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Will a Masters Degree get me a practical conservation job?

Blog by: David Tompkins

I’m a Mentor with AFON and I am fortunate enough to have worked in conservation for several organisations in the UK during the past eight years. People helped and guided me in on my way to a career in conservation and they are still helping me keep at it. So, I really want to return the favour and help people who are now looking to get into the conservation sector and need some honest guidance.

I want to share my views on the role of an MSc degree in helping people get their first job in the conservation sector; this is something that I’ve thought about a lot in the past few years. I am talking about roles within on-the-ground conservation for both NGOs and governmental organisations (local councils, Natural England etc). I am not talking about roles with consultancies or advocacy work, as I have no experience of these areas.

At this current time of uncertainty, many students or young people might be thinking of taking an MSc to give themselves an extra boost. When students leave undergraduate degrees with a job in conservation in their sights, they enthusiastically fire applications off for these jobs. But, over the coming months nothing happens, they hear nothing back. One option to rectify this is enrolling on a Masters course. This is what happened to me. After my undergraduate degree, I worked in a labouring job to pay my way onto an MSc degree, with the title of ‘Managing the Environment’ and course content which really seemed like something that would help me get to where I wanted to be. I read about how past students were doing cool jobs and I thought my future would look similar after finishing that MSc. Roll on a year, I finished my MSc, met some nice friends on the way and got a reasonable grade, though I was no prize winning academic! I started to apply for a few jobs, like assistant warden, assistant ranger, research assistant. No. Nothing, no calls to interview, no success.

This left me feeling a bit flat and a bit unsure of where to turn to. It also left me feeling a bit fed up of having to pretend to be optimistic about it all. I can’t remember what made me choose to do it, but I decided to do a month of residential volunteering with the RSPB on Rathlin Island. Straight away I realised this was a good move, I was starting to meet people who were doing the jobs I liked the sound of. Chatting to them, I realised they didn’t generally have an MSc or often even undergraduate degrees. After this I got myself onto a six-month volunteer placement with the RSPB in Wales and following this, I got lucky and got a great job protecting a tern colony in Wales. It was only a short contract, but it was a start! But I’m not going to go into the full history of my employment; what I want to look at is what you need to get a job in practical conservation and how much an MSc can help with this.

Broadly speaking, I’ve found that the skills and experience that get you into a conservation job are not the glamorous ones. To summarise, the main skills that have helped me get jobs are:

· The ability to communicate well (with volunteers, the public and landowners etc).

· Being organised and being able to organise others (volunteers, contractors and staff).

· Being dedicated to conservation and having relevant knowledge on local and national issues.

· Having good problem-solving skills.

· Having good role-specific skills, including specialist machinery qualifications or mapping skills.

· A working knowledge of health and safety and environmental legislation relevant to the role (such as knowing you need permission to repair riverbank erosion).

· Having skills in surveying and monitoring species and habitats using methods that are common to UK conservation (such as doing breeding bird surveys).

So, how many of the key skills that have got me into recent jobs have been provided by my MSc? On the whole, I don’t think any of them have. Ok, I think there is an underlying level of knowledge and understanding that has been provided by my MSc, but increasingly its negligible. I’ll be honest and admit that having that MSc on my CV might have helped me get through to interview, but I have never drawn on it during an interview to good effect.

I don’t want you to think that I am against universities, academia or higher learning, I certainly am not. Neither am I against MSc courses in general. But like everything else, they have their time and their place. I think one of the main issues facing students looking to MSc courses as a way of getting them into a conservation job is that they have a limited understanding of what the job market looks like and what skills they need to have to get anywhere in that job market. Certainly, when I started my MSc, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the conservation job market. This undoubtedly puts you on the back foot: if you don’t know what you need to get a job, you won’t know what you need to improve on.

The main thing I’d like to urge you to do if you are thinking of doing an MSc is to remember that you are in control. You are paying for that MSc with your cash (whether that’s saved up or borrowed) and as a result you need to understand what you are paying for and whether it’s the best way to achieve your goals. Before you enrol on that course, imagine you have £8000 in cash in your hands for university tuition fees. You are about to give that to a business (the university): are you confident that, as a customer of that business, you are getting what you need for your £8000? On top of that, you might have to pay £5000+ for accommodation. You have possibly had to spend a year of your life working in a pub/café/shop to save that money, then you are going to spend another year studying for that MSc. So, does that £13000+ and 1-2 years of time commitment give you what you really need, or could this be used to gain it in another way? I found that it didn’t for me, but it may be different for other people in a similar situation. Not all universities are equal and not all courses are equal, some MSc courses will be great, but some will leave you wanting much more.

Before embarking on that course, I’d advise you to think carefully about how else you might be able to use all that time and money. If I had my time again, would I do an MSc? No, or at least not the one I did and when I did it. I was naïve and my head was in the sand, much like many other young people in that situation. I’ve spoken to others who have done similar courses, they also say they would be quite unlikely to do the same thing again if they had a second run round. I think one of the reasons for this is that some course providers have a disconnect with what actually happens on the ground in conservation. You hear little talk of how often conservation roles actually involve spending more time sending countless emails and trying to organise dozens of volunteers to do the cool stuff than they involve you personally doing really interesting species surveys! This isn’t to say that these roles are dull, but the reality of conservation work is that many employees will spend much of their time organising a large and devoted pool of volunteers. This is satisfying and important work, but it’s not what is usually portrayed as conservation work when you are first starting out.

So, what else might be you be able to do to give yourself a fighting chance of getting into conservation in the UK with the same amount of time and money? Well, I’d point to volunteering and practical or vocational training. Its competitive, but if you have £2000 in your pocket, you can afford to do at least a six-month residential volunteering stint with one of the UK conservation charities. This will allow you to make contacts in the sector, understand how these organisations operate day to day, learn how staff got into their roles, develop role specific skills and get inside information on entry level jobs. If you have a little more cash in your pocket and you’ve an idea of the roles you want to aim for, £800 spent on a chainsaw course or a GIS or insect ID course could represent good value for money. Equally, if you want to stay local, you could do something like volunteer a few days a week at a local nature reserve while also trying to get part-time work with a local tree surgeon to hone your practical skills. You might also want to do a similar thing abroad, but I would say be careful to ensure that you are volunteering with an outfit that gets you proper skills, not just something that is closer to tourism than work experience. The other option that can work for you, is creating your own citizen science or community-based project on your doorstep, for example by starting a village hedgehog monitoring scheme or a project to restore some local ponds. This sort of option can really help you gain communication, engagement and organisational skills whilst doing great work in your local area at relatively little cost. Basically, there are options. Although no single one of these options is bullet proof, if you do your homework, you might do well from it.

If you are just about to finish an undergraduate degree or you are searching for ways to get into conservation after higher education, these would be my top tips:

· Don’t do an MSc/Internship/Placement solely based on it being in a really cool location.

· Don’t take everything you read on a university prospectus as gospel.

· Look beyond the fancy title of the MSc course – just because it’s titled something exciting like ‘Marine Mammal Conservation and Rehabilitation’ doesn’t mean it’s any good and it doesn’t mean you’ll just walk into a job in that arena upon completion!

· Do research to see what job roles actually exist in conservation and what they require of candidates, for example by looking at job listings websites.

· Do talk to people working in conservation to see how they got where they are today.

· Get feedback from employers on where you could personally improve your CV.

· Try to look at improving your skills and experience in a clear and objective manner, track your progression and give yourself targets.

To sum it all up, remember that an MSc is just one of several options available to help you gain employment. Remember that you are in control of the process and that the decisions you make should be made following a great deal of thought. Finally, remember that different people can, and do, find different routes to the same goal!


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