10 Words of Advice to Aspiring Conservationists (Part 1)

With the world and its wildlife in an altogether precarious state at present, never before has there been a greater need for people to protect it. The enduring decline of biodiversity and the prophesied collapse of our natural environment, mercifully, coming at a time when a career in conservation appears rather fashionable. Now, more people than ever are jumping through the hoops of education with the ultimate aim of working in the environmental field. A trend which should be celebrated by all.

That said, for every successful young conservationist, many more find themselves floundering in the dreaded post-university abyss. Frustrated, and unable to progress in the direction they so desire. This itself really is not all that bad – we have, after all, all been there at one stage or another. Though when I hear students (and graduates) complaining about the “competitive” nature of sector and the lack of available job opportunities, I do find myself getting a little frustrated at times. Particularly when some of those complaining do so only after sailing through their respective undergraduate degrees in a giddy haze of booze, inactivity, and poor decisions. Below are a few things I often say to such people – intended with all due respect, of course.

It’s not all about Pandas.

From my experience as an undergraduate, the majority of people enroll on conservation courses because they desire to work overseas: because they wish to give their all in the pursuit of Pandas, Tigers, Elephants and other grandiose species seen regularly on TV. This is all well and good, but you cannot expect such opportunities to fall into your lap. To get there you are going to have to work with bats, birds, fungi, lichen, snails and even moss – you are going to have to get your hands dirty with species seemingly less desirable than those that feature in your ecological wet dreams. Realistically, given the sheer volume of people currently working on the larger, charismatic animals, you are going to have to start small and show your dedication elsewhere. Sulking or, worse still, quitting when things do not immediately go your way is a sure fire way not to achieve your dreams. It pays to be realistic.

Anyways, sometimes it is possible to do the greatest good by thinking “outside of the box”. Many and more species need our help, from bees and worms to no end of embattled red-list plants. These creatures are equally worthy of our attention and by considering them you broaden your horizons and ascertain a niche. Individualism is often a bonus when trying to get noticed amid a crowd.

Stop volunteering “with” animals.

Now this one really annoys me at times. Just because you have volunteered alongside animals does not necessarily stand you in good stead for a job in conservation. Voluntary placements abroad are all well and good, but given the dubious ethics and questionable value of some opportunities – whether you’re working within a sanctuary for Sloth Bears or petting Elephants in Thailand – such things may not actually benefit you in the slightest. Work with animals does not necessarily provide you with the skills you need for a life in the workplace, and many employers see such experience as irrelevant, at best. Particularly if you are applying for a job in Britain, as many of us have to at one point or another.

One must be very careful when choosing where to devote their time abroad, especially as some such placements comprise little other than money-making ventures for the parties involved, and while you may be left feeling rather giddy after bottle feeding an elephant or two, the developmental benefits of such are sparse. If you want to gain applicable experience, get your hands dirty on your local nature reserve or shadow an ecologist while surveying for Newts. These things may not seem as glamorous, but they are undoubtedly more beneficial to your career prospects. This subject has, however, been covered in much more detail by the wonderful James Borrell here and, as such, I will curtail my waffling on the subject.

Lectures are not enough.

For the love of god, please do not think that simply attending lectures and the odd seminar – however diligently – is enough to make your dreams come true. It’s not. By large, most of the unemployed or struggling conservationists I know are those who relied solely on such things as their go-to source of education, when in reality, they merely provide the inspiration for further exploration. Students, at least at undergraduate level, often have a lot of free time, and it really is worth filling it with relevant activities where possible. Volunteer – whether for one day a week or the entire summer holidays – join societies, give talks, lead trips, tag along on field trips or simply go outside and observe nature. Every little thing you do at this stage builds skills, showcases passion and sets you apart from the thousands of others in exactly the same position.

Show an interest.

Okay, this one links in with the last point but, in my opinion, deserves a spot of its own. And the number of aspiring conservationists I have encountered who harbour dreams of working with Rhinos yet cannot identify a Roe Deer or Vole, is wholly frustrating. Though I find it hard to comprehend, there are would-be conservationists who have never once visited a nature reserve absent forceful persuasion, nor attempted to engross themselves in local wildlife. It baffles me.

One of the most common words showcased on environmental job applications is “passionate”, though how are employers to know you are passionate about the natural world when you do little to show it? Using terms like this can come across as vacuous when you have little experience to back it up, and despite the many ways in which one can highlight their dedication, some choose not to. Thus leaving others, whether they be potential employers or supervisors, guessing as to their commitment.

Whether you choose to fundraise, commit to voluntary work, maintain a blog, contribute to your institution’s newspaper, give time to citizen science or merely maintain a relevant social media account, please be sure to do something. Those who eat, sleep and breath the natural world in their spare time tend to do much better. Just look at the great young conservationists in A Focus On Nature for inspiration.

Network like your life depends on it.

Like most career paths, in conservation, knowing the right people, or at least having them know you, can be incredibly beneficial. And while maintaining a public profile may not be to everyone’s taste, the benefits of such can be enormous. From invitations to conferences and excursions where you may, by chance, be presented with the chance to engage with and impress experts in your chosen field, to national or regional meetings of clubs and societies. All have their benefits, as do groups specially designed for young people. Social media can be as powerful a tool as any when it comes to making an impression, and whether you use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIN, all can come in handy when it comes to getting noticed. Get yourself out there, loud and proud.

On a similar note, do not be afraid to send direct messages on social media, email or, god forbid, write to those you admire, or people whose work you found to be of particular interest. Ask questions, request further information, praise studies, even criticise – providing you do so in a polite manner. All of this shows passion and, as I stated above, passion is often the deciding factor when it comes to progression.




  1. I agree with you I have been on courses where people interest in exotic animals. But are never interest in the wildlife on their own doorstep and its so sad in this day age.

    1. James Common says:

      Indeed – I can count on one hand the people on my undergraduate course who showed an interest in British wildlife. They are the only ones with jobs now.

      1. This partly why I set up my blog because I want to show people that their interesting animals in Britain you just to look and research and you soon realize all round you.

  2. Brilliant blog as usual James!! My dad is lucky enough to have worked as a conservationist for the last 18years and I’m lucky that he encourages me in exactly the same way as you have in this blog! It’s so so important to understand local ecology and its relationship with the wider world. My mum who had a journalism career before we all came along, is the one who inspired me to write – so I kind of feel like I have a sort of upper hand. I guess it’s how you play your hand that counts. A Focus On Nature are absolutely amazing and so encouraging to us all. I have to admit that when I opened up your blog, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but you’re spot on, according to my dad 😉


  3. Rory Dimond says:

    ” or simply go outside and observe nature”

    I would add ‘with a book or two’ everyone has to develop their ID skills somewhere and uni is as you say, the ideal time to get stuck in-because you have spare time. It might not even be necessary to buy a book, since the library should have a few copies of key ID guides.
    This is especially important since few universities actually offer identification modules and some of those that do are cutting them. I owe much of my botany knowledge to going out with a coursemate with a couple of ID guides.

    I remember people on our ID course not being able to identify a cricket, or even say what order of insects it was in! Other people in some of my modules had never picked up a bird book..

    Having ID skills, even just for one group, does make you stand out as someone with a skill that only comes about through genuine interest.

    1. James Common says:

      I’ve included a paragraph about reading in the next one – whether its scientific papers or ID guides, one should always look for opportunities to expand their knowledge. So many don’t bother, which is a shame.

  4. Spot on with this post. The Ranger Service I work with came up with the idea to offer a ‘Volunteer Ranger Service’ for aspiring students to get some valuable experience. We would take them out once a week during term-time and teach them the role of a Countryside Ranger, how to use tools, how to carry out ecological surveys etc. When we went down to the local college and spoke to the Countryside Management students, of which there were more than 30 we got a grand total of one application. ONE.

    Some students just don’t realise the importance of committing themselves. The selfish, tongue-in-cheek way I look at it is… in a sector where environmental jobs are few and far between, in a job interview these guys will stand no chance against somebody who has committed themselves.

  5. Sabrina S. says:

    “One of the most common words showcased on environmental job applications is “passionate”, though how are employers to know you are passionate about the natural world when you do little to show it?”

    Excellently made point, James. I’ve been really surprised in the past to come across peers or students who are prepared to proclaim passion, but have very little interest in going outside or observing the natural world. In America, this (from my perspective – and I’m very early career / aspiring, so take this for what it’s worth!) is a big one. Given the extraordinary cost of American higher education (which is another issue in and of itself), I have come across those who are of the opinion that if they invested the money to get a degree, that alone should qualify them as passionate and well-prepared biologists. While I can certainly understand a somewhat jaded outlook on the cost of education here, it should hardly be our enthusiasm for our chosen field that suffers for it. I routinely meet aspiring biologists my age or younger who have peers in their major, yet say they have not one friend who is actively engaged in science or consumes it in their free time. Science is such an enormously broad field that I can only assume those who haven’t found some sector of it that they’d happily do for their own enjoyment just haven’t looked everywhere yet!

    Just another reason to stress the importance of making science accessible to young kids. We all start out as scientists, so why shouldn’t we stay them?

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