Saving threatened habitats worldwide

What skills does a modern conservationist need?

16 December, 2016 - 12:01 -- John Burton
WLT and partners in the field

At World Land Trust (WLT), we regularly get enquiries from job seekers. Often highly qualified, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in conservation, from top level universities such as UEA or Imperial College.  Often with lots of voluntary fieldwork experience. They nearly all think they are perfectly qualified to work for an organisation like the WLT.

Looking at these fantastic resumes, the depressing truth is that we employ hardly any professional conservationists or researchers.  Our project fieldwork is carried out by our in-country NGO partners, who have outstanding local insight as well as fluency in local languages, and very different skills are needed within the WLT office in Suffolk. This is not to say that I, and all our staff, are not passionate about wildlife, or don’t have a knowledge of conservation issues, but the skills needed on a day to day basis do not need a degree in wildlife or environmental conservation. 

Due to the relationships we have with our programme partners, we are primarily a fundraising organisation: we need accountants, bookkeepers, receptionists, graphic designers, web managers, copy writers, editors, videographers and many other skills.  A look at our website and its staff pages will give an indication of the range of skills needed. 

I was fortunate as I grew up not only in the days when there was no such thing as a conservation degree, but also when it was not even considered an essential to have a degree, and as a consequence got my first job with six  O Levels. This is no longer a realistic expectation (that same job now requires a degree). But it is also worrying that universities, in their hunger for more and more students, encourage young people to get degrees in subjects like conservation, where the real demand far outstrips the supply. There are numerous jobs in environmental consultancies, but this is often not what a dedicated conservationist or wildlife enthusiast dreams of as a conservation job.

So my advice to the committed conservationist is to get a qualification or develop skills in something that has a practical value to a conservation organisation.  Meanwhile, build up lots of volunteer experience in wildlife conservation and natural history.  As long as you don’t get side-tracked into a more lucrative job in business, and are prepared to work for a slightly lower salary, the rewards of working for a charity are there waiting for you. Think about it: how do the RSPB, WWF, Friends of the Earth, Marine Conservation Society, Bat Conservation Trust, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Plantlife, Buglife, or any of the numerous Wildlife Trusts function? They all need administrators, database managers, IT managers, writers and editors. Some need sales managers. Others need fundraisers. 

From time to time, young wannabe conservationists ask me how I got to be in my job. That question is difficult to answer, because the world now is very different from when I started out over 50 years ago. But, looking back on my career one thing is certain: a degree in conservation would have been of very little help to me at any stage in my career. It is a combination of all the other things I have done, experiences I have had and different skills I have developed, which enabled me to be one of the creators of WLT.

So, in conclusion, we are definitely not short of opportunities in the world of wildlife conservation, but it is worth developing a range of skills which are valuable for fundraising and the day-to-day running of a conservation charity if you are committed to contributing to this valuable cause. I am keen to advise and help young conservationists as far as I can- please post any further questions in the comments below.

If there is a demand, we are considering holding a ‘Facebook Live’ event for people to ask myself and other members of the WLT team questions about their careers and for advice. Would you be interested? Let us know on social media, or in the comments below.


Submitted by Wan Kam on

Dear Sir

Thank you for writing on this topic! I'm very grateful for all tips and advice related to this. I'm a psychiatrist enthusiastic in conservation and the natural world. I have been seriously considering a career change why I took a course on Endangered Species Recovery at Durrell 2 years ago. My medical training will end in about 7 months and I plan to start volunteering for a conservation organisation after that. I also plan to take a course in inter-cultural communication in spring.

I do feel a bit lost in work possibilities. Medicine is a discipline far away from conservation and I can't see how, or if, it can be incorporated into conservation volunteering. I wonder if a master in anthropology would help a career change? Do you see any potential in a career change with medical background?

Wan Kam (Miss)

Submitted by Nancy Brown on

Really useful and practical advice. Thankyou so much for sharing. It's inspiration for those of us with other work skills but no conservation degree.

Submitted by John on

Medical qualifications may well be helpful for any organisation that runs conservation projects using large numbers of volunteers. I certainly could have done with medical support when (as my followers on twitter will know), I got a Bot Fly infestation when travelling in Belize on conservation work recently!. But my advice to everyone, is that all experience is valuable, you just have to use it. I have found my experiences in broadcasting, editing, journalism, graphic design all useful. And learning to use a chainsaw, visiting timber mills, and understanding how the timber trade works, all valuable. I have recently spent a lot of time with anthropologists, as I believe there is a lot to be learned, both from the success and failures. The main difficulty I have in giving advice is that I come from another era. Qualifications were not so important, but nowadays it does seem that masters' degrees are almost a sine qua non, as a first step. This often means that a person is in their mid twenties before getting real, hands on experience of practical work and responsibilities. Something most of my generation were experiencing aged around 18, and by our mid 20s were ready to take on real responsibilities. (and we were not encumbered with tens of thousands of pound of debt for our education).

Submitted by Wan on

Thank you for your reply, John. Indeed, the long years of education nowadays are, I think, limiting for some. People with good practical skills may not always have the financial possibilities or grades to get those degrees now needed for competition. I personally hope to develop more in areas of communication and understanding human behaviour, and most interesting for me, experience on the ground via volunteering.

Hope your infection has healed properly now. Happy holidays!

Submitted by Darren Russell on

Well said John.

I have been volunteering with my local group, Friends of Hoblingwell, for nearly seven years now as their Social Secretary. Over those years I have been involved in the organisation of Easter Egg Hunts. Nature Walks, Woodland Management, fundraising and community engagement. This was under the supervision of the local Council Ranger. I list my proper job and then joined Bromley Friends Forum as a volunteer secretary along side two other volunteers as Chairman and treasurer. We were the umbrella of the other 40 odd groups in Bromley. We met regularly with the council raising issues that the Friends Groups were having and advising the council about training they could provide.
During this time I saw an advert to join London Wildlife Trust to become a Wild Talent Trainee. This was a full time year long course, paid a bursary, for those who are an etnic minority, from a deprived area or not degree educated. I only had a diploma in Customer Service but I applied, got an interview and gained a place with 5 others.
I got my place because of my volunteering and community engagement not because I had conservation fills. I Coul fell a small tree and knew when you can and cannot do certain jobs so to protect the wildlife and habitats.

The year long course was gard but I gained my Environmental Conservation Diploma and, not sure if I was lucky, got a great job with the contractors who took over the management of the Parks and Green Spaces from Bromley Conciliation. I have the position of Community and Conservation Team leader covering the countryside and rural areas.

The whole experience of the last 7 years has been a great and unexpected journey that I didn't have a clue would lead me to where I am now.

It's such a shame that I have met lots if degree holders that are struggling to get a job in the sector and can't understand how easy I found it. I believe, as you have mentioned, that it is all the other skills I have learnt from my volunteering alongside an understanding of conservation that has got me where I am.

Kind regards


Submitted by George Fenwick on

This is a provocative, important, and useful statement, John, so thank you for writing it. It will be most valuable if a dialogue continues from it. I do agree with your general point, but as with most points, there are many exceptions. World Land Trust is a superb organization demonstrating how much good can come from a few dedicated individuals and you and your team are to be congratulated. As with WLT, our organization, American Bird Conservancy, needs fundraising and administrative skills as much or more than what might be learned from a degree in environmental or conservation issues. However, conservation organizations that do things other than the critical work of saving habitat for wildlife do need other skills. For instance, ABC has staff to address significant human-derived issues other than habitat loss such as eliminating the worst pesticides, finding ways to prevent bird collisions with glass, and, yes, reducing cat predation of wildlife. For these, ABC needs skills such as in legal knowledge, chemical knowledge, and social skills. And, even where habitat conservation is the priority, we need science skills to establish our priorities and to monitor the effects of the actions we take. In every staffer, the more that is known about wildlife and conservation, the better because it leads to informed decisions. Again, thanks for your contribution and I hope a energetic conversation continues from here.

Best wishes, George

Submitted by ben mackinnon on

Yes, thank you for writing this. Helpful advice to all those embarking on careers in the many 'worthy' career options out there, be in sustainable development, conservation, marine biology etc.

Great piece, John.

After a decade working for a large nature conservation charity, but at that time lacking any formal qualifications (I passed two GCSEs - that was it!), I decided to drop down to part-time and attend university to study post-graduate ecology. It cost an awful lot, and, frankly, I could have learnt the same and more by investing a fraction of the course fees in ecology and conservation books, watching free YouTube lectures, attending some field courses etc. But even then the ecology itself would have done little to improve my skills as a conservation communicator, project manager or fundraiser. I initially got into conservation by reading and heck of a lot, so I had some useful knowledge, campaigning and perseverance. One skill that is severely lacking in many university students is the ability to write in plain English. I was never taught grammar at school, and it's clear to me that most UK university students aren't taught it these days either. I got my very basic grasp of grammar by reading well-written books (such as David MacDonald's Running with the Fox, and David Quammen's Song of the Dodo). Without some aptitude for sentence construction, your covering letter and CV will kill your job application however good your statistics grades were. Another invaluable skill is the use of Excel for budget management - all conservation professionals will construct and manage budgets art some point, and being able to do this in Excel is a must. One can master Excel via YouTube.

Many thanks for this John. I was one of those very students back in 2003, when you came to talk to us and offered us dissertation opportrunities in the WLT reserves. I was very fortunate to have been given some good advice at the time about getting in to GIS (which I did through the UEA MSc). Although I never actively worked in conservation I spent 12 years in the civil service mapping livestock and animal diseases, getting into data science initiatives and then creating strategic plans for how to use geography better in general. I thoroughly enjoyed it all and have now moved north to work with Scottish local authorities on how to improve all of their spatial data for all manner of different data uses. My advice to any budding conservationists - be prepared to think outside of the box when it comes to diversifying your skill set and seeking employment. Other related work can be just as stimulating and rewarding as pure conservation/ ecology.

Submitted by John A Burton on

Thank you for your feedback. I feel very diffident about giving advice, but I do think for many people there is a serious danger of becoming overqualified academicaly, Experience is always going to be more important. But the areas you have got experience in are all very valuable.

Submitted by John A Burton on

Darren, Many thanks for this, which of course confirms a lot of what I wrote and what I think. It also confirms that passion, and commitment are the real qualifications. Well done

Submitted by John A Burton on

Of course I am going to largely agree with George, as we share so many philosophical approaches, communicate regularly etc etc. And ABC does things that other conservationists wont touch. Like being realistic about the impact of domestic (and feral) cats on the world's bird populations. I think ( only think) that we are both saying that while academics has a place in conservation, in actual fact 90% of conservation has nothing to do with getting a degree in conservation. Totally different skills are needed. So if you are a passionate conservationist, think how you can use your skills, whatever they are.

Submitted by John A Burton on

Excellent points; and you make me overqualified, since I did get 7 "O" levels (Though in mitigation I also failed another 14 -- I believe an unbroken school record). But that said, I do recognise the world ha moved on, and my first job at the natural history museum in London happily accepted a person with 6+ O levels, now needs a degree. Probably more to do with reducing employment statistics, and pay for universities, than a need for the degree if you follow the politics involved.....

Submitted by John A Burton on

Excellent points; and you make me overqualified, since I did get 7 "O" levels (Though in mitigation I also failed another 14 -- I believe an unbroken school record). But that said, I do recognise the world ha moved on, and my first job at the natural history museum in London happily accepted a person with 6+ O levels, now needs a degree. Probably more to do with reducing employment statistics, and pay for universities, than a need for the degree if you follow the politics involved.....

Add new comment

Bookmark and Share

Read about us

  • News Online
  • RSS
  • eBulletin
  • Green Diary
  • Printed Newsletter

Contact Us

Tel: +44 (0)1986 874422

Follow us

Follow on Facebook  Follow on Twitter  Follow on Linkedin  Follow on GooglePlus  Follow on YouTube