Podcast: Brendan Godley | University of Exeter
Have you ever considered doing a conservation science master’s course to kick-start your career in conservation? What would completing a masters course (degree) achieve? Is it right for you and would it lead to a conservation job?
These are some of the topics covered in a wide-ranging discussion with Brendan Godley, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Exeter. Brendan is probably best known for his research with marine turtles and is described in a blog post on our website as a king of conservation.
In this podcast, we talk about master’s programmes, conservation science optimism, careers advice and much more.
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BRENDAN: So I’m Professor Brendan Godley at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, which is based in the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, and I was one of the first academics here and one of the first things I did was set up what has been a really successful masters programme, which I’m very proud of and happy to talk about. But I also lead on the University of Exeter’s marine strategy.
NICK: Well let’s start with the master’s course that you set up, so that’s the masters in biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter. If someone came and did the course, what sort of things would they learn and do?
BRENDAN: We have three masters here at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation and one more in development that I could talk about later. But the conservation and biodiversity masters, it’s one which is suited to life science graduates but also we have students from other careers that end up doing exceptionally well and that’s something that I would quite like to talk about, why I think students that come from alternate pathways into conservation do so well. In our course, we have a number of modules which are classic and learning about biodiversity and conservation, either in the marine realm or the terrestrial realm. Then we have skills-based modules where people learn about academic skills and transferrable skills. And then we have a major research project element where students do the most of six months, from March to September, on their project. And then we have a field course which is typically to Kenya, where all of our students participate in seeing the amazing habitats, seeing the amazing wildlife, interacting with active conservationists in Kenya and stakeholders, experiencing what wildlife tourism is like in east Africa, but also being inspired by what people are doing, problems they’re facing. And it can’t be underestimated, building a cohort of students who have had a shared experience in Kenya and a massive learning, great joy and friends for life and I notice a difference in the masters cohort after we come back from Kenya. There’s lots of people already good friends and socialising and sharing the anxiety and angst of studies and deadlines but it’s a really tight-knit community once we’ve come back from a two-week life-changing, in many cases, experience where people, you know, we’re all camping, eating, you know, having a beer in the bar at night, but spending an awful lot of time together and having a great time.
NICK: Sounds great. And conservation is, it’s a small world, we were just talking actually before we started about how it is a small world and it’s growing, but it’s still a young sector, if you like. And actually we’ve been connected so one of your cohort, one of your previous participant students, it was Matt Nicholson, who also wrote for Conservation Careers for a while so, it is a small world.
BRENDAN: He wrote about me actually, which is quite flattering.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah we’ll link to that interview on the site too. What’s a typical masters student that you get, who are you seeking to attract and who actually comes to you?
BRENDAN: Well the point I made in my… in a previous section is that there is no absolutely typical masters student. There are plenty students that have done zoology or ecology or biology or geography that would be the obvious candidates and many of them come to us after doing some field experience and then want to professionalise their experience and either go on further to graduate school, but certainly be more competitive with a masters degree in conservation. But we also have a steady flow of students that have been and done a career and been successful in it, but they’ve realised that there’s only one life and they want to spend it doing something better for the world and thinking… and if any of them are listening they’ll probably hear themselves, but we’ve had actuarial mathematicians, we’ve had veterinary surgeons, we’ve had engineers, we’ve had people who specialised in animation, people who specialised in English writing, microbiologists, all sorts of people that have done other careers and then maybe decided to have a bit of a career break, travel and then found their way into a conservation project for one of the international conservation organisations in Latin America or Asia or somewhere else, and then realised that they had found their true calling, but then they come back to university to get the masters to give themselves an official qualification in conservation, and they do exceptionally well. I can’t think of a single one that hasn’t gone on and become successful and become employed very quickly in conservation. I think it’s a mixture of the true bona fide well-thought through vocation that they have. Second, there’s clearly… people are a wee bit… those guys are perhaps more mature and have had more life experience and they also have complimentary skills that come from their previous training that makes them very useful. They end up getting jobs very quickly. That’s the complimentary skills aspect, it’s something that we in all of our education, whether it be undergraduate, masters or PhD here at the University of Exeter very much focus on, encouraging student societies, there are students this week as we’re interviewing doing courses on small mammal trapping, plant ID, these are extra-curricular courses, how to do passive-acoustic monitoring, how to become a marine mammal observer. So we facilitate as much as we can real-world complimentary skills as well as focusing on good research and research skills and statistics and how to give a scientific presentation, how to give a scientific poster. But also thinking about setting up social media profiles, setting up websites, how to write grants, because it’s that whole melee of skills that will get you your job as well as your quality degree from a quality university, as well as your work experience and real-world experiences.
NICK: So they really leave the course quite well-rounded.
BRENDAN: Generally yes. But especially the students that really engage, and I guess that I used to lead on the employability agenda for our undergraduates and one of the points I’ve always made is that if you’re an undergraduate student and you want to work for the BBC Natural History unit, you can’t just wait until you graduate and have a graduation party, wake up with a hangover and then expect to apply for a job in Bristol and get a job at the Natural History Unit or associated companies that are involved in wildlife and environmental films. You need to be doing it from now. And so when we did that, when we encouraged the students, they now have a wildlife documentary society, they produce their own TV channel called Nature Watch which you can find on Facebook.
NICK: Which is fantastic, by the way. I’ve seen it.
BRENDAN: They have a wildlife magazine. And the proof is in the pudding in the fact that I think at the last count we have six people working for the BBC on wildlife documentary or associated web content related things that have come from these cohorts. And so you have to be doing what you want to do to become it, as well as do a degree in it, you can’t just do one or the other.
NICK: Right. And of the students that you’ve seen go through your courses over the years, and those that have gone on quickly secured jobs and are kind of flying in their careers now in conservation, what have you observed that they kind of… the character traits or the things that these people have done that have helped to kind of launch them and speed up their career?
BRENDAN: They’re the self-starters, they work hard and they do all the stuff that they have to do to do well in their degree, but they’re also at the extras seminars that are available, which are going on. In a quality university, there are more seminars than anybody can ever attend, you know, there are seminars in other departments, there are afternoon seminars, there are associated academic events, they’re there, they’re learning, they’re taking other people’s point of view in, they’re overcoming their bashfulness in the coffee breaks if it’s a more… for longer event and introducing themselves to people and finding out more about what people do. Not that I think everybody should spend all their time on social media, but students who are engaged in professional related social media seem to do pretty well. I think part of that is probably correlated with the fact that they’re very switched on and a wee bit organised, but they’re also starting to generate a profile and a network and they also are aware of opportunities which arise and… especially Twitter, within science and conservation, a lot of opportunities are there and so job-seeker, you know, obviously Conservation Careers is a great place that amplifies a lot of that activity but there’s an awful lot of stuff goes on on social media and so I think having a profile, you don’t have to say too much but there will be sometimes you have things to say, but also listening to what other people have got to say and what other people are advertising, I think is another useful thing to do.
NICK: Let’s focus in on you then for a bit, if we can, Brendan. What’s been your career like so far? Like briefly, you know, what have been the steps that have led you to where you are right now?
BRENDAN: I was raised in central Scotland mostly, although with forays to England and America and South Africa with a family that moved around quite a lot. And so I got to see different places. A lot of my family did quite hard jobs in mining and building and going fishing was a big thing in our family and I was taken a lot all around Scotland and saw an awful lot of wildlife and did an awful lot of fishing and camping and spending time at the waterside. And so I think that, along with watching David Attenborough and with my family, especially my dad, during the days of Wildlife on One and The Life on Earth, the first great Attenborough series, all of those combined with an ability to be quite good at learning and do science, for me to be encouraged to become a vet. So I became a veterinary surgeon, I qualified as a vet but when I was at vet school I was much more interested in things like exotic animals and animal welfare and did a lot of work experience in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation and so, when afforded the chance to do a zoology degree, I did a zoology degree as an intercalated degree as part of veterinary medicine. I went back to finish vet and then when I finished vet I worked in practice but only as a locum vet while I did my PhD, because whilst being an undergraduate, I had engaged with a very active expeditions, it was called the Exploration Society but it was about expeditions, doing conservation work in Trinidad and Cyprus and I had got very much involved in marine turtle conservation and that’s what both my partner, Annette Broderick and I, carried on with our PhDs and those became post-docs and then both of us had become professors, both here at the University. But the foundation of our professional academic lives was within sea turtle conservation and sea turtle research.
NICK: What have you discovered in your research for sea turtles? I actually watched a TedTalk that you delivered about sea turtles and green turtles, am I right, that you’d been tasked on? What have been your main discoveries or things that you’re proud of through that research?
BRENDAN: Well there’s a lot, I mean, because I’m getting quite old now, I’m… I have been doing it like since I first went to Trinidad, it’s now nearly 30 years. So quite a lot of stuff. I guess I would be remiss not to sort of give ocean optimism or conservation optimism a mention. There’s lots of things that are going wrong in the world. There are a lot of things which have been righted by people doing conservation work, engaging communities and sea turtles are a great example. Many populations are now 100 times larger than they were when sea turtle conservation was first thought of in the 1960s and the 70s, you know, with the advent of CITES, the advent of protection on beaches, the advent of fisheries mitigation devices to stop bi-catch, many sea turtle populations are starting to recover. So that’s really good news. So conservation can happen. I think that’s really good for people to know and not to be too nihilistic. The other thing I’ve learned is that working with people is the way forward, so working with fishers and with communities in places that we work leads to great success, both for research and for conservation. So working with people, working for conservation works, and then I guess some of the key highlights of research, we’ve tracked animals across whole ocean basins, from Gabon all the way down to Uruguay where they live and feed on jellyfish. We’ve tracked turtles in the Mediterranean, across the Mediterranean to places where they effectively hibernate and sit on the bottom for 8-10 hours a day… per breath sorry, so they breathe three times a day. And then we are now evermore feeding our data, the turtle data, but working with others on sharks and dolphins and fisheries, but feeding these information into spatial plans, so we’ve had on Ascension Island, we’ve had… helped do research which showed where the main beaches were and what should become protected and they’ve become protected, the same in Cyprus. In the Cayman Islands we’ve helped… in the Turks and Caicos Islands we’ve helped do research which has informed turtle harvest patterns to make the turtle fisheries more sustainable. But more and more now the data are feeding in in an interdisciplinary way towards marine spatial planning and one of the great things that we’re very proud of is working very closely with the government of Gabon and the Wildlife Conservation Society and we helped do an awful lot of research over a number of years and a whole bunch of colleagues. That underpinned the designation of 27% of Gabon’s EEZ as marine protected areas, which were set up for protecting biodiversity but also thinking about other industrial uses of the sea but also thinking about artisanal fishers, their livelihoods and food security, so a really nicely joined-up plan massive scale, 27% of all the seas along to Gabon and so those kind of data feeding into massive decisions like that are very satisfying. All of this stuff is done as part of teams with local people and NGOs and governments but also as an academic working at university, I have had the great pleasure of working with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students through our student volunteers in Cyprus but also through all my many masters students that have worked on aspects of these projects and I take great pleasure out of seeing them moving on and publishing papers and getting PhDs or getting jobs in conservation organisations. And what I really, really like is when I start to hear of some of our new graduates going out and being interviewed and getting jobs and finding out that they were interviewed and the boss is one of our students, so then you start to feel like you really have a legacy when your students are being mentored by students that you helped mentor, which is really nice.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah. Conservation is a small and friendly world, right?
NICK: (laughter) We won’t follow up on that one. So what are the main activities of your current role, how would you characterise for someone who’s not met you before, you meet in the pub, what do you say to them, what do you do?
BRENDAN: Erm, right well. I’m a professor at the university and I have a research group, so I have post docs, many of them are former masters students, I’ve got PhD students, some of them former master students, I’ve also got master students who are doing their projects with us at the moment, I have undergraduate projects to supervise. So I do some teaching, so I give some lectures and I teach the Kenya field course for the masters, but obviously I do all the research with all these different people in the research group. And then I’ve got a major administrative role in the university other than running the masters course, of coordinating Exeter Marine, which is a kind of brand name for a theme for Exeter’s multidisciplinary work in the marine realm that spans all the way from history all the way through to ocean science and technology. We’ve got a huge wealth of people in lots of different departments and campuses and I’m helping to create a community that allows them to communicate with each other and also communicate their findings and their initiatives and their jobs with the outside world, so I do, like you do, Nick – we do a lot of social media and it’s all tied together under Exeter Marine. We’re trying to do a little bit like Conservation Careers do and promote relevant career things and we’re also engaging our students with blogs about their my PhD, my Exeter Marine PhD and things like that, so we’ve got blogs, websites and all the social media channels and with some assistance, I’m helping to lead on that because I think it’s really important to share some of our findings so that people know what we do and they also can find people that do things that they want to know about or work with, etc. And so the university’s just declared a climate emergency and, you know, we have to all start thinking about our travel a bit more and one of the things that I’m trying to lead on with Exeter Marine is, as this is recorded it’s the day before World Oceans Day and we’re gonna have some lectures which are, you know, we’re gonna have a packed lectures room and lots of people will hear them, but we’re also gonna record those lectures and have them professionally edited and put them out on the web so that kind of you mentioned TED Talks before, and TED Talks are a really nice model. People can put a lot of effort into producing a presentation and a lot of thought that is deeply appreciated by people in the room, but using a TED-like model, if you can have thousands of people finding out about that amazing research, then it really gives great dividends to the efforts of putting on the event, perhaps moving people around a bit, but certainly then putting in the effort of preparing a presentation because I think as we all start to look at carbon and, you know, and preserve what travel we do to really do meaningful things, the transfer of knowledge might not necessarily be the reason we should be travelling all the time, maybe we should be doing a wee bit more of that, you know, at home.
NICK: Yeah, and I think actually just discussions like this, we’re recording this over Skype right now and for me, it’s crystal clear even though we’re at opposite ends of the country almost, you know, you’re way down so preserving travel for when it’s needed sounds like a really good thing to be focusing on. What are some of the best bits of your role? It sounds like you do loads of different stuff, just hearing how you describe your role and all the various things you’re involved with, and actually speaking to many academics they often describe a whole load of different things, it seems like the diversity of the role is what people often enjoy. Is that something you feel also or are there other bits of the job that you really like?
BRENDAN: I mean, it is, it’s very diverse. I mean there’s obviously more forms to fill in than I would like but then two forms would be more forms than I would like. But I get to do great things with great people, and I’d stress the people side of things, you know, especially as you get a wee bit older and you’re a wee bit more tied down to home and things that you might have to do at home with regard to the university. I get great joy out of our students working in all sorts of different amazing places and writing their papers up and celebrating that with them, and knowing that that’s helping to push them on one more stage in the career ladder and they’ll be able to do more in the world, so obviously I like doing research. I love going to the field, I love seeing wildlife, I never get fed up of running the Kenya field course or lying watching a turtle lay her eggs and measuring her up and filling in the data sheets. But then equally I quite like giving lectures and mentoring students, and I quite like doing the social media stuff and the strategic stuff for the university. We’re very lucky fulfilling jobs, never a boring or what will I do today thing, and you know, and also, when you start to do things beyond the mentoring of young people, when you actually start to do things that you feel has had a material change in the world, you know, and you see populations increasing or see marine protected areas which also take people into consideration, being designated to that obviously is clearly very satisfying.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah. So if someone was looking to kind of follow in your footsteps, they’re listening to what you’re saying thinking, gosh that sounds amazing, 5-10 years from now I wish I could be doing something similar, what are the kind of things they should also bear in mind, sort of the challenges faced in academia or… you mentioned form-filling is one thing, are there other things, just to kind of paint more of a balanced picture, you know, what are the downsides they need to be aware of?
BRENDAN: You know, rather than telling people the downsides, is to remind them that they will tell themselves the downside more than they should. We all suffer from the impostor syndrome. If you haven’t studied the impostor syndrome, Google it and have a look on Wikipedia because everybody suffers the impostor syndrome to a certain extent and we just all need to learn how to deal with that. Even the most successful people have self-doubts and so don’t let that self-doubt eat you up. The other thing I would say is that you don’t have to win the race, you don’t have to be first, you just have to stay running and that is a challenge in conservation when you may have to do volunteering or you may have to do internships. That’s just the reality of it but you don’t have to be first, you just have to stay in it long enough, keep learning new things, keep meeting new people, keep thinking about where you are best suited to deliver your talents in the world because you’re much more likely to be accepted into a position where you’re gonna be good at it than what you’re not, and actually that’s one of the things you know, not that everybody needs to do a masters course but I think it’s a really good thing that hones your talents, you form a cohort with other students, you learn more stuff, you learn more skills but equally you learn things that you definitely don’t want to waste your time doing in the future. That is really true. You know, from having tough field experiences, you might realise that you much more want to be a GIS specialist in a biological records office because you’re not really suited to the not showering every day. Some people just need to find things that really suit them so I think doing masters courses are really good for those on many different dimensions.
NICK: Yeah, and I think you make a real good point there, they’re a good place to kind of exploring different career options, you know, ruling some out, keeping some in, learning about yourself, we spend a lot of time on the website and we have an online course also where we lead people through a process of self-reflection, understanding yourself, understand the market and then try to identify those jobs that you’re gonna be really good at them, but you’re also gonna love them as well which means you’re gonna be competitive and you’re gonna have an enjoyable career.
BRENDAN: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that we do down here in Cornwall is that we have a steady flow of people coming from across the sectors so it’s more than just conservation, ecology, evolution and behaviour, we have a steady flow of people coming in, not all academics, people from a diversity of job roles and talking about their work and exposing our students to the possible career paths and the pros and cons of them.
NICK: That’s great. You’ve talked a few times there about sort of being optimistic in conservation and conservation works and actually we spoke to Shelly from Conservation Optimism a couple of podcasts ago as well, so we kind of explored this area and it feels like to work in conservation is to be optimistic, otherwise you just wouldn’t have the drive to go to work every day. We know that it works, conservationists often know what it is that needs to happen which requires more support, and I’m mindful that you’ve been working in the marine environment, there’s been a huge focus on marine plastics, microplastics in the last few years, and action has happened quite rapidly around the globe as a result of things like Blue Planet II, I mean how do you feel about that whole marine conservation plastic issue that’s kind of really taken off over the last few years? Is that a fantastic example of conservation in action and mobilising support rapidly? Or is it even possibly a distraction away from some other issues that also require some focus?
BRENDAN: It’s both, I think. Firstly, the Conservation Optimism is a great spin-off because it was the marine people did that started with Ocean Optimism, it’s been mainstreamed. We’ve got Heather Koldewey, she’s an honorary professor, she was one of the group that really coined the phrase, and it’s really taken off. And I think it’s really important to be optimistic, because how are you going to be infectious and, you know, you talked about being competitive and skilled and you also have to be, you have to have infectious enthusiasm when you go for job interviews, and every time you’re trying to convert someone to change their way of operating in the world to have a conservation dividend, you have to sell that, and you yourself to them, and so you have to be upbeat and positive, so I think that’s really important. The plastics thing is really interesting because the plastics thing was already well under way before the Blue Planet, before Sir David put his official stamp on it. All the NGOs were working on it and it was rising and rising as a topic of popular intense interest. I do quite a bit of work on the plastics stuff and, you know, some of our findings are showing that we’ve got microplastics in every single dolphin and seal that Sarah, our PhD student, studied and early on colleagues on sea turtles, microplastics in every sea turtle we analysed, but probably, and very likely, not a single one of those dead animals died because of the plastic. And so while everybody being involved in the plastic issue is a good thing, because everybody feels part of the problem, and so consequently can be made to be part of the solution, and I think that in tandem with the blue planet effect has meant there’s never been, especially in countries like the UK, there’s never been a great interest in our seas and its conservation, so I think that’s a really undoubtedly very positive thing. But then equally, as I said, none of those animals died from the microplastics and we do need to remember that we can’t think of plastic being the solution to marine conservation because if we don’t deal with damaging fishing practice or over-fishing in some places, eutrophication and other invasive species and others, and then with the whole climate change over the top of all of those things, it may be that much of the marine biodiversity in some places will be gone long before the plastic can have a population-level effect on any species. So it’s a great call-to-arms and it’s clearly something that we should find out more about, because it doesn’t seem to be getting any better yet, you know, we’re making lots of positive efforts here in the UK but on a global context there’s a long way to go before it stops getting worse, so we should study it and find out how it will impact ecosystems and where and perhaps what actions we need to do. Of course, the first thing we need to do is stop it getting into the environment and we’ve got a team working with National Geographic at the minute going all the way up with Bangladeshi and then Indian partners all the way up the Ganges to study the flows of plastic in that whole massive river system. But we need to understand how it gets in there and what actions can stop, but we also need to remember the other things which are really important for marine conservation and remember that we’re also thinking not just about biodiversity conservation but the ecosystem services and the livelihoods which depend upon them.
NICK: Final question for you then as we sort of wrap things up, if I could make you a global tsar for the day, actually in your interview for our site you were called King of Conservation so let’s call you that.
BRENDAN: Thank you.
NICK: (laughter) And you could click your fingers, enact one new law, make one thing happen on the planet, what would you like to see change if you could make that thing happen?
BRENDAN: Oh wow, that’s a hard question, you’re gonna have to edit our a long pause here.
NICK: That’s absolutely fine, we’ve done that before (laughter).
BRENDAN: If I had one thing to change. If I could make it possible that there would be a wholesale realisation and acceptance by everybody that was important and wealthy and rich that the climate change is real and that biodiversity is important for human wellbeing and if all of them would realise how important conservation was, then maybe half of the battle would be over.
NICK: I’d vote for you. Well Brendan, it’s been really nice to talk to you, thank you so much for finding time to chat today, I know you’re a busy guy so I appreciate that.
BRENDAN: It’s been a pleasure.
NICK: If people want to find out a little bit more about you or the cause or anything else you’re involved with, where should we point them?
BRENDAN: Well, Brendan Godley is not a very common name so you’ll soon find me on the web but Brendan Godley Exeter turtle, you’ll soon find me, and Exeter Marine and myself as Exeter Marine and Brendan Godley are on social media, so easily found.
NICK: Great, and we’ll link to your profiles from this. Thanks again so much Brendan, I really appreciate your time. All the best.
BRENDAN: Right, cheers then, Nick.
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.
Main image courtesy of the University of Exeter.