Dr Chris Sandbrook – Training our next Conservation Leaders

Dr Chris Sandbrook has followed an inspiring career path and is now utilizing his professional and academic experience to train the next generations of conservation leaders. Chris currently works as a lecturer at UNEP- World Conservation Monitoring Centre and he is also an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge where he helps to run the world-class MPhil in Conservation leadership. Conservation Careers Founder Nick Askew chats to Chris about the MPhil course, his career path, the importance of being open to opportunities and his re-kindled fondness for Led Zeppelin…

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What drew you to work in conservation?

That is really hard to answer. One of my uncles was a conservationist and he was on IUCN councils and ran quite big organisations for a number of years. So I knew about conservation since I was a kid, but I came to university here at Cambridge originally wanting to study biology and behavioural ecology.

I really got into conservation as an undergraduate studying a conservation biology course in my final year, which I really loved. My girlfriend at the time was studying geography and she was being taught about conservation in her courses. It was so interesting because we had these mutually exclusive reading lists, but on the same topic.

I thought that these different perspectives were interesting so I went along to some of her lectures and became quite intrigued by it. That sowed the seed that I might like to do something that was about the social side of conservation.

I was then really lucky to get a PhD scholarship to do my research on gorillas and tourism in Uganda, which was exactly on that subject. I went into that PhD as a biologist who was interested in doing a little bit of social science, but I came out the other way round.

Ever since then I have been much more interested in the social side of conservation. It sort of crept up on me really. It went from being something I never really thought about to something that obviously was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I think you often hear a sort of creation myth story about conservationists that talk about their love of birds and beetles and things when they were children. I didn’t have that. I loved walking in the Welsh hills. We used to go there on holiday all the time. I loved being outside in nature, but I’m not a natural historian by any means.

How would you describe your job?

Loads of different things. I have a slightly hybrid role where I am employed by the WCMC and I do some work with them but I am also an affiliate lecturer in the Geography department at Cambridge and the central axis of my work is about the Masters (MPhil Conservation Leadership).

On top of the teaching load I have licence to conduct research projects in line with my interests. My research is broadly about the social issues around conservation. I do some work in the field studying ecosystem services and trade-offs, working mostly in tropical landscapes but also, increasingly, I do more work that is about understanding conservation itself as a social phenomenon.

For example, researching the working practices of conservation organisations, the careers of conservationists and the choices they are making. I suppose, working on the Conservation masters has partly got me interested in that.

What is the best part of your work?

I really enjoy working with the students. I couldn’t imagine a better teaching role in conservation because I work with students who are already brilliantly experienced and interesting people. Just knowing that the kind of work that we do together will influence what they go off and practice in conservation in the real world is really fantastic and I get a lot of value out of that.

What are some of the biggest challenges or frustrations that you face in your current role?

Probably the hardest thing is time management because I am interested in everything (which is probably quite common for people in conservation) and I find it very hard to say no. I am constantly approached with really interesting ideas and collaborative projects and I am not good at saying no, so I find myself a bit overstretched at times. I always have a lot of different things on the go.

In the Cambridge Conservation Initiative environment there are so many interesting things happening so I often get asked to go to meetings and attend workshops. It’s the classic problem – you would rather have too many fun things to do than not enough, but it can be a bit stressful, that’s for sure.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

One thing I have tried to do in my career so far is to keep a balance between academia and practice. After my PhD, I spent a couple of years living in Uganda doing applied field projects. In this job that I have now, because of the close contact with students who are all conservation practitioners, I feel I still have a connection to that. I’ve never wanted to be completely an academic or completely a practitioner because I have always seen the benefit in both and I have tried to negotiate this balance between the two.

I charged into doing a Masters and a PhD straight off, but I think it actually makes a lot of sense to wait and get some applied experience. I know now, as someone who is looking for PhD students, that I am much more keen to take on people who have got a bit more experience and already have a particular issue that they have seen first hand that they want to study.

One other thing that I would say is that we run a series of conservation leadership lectures for the masters where we get really senior, eminent speakers to come and talk about their careers. They talk about how they got to where they are and one thing that all of them have talked about is serendipity and not having a plan. It’s really notable that being open to taking spontaneous opportunities is important. I am like that. I haven’t had a plan, I’ve just, kind of, followed my nose.

Also, for a long time, possibly because I had a relative who was quite senior in this field I was very passionate about not taking advantage of networks or being nepotistic. I wanted to find my own way and I am proud of the fact that I have done that. However, i do think now that, if you know someone who can help you to talk you through an idea or give you insight into a job you might be applying for then just take it because those personal contacts matter an awful lot.

What is your favourite song?

I’ve been listening to ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ by Led Zeppelin so I’ll say that.

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Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Educator