Conservation Careers Advice from the Top

Have you ever wondered what advice conservation leaders have for making a career in conservation? At Conservation Careers we’ve compiled the top conservation careers advice from the top – guidance from the CEOs and Director Generals of successful conservation organisations like WWF, RSPB, ZSL and IUCN, together with insights from Conservation Optimism’s diverse members.

Whether you’re starting out in your career, considering switching careers into conservation, or applying for conservation jobs, here are the five key things that they suggested you need to do to become a conservationist.

  1. Stop trying to be a stick insect. Stand out!

When you’re starting out in your career, it can be tempting to follow the footsteps of your peers, as they enrol for university degrees or sign up for internships abroad. Or if you’re a career switcher, you might worry that your skills aren’t relevant because you haven’t followed a standard path or ticked off X, Y and Z boxes – and that you need to retrain completely before becoming employable.

You might even invest considerable time and money into making yourself ‘employable’… and one of the masses in the process.

While it’s true that some conservation jobs require specific skills and experience, when it comes to applying for conservation jobs, it’s your uniqueness that actually helps you stand out. The single best investment of your time – whether you’re just beginning your career or making a career switch – is in identifying not just the skills and experience you need, but those that make you unique, and then playing to your strengths.

Don't be afraid to stand out.

“When I get into conversations with people that have a really different background, one of the things I point out about myself is figuring out what [are] the skillsets that you already have that are unique and the things that you are interested in, curious about and passionate about that are not conservation, that you can bring with you to the sector… the skills that you have built up in a different career track actually have a lot of valuable currency within conservation…”, said Cheli Cresswell Sinclair, Director of Conservation Optimism.

Cheli Cresswell Sinclair. Director - Conservation Optimism

“I think that it’s really important for people that are looking to make a change into conservation that before they completely throw the baby out with the bathwater, have a look at what they’ve built up to this point in their careers and think, how could the skills that I currently have be used to further benefit conservation?”, added Cheli.

 

“Today, we know that in order to really be effective in protecting wildlife, we still need to protect natural places and unsustainable resource use. But even more impactful is the need to address the drivers behind habitat and species loss: direct financial resources away from environmental degradation, ensure good governance and planning at the landscape level, influence markets, consumption and production and develop the power of our economy based on energy that doesn’t pollute or warm the planet”, advises WWF International Director General Dr Marco Lambertini.

All this stuff creates an opportunity for people from all sorts of disciplines to be able to work in wildlife and environmental conservation fields like never before. My advice would be, to think about if you want work within the environmental sphere, choose a stream of work and a discipline that could contribute to it but that also reflects your passion. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a technical, biological science”, added Marco.

Theo Blossom. Training Coordinator - Durrell Conservation Academy

“Being open minded about the different roles available within conservation (like these 15 types!) is also important. Conservation has changed to be much broader in recent years – gone are the days of it just being ecologists who are concerned about the environment. Actually, what conservation really needs are people who have people skills, so they can understand people, engage with them and ultimately change behaviours,” says Theo Blossom, Training Coordinator for Durrell Conservation Academy.

…[think] about your strengths and [play] to them, especially if you can bring something different to the table. For example, I have graphic design experience which has been a massive asset to my work and not one you would necessarily think of as being essential to conservation work. Conservation is a competitive sector, but it’s also one that is crying out for more people from different backgrounds with different skills,” explains Hannah – Programme Coordinator, Action for Conservation.

  1. Seek meaning first. Set goals, but keep your path open.

As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, every decision in life is a choice between floating with the tide, or swimming for a goal. But, like life, the best careers happen somewhere in between these two extremes.

If you focus on achieving what’s most meaningful to you and keep adjusting your path (and maybe even your goals) along the way, you’ll always be growing and developing towards your full potential. Plans are great, but be flexible enough to leap when the right opportunity comes up (and keep checking your compass).

Patricia Zurita, CEO - BirdLife International.

“…don’t stop trying to find the place where you actually feel and the thing that makes you tick. I don’t think I could have worked in something that I didn’t believe in”, says Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International.

 

Being opportunistic has huge advantages in conservation work – you never know what is going to come up, and you have to be prepared to be flexible and make the most when they do”, says Theo Blossom, Training Coordinator for Durrell Conservation Academy.

“…sometimes I see potential students being a little bit narrow in their focus; they go, Ah I’ve always wanted to work on, I don’t know, gibbons in Borneo or something, this has been my passion. But the chances of you finding something that’s that focused is really difficult. If you do, the chances of you getting it because of the intense competition is also going to be challenging so the trick is to spread your net quite widely”, says Professor Ken Norris, Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

 

“And also that’s a good idea because you never quite know what’s out there and you never quite know how that’s gonna shape the rest of your career and often, those kind of turns in the road that you didn’t foresee are the things that define you”.

Professor Ken Norris. Director of Science - the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Ken added, “…my first head of school when I was a junior lecturer gave a talk about his career. And he put a blank slide up and he said, write down what you think would be single word I would use to describe my career. And everyone wrote down a word, right. I can’t remember what word I wrote down. And then he put up on the word “serendipity” and he said, for all of the kind of logic and you know, sense in which science works, serendipity matters more than anything else”.

Recognise the opportunity when it arrives and take it. And often we over-engineer things ‘cause we think we’re gonna have particular pathways and that’s true in research and our own careers. And that blinds you to some extent to opportunities that you didn’t think about that arise. And so, I would say, just always keep an open mind to what’s out there and what might be available. Don’t close yourself down too quickly and too early, in your own research but also in your own career”, concluded Ken.

“…don’t wait around until the timing is right and everything is perfect, and you’ve got it all figured out because you’ll never have it all figured out, the timing will never be perfect. If you want to make a change, partly you have to commit and just do it”, advises Cheli Cresswell Sinclair – Director of Conservation Optimism.

She adds, “On the other hand… there is a value in making sure that what you’ve got in terms of a plan is really well thought through and well developed. I didn’t jump into my PhD immediately, even though I wanted to, I waited until I had what I thought was a really good idea and a really clear vision for myself and my career and then took a little bit of time to go and do some other jobs and some other preparations and then took that next step”.

“I think the best advice I have received and I would give to others is to be absolutely true to your personal mission and make sure that it is the same as the organisation you work for! Every time you have a difficult moment or you celebrate a success, remember why we are here and how you should behave, communicate, plan, or manage in order to achieve your goal”, explains WWF International Director General Dr Marco Lambertini.

Dr Marco Lambertini - WWF International Director General

“For example, imagine a big organisation like WWF – you can easily be distracted by how much we grow, the amount of funds we raise or how much publicity we get… These are not the goals for an organisation like WWF. These are crucial tools, but must be translated into impact and results. Achieving our mission where people live in harmony with nature, is the goal. This is the only reason people work for WWF, this is why I decided to work for WWF: its fantastic potential to deliver impact”, added Marco.

  1. Build a network of conservation allies, not enemies.

 

Whether you’re fresh out of university, or a seasoned professional ready for a career change, people are your best allies in finding a conservation job. Even if it seems at first glance like you might be in competition for jobs, ideas, funding or clients, we can almost always achieve more when we work together than when we work alone.

And if you’re someone who shudders at the term ‘networking’, don’t worry! You don’t need to sell yourself every time you walk into a room; you just need to be genuinely interested in and open to speaking with other conservationists, and to sharing your own ideas and goals.

“When you work for an organisation you may see others as competitors. This is very possibly true. But there are ways to turn competitors into partners. Overcoming the sense of territorialism and competitiveness is hard but one way to do it is to think bigger, of the bigger wins we could achieve in an alliance rather than alone. Then the added value, the co-benefits become apparent”, explains WWF International Director General Dr Marco Lambertini.

“It’s very tough today, because of the job situation. But get to know people, join networks where these conversations are happening and apply for jobs!”, says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director-General, IUCN.

 

Get yourself known; people are far more likely to hire someone they have heard of and about than someone in obscurity. Network as much as you can”, says Ben Garrod, evolutionary biologist and previous Scientific Liaison Officer with the Sumatran Orangutan Society.  

“I think the more people you know within the sector, the more likely that they’re going to look out for you and either when you apply, they’re going to say this person’s good, you should have look at this person, or they might see something coming up that would be an opportunity that you could jump on. So, build your network. Don’t sit at home staring at your laptop and the job list, although that’s a very good starting point. You have to do more than that to get a career”, advises Dr Adam Barlow, Executive Director WildTeam UK.

  1. Get experience (that matches your goals).

Experience is the building block of a successful career, but not just any experience counts. If you want to create a meaningful and successful career, the key is to first get clear on the specific skills and experience you need to fill any gaps for your ideal job, so that you can pick the right experience for you.

Experience counts whether it’s paid, unpaid or fee-based. We have yet to come across a conservation professional that doesn’t credit volunteering or internships as one of the best ways to launch a career in conservation. Yet there’s often a negative perception that volunteering and interning has to cost the Earth (while you’re busy trying to save it).

To show that this isn’t necessarily the case, we’ve put together a list of the top paid and free conservation internships. These are only the tip of the iceberg – we find new opportunities almost every day. Here’s a guide for how to pick the best opportunity for you.

Understand the entry-level requirements for your chosen area and strengthen and fill any gaps you might have in a strategic way. You might need to do some specific volunteering or internship, go back to Uni and do a Degree or Masters, or take an online course. But know exactly what skills or knowledge you need to become employable for your chosen niche in the first place, and then focus on finding the best way to get it”, advises Dr Nick Askew – Director, Conservation Careers.

Dr Nick Askew - Director, Conservation Careers

“Genuine experience is important. I see people who treat the development of their CV as an end in itself rather than something which is an expression of their genuine interest and achievement. People have got to do what they love, love what they do, and use opportunities to seek the right kind of experience about the things they need to do for conservation because they genuinely care: fostering insight

“Learning about the environment, organisms and their ecology – either as a volunteer or just by being outside in wild places – is also key. Visit nature reserves and get involved with fabulous organisations… Finding an organisation through which you can express your passion and turn it into skill is very important”, says Professor Steve Ormerod, previous Chairman of the RSPB Council.

“Volunteer, offer to be an intern in organisations like the IUCN. It would be even better to start at the local level first – your country, the national level or where you live. Interning and volunteering is a great idea, although not everyone can afford that. It’s good to start young. I know how hard it is to get a first job so it’s very good to have internships and volunteer experiences on your CV”, says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director-General of IUCN.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director-General - IUCN

 “…really think about the things you want to change. Having a broad range of experience and knowledge is beneficial and you will probably need more than just academic knowledge to work with young people and communities. Make a point of volunteering/working with grassroots organisations and learning about social and systemic issues so that you are better equipped to speak about environmental issues in a more relevant and holistic way”, explains Zunaira, Programme Coordinator with Action for Conservation.

 “I’d encourage people to get field experience early on. Whether you are a social scientist, interested in sustainability or if you are a biologist interested in population dynamics or conservation. Whatever your field, try to find an opportunity to actually have field experience. And preferably in rather complex and difficult conditions. The best lessons come from the ‘real world’. Expose yourself to different cultures in the process, so that you also stretch your mind. Try to understand other perspectives and other realties, from the ones you are familiar with”, suggests WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini.

“You need … office roles, but I think the more that you can actually experiment living in the field and being in the field and bringing that to an office space when you actually have to make decisions and build up the strategies and design programmes, the better you are”, says Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University.

Professor Bill Sutherland - Cambridge University

“…gaining some experience, going and seeing lots of science, learning about conservation, hands-on conservation in different places, that’s good. And the other thing that I think is quite good is to get involved in organising things. So, I’ve organised things and made lots of mistakes in doing so. And it’s kind of good to make small-scale mistakes, you know – if you run the Bird Club, as I did, and you make a hash of various things, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. And you learn a lot. So, by organising and doing things, and getting some things right and some things wrong, you gain from that experience”, adds Bill.

“…go through the different steps. Don’t shoot for being in the office from the onset. Try to go to the field and understand what it means to be with community. Try walking 5 days into Madagascar to try to sign an agreement with a community, for example. Because that changes your perspective. I think it is very important to understand the reality and the conservation reality is hard”, says Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International.

  1. Treat job applications like a real job.

    “…if [someone is] going to employ you for five years, you’re asking them to basically give you £100,000 or whatever the equivalent salary scale would be for that period of time. It’s a really big ask and so… you’ve got to really understand that the value of their making that decision and starting your career and put in more effort than you think you should need to to get your foot in the door. Just sitting around spending a couple of hours writing a letter and maybe reformatting your CV, that’s not good enough”, says
    Dr Adam Barlow, Executive Director of WildTeam UK.
Dr Adam Barlow, Executive Director - WildTeam UK

“…if I get something that says, Dear sir, I’m very interested in your research, can I do a PhD? That won’t go very far. You have to sort of show… write it to the individual, show that you know that this is not the standard letter that you’ve written to a hundred people. It might be that you’ve written a hundred of these letters but you really want to tailor it to each person individually. Make it clear you understand what that person does and how your interests fit into what they might do”, says Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University.

“So, it’s a pitch in which you say, this briefly is me, I know that you do this, I’m interested in this so we could do something together. And that really is sort of the key structure. So, make it clear how your interests combine with the interests of the person you’re writing to”, he adds.

“Always put in a CV. You can say, ‘I can send a CV if you want’, and then you think well I’m then going to get into this discussion and I’m a busy person. You really want everything there so you can look at them, say this is what they’re interested in, this is what they’ve done, I think this is one of the small number I’m going to take forward or not. And you want to do it in one go”, concludes Bill.

Spend time crafting high-quality applications that get you interviews. Job hunting is a job in itself, and soooooooo many people do it poorly, putting in low quality CVs, Resumes, Cover Letters and Application Forms. Don’t spend years becoming employable and then mess it up at this stage! Follow our guide for how to apply for a conservation job and you’ll be well on your way”, advises Dr Nick Askew, Director of Conservation Careers.

Bonus. Don’t be shy! You never know what opportunities you might be missing…

Would you believe that the Director General of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) once doubted whether he would even be considered for the role?

“…I looked at ZSL from afar and thought, gosh that Director General job looks really interesting and that would really speak to my values and perhaps I could bring something to it, I was a little held back a bit by thinking, Ah but they wouldn’t want anybody who didn’t have a professional conservation background for that. And then actually I looked at what was relevant, what the organisation was looking to do and to had some conversations with the people involved and decided, you know what? I could really add value here”, explains Dominic Jermey OBE, Director General of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Dominic Jermey OBE, Director General - Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

And I think for anybody who has an interest in conservation and knows they have particular skills that they can offer, it is always worth having that conservation. Don’t hold back, don’t self-censor, would be my advice and I’m really glad I didn’t”, he added.

With such big conservation issues to tackle, the sector needs YOU and your unique abilities. We love how Conservation Optimism focuses on sharing positive stories to inspire conservation action. We hope this top advice helps bring some optimism to empower you in your career.

For more free career resources, check out Conservation Careers’ careers advice articles, conservation job board and conservation training board.

About the authors

  • Nick loves to build online businesses which help people and the planet in some way. He's a Director of Conservation Careers, Ecology Jobs and Terra Incognita, and a former Director of British Birds. He holds a PhD in the behavioural ecology of Barn Owls.

Share the optimism!