How to unlock your career during lockdown
Upside-down. Frozen. Stalled. Lost.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put everything from university fieldwork and planned internships to job offers on hold, and left many conservationists feeling uncertain about their futures.
It’s hard to accept when big plans are pulled from our grasp, when our hard-earned savings take a hit, or when a door slams shut just as we’ve gotten our foot in.
Situations that are completely outside of our control can leave us feeling powerless.
But do we blame our circumstances and accept the hand we’re dealt? Or do we view it as an opportunity to take control again?
If you’re thinking that regaining control is impossible, imagine if Tim Robbins had resigned to a life in prison in The Shawshank Redemption? You too can choose to rewrite your movie.
Here are two personal examples of seemingly bad experiences (a bit more relatable than going to prison…), that were actually opportunities in disguise.
The first happened after graduating from a Bachelor’s in Earth Science. My fresh-out-of-university brain reasoned that I should do what every other graduate seemed to be doing: apply for Research Assistant jobs.
I was vastly under-experienced, over-zealous and, naturally, prone to great disappointment when applications targeting my ‘ideal job’ resulted in zero jobs.
Eventually, in semi-desperation, I applied for a long-shot internship (yes, it too had ‘Research Assistant’ in the title).
Midway through the interview, the interviewers told me they didn’t want a research assistant. As I threw my hands up in the air after going through all my interview prep for nothing (it was an audio-only call), I discovered they’d created a new position for me because they liked my writing.
I ended up being paid to interview scientists using a combination of my Earth Science degree and writing skills, launching a career in science communications (a much better and more fulfilling fit for me than research assistant).
“Sometimes chaos is the best thing. When all the cards are up in the air, they resettle in new and unexpected patterns.”
A few years later, when I was feeling unfulfilled in my job, I got a nasty flu that left me hobbling around for three days. Unable to work, I invested the extra time into a last-ditch round of scholarship applications for master’s study.
Somehow, I connected with the right person one week before an annual deadline, and landed a scholarship that took me to Australia to complete a master’s in conservation. That connection – and my degree – would never have happened without the flu.
Several years later, when I was travelling in New Zealand, a wise traveller I met on my expedition said something that has stuck with me since: “Sometimes chaos is the best thing. When all the cards are up in the air, they resettle in new and unexpected patterns.”
I’ve had a communications expert and a Judo master tell me exactly the same thing.
In other words, sometimes the only way to make room for big, new opportunities is through big, scary unknowns.
I’m not suggesting that floundering post-graduation or getting a bad case of the flu are remotely the same as weathering a pandemic or going to prison. But if you’ve ever been that disheartened graduate, you’ll know that if you’ve been stuck before, it gets much easier… because you know that this too shall pass – and make way for something far better in the process.
In the Conservation sector, we’re naturally comfortable in uncertainty. We head into our careers prepared for low job security, hard work and relying on passion to get us through. And each time we do that, we become a little bit more resilient.
Are you ready to turn an unfortunate situation into a fortunate opportunity? Or do you need a little boost of optimism to shift your outlook? Here are six ideas to get you started.
1. Check your career compass
Life rarely affords us the luxury of time to pause and reflect on what we’re doing. In our supercharged, hyperspeed society, most days we barely have enough time to check our emails, let alone stop and ask ourselves, ‘Am I happy in my career?
Instead we’re likely to charge ahead doggedly, head down, working harder, longer, more determinedly towards… wait, what was it again?
If you’re finding some unsettling questions bubbling to the surface now, this might just be a golden opportunity to reflect on where you’re heading.
Questions like ‘Do I wake up excited to go to work?’, ‘Am I using my favourite skills?’, ‘Is my career a source of fulfilment?’ or ‘Am I having a positive impact?’
If you’d like to thrive rather than survive, and need some guidance, you can give our How to get a conservation job article a read, register for our free webinar How to find career happiness, or check out our Conservation Career Kick-Starter online course.
2. Learn something new online
Finally, we can ditch the usual ‘If only I had more time to…’ mantra. If you’ve got time, in spades, why not put it to use by learning something you’ve always wanted to learn?
It might just help define your career path, give you a foot up, and keep your brain in gear.
What’s always intrigued you? Is it species mapping? How to manage a marine protected area? Conservation psychology?
Whatever it is, chances you can find it online. Here’s a list of some great resources for affordable and free (yup, FREE) conservation courses online:
- Coursera – A great source for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from leading American universities like Stanford and Yale and top companies like Google and Amazon. You’ll find free and affordable options for courses, specialisations and degrees, plus 100 online courses and features free through 31 May 2020.
- EdX – Another great source from MOOCs from 140 leading institutions worldwide, including courses, programmes and degrees.
- Future Learn – A MOOC platform partly owned by The Open University, offering online courses and degrees from leading universities and organisations.
- The Open University – Flexible, part-time undergraduate and postgraduate courses and qualifications, with a wide range of free courses.
- National Geographic Society – Professional learning opportunities for educators and conservationists.
- Conservation Training – Over 400 hours of free conservation-based training from The Nature Conservancy and partner organisations.
- PAPACO – IUCN’s Program on African Protected Areas and Conservation, offering MOOCs focussed on protected areas management, ecological monitoring, law enforcement and species conservation.
- UN CC:Learn – The One UN Climate Change Learning Partnership, a great source for learning resources that help people, governments and businesses understand, adapt and build resilience to climate change.
- Esri Academy – A great platform if you’re looking for GIS training. You can also check out these short GIS courses.
- Alison – A platform for courses which includes an Environment category, covering topics like ecology, environmental management and outdoor education.
- Blackboard Learn – A community sharing free online courses from institutions worldwide, powered by educational technology company Blackboard.
- Humentum – A global membership association providing training and more, with useful resources for professionals like financial management, budgeting and more.
- Udemy – Thousands of online video courses at an affordable price.
- Wildlife Campus – A great place if you’re considering a career related to wildlife or ecotourism, offering courses in wildlife management, field guiding, animal behaviour, lodge management and more. You’ll get access to select free courses, and you can trial courses for free.
Want to fast-forward your search? We’ve compiled some of the best conservation courses and programmes online on our Conservation Training Board. You can search by keyword and student reviews.
3. Take your learning outside
Are you a hands-on learner who easily overdoses on screen time? Why not take your learning into your own hands, literally, by venturing into your favourite local forest, beach or meadow? [So long as your government rules allow this – if not, do it in your back garden].
Contemporary conservation evolved from the work of pioneers like Charles Darwin, John Muir and E.O. Wilson – whose discoveries and writings were inspired by observations of nature. Why not follow in their footsteps by taking the time to simply observe?
You could learn how to ID plants, insects or birds; master dichotomous keys; sharpen your spotlighting skills for nocturnal mammals; or become skilled with citizen science technology like iNaturalist, eBird or xeno-canto.
Or maybe you’re more interested in finding creative ways to share your observations of the natural world with others. Why not try your hand at science illustration, learn wildlife photography or test out videography using nature as your subject?
4. Volunteer online
We’ve interviewed over 500 conservation professionals, and the majority say that volunteering is one of the best ways to get your foot in the door and test-drive roles in the conservation sector.
And During COVID-19, conservation organisations are likely to need help more than ever.
Are you a great fundraiser? Why not help an organisation raise critical funds to keep their projects going?
Love data? You could offer to help an organisation that collects data but has little free time to analyse it?
Passionate about advocacy? Why not get involved in an environmental or political campaign in your country that helps shape the future after the pandemic? For example, as part of its COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Canadian government allocated $1 billion to sustain jobs in the energy sector by cleaning up inactive oil and gas wells.
Is talking to people and writing more your style? We’d love to have you onboard a Conservation Careers Blogger!
Whatever your skills and interests are, now’s a great time to reach out to an organisation of interest and offer remote support. You’ll benefit from the experience, refining your career direction and boosting your CV – and you might even prove yourself as a top candidate when hiring resumes.
Want to get the most out of your volunteering experience? Check out our guide How to find the best conservation internships and volunteering opportunities.
5. Plan your ideal expedition
If you’re eager to widen your horizons and gain conservation experience abroad, you can still use lockdown time wisely.
We know that volunteering and internships have the best impact on your career when you take the time to identify the best opportunity for you. Check out guide How to find the best conservation internships and volunteering opportunities to focus in on the type of skills, training or experience you’d like to gain, then explore our Internships and Volunteering board to see what’s on offer.
Don’t be discouraged by travel restrictions; most organisations will plan flexibly and accommodate you when lockdown lifts.
6. Start a project
Have you ever been asked the question, ‘What would you do if there were no barriers?’ or ‘Who would you be if you didn’t hold yourself back?’
If you remove all expectations (yours or others’!), let go of any insecurities and really let your heart and mind wander, things can get very interesting!
Was there something you always wanted to do, but you’ve always rationalised it away? Was there a dream that could only ever be a dream? Now might be a nice time to dig it out, dust it off and explore it a little.
Do you see yourself as a kids channel environmental educator and presenter? Why not head outside, film a phenomenon in your local ecosystem and pop it on YouTube?
Have you always wanted to write for NatGeo? Why not experiment with writing starting with a topic you’re deeply passionate about? Or pick a site you love and offer to write for them?
Have you dreamt of starting your own NGO or social enterprise? Why not use downtime to test out your idea? You can get a little inspiration from these environmental entrepreneurs!
Bonus: by trying a new project, you’re likely to add new skills to your repertoire (like videography, video editing, social media, writing, or websites) and you may find you connect with more like-minded people to fuel your passion.
Has COVID-19 helped you explore a new direction or try something you’ve always wanted to do? We’d love to hear about it!
Kristi Foster is the Head of Engagement at Conservation Careers. She has a Master’s in Conservation Biology and has worked for organisations including Ecotourism Australia, Fauna & Flora International and the World Agroforestry Centre. Her conservation work has led over the past 8 years to Africa, UK, Australia and Latin America in everything from field work and environmental education to project management and communications. She’s incredibly passionate about helping conservationists find and fulfil their potential in the sector.