A career in Conservation Science with Professor Andrew Balmford

Andrew Balmford is Professor of Conservation Science in the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge. His research seeks to tackle fundamental questions about the relationship between people and the global loss of nature – is conservation worthwhile, why is nature being lost, how much would conservation cost, and how can we achieve it efficiently? In this interview with Conservation Careers, he shares his career story, and provides practical advice for budding conservation scientists…

What’s it like being a Professor of Conservation Science?

On a day-to-day basis it involves running a research group with two other colleagues. Together we have about thirty researchers, from PhD students and research assistants through to senior postdocs and fellows. I help supervise their research, and work with them on which questions to tackle.

Being in a university, teaching is also very important too. I teach undergraduate and post-graduate students, and see it as an important part of my job. I’m lucky to have a relatively light teaching load, and I tend to do the bits I most like – such as conservation science and general ecology. This involves some lecturing, supervising projects, and training people in fieldwork methods. I find this very exciting and great fun.

What I’m really passionate about and fires me up is knowing what I’m doing is relevant. Addressing the questions that interest me require hands-on research, from watching creatures in the field to talking to policy people.

However, as you get older you tend to spend more time supporting other people to do the work you’d often like to do yourself. You also tend to get less thinking time – which is really important in research, as you need to sit down and reflect on what you’re doing.

Where did your passion for conservation come from?

I come out of the womb like it! I’ve been obsessed with creatures for as long as I can remember, and had a favourite natural history book at the age of three. So I’ve been concerned about conservation since childhood – though I didn’t know what it was called at the time. I now feel fantastically lucky to do what I do.

Looking back at your career, are there any key points which have really helped you?

I managed to find a great superviser for my PhD who trusted me to go off to Africa and spend three years in the middle of no-where, learning to be a researcher the hard way. I had to be self-reliant for long periods of time – both logistically and intellectually – and that was terribly important. So having the right superviser was important for me.

I then got an opportunity to move sideways away from theoretical research in my first and second post-docs, and learn the skills to do conservation research properly. I was consciously looking to focus on conservation science, but there were few exciting opportunities to do it at the time. That has changed a lot. Today there are many more chances to do rigorous conservation science in biologically important places, and I encourage students to make the most of them.

Another key step in my career was deciding if I should focus my work in an NGO, in government or in a university. I struggled with that for a long time until a good friend sat me down and said just focus on what you enjoy the most and what you’re good at. This made it clear that alongside research, I really love teaching and I didn’t have much patience for sitting forever in policy discussions with people in grey suits. So this helped me to realise the place where I am most happy, and therefore productive, would be a university environment. I then sought to find a university which would allow me to develop my research interests.

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into conservation science as a career?

If you want to do something useful, you have to build partnerships with policy makers and practitioners at the start. This helps to frame the right research questions, which is incredibly important if you want your work to make a difference.

Second – try be as interdisciplinary as you can. Conservation is not primarily about biology – it’s about human behaviour. Biology is just a small part of it. Be humble about that, and think about what other skills you need to be effective in your work. This might mean trying to become familiar with economics, or social science. If you can’t do so yourself, then find people to work with who can.

Is it important to have a PhD to be conservation scientist?

If you want to be a conservation researcher, then yes you probably have to have a PhD. However, it’s not always necessary for other conservation careers.

If you choose to do a PhD, then choose your supervisor and the research group very carefully. I didn’t see my supervisor that much, but he managed to attract a great group of scientists around him, and they provided huge amounts of support and fun during my studies. Pick a research group which is exciting and vibrant, as well as a good supervisor.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Scientist