you can vary where and when you volunteer so that each role gives you something different. Organisations often offer tasks on different days of the week, so see if you can alternate between sites and organisations. If you can attend three different volunteer tasks each month, then I think you stand a good chance of getting some varied skills over the course of a year without having to sacrifice a massive amount of time.

The second point is alternative volunteering. Many organisations now offer volunteer roles in different areas, such as communications and social media, research, monitoring and more. Many of these roles can fit in around your work and home life commitments. For example, there are roles asking for people to help promote specific projects on social media and in the wider community, these often just require 6 hours of your time per month. On a different theme, organisations sometimes want volunteers to help analyse or sort research data for them, again this can be done at home with just a few hours a week or less. A key issue relating to this is to have the confidence to approach organisations and tell them that you can do something novel for them as a volunteer, this can open doors in the long and short term. Don’t be afraid to get in touch!

How much you can do this depends on your time, your drive and your wider commitments. I’m talking about making conservation part of your life. Many people working in conservation separate out work from home life by having personal interests far removed from conservation and wildlife, but many also get deeply involved in their spare time. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you enjoy being involved in ecology, then use that to your advantage. I spend a lot of my time reading about ecology, learning more about species and then also recording these as I can. It’s just something that I tend to do naturally now, without feeling like it’s a career progression thing. If this is something you do, see if you can get involved in recording wildlife in your area or see if there is a volunteer role that allows you to use your passion to survey whatever it is you are interested in. It will give you extra to talk about in interviews or applications too!

My next point is about generating your own opportunities. Sometimes you are unlucky and there is only so much you can get involved with locally. One option here is to come up with an idea that you can turn into a mini-project which in turn helps you gain skills that would otherwise be hard to get. You might live near some really nice ponds or some nice meadows that are fairly ignored or neglected. Maybe the ponds are important for nature, but currently being invaded by Himalayan Balsam, could you (with the landowner’s permission) drum up a little local support and form a small group to keep the ponds free of Balsam. This might allow you to develop skills in communication and organising people which would otherwise be hard to get. Or the meadows, maybe they are undervalued and important for butterflies? With support from your County Butterfly Recorder, maybe you could monitor the meadows in your spare time and set up a social media campaign to give the meadows some recognition? You can scale up all these ideas, but doing something like this can allow you to develop real professional skills that are relevant.

Apprenticeships are fairly frequent in conservation and they may get more frequent in future with any green recovery package that is developed. These could offer you a route into conservation while being paid. But, they key issue here is to remember that they will be competitive. There will dozens or even hundreds of people applying to these jobs, you need to show you have commitment to the apprenticeship and to show that your commitment started well before you first saw the role advertised! That is why the more you can show that you have volunteered or otherwise had an interest in conservation the better. Remember, the organisation will be looking to invest their money and staff time in you, they need to know that you, their investment, is likely to be viable over the long term and shows the potential to grow. So be ready!

The final point I’m making is around investing in yourself. Many people, rightly, are wary of going to university because they don’t want to create a large debt. But, there could be something in between university and no formal training that suits you, if you are able to invest some money in your development, although obviously, there are no risk free options. One step down from university is looking at college based HND type courses in Countryside Management etc, these are often two-year courses and can be taken closer to home at a reduced cost to you. If before and during the course you do some of the things I’ve suggested above, you should leave the course as a more rounded and professional job candidate. Cheaper again are one off vocational courses; if you are already involved in practical conservation and think it’s your bag, then you could explore doing a few basic machinery courses, such as chainsaw or brushcutter training to get you started, though at £800 and £300 respectively, DON’T do them on a whim and certainly don’t throw money at additional more specialised courses as you are likely to be wasting your cash. A chainsaw certificate IS NOT a ticket to a guaranteed warden/ranger role! On the monitoring side of things, you could explore doing some external plant ID courses or similar, though as with the above, this needs to be matched with experience and commitment. It does not look good to have random ID courses on your CV with no experience to show you practice these skills. If this appeals to you, maybe do it alongside going out with a local botany group or similar to keep your skills current. Lastly, it’s a fact that quite a few jobs require us to drive around the countryside, therefore some really good candidates can miss out on jobs because they cannot drive. If you can learn to drive, it is really worth getting your licence sooner rather than later.

I hope this helps at least one person to prepare themselves for a career in conservation, please get in touch through AFON if you have any questions.


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