How to… Get a job in Conservation (and love your work)

James Borrell is a writer, speaker and scientist, with a passion for fieldwork and expeditions. He is currently based in London, whilst studying rare species in the Scottish Highlands and promoting conservation. Read his fabulous advice on how to get a job in conservation.
If as a child you sat enthralled by every natural history documentary, Sir David Attenborough was your idol and you dreamed of growing up to work with wildlife – then perhaps a job in conservation is for you. Read on for a practical guide on how to get a job in conservation.

The Pros:

  • You really can make a difference.
  • Conservation jobs often involve working outdoors.
  • You may get to visit wild and wonderful places.
  • No two days are the same.
  • You find yourself working with people who have the same values.
  • At the end of the day, it’s immensely rewarding.

The Cons

  • Unfortunately, most of the time it will feel like you can’t make a difference.
  • For every day in the field, you may well have to spend several behind a desk, in the lab or at meetings.
  • Fieldwork – in the driving wind and rain – can take it’s toll.
  • You might long for the stability and normality of an ordinary 9-5.
  • Normal people will think you’re fighting a lost cause.
  • A job in conservation is extremely unlikely to make you rich.

How to get started in Conservation (building experience!)

Many useful things can be taught in the classroom, but when it comes to topics like conservation and the environment, there is really no substitute for experience. Put your free time and summer holidays to good use with some of the following and you will be grateful for the experience when you come to finding a job later.

  • Volunteer for as many things as possible. Try anything once, find your niche and your motivation.
  • Attend talks or meetings like the excellent Explore Conference or microlecture evening at the Royal Geographical Society, London.
  • Take the plunge and join your first expedition
  • Become a Citizen Scientist
Academically there are lots of advantages to having a Masters or PhD in terms of getting a job later. They can however cost quite a lot of money and of course take several years.

Should you take a masters or PhD?

When it comes to a PhD you should ask yourself two questions.

  1. Are you sufficiently interested in a specific topic to justify spending three years studying it.
  2. Are you willing to earn a lot less than many of your friends for 3-4 years (but gain all the benefits of still being a student!)

My own baised opinion (I’m taking a PhD) is that it’s a fantastic way to learn a useful variety of skills. From project management, to persistence, applying to grants and of course in depth knowledge of your chosen field. In short, if you get the chance, jump at it. The original conservation movement was very much based on environmentalists and to a certain extent scientists. These days, the people and skills need to diversify if conservation is to be competitive and successful… 

The people that we need more in conservation (already have a job and looking for a career change?)

The original conservation movement was very much based on environmentalists and to a certain extent scientists. These days, the people and skills need to diversify if conservation is to be competitive and successful…


  • Because conservation isn’t just about asking very nicely for more nature reserves…
  • Conservation organisations are huge (Businessmen!), they need to be run efficiently on limited resources (Accountants!).
  • They need to reach out and share their ideas (Marketing!), especially with the younger impressionable generations (education!).
  • They need to come up with new ideas and solutions (engineers!),and be able to scale those up and up and up so that they will work nationally and internationally (politicians!).

Tips on finding a dream job in conservation

  • Network. Approach people or organizations you would like to work for. Maintain a professional LinkedIn profile, and consider Twitter too!
  • Start Early. Don’t wait until you graduate to search for a job. Gain experience as early as possible. This doesn’t have to be with a top conservation organisation necessarily… Write a blog, join a society, take part in citizen science!
  • Keep up to Date. Follow progress and developments of projects around the world. RSS Feeds are great for this. Here’s some useful websites and people to follow for starters
  • Work for free. Many are reluctant to do this, so you will immediately have an advantage. At best, you will be highly valued and possibly offered a more permanent position. At worst, you have gained some valuable transferable experience.
  • Be persistent (but not annoying). Put yourself in the right places at the right time. Don’t be disheartened if at first you don’t succeed, learn from every experience.
  • Learn to Accept Failure. Learn from your mistakes and start over. Working in conservation is at once the most and least rewarding thing you can do.
  • It probably won’t happen over night. It probably won’t make you rich, and you probably won’t be famous. But when you go to sleep at night you’ll know, that you’ve got one of the best job in the world.

Where to find jobs in conservation

There’s plenty of websites devoted to conservation and environment jobs, but if you know quite specifically what you would like to do, then it’s often easier to approach them directly.

N.B. Reasons NOT to work in Conservation

For all the positive reasons to work in conservation, the realist in me has to suggest several not to. 

  • For the money. This really needs little explanation, put simply, you are unlikely to get rich in conservation. If a sizeable salary is your thing (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then you could always get the same satisfaction later in life by donating to charities or NGOs of your choice. In fact, we could probably do with a few wealthy characters doing that.
  • Because you like animals. Whilst liking animals is definitely a positive for someone who wants to work in conservation, it shouldn’t be the sole reason. A lot of volunteer opportunities involve captive animal orphanages and sanctuaries. Whilst for reintroductions or rare species breeding programs these can play a part, they are expensive and offer very little to the larger conservation picture. Conservationists often need to make very tough decisions, prioritising the use of limited funds.
  • Conservation is Often About Killing the ‘Wrong’ Things. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. One of the biggest threats to native flora and fauna around the world, are a minority of invasive species. Whilst (occasionally) this is a natural occurrence, industrious human activity has undoubtedly sped this process up significantly.

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