Working in Conservation as a Mercenary Biologist: 5+ highlights after leaving academia

Ever wondered what it’s like to drop academia for a different kind of conservation adventure?

‘Mercenary biologist’ Dr Fernando Mateos-González – who we’re so thrilled to have join us in delivering our next Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists course – did just that.

Fernando is a Spanish biologist with a PhD in Behavioural Ecology and a MSc in Animal Biodiversity. His research on animal behaviour and conservation has led him to work in Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, in amazing places such as the rainforests of Trinidad & Tobago, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or Lake Tanganyika in Zambia.

He currently works as a conservation biologist in the Czech Republic, and supports expeditions as a mercenary scientist. Last year, he joined the BBC in the Peruvian Amazon to shoot scenes for the new Attenborough series “One Planet: Seven Worlds”.

In his free time, he runs Bioblogia.net, where he helps students and early career professionals to find their dream environmental job.

Here Fernando shares his 5 + 1 highlights since leaving academia to become a mercenary biologist.

Warning: we take no responsibility for the outcome if you’re reading this post while writing post-doc applications!

Back in 2004, when I finished my BSc and became a fully fledged biologist, I spent the first 3 years of my career working in conservation, for both private companies and the public sector. After that, my professional path veered into academia, where I spent the next decade doing research in animal behaviour, evolution and global change.

It was great!

In September 2016, however, on a particularly hot morning in Austin (TX, USA), that path changed again.

I was writing my next postdoc application, describing how I’d use a certain molecular technique in the lab, and I stopped mid-sentence. I closed the file, opened Google and typed: “biologist jungle job”.

And I never finished writing that postdoc application (or any other) 😛

Instead, I’ve spent the last 2.5 years traveling the world, working as a field biologist in conservation and environmental education projects, and basically living from my backpack.

Today I’m not going to talk about my reasons for leaving academia (that would require a whole different post), but I will tell you this: although it was scary at the time, now when I look back, I realise how much I’m enjoying this new stage of my career 😀

I’m going to share with you some of my favourite experiences during this time, and what I’ve learnt from these 2+ years working in conservation as a mercenary biologist.

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Fernando leading a group of students in the remote Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Alex Mallison.

1 Leading expeditions as a scientist for the British Exploring Society

The British Exploring Society is the first thing I found with that Google search for a jungle job. They were looking for an adventurous biologist to join an expedition taking 50 young explorers to the Peruvian Amazon. I applied that same day, instead of finishing my postdoc application, and it was probably one of the best decisions of my life.

That trip – apart from fulfilling a childhood dream I will tell you about in a couple of weeks – served as a professional catharsis, a reset. Not only because it ignited a (previously unknown) interest in youth development, but also because I met a group of fellow “misfits” with random professions and crazy lives. And they showed me that I could become anything I wanted, even if it didn’t fit any convention or rule in the books.

After that first expedition to the jungle, I kept working with them, and I’ve now led two more expeditions to the Yukon and Scotland. This summer of 2019, we’ll board a pirate ship and sail all the way to Iceland from the UK. I can’t wait!

2 Tracking lynx in the snow

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These last two winters I’ve walked hundreds of  kilometres wearing snowshoes, tracking lynx across mountains and forests. I’ve also followed dozens of frozen streams, looking for otter tracks and signs. It’s hard for me to imagine a better, more beautiful job.

Of course, I’ve done lots of other interesting things in my career, but this is something I always imagined myself doing as a biologist; why didn’t I do it before?!

This experience taught me that it’s very easy for life to get in the way. Days, weeks, months and eventually, years pass… and if you don’t change things, things end up changing you.

Remember to take some time every now and then to assess where you are in life, and don’t settle too much. There is so much more to experience out there!

3 Climbing a 172m tower to monitor raptors

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Last year I climbed the tallest tower of a thermoelectric power plant to ring four falcon chicks. I’m not sure if the climbing itself was one of my favourite experiences, but certainly it will be VERY hard to forget.

Remember when I said, at the beginning of this post, that leaving academia felt scary? Ha! You know nothing, Jon Snow. Whilst I held onto that rusty ladder for dear life, I felt proper terror.

How to apply for a conservation job - free eBook

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At the same time, however, I was having so much fun! Also, weirdly, I was feeling pretty relaxed, mainly because I was focusing on not dying, so my brain didn’t have time to feel stress or to worry about silly things.

This feeling (the focus, not the sheer terror) has been a common thing during the last couple of years. I’m able to concentrate for hours, without feeling tired, just because I’m loving every minute of it.

When was the last time you got in the flow? Keep an eye for tasks that get you on that focus: those are hints of where you should aim your career!

4 Talking about artificial intelligence at the Microsoft headquarters in Prague

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Probably, another reason for making me focused and engaged is that I’m doing so many different things. I have a myriad of exciting projects to work on, and we are brainstorming new ones all the time. I have constant challenges: solving problems in the field, designing experiments, analysing data, writing papers…

Only a few weeks ago, our NGO, Alka Wildlife, went to Prague to explore potential projects with the help of Microsoft. We are testing ways to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to conservation.

That moment in the image, when I went up on stage to explain how we would use their technology to monitor and preserve biodiversity, I realised that, of course, I will never stop being a scientist.

5. Working on a David Attenborough documentary

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If I had to choose the absolute highlight of these last few years as a mercenary biologist, it has to be this one.

A proper “dream come true experience”: A month-long expedition to the Peruvian Amazon, hired by the BBC to assist a filming crew in the field, capturing footage for a new landmark series narrated by no other than Sir David Attenborough.

Deploying camera traps, tracking wildlife, sneaking from my hammock before sunrise to get into the hide and take photos…

C’mon. How good can this get?

5+1

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Finally, another unexpected highlight of these last years is that I have found a renewed motivation to help fellow biologists and conservationists. I don’t know where the energy comes (it’s 5:40 am right now!) but it feels that the more I work, the more I want to do in bioblogia.net as well…

Perhaps all these new experiences are giving me the fuel to tell better stories. Or maybe it’s just that I’m more excited than ever, loving my job!

In any case, many good things are coming from this energy. I’m writing more, which is something I always enjoyed, and I’m also having a blast sharing adventures on Instagram and meeting new friends in our new private Facebook group, el Biogrupo.

But the absolute highlight in this category is… My new collaboration with Conservation Careers!

For years, I had wanted to create a course to help my readers to find their dream job, but it is a huge endeavour – and a responsibility! I’m always doing so many things that finding the time to create a worthy course is near impossible.

The solution appeared when Dr. Nick Askew offered me to collaborate on his “Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists”! He had already done all the hard work: creating the videos, the platform, the structure… I just have to help supporting the students; it’s perfect!

I haven’t been more excited in years. We can’t wait to announce the edition of the course and get everybody on track for an awesome career in Conservation.

Wanna join us?

Want a sneak peak of our upcoming Kickstarter course?! Download our free guide ‘How to Apply for a Conservation Job’ which shows you step-by-step all of the tips and tricks to landing an interview.

You can read and share this article in Spanish here.

Career Stories, Conservation Jobs & Careers Advice, Conservation Leaders