Conservation Job Interviews: Turning Dread into Confidence

Conservation Careers Blogger Paolo Strampelli shares his secrets to preparing for the most dreaded of experiences – the job interview…

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We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a waiting room, in a café, or even on your bed, Skype logged in and ready. You’re nervously waiting for the moment you’re going to have to smile, extend your hand (well, not if you’re on Skype – probably not the best first impression), and finally open your mouth and convince the person in front of you that yes, you SHOULD hire me and give me that bloody job!

Being a successful interviewee is a skill. As a result, like any other, it will develop with practice. However, there are certain things you can do to prepare yourself that will be the same whether it’s your first interview or your hundredth. Furthermore, whilst many are common to interviews for jobs in any field, some are especially important in conservation job interviews, or tend to not be given the amount of thought they deserve by conservationists.

First impressions matter.  A lot.

No matter how much we try to lie to ourselves, we’re all human, and our first impression of someone will have a certain degree of influence on how we perceive the rest of the conversation. Some aspects of this are easily understood and valued by both conservationists and non-conservationists alike: whether your interview is in a Regent Street office or a sketchy bar in Uganda, the fact you should be there ten minutes in advance won’t change.

Other aspects, however, are not always given the importance they deserve, especially by conservationists. One of these is the way you present yourself – i.e. the very first impression your (hopefully) future employer will have of you.

Dress to impress. I mean it. If your interview is at a university, for a Masters or a PhD, or with a large NGO, dress smart. Yes, it is conservation and not finance, and yes, you might be interviewing for a job which will involve a considerable amount of crawling around in the mud, but that is no reason to show up in t-shirt, old jeans and a pair of sneakers.

I’ve seen people show up for interviews at very renowned institutions dressed like they were just stopping by on their way to the corner store, or coming back from that classy Ugandan bar.

“Feeling good about your appearance will also help your confidence, and showing the interviewer that you put that little bit of extra effort that morning won’t hurt either”.

Know who you’re talking to.

You might have ten interviews lined up the coming week (lucky you), but, in that half hour, the person in front of you needs to think there is nothing more you want in this world that have them offer you the job tomorrow – whether this is strictly true or not. Cynical? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely.

Research the company, and, if you know who this will be beforehand, the person you will be talking to. From my experience, the interviews that require the most thorough preparation are those for banking and consulting jobs; if you have friends in those fields, and feel like you need some help, ask them about how they prepare for their interviews – chances are they’ll give you great tips.

Regarding the organisation, make sure you’re familiar with all their most recent work, their history, and their future plans. Most NGOs publish an annual report which can be found on their website. Many people won’t take the time to look for this and then read it, meaning that if you’re the only one who clearly has…well, it should be fairly obvious.

The same applies to the person that will be interviewing you, especially if they are field scientists. Read their publications, research their interests, and see if you have anything in common you can talk about. Not only will this give a better impression of you, but knowing that at any point you’d have something to say ready at hand will also help you relax, keep the inevitable nervousness at bay, and lead to a conversation rather than an interrogation.

“The best interviews are those where you forget you’re being interviewed at all”.

Competency-based interviews? Prepare for ‘those’ questions

So, you’re there nice and early, looking smart, and confident that you’ll be able to show your knowledge and interest in the company and the person in front of you. However, that alone will not be enough. Chances are that at least part of the conversation about to take place will be what is known as a ‘competency-based interview’.

It involves questions aimed at identifying whether candidates possess specific skills, or ‘competencies’. The last thing you want is throwing away all that hard preparation by blankly staring into space when the interviewer asks you what your greatest strength is, or when it was that you overcame difficulties by showing leadership or working in a team. Thus, it’s important to prepare and understand the importance of ‘those’ questions – mostly because they’re easy to prepare for, and because you know that sooner or later they will be asked.

There’s no point in going through these here, as there are hundreds of websites which have already done exactly this. Just open up your browser, find a list of common interview questions, and prepare an answer for each and every one of them.

Dazzle your interviewer with a quick and seemingly thought-up-on-the-spot reply! Also, always think beforehand how you can incorporate in your answers examples from your previous relevant work experiences, or, in case you’ve worked in different, non-conservation areas in the past, how the skills and competencies developed there are transferable to this ‘new’ field.

Then, once you know how you will answer your questions, think of a few questions to ask at the interview when prompted to do so. This is the point where you can really show off your knowledge of the organisation, their past work and their future plans, and make that time spent researching really count.

If the interview is on Skype (increasingly common, and found by many to be even more nerve-racking), and you’re REALLY feeling nervous, you could even jot down a few answers to glance at later, in case you need to. There’s no shame in this, as there is no universally “best” way to deal with a personal, unnerving situation such as is an interview.

“If it’s legal, doesn’t hurt anyone, and helps you, do it”.

Conservation is about passion

Finally, if you’re at an interview for a job in conservation, it means you’re passionate about it. Let’s face it, none of us are in it for the money.

“If you’re passionate about something, it will show, and after a few minutes of initial nervousness you’ll realize that you’re just having a chat about something you really, really, enjoy, as you would with a friend”.

So, relax, have fun, and good luck!

About the author

Paolo Strampelli

Paolo Strampelli is a recent graduate from Imperial College London. He has a passion for conservation, developed during his years in Africa. His main interests are carnivore conservation, human-wildlife conflict mitigation and protected area management.

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