The diversity of different jobs in the conservation sector is surely one of the appeals of a career in it; and the number of different paths into those jobs is as varied as the roles themselves. Everyone has a different experience getting to their current position and a different list of qualifications and experience to their name.
In this blog I’ve tried to summarise my path thus far as an example of one route, and of how much your path can change once you are on it! It’s a bit of a whistle-stop tour I’m afraid. I’ve also shared some brief thoughts and opinions (all my own, and entirely subjective) on which bits I’d advise others to replicate, and which I might suggest to avoid.
Conservation wasn’t my first career choice; I wanted to be a commercial pilot, flying short hop routes to small islands in small planes. When that ceased to be a practical option I switched to my back up plan, which was only vaguely formed but had always been something outdoorsy. Despite vowing never to go to University, it seemed the logical choice at the time so I hurriedly made UCAS applications. I settled in my haste on Physical / Environmental Geography degrees which seemed like a good option for ‘outdoorsy’ type jobs while keeping my options open.
I accepted a place on a Physical & Environmental BSc at Staffordshire University, but quickly found that I particularly enjoyed the modules at the ecological end of the spectrum so I transferred onto a closely related but more Ecology focussed course. It was at this point that I realised what I wanted from my ‘outdoorsy job’ lay in the Ecology / Wildlife Conservation sector.
It was during University that I first came into contact with Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, where I now work. A fellow student arranged for us to join a weekly work party on a nature reserve in Stafford. That volunteering slot became a regular part of my week for 2 years and provided me with both useful practical experience and contacts - more on that later.
Approaching the end of my studies I was conflicted about further study or a job. I was eager to begin my career, but concerned that with the prevalence of degree level education I would have little to set me apart from the crowd. In the end some fortuitous timing settled it for me – I stayed on for another 18 months for an MSc in Ecology and Conservation. By that time I had had a few opportunities to gain some experience (and earn some money!) through seasonal surveying jobs for the wildlife trust and a small consultancy, plus other volunteering opportunities. These were all useful but even combined they were never going to provide for the young family which I had by this time. So while finishing my studies I tried my hand at self-employment and developed an environmental education venture wrapped up in an ancient woodland restoration project with a family member. We were moderately successful, but several factors outside of our control brought that venture to a premature close after several years. I learned a lot in that time, including very useful experience in running my own not-for-profit business, but perhaps most importantly I had a lot of fun!
While my self-employment was ramping down I had got a ‘proper’ conservation job working on landscape scale moorland restoration with the Moors for the Future Partnership in the Peak District National Park. I enjoyed that role very much – the work was innovative and exciting, using constantly evolving techniques on a massive scale, while the benefits of the work were so quick to make a real difference. Oh, and helicopters – can’t forget the helicopters! I worked there for two years and learned a great deal about working on large projects, managing contractors, working with landowners and so on. It was a great preparation for my next and current role. I would happily have stayed, but the long commute was too much of a strain on family life.
Back in 2018 I found what I had been looking for – a job closer to home. The Project I now manage, another habitat restoration focussed project only this time in an urban setting, had received funding and was looking for a delivery team which would be hosted by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. I originally applied for and was employed in the position of Delivery Officer, before becoming Project Manager about 6 months later when the original PM decided it wasn’t the right role for him.
And that’s where today finds me. I never planned to become a project manager, nor did I intentionally direct myself into habitat restoration roles. In fact when I originally settled on conservation I used to joke that it was so I could spend the rest of my career playing with chainsaws and 4x4’s. As a Project Manager I don’t see much of either of those at present! I very definitely have a desk and spend way more time in front of a screen than intended!
That’s my story, so what’s my advice?
1. By all means have a career goal, but don’t restrict yourself too much too soon. Give yourself a chance to experience a range of different things before you settle on a specialism.
2. Formal education is useful, but it’s not everything. I am not sure that my Masters has been the difference I thought it would be. While I enjoyed it, if I could go back and do my education over again I may focus more on practical courses instead of a Masters, or looked for a role with on the job training rather than going to University at all.
3. Use volunteering or short term roles to try different options and learn what you like or what you’re good at, but don’t be content with them forever. Your skills have a value and to be fair to yourself donating them for free should be a temporary generosity.
4. Make the most of every opportunity – always aim to get something meaningful from a role, even if you decide early on its not the right fit for you long term. Sometimes the experience or networking is sufficiently valuable, other times you may stick it out for a specific training course or qualification, or to develop a more detailed knowledge of a particular technique or method. Or it might be a personal trial of a different type of work, area or organisation which can inform your future career choices.
5. Be patient – it is very unlikely that your first job will be your dream job; enjoy the journey without getting stressed about the final destination.