How a placement year can benefit your conservation career

In a world where a conservation career is coveted, and even entry-level roles require extensive experience, simply having a degree is no longer enough. Completing a placement year may be one way to bolster your chances in such a competitive field, as they present an opportunity to gain real-world experience and an insight into the industry.

I spoke with a selection of students about their placement year experience, and how it’s advanced their education or career. I also visited my placement supervisor at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) to gain an insight into the benefits of placement students to employers (and employers to placement students).


Holly Kembrey – Placement Student, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust 

As a placement student from Nottingham Trent University, Holly works within the GIS department on the GWCT Partridge Project. Any anxieties she had about fitting in to the organisation and not knowing anyone were quickly dissipated when everyone was friendly and welcoming to the new students.

Holly is now responsible for maintaining distribution plots of grey partridge within ArcGIS, and assisting field counts of partridge in the spring and autumn, and hare in the winter. As a result, her bird identification and GIS skills are continually improving, and she is learning more about farmland wildlife and the environment. Throughout her placement year, Holly is enjoying working with an international team whose common desire is to conserve biodiversity, and feels she is gaining real-world experience that lectures can’t provide.

She said, “I have learnt something new every day during my placementand that she’d try to persuade any student to undertake a placement as she believes it is benefiting her in every way possible.

Rhiannon Kirton – BSc Zoology Student, University of Manchester

Rhiannon is in her final year at university after completing a placement as a Wildlife Intern with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in British Columbia, Canada. Rhiannon’s placement formed a sandwich year, so not only was she able to receive a student loan that facilitated this incredible opportunity, but her research project on habitat use and food availability for grizzly bears will contribute to her degree classification.

It’s no wonder she said, “My placement year was the best year of my degree.  Since returning to university, Rhiannon has been more motivated and is committed to following this career path with a better understanding of what she wants to do. Although she found it challenging to move back to the city after a year in the Canadian wilderness, she is now benefitting from improved writing skills and study design that will help in her studies. Rhiannon summarised by saying, “I learnt so much in that year and I really feel it made my whole degree worth it. Even when I complained about doing fieldwork in the rain, I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Abigail Lowe – PhD Student, The National Botanical Garden of Wales and Bangor University

Abigail is a PhD student of Bangor University based at The National Botanical Garden of Wales (the Garden), having previously completed her placement year here as a Conservation and Research Intern. While a placement student, Abigail worked on a pilot study that was published last year, using pollen DNA metabarcoding to investigate the foraging pattern of honey bees. This led on to her PhD, which uses the same techniques to look at the floral origin of pollens carried by hoverflies, solitary bees, bumble bees and honey bees.

Abigail said that “Working at the Garden was key to securing my PhD” as she was familiar with the department and established a good working relationship with the Head of Science. Abigail thinks her placement year gave her the essential skills to make a great candidate even had she applied elsewhere. At the time of starting her placement year, Abigail wasn’t 100% sure it was for her, but after completing it she would encourage anyone to do one, whether they want to pursue a research career or not.

Anjuli Swift – Research Assistant, Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS)

After a successful placement year with SLWCS (and graduation), Anjuli is back in Sri Lanka working as a Research Assistant. On returning she said, “I was full of confidence and knew exactly what my employer wanted from me. Having previously assisted field staff with data collection and explained activities to volunteers while on her placement year, the transition to more responsibility was easier for Anjuli. Her daily activities now include creating data sheets, collecting data for multiple projects including observing elephant behaviour that utilises the elephant ID database she created during her placement year, and inputting and analysing the data.

Anjuli understands that “experience is everything in this industry” and feels that it was because of her placement year that she was given her current position. During her placement she had experienced working with the organisation and local staff, and was able to demonstrate her skillset and determination throughout.

Dr Julie Ewald – Head of GIS, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

As Head of GIS at GWCT, Julie oversees the Sussex study and provides GIS resources to other research teams as required. She is also a placement supervisor and has not only benefited from the help of students for several years, but when funds are available has offered permanent positions to past students. As an employer of experienced scientists, Julie feels that GWCT has an obligation to provide such experience for young people. Students are set to gain so much from their placements including a better understanding of the industry, strong references, friends with a similar professional and research interest.

The opportunity to conduct research whilst on placement also has the potential to boost a student’s grade, as well as increasing commitment and organisation skills when returning to university. The prospects for personal and professional growth is vast, Julie recalls that when students start on their placement year they require hand-holding like a small child, then after a period of months they develop into trusted people with responsibilities. The benefit of this maturation along with a newly strengthened skillset and good professional relationships is likely to put them at an advantage for job applications in their placement organisation.

Other employers will also to appreciate the effort a student has put in to learning and may look at their application more favourably. It makes sense for this to be the case, as Julie concludes by pointing out that “it’s much quicker to get things going when someone has experience.

In the end that’s what it all comes back to, experience, and I think it’s fair to say that placement years can provide students with experience unlike anything gained in university. Completing a placement year will mean you graduate a year later than your friends, but it might also mean you land your dream job first time.

This article was written by Sophie May Watts, an early career wildlife biologist currently enjoying fieldwork in the Himalayas. You can find her at her website and on Twitter. Sophie has also written a blog specifically about her own placement year as a predation research student, you can read it on BioWeb.

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