Getting your debate on: a career in conservation policy

With the power to protect local species, control national deforestation, or guide sustainable development globally, environmental policy is one of the most influential fields a conservationist can pursue. Conservation Careers talks with Nick Phillips of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) about what it takes to work in policy and why it’s important to keep an open mind in any career. Read on if you have thick skin.

A large baobab in Madagascar

A large baobab in Madagascar. Credit: Nick Phillips.

When did you know that conservation was for you?

There’s a wildlife programme in England called the ‘Really Wild Show. I remember watching an episode that featured a guy with a pet snake I’ll never forget how blown away I was by this animal. I was about 11 at the time so I persuaded my parents to go to the zoo to see one in real life. From then on I started reading about wildlife and going out to see it in the countryside. I’ve never looked back really.

You’re currently Senior Forestry Policy Officer with the RSPB. What does your job involve?

My job is primarily about persuading government to do more for woodland wildlife. In England, for the species that we’ve got data for, about 60% of woodland wildlife is declining. My job is to get policies, legislation and grants in place to combat these shocking declines.

The job’s incredibly varied: one day you can be out in a woodland trying to persuade someone from a government department that a particular policy is important and the next day you’ll be writing a consultation response in the office. A lot of the time you’ll be working closely with internal colleagues, supporting their work.

What do you enjoy most about policy work? What is most challenging?

Although policy work can seem very dry, when you get a policy in place or bit of legislation in place, the difference you can make is huge. That’s what I like most about the job; you really feel like you can make an impact.

The hardest thing about the job is that quite often you’re a lone voice. Most people that I meet with represent the economy and what I’m saying is getting in the way of what they’re trying to do. They’re often really aggressive towards you in meetings.

I get around that because I have amazing colleagues that I can always bounce off and that bring me back to life. Reminding myself that the charity I work for has over a million members and that there’s a huge amount of public support for wildlife when I’m in the room is key.

Can you share a highlight from your work with the RSPB?

I worked on a policy which could unlock large areas of internationally important wildlife habitat potential in England. Heathland is a really important habitat in the UK and about 80% of it has been lost to agriculture, forestry plantation and housing development. 

The policy I worked on should hopefully enable the re-creation of some of these lost areas of former

heathland and other wildlife habitats, such as wetlands and moorlands in England.  

Conservationists are often removed from what got them into conservation in the first place being outdoors and in nature. How do you stay inspired?

In the policy world you just don’t get to see as much as you’d like. But the RSPB is fantastic at giving staff opportunities to see what they do in different places. I’ve been lucky to go to Syria before the trouble started to do wildlife surveys. Also if you’re with the charity for seven years, you get a sabbatical, which means you can go and do pretty much any project the RSPB’s involved with around the world.

What is your most memorable experience with wildlife?

One year I used my annual leave to volunteer with a charity in Mauritius for a month. We went out with some whale researchers out off the coast and I managed to swim with sperm whales. It was one of the most terrifying and unbelievable experiences of my life.

Also, ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to see a fossa. Because Madagascar’s so close, I went over by myself, hired a 4X4 and drove to the west coast of Madagascar where the surviving forests are. It took about 8 days. I was getting ready to go on an expedition into the forest to look for fossas, not expecting to be very lucky, and I found one fast asleep outside my tent.

Face to face with the elusive fossa. Credit: Nick Phillips.

Face to face with the elusive fossa. Credit: Nick Phillips.

Did you expect to take the path in conservation that you’ve taken?

I’ve been a little bit lucky. I started on the same path everyone does, with the right A levels (British higher education), a degree in Zoology and volunteer work. But then I came across the same problem that everybody comes across in conservation: that there aren’t many jobs.

What made me lucky was going for a job that wasn’t in conservation at all. I worked in animal welfare policy for a charity called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

After a couple of years at the RSPCA, I did a master’s in biodiversity and conservation and from there I got a job as a membership recruiter with the RSPB. Once I was in the organisation, I got to know people, and with my policy experience got a lucky break at their headquarters.

What key steps stand out in your career path that got you where you are?

Quite often in conservation we’ve all done exactly the same thing, exactly the same courses and come from exactly the same place. Being open to a non-traditional path into conservation is absolutely key because what really stands out on job applications is someone who has conservation knowledge but has experience and skills from other areas. Don’t just wait for your perfect job – any experience, particularly something unusual, is really beneficial.

Photo 3 - Credit Nick Phillips

Credit: Nick Phillips.

Volunteering is absolutely essential for getting a job these days in conservation – and its fantastic fun if you find the right project. Getting to know people in conservation is also important. There are so many conservation communities that you can be a part of to network and find opportunities, even if

you don’t work for a conservation charity. Check out the Cambridge Conservation Forum if you’re near Cambridge.

If I could speak to a younger me I’d say: don’t be put off from applying for things; go for everything you’re interested in because you just never know.

What does it take to work in policy?

An interest in politics is important and you have to really like debating. I don’t think there’s a less blunt way of saying it: most of the job involves arguing and trying to put your point across in a better way than someone else who disagrees with you.

I think enjoying that, being tenacious and never giving up are really important traits for policy work. It’s one of the most frustrating areas to work in conservation – making any progress is glacially slow – but when you do make wins, you make massive steps.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Policy Advocate