Five ways to get a conservation job, by Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a conservationist and wildlife photographer who works as a climate change policy officer for the RSPB and helps to run A Focus on Nature. Here he shares his five key pieces of advice for pursuing a career in conservation.

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1. Go beyond 9-5

If you want to really succeed in any sector, you’re going to need to be passionate. Conservation is no different. I understand that people’s personal circumstances are different, but if you get an opportunity to do something outside of the 9-5, take it.

This could be writing a blog post (like this one), or volunteering. It could be as little helping out at just one event.

I got my first job for the RSPB as a membership recruiter thanks in no small part to having volunteered with them on a people engagement project. I recruited six members as a volunteer, enough to clinch me a six month contract on the Suffolk coast.

I then spent several months using my weekends to do volunteer conservation work at a nearby reserve. In total I was working seven days a week. I learned first hand how to do conservation work using a chainsaw, or managing livestock, or adjusting water levels, or surveying for bitterns. At the end of nine months, I knew enough to be formally employed as an Assistant Warden.

If you’re going to focus on unorthodox skills and knowledge for your formal education (see 4 below) then use your spare time to learn some of the basics about ecology and conservation. This stuff isn’t essential, but it is useful.

These days, most of my spare time is taken up helping to run A Focus on Nature and Vision for Nature. I love it. I care deeply about youth engagement in environmental issues. It’s tough, and I don’t have as much time for a social life as I might otherwise have, but I believe that this work is helping to secure nature’s future and I love working towards that goal. I feel more fired up today than I ever have.

2. Innovate

If you get the opportunity to start your own project or even organisation, do it.

And fail. And fail again.

No one’s going to reject you because you took the initiative, it didn’t work out and you learned loads of lessons. You’ll be better and do better next time around, and be a better candidate for it too.

In my time I’ve helped to set up several projects and organisations, including the UK Youth Climate Coalition. These enterprises have tested my limits, and expanded them, and helped me stand out. In youth-led startups like the ones I’ve been part of I’ve also had the opportunity to reach management positions (Co-Director for example) it would take decades to reach in the formal conservation sector. This allows you to demonstrate leadership skills that can really set you apart.

Surround yourself with amazing people (from within and without conservation) who are better than you (for me: here, here, here and here). Ask for their help, discuss your weak areas and work together to become stronger together. You’ll prove to be an invaluable support network for each other.

3. Craft your story

When you send in a job application or walk into an interview, you want to be able to tell a story about why you deserve that role.

Part of that story has to be what you believe and think about conservation. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, so much as having opinions to communicate. Spend time, over months and even years, figuring out what your opinions are about key conservation issues.

Write. For a journal, for your blog, for others. There’s no better way to rehearse arguments, ideas and to get feedback.

Maybe when you walk into that interview, you’ll even be a name people already know. Craft a story of yourself and your qualities using social media, blogging and by meeting people. Your reputation and qualities will start to speak for themselves and even precede you. It’s also a great way to connect with others and learn from them.

Don’t be ashamed of building up a profile. Nature is in poor shape. Other sectors – business, sports, health, education, human rights – have passionate and well known personalities. Nature needs more of these and we shouldn’t be ashamed about helping each other and ourselves to fill these roles.

4. Become a non-conservation expert

I thought that my degree in English and French would be a disadvantage in conservation. Far from it. Having foreign languages and a good knowledge of climate change has helped me stand apart from other candidates. Don’t abandon or neglect your other interests, they could be the key to unlocking your career in conservation.

5. Recognise your success

Getting a career in conservation is tough, but it’s a huge privilege. Sure, the wages might not be the best in the world, but I feel extremely lucky to wake up every day with the challenge of (basically) saving the world. Now of course I’m doing this with thousands of others around the world. But I do feel like one of a team of super heroes.

Once you’ve got that first job, your immediate concern might be trying to hold onto it, if it’s a contract, or hoping to get promoted to get a sustainable salary. But it’s important not to forget that those of us who are lucky enough to have these jobs also need to be responsible for how the sector acts and looks.

I know that I’ve had a lot of privilege (both explicit and implicit) along the way that has helped me get to where I am today.

I’m male, white, middle class, mostly heterosexual, with a very good education and no mental or physical disabilities. I like to think I’m a good conservationist, but I also know that the conservation sector isn’t building the best possible future if it doesn’t address its bias towards employing people like me (particularly in the top roles) and make itself more diverse. It’s also failing to properly represent the breadth of diversity within society, and it would be a stronger and more innovative and successful sector if it did so. So let’s help each other work on these things. Saving nature is urgent, but there’s no point saving it if we leave people behind in the process. We need to ensure, in the words of Van Jones, that the rising wave of a flourishing natural world lifts all boats.

The two issues I care about most are mental health (having suffered from depression) and gender inequality. I know lots of young conservationists who really care about both these issues and are honest about their own struggles. Let’s have more of this please, and let’s support each other. We’ll build a better conservation sector, and a better world, by doing so.

A bit about Matt

matt birding 2You can find him @mattadamw and

At the age of 23 the only environmental qualification that I had to my name was a 20 year long membership of the RSPB. I’ve loved nature and wildlife ever since that age, and always cared about being environmentally friendly. But only relatively late in life did I decide I wanted to do more than recycle and read about climate change, and commit my life to saving nature.

Today, I’m 28 and I’m a climate change policy officer for the RSPB. My work involves helping to run the RSPB’s climate change campaigns and communications work, and leading our policy on bioenergy and on fracking. I engage with government, politicians, other NGOs and industry on these issues, helping to figure out where the RSPB sits and what we want to do.

I’m also a Committee Member for A Focus on Nature, the network for young UK conservationists. I help to run A Focus on Nature day to day, focussing on our campaigns and engagement, as well as leading the Vision for Nature project, setting out where young people want the natural world to be by 2050. We’ll be publishing the Vision for Nature report this Autumn.

Since starting down the path of a career in conservation I’ve been lucky enough to chase cows around fields, fell trees with a chainsaw, follow orangutans through the jungles of Borneo and debate with Parliamentary select committees of MPs and meet with Secretaries of State. Many days I feel like I’m living a dream.

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