Mastering Conservation with Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland

E.J. is course leader for the Masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London. With so many of the top conservationists around the globe graduating through the course, we’re delighted to be able to share her insights with you.

E.J. Milner-Gulland

How would you describe the MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London to someone who’s never heard of it?

It’s a course for people who have made their minds up they want to be conservation professionals. They’re looking for the skills they need, and for a solid grounding, in order to succeed as a conservation professional.

What type of people do you look to attract to the course?

It covers many important disciplines and not just academia; we also cover skills relating to the workplace alongside the ecological and social science foundations of conservation. This helps the students to better understand how to work with people at the local level, and to implement effective conservation interventions.

We also give people some technical skills such as statistics, GIS, remote sensing, alongside ecological and social science field techniques as well.

Finally, we provide a load of transferrable skills, such as how to write a grant proposal, negotiate, facilitate meetings, do a log frame and a budget, and how to present yourself and your work in lots of different media.

Do students get to go on placements?

Half the course is the taught part, and half is a research project. The idea of the project is to try and help students to gain skills they wish to develop, or to work within fields they’d like to explore further. We do our best to find research placements to fulfil their needs as best we can.

A lot of people come in as ecologists, and during the course they get hooked on the idea that conservation is about people. This often means that the research placements can be very social-science focussed.

Another important part of the placements is about networking and making contacts with organisations that they may like to work for. The joy of the course is we have contacts everywhere, and a big network which we support, and draw upon for help in return.

What sort of people do you look for? 

They have to be academically capable, have a real passion for conservation, and are sure this is the thing they wish to do for the rest of their lives.

We often get people who are looking for a career change. They may have interesting skills which they’ve developed in the business world, and wish to use them to help the conservation of wildlife.

We also take a few people who come directly out of undergraduate degrees if they have a solid experience already, but we don’t particularly want people who are doing it because they’re not sure what else they want to do. We want people who have decided this is the right career path for them and are committed to it. Often that means people with a bit more life experience beyond university.

How has it helped people’s careers?

One thing that they consistently say is they learn so much from their classmates. And that’s why I like to have a diverse group of people; helping them to broaden their experiences and make strong friendships and networks which last them for their conservation careers.

They’ve also made all their contacts and got a much deeper understanding of how conservation works which stands them in good stead. They can position themselves to make the most of their skills.

Not everyone can be a policy leader or field-based community project manager – but the idea is by the end of the course they have a much better idea of where their strengths lie, and where they can best contribute. Before the course they perhaps don’t have that.

It’s a really precious year to help them gain a deeper knowledge of the subject and then spending six months exploring and developing their strengths is really important.

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I wish I could do it!

What drew you to work in conservation?

It sounds a bit clichéd but I want to make a difference. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and chose an applied PhD that was about trying to better understand the drivers of the rhino horn and ivory trade and how conservation might help to address the problems.

I have a confession to make – I’ve never done an extended period of ecological fieldwork!

So I came straight through the academic route. But as I’ve travelled this route – and particularly with my research on Saiga Antelopes – I’ve spent 20 years working in Russia and Central Asia and have helped to set up an NGO implementing conservation, acting as a funding body and building capacity.

I find it really important that people who teach conservation science need to get their hands dirty. They need to understand what it is to run an NGO, to have political discussions with the Minister for the Environment and things like that. It’s no good being a academic sitting in your ivory tower and reading nice papers without applying your knowledge.

What’s it like to be a Professor in Conservation Science at Imperial College London?

Brilliant! It’s incredibly busy, and no two days are the same. I love interacting with students and I like to play a hand in their development. I like to help them build a successful career and I find it very satisfying when I see them go off and have brilliant careers as a result. I’m really proud to play a part in that.

I also enjoy the research. To be a Professor at University you have to have a passion for this too, and to enjoy answering important questions.

What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

On the Masters side I’m frustrated and challenged that I can’t have the mix of students that I would like to build capacity. This is because there is a lack of scholarships and funding for people from developing countries.

It would be great for my students to be working alongside people who are going to go on and be the leaders in conservation in their countries. It’s also important to build the capacity of those people in the global network.

It’s also frustrating that most of what you propose as an academic doesn’t get funded. You have to have a thick skin to bear rejection.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

To get into academia, getting a strong publication record is sadly what people look for.

If you’re a Masters student, then show you have the persistence and organisational ability to publish your thesis. That’s important.

What’s your favourite song? 

One of my PhD students is a musician and he’s studying saiga antelopes. Only last week he recorded a song called ‘Saiga and Steppe’.

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