Megan Shersby: Seasonal Assistant for Dorset Wildlife Trust
Megan Shersby is an aspiring naturalist and science communicator. She is based in Dorset, working as a Seasonal Assistant for Dorset Wildlife Trust at two of their centres and is passionate about inspiring others to explore the natural world, and can usually be found in nature reserve examining the local wildlife. Here she shares her fascinating career story with Conservation Careers.
What’s your job title, and what are the main activities in your work?
I’m currently a Seasonal Assistant with Dorset Wildlife Trust. My role involves working at two visitor centres in Weymouth where I engage a variety of people and encourage them to take a further interest in wildlife. This can include environmental education with school groups such as pond dipping at Lorton Meadows or a seashore search at Chesil Beach, promoting the local wildlife and our events through social media and articles, leading wildlife walks, and chatting to visitors and answering their questions.
What’s the best part of the job?
As a Seasonal Assistant at the centres, I get to combine two of my greatest loves – talking to people and wildlife. My sister recently commented upon me describing my role to her: “… so what you do anyway?” I am one of those fortunate people who are paid to do what they love. My favourite part of working in engagement is seeing an interest light up in people’s eyes. Both as a naturalist and a moth trapper, I love it when I can help someone discover something amazing about nature, especially when it is an aspect that is often overlooked – moths being a prime example.
What’s the worst part of the job?
It is a little difficult to pin down the worst part – I guess could say when I have to work at a computer rather than being outdoors? Even then, I am usually doing something fun such as tweeting about wildlife sightings, or creating publicity materials.
Why did you get the job; what made you stand out from the crowd?
As is to be expected, the main parts of getting the job were ticking all the boxes in the job description/person specification, and performing well at interview. As for standing out from the crowd, my specialism is likely the combination of an incredibly large slice of enthusiasm for all things nature-related, with an overly generous dollop of wanting to engage people with wildlife. One thing that I believe definitely stood in my favour is my familiarity and confidence with using social media to promote wildlife, both through my own accounts and on behalf of conservation organisations.
What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?
I have held a variety of positions in a range of organisations, both conservation-orientated and otherwise (such as shelving books in a university library), but I believe that a few of these are worthy of being considered key steps in my career in community engagement.
First, I requested and then took a placement year during university, where I worked as an Education Assistant for the Field Studies Council. Whilst this shows my ability to take initiative (as I was the only one on my course to take a year out!), this year also gave me relevant experience, and was actually the turning point for me. Prior to this I was more interested in animal care, having volunteered and worked for organisations such as the RSPCA and ZSL London Zoo, and having studied for a BSc (Hons) in Animal Science. Spending a year teaching children about our environment and its wildlife made me realise (a) just how amazing British wildlife is, and (b) that I love to engage people with it.
Second, upon returning to university for my third year, I realised that I wanted (and needed) to get more experience and knowledge in order to work in conservation. I asked to take a module not offered as part of my degree, but relevant to conservation. In addition, I took a number of additional ecology modules through the Lifelong Learning department (and continue to go on these as they are just brilliant!), began volunteering with the Vincent Wildlife Trust and the local Brownie group, and had a part-time job so as to set some funds aside for volunteering / internship positions. As well as gaining the aforementioned experience and knowledge, bear in mind that this was during my third year of university and I have since been able to use the year as an excellent example of my organisational and time management skills.
Third, I decided to familiarise myself with social media following a careers day held by the British Ecological Society. Initially, I just investigated Twitter (find me at @MeganShersby) as a tool to discuss wildlife. When I got a position as a Research Assistant on the Dwarf Mongoose Project, I decided to set up a blog (Barcode Ecology) as well, to help my friends and family discover more about Dwarf Mongooses and to follow my adventures in South Africa. I have continued this blog since, and was recently named Blogger of the Week by BBC Wildlife Magazine. Moreover, my confidence in using social media has led to further opportunities such as training other members of staff, giving a guest lecture at Aberystwyth University and running social media accounts for conservation organisations.
Fourth, the year after my graduation, I was incredibly fortunate to get a place on a traineeship scheme run by Dorset Wildlife Trust (and funded by Heritage Lottery). This opportunity to be trained up by DWT whilst on a bursary (with an additional training budget) allowed me to gain skills in community engagement and develop those I had in environmental education, whilst continuing to learn more about wildlife across a range of taxa – coastal birds, marine species, dragonflies, butterflies and more.
What advice would you give someone looking for their first job in conservation?
First, get the experience. Usually that is in the form of unpaid volunteering and internships. If you cannot find an advertised volunteering position, just ask! I volunteered for a bit in a laboratory at my university. It wasn’t advertised but I asked the researchers involved and I started helping out!
Second, make the most of the experiences you get: ask questions (whether it’s how someone got their job, or why something is done in a certain way, or more about the wildlife involved, ask away!), introduce yourself to other people and make yourself known, learn as much as you can.
Third, don’t be afraid to self-promote. Naturally do not overdo it and annoy others, but if you don’t do it all, people won’t be aware of you and won’t think of you when they come across an opportunity. If I spot a job opportunity, I like to think through my acquaintances and who would be suitable for the role, then pass it on to the relevant person.
Fourth, join a nature group – whether it is a local club or larger. There is something wonderful about discovering wildlife with others of a similar passion who get equally excited about spotting something. That’s not to say that the general public won’t, but I do find it hard to convince friends and families to be really thrilled by springtails, spiders or slugs. Two of my favourite groups are A Focus On Nature (AFON) and Next Generation Birders (NGB) – networks that have enabled me to find and be inspired by fellow young conservationists, as well as providing a space for my skillset to be used and developed. For example, I have written blog posts for them both, co-ordinated a series of blog posts for AFON and am currently in the process of organising a joint bioblitz between AFON and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust.
Lastly, don’t give up hope. It is a tough sector to get into, but not impossible!