Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Career advice for conservationists

19 July, 2012 - 15:23 -- John Burton

There are more and more universities advertising Masters’ degrees in Conservation. But how many jobs are there?

I ask this because I have more than a slight suspicion that universities are creating massively false expectations among large numbers of young people, by the way they promote all these degrees.

World Land Trust (WLT) advertises jobs from time to time and we get a mass of applications, many of them with Masters’, but rarely does the job actually require a Masters' degree. In fact, in the majority of cases someone with a first degree and some real life experience would stand an equal or better chance of getting the job.

The reality is that universities are churning out lots of graduates in conservation – it appears to be an attractive career – but there are relatively few opportunities for academic conservationists. If you look at the people involved in conservation or identified by the public at large as conservationists, it is surprising how few of them have academic qualifications in conservation. Degrees in Zoology or Botany (increasingly rare) were the norm, or as in my case no degree at all.

When I see a university offering an MSc in Primate Conservation, I really do worry about the poor students being persuaded to part with thousands of pounds for the qualification, and wonder how many will actually get a job that will use their expertise?

Internships, volunteering and hobbies

WLT has now had over 40 interns pass through its office, and as far as I can tell, whether or not they had a Masters’ Degree or ‘only’ a BSc has had no significant effect on their job prospects. But doing a Masters’ will certainly have had a significant effect on their pockets.

Our current Conservation Programmes Manager joined the WLT as an intern, having made a deliberate decision to spend six months with us and then get a job, rather than spend a year or two getting a Masters’. It is a move she tells everyone she never regretted.

Clearly there is a place for Masters’ Degrees, but it is not a good idea to do one simply because you think it will enhance your career prospects. For many, conservation experience is much more important; what you have done as a volunteer or what you do in your spare time is far more telling.

Interests: stand out from the crowd

While I am discussing job applications, if any of my readers are writing their CVs they might like to think carefully about what they put down as their ‘Interests’. Do they really think that ‘spending time with my family’, ‘walking’, ‘reading’ or ‘listening to music’ are going to inspire an employer? Most employers would expect such things as a sine qua non.

In my case, someone who wrote ‘reading books on early exploration’ or ‘listening to music from South America’ might make me think. But so many CV’s list the blandest and most uninspiring interests that you do wonder if the person really wants a job.

With perhaps 50 or 60 people with similar qualifications, it’s often a person’s interests and experiences that are the only thing that will distinguish them from the crowd.

Find more advice and tips on WLT's webpage: How to Apply for a Conservation Job


Dear John

I agree that universities should be more clear about the potential or lack off job opportunities after studying for an MSc in something like conservation. Especially when the interest is in doing conservation work further afield.

However, I am one of those students who took an MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University, and I have to tell you that the majority of my cohort had done quite a bit of work experience prior to starting the course. Additionally, several of my cohort were taking time out from their work in order to gain the MSc and returned to their jobs in zoological parks after completing the course. To be honest the experience was one I will never forget because I was part of a group of peers who were all extremely passionate about conservation and we were taught by lectures who felt exactly the same. We also gained an insight into the various aspects of conservation work, such as genetics, education, and human-wildlife conflict; and one could never gain such a wide breadth of knowledge from doing work experience alone. I was fortunate enough to land a PhD position in primatology at UCL after the MSc. But I was accepted onto the programme because I had the MSc in addition to over 2 years of field work experience.

In my opinion a solid education as well as experience is crucial for effective conservation work.

yours sincerely

Josephine Msindai

Submitted by john on

Thanks for the comment; but it reinforces what I wrote. Going back to a job in a zoo, is not what I would define as a job in conservation. Nor is going on to do a PhD. Both are fine and commendable objectives, but they are not jobs in conservation. There appear to be more people in academia researching conservation issues than there are actual practitioners. And the reality on the ground is that there is a lot to do, and generally speaking perfectly adequate knowledge to do it. Research is rarely the priority. Time is running out, and it is running out at an alarming rate.

I agree that a solid education is a good thing, but many of the most effective conservationists studied subjects other than conservation. All too often those with conservation degrees lack a sound knowledge of basic natural history, such as taxonomy and field craft. And a knowledge of accounting, economics, and marketting are also skills much more useful than many people realise for a career in conservation.

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