As anybody working within the sector will tell you, conservation is a competitive field to get into. Many people are immediately put off by that advice, and perhaps it is just as well that those individuals are. However, the truth is that many organisations are actually crying out for enthusiastic and determined people who are willing, and able, to commit themselves fully to their cause and all you have to do is make your head stick out above the crowd.
In these days of high tuition fees, now more than ever it is important to make the best use of your time and money to ensure you are not left floundering without a clue of where to start. If you’re currently in this situation don’t despair! Take a long breath and read through the following points.
1. Is this job really what you want?
This sounds obvious, but seriously take a moment to reflect on this. People often only hear the glamorous side of conservation work, but it often involves a large amount of work that many people will not enjoy. Conditions can be uncomfortable, hours can be unsociable and pay is not typically high. On top of this you will most likely witness things that are quite distressing or that can really test your nerve.
Question why you really want to work in this area. Is it because you just want to work outside? So, be a landscape gardener! Do you just want to take lots of nice photos to post to Facebook? Then go on Safari instead! Maybe you just like the sound of it but in all honesty don’t know what’s actually involved. Do your research or do a bit of volunteering first to see if it’s really for you.
If at the end of it you can hand on heart say that you are committed enough that you are prepared to make personal sacrifice, then go for it!
2. Stay at home or go overseas?
Conservation jobs in the UK can be few and far between whereas in Africa you may find there are a lot more opportunities within the field, although these will be subject to strict visa conditions. Test the water first before taking the plunge by considering an overseas work experience placement for a few months. If you can narrow your focus a little in this way then it will help you to make a decision about what kind of career you really want.
3. Get qualified and specialise
These days, to pursue a career in conservation it is highly likely that you will be expected to at least have a good standard bachelors degree, if not a Masters. However, it’s also helpful to specialise as much as possible towards your desired future role. This is a tricky one! Most people looking for a career in conservation will not be able to specifically say what job title they are aiming for. There is rarely any standard structure across conservation organisations as positions are usually just developed as a need arises for them – and the needs of one organisation may differ from another. However, you can narrow your scope a little if you consider your interests and strengths. Are you more interested in research? Are you a natural leader or manager? Are you an enthusiastic campaigner with an interest in policy change? This should help you to identify which modules within your degree course are going to be beneficial to you in the long run.
4. Get experience
It’s no secret to anybody these days that without the experience to complement your studies you have very little hope of getting a paid role within conservation. This means that you are going to have to spend some of your free time volunteering; and it’s not enough to do a couple of mornings helping out in the local nature reserve! Employers want to see a real commitment because this proves that you have a real passion and that you’re not just doing it for something to put on your CV! You’re also not going to learn an awful lot from a few hours’ worth of work. It’s useful to have experience of a whole range of skills so consider getting involved in different projects to really gain a different perspective on the work. Projects in which you stay on site for an extended period of time allow you to fully immerse yourself in your role and can often make better use of your time. Use your summer breaks wisely and consider using them to gain practical work experience.
5. Get more experience
Other types of experience can do a lot for your chances of employment. Conservation is a varied field incorporating a wide range of different jobs, each requiring a separate set of skills. For instance, many research sites are isolated so it could be very useful to have a good knowledge of vehicle mechanics. Language skills are also important if you are considering working overseas. If you have experience in photography or film-making this could be crucial in helping to raise awareness of a cause – and marketing has become a key area of charity work. Consider taking a few extra evening courses if it might be of use to you.
6. Make contacts
Conservation is a relatively small fraternity and you may well find yourself rubbing shoulders with some well-renowned and influential people. It’s not just about who you know, but a little networking can certainly help you get noticed if you’re truly dedicated. It won’t necessarily guarantee you a job but it will benefit you to have a bit of guidance and advice from experienced people. Attend scientific meetings when you have the opportunity as this will offer you the chance to learn who’s who and to communicate directly with those already working in the field.
7. Show initiative and leave a good impression
If you’re accepted on an internship, you need to use this time to make a great impression and the best way to do this is to show some initiative. Many organisations are under resourced as it is, without having to spoonfeed instructions to every new volunteer or intern. If you haven’t learnt the ropes yet then it can be hard to know exactly what you should be doing at all times. Take the chance to ask other employees or your supervisor all your questions when they aren’t so occupied and note down instructions so you don’t have to get them to repeat themselves. If you can see that your supervisor is tied up and you need a job to do, it is better to go to them with a “shall I do this?”, rather than a “what do you want me to do?” Remember, there is always something that can be done, even if it’s just to tidy up. Sitting there idly playing on your phone won’t make you stand out for the right reasons.
8. Refine your CV and cover letter
Don’t just assume that your first class degree and months of work experience will speak for itself. In truth, many organisations will literally get hundreds of applications for a single role so it’s vital that your cover letter hooks the reader right away and sticks in their mind. Keep it succinct and relevant. Don’t just repeat information from their website, and talk about your interests and experiences without preaching! They already know their business, they don’t need somebody patronising them by explaining it all to them.
9. Stay current
Chances are if you’re just graduating you’re going to be in a heap of debt. If you have to get another job to pay the bills and tide you over until you get the position you really want, at least try to get involved some other way. Read, browse the web and get up to date with the current issues in conservation. You may well be asked your opinions on certain matters in interview. Importantly, keep volunteering – even if you can only spare a few hours a month. An employer might accept a gap of a year while you worked in Tesco – but not if you’ve achieved nothing during your free time.
10. Be determined
Don’t be dismayed when you don’t get interviews, it’s not necessarily your CV that’s the problem. There will be a lot of people going for the same job and sometimes it can be a bit of a lottery whether yours even gets looked at. There are many organisations out there so don’t just pin all your hopes on working at one particular place. If you’re rejected following interview, ask for feedback and take criticism constructively. More jobs will come along and if you keep at it, eventually you’ll get your foot in the door.
Action for the Wild offers internship opportunities on UmPhafa Private Nature Reserve, tailored specifically to those looking for the practical work-experience required to pursue a career in conservation. If you’re looking to make that first step towards the job of your dreams then this internship offers a unique experience to be directly involved in the running of a game reserve, and to learn a wide range of specialist skills whilst working with spectacular African mega-fauna. Follow the link to download the full information pack and application form.