Do you need a master’s degree to work in conservation?

Yes. No. Maybe. Well, it depends.

A survey done of 146 professional conservationists found that 61% had a master’s degree or higher. Conservation Career Blogger, Naima Montacer, gives us some insight in to figuring out if you need your master’s degree to work in conservation.

Conservation Careers Blogger Naima Montacer conducting her master's degree research on ringtails in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Conservation Careers Blogger Naima Montacer conducting her master’s degree research on ringtails in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

As a gal with a Master of Science in Biology who has worked in conservation for over ten years, this question is one I get asked often. And the honest truth is, it depends. It depends on what you want to do, how you want to do it, and where you want to go. Want to do entry-level fieldwork? You probably don’t need a master’s degree but you will need experience. Want to work in higher-level conservation education? You will probably need a master’s degree.

With so many varying levels of jobs in conservation it’s important to research your interests. Many jobs don’t require a master’s degree but there are several reasons why the advanced degree can benefit you beyond meeting a job qualification.

I decided to call in a few friends with master’s degrees working for a variety of conservation organizations to factor in their opinions as well. Here are the reasons we came up with as to why a master’s degree can help you in a conservation career no matter what the position.

  • The job market is competitive. Although many entry-level conservation jobs do not require a master’s degree, that line on your resume can give you a leg up.  More than likely the competitive pool of applicants will have some advanced degrees.
  • The reality of the requirements is different than what is on the job description. The job may require a bachelor’s degree on paper but the organization is actually looking for someone with a master’s degree. Be aware of the “Bachelor’s required and Master’s preferred”.
  • Establishing your network. The world can be scary and college is a great place to meet people who share common interests. I’m still in contact with my graduate school advisor and several friends (hence some that answered questions for this article).
  • Understanding the scientific journal world. In graduate school you will:
    • Discern between good and bad science.
    • Understand the scientific review process.
    • Recognize different journal content and styles.
    • Understand scientific jargon, statistics and results of a study.
    • Knowing how to conduct literary research with good sources.
    • Have a box full of research papers on your study animals that you carry around for years after. Why can I not let these go?
  • It’s the “learning degree”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that phrase in graduate school, but it’s true. When pursuing a master’s you have to design and execute science from start to finish. You test out your science skills conducting actual research and learn from your trials and tribulations. There is no way around this learning process and it’s invaluable in your professional career. You learn to solve problems and move forward.
  • Time Management. In graduate school expect to take a full load of classes, teach classes, conduct your own research, help with others research, be involved in school organizations, and spend your “extra” time writing your thesis. If you can be successful multi-tasking that load, you can handle anything.

It’s important if you make the decision to pursue an advanced degree that you make the most of all the time and money you will be investing. Taking advantage of everything graduate school has to offer will make you more competitive for the career you want in conservation.  Here are some tips to think about when pursuing your master’s degree:

  • Complete a thesis project. You can get by with going non-thesis but you are missing out on the hands on learning portion of your degree. Take a chance and do your own research!
  • Go all in. That means, work in the department you are studying in. Working as a lab technician, field assistant, or teaching assistant gives you great experience and keeps you submersed in your field. Your department will also understand your crazy time schedule.
  • Present at conferences. No matter what job you do you will at some point give a presentation. Practice now and get used to it, even thrive in it! In one interview, I was given 10 pictures and 30 minutes to create a 10-minute presentation. Prepare early!
  • Help your friends with their research. Get your hands dirty and volunteer to help with any research project you can. This will give you valuable experience that may be the reason someone hires you.
  • Network. Utilize the opportunity of being part of the University system to it’s fullest. Join organizations in your school and nationwide. The Wildlife Society has several college chapters, and if your school doesn’t have one, make one!
  • Attend conferences and build up the courage to talk with people. The easiest way is to make a poster. You will be forced to stand in front of your poster and talk to people about your work as they pass by. A contact you make informally may lead to your next opportunity.
  • Get good grades. Ok, that goes without saying, but I should probably say it. For some jobs you will have to submit your transcripts. You can’t hide your GPA, so make it good.
  • Choose a degree subject and a thesis project you are passionate about. Find the professors that are conducting the type of research you would like to do. This project is going to be long, exhausting, and will test your limits, so choose something you won’t give up on. Your passion will pull you through.
  • You get out of it what you put in. You are in charge of your education. Be passionate, ask questions, meet people, and get involved.

And now that I’ve scared you, let me tell you the good news. It’s worth every moment.

For me, pursuing my master’s degree was one of those life moments that fundamentally established who I am today. It was during graduate school I realized my niche. It was the people I met as much as the classes I took that led me on the path I’m on today.

E.J. Milner-Gulland is a course leader for the Masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London.  During her interview with Conservation Careers she emphasized the importance of the entire experience of an advanced degree. “The 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.”

You may not need a master’s degree for every position but it will benefit your work. You can gain similar experience volunteering and working temporary field positions around the world.  But you cannot match everything you gain from an advanced degree. If it’s money you are worried about, find a school actively pursuing large grants and find out about assistantships and scholarships.

If you have questions feel free to contact me on Twitter @naimajeannette. Good luck out there!

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