In the conservation sector, the question “Do I need a master’s degree to work in conservation?” is asked almost as often as ‘How do I get a conservation job?’, and for good reason.
While undergraduate degrees used to set graduates far apart from the crowd, master’s degrees are becoming increasingly common. A Conservation Careers survey showed that 94% of conservation professionals have a relevant honours degree or higher, and 56% have a relevant master’s degree or higher.
Today, there are far more master’s options on offer worldwide than ever before. It’s possible to find master’s degrees that prepare students for careers in everything from conservation research to leadership, veterinary science to ecotourism, and GIS to protected areas.
Whether you’re asking yourself ‘Do I need a master’s degree in conservation?’ in your early career, mid-career, or when looking to switch careers into conservation, the answer ultimately depends on what you want to do.
In other words, the real question is: ‘What is the value of a master’s degree in conservation to me and my career?’
We know it’s a tough question and that’s why we’ve created this ultimate guide with simple questions, answers and advice to help guide you through your decision.
If you’re short on time you can also check out a recording of our live event, Postgraduate Training for Conservation Careers, where we speak to leading course directors from Cambridge and Oxford Universities to answer some of the top questions about postgraduate education.
Table of Contents
What is a master’s degree?
From the Latin word magister, meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher’, a master’s degree is an academic degree awarded by universities or colleges that demonstrates mastery of a specific field or practice.
As the first level of graduate study, master’s typically require related study at the Bachelor’s/Degree level and tend to be much more specialised than undergraduate degrees.
Compared to graduates of undergraduate degrees, master’s graduates are expected to have more advanced knowledge of conservation theory and/or application, together with strong skills in independent thinking, critical analysis and problem-solving.
What are the different types of master’s degrees in conservation?
Have you heard of a MSc and MA? Of a MRes and MPhil? How about a MC?
Just kidding, we made that last one up!
Our point is, master’s degrees come in a few different shapes and sizes. There are two main types of master’s – research and taught – as well as a few options that combine the best of both worlds.
Master’s by Research (MRes, MPhil, MSc)
Research master’s always involve independent, supervised research, usually resulting in a thesis presentation. They include:
- MPhil. A Master of Philosophy (M.Phil or MPhil) is a research degree that usually focuses solely on independent research. It is more common in the UK and uncommon in North America. It puts the most focus on research vs. taught learning.
- MRes. A Master of Research (MRes) may contain some taught courses/modules, but focuses primarily on developing research skills through an independent project. It is common in the UK and puts greater focus on independent research vs. taught courses/modules than a MSc.
- MSc. A Master of Science (MSc) includes an independent research project, but taught courses/modules are still an important part of the degree. The MSc is common in USA and Canada, where it is the predominant type of research master’s, but also found in the UK, where it tends to involve more teaching than the other research master’s.
All research master’s can be great ways to gain research skills in just 1-2 years (versus 3-4 for a PhD), preparing you for careers outside academia that require high-level research skills but not a PhD. They can also act as stepping stones towards doctoral research – either in terms of narrowing down your study focus and/or gaining additional qualifications/experience.
Rather than giving a broad overview, research master’s usually focus in-depth on specific areas through research projects and tend to involve more independent project work compared to taught programmes.
Taught master’s (MA, MSc)
Taught master’s are based on taught learning via courses/modules and include both MA and MSc. Taught components might include lectures, seminars, tutorials, short projects, presentations and exams.
- MA. A Master of Arts (MA) is usually related to an arts field, rather than a science field. It can be taught-only or involve research.
There are a few other key options to consider that master’s degrees offer:
- Delivery mode: Learning can take place on-campus, online or a combination of both. Some programmes also have placements abroad.
- Attendance: Options include full-time, part-time and flexible attendance.
- Duration. Most master’s are 1-2 years full time or 2-4 years part-time. In North America, master’s are typically 2 years (often with taught learning during the first year and research during the second). In other countries – particularly the UK – master’s can be completed in 1-year full time.
Do you need a master’s degree to work in conservation?
The quick answer is… it depends!
Not everyone needs a master’s, but there are some great benefits to doing one.
We’ve described how searching for an internship without preparing first is a bit like playing Where’s Wally / Waldo without knowing what Wally looks like. And the same thing applies when considering and searching for master’s degrees.
To help save you an immense amount of time, sanity (and potentially money), you need to figure out what your own personal Wally or Waldo – your target job and/or target master’s – looks like before asking yourself if a master’s is right for you.
Is your aim to study the impacts on forest regeneration on invertebrates in the Amazon?
Or do you want to advise conservation organisations on how to apply drones and other new technology to conservation projects?
Or maybe your dream job is to be a BBC broadcaster, inspiring others to learn about and help protect wildlife?
Your best starting point is to be clear about the job you’re aiming for (check out our 15 key conservation job types and How to get a conservation job? Version 2:0) and then identify the entry-level requirements for your chosen job by reading job descriptions and/or setting up informational interviews. You might discover that you don’t need a master’s degree at all!
If you’re uncertain about your direction or have trouble visualising what your target job looks like, we recommend taking the time to do some self-reflection (have you heard of our Kickstarter for Early Career Conservationists course?)
Investing a bit of time up-front can help you answer the question ‘Is a master’s or work experience better for my career?’ It can also save you tens or hundreds of hours (perhaps even years!!) spent searching and applying for master’s. Instead you can focus in your search on what’s right for you.
That said, getting a master’s in a specific area can still be a good way to explore a potential career path, while getting employable skills. They also provide other great benefits…
What are the benefits of doing a master’s degree?
Compared to bachelor’s / degree programmes which tend to be broader, masters are usually much more focussed. They also tend to be more interdisciplinary than undergraduate degrees, which is particularly valuable in the conservation industry.
“The other thing that we find, particularly with undergraduates coming from British universities, is that until they reach [the master’s] level, they will often have been siloed into social sciences or into natural sciences and these masters’ offer an opportunity to … really work in this interdisciplinary world pulling theory expertise from across the different disciplines and apply it to their chosen field of study” – Dr Chloë Montes Strevens, Course Director of the Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, University of Oxford.
There are many additional benefits to doing a master’s degree, which include:
- A deeper understanding of conservation
- Research skills like project design, field surveying skills and analysis
- Critical thinking skills and the ability to develop conservation solutions
- Specific skills such as GIS
- Enhanced credentials
- Better job prospects
- A more competitive application
- Networking with professors, peers and industry professionals
- Direct links to potential employers through work placements, etc.
- Competencies such as leadership and communication
What are the cons of doing a master’s degree?
- Time. Master’s degrees require a minimum commitment of 1-2 years full time.
- Cost. Fees for master’s can range from no cost to about £30,000 or US $40,000 per year, depending on the country you’re from and where you’re studying. There’s also the opportunity cost of deferring potential earnings while pursuing higher education.
- Deferring career establishment. While master’s are generally designed to better position you in the workforce, the time it takes to achieve one is also time that could be spend establishing yourself in your career.
For example, consider just a few of the impressive things you might be able to accomplish during the time it takes to complete a master’s degree:
- Start a successful NGO or business
- Build a community who help advance an important conservation cause
- Create a blog with an impressive audience
- Become a conservation influencer on social media
- Take a gap year (or two) and make a difference with your top conservation organisations
- Make a conservation short film or documentary
- Take unlimited free courses on a platform like Coursera, EdX and many more
- “Intern with someone who is the best in the world at what they do” – James Altucher, 50 Alternatives to College.
- Hike, bike or sail the world to raise money for conservation and then write a book about it.
What types of people should consider doing a master’s for a career in conservation?
A master’s might be right for you if you fall into one of these categories:
- The field you’re pursuing requires a master’s degree. For example, you’re pursuing an academic career, or you know that you need a master’s or PhD for your target job.
- You’d like to specialise in conservation science, and/or become a subject matter expert in a specific area.
- You’re aiming to enhance your understanding and/or skills in conservation.
- You’re seeking to better define your direction in conservation. While most master’s focus on a specific area, some are specifically designed to help you better define your direction in the sector. They can also help you pinpoint your research interests before a PhD.
- You want to enhance your credentials, and/or boost your job prospects. Having a master’s carries more weight that a bachelor’s/degree, and when competition for jobs is tough, a master’s can easily make the difference between getting an interview – or not.
- You want to switch fields into conservation…
Can a master’s help you switch careers into conservation?
According to the panelists from our webinar Postgraduate Training for Conservation Careers, it’s quite common for master’s and other postgraduate training to receive applications from people looking to switch careers into conservation.
Because the requirements for each role varies, having a clear target job will help to understand if you need a master’s degree in conservation – or not. A great approach is to study job descriptions to see if you have what’s needed in terms of education, skills and experiences – and/or set up informational interviews with people in the jobs you want to find out what they require.
If you’ve determined that you need a master’s, providing evidence of your passion and new career focus in conservation will be key.
“We’re looking for people who are very convinced and very certain of what they’re looking for” – Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang, Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Ecological Survey Techniques, University of Oxford.
“[Career switchers] have to have several years of professional experience that can be described as relevant to conservation. For some that’s in the corporate world or something not in a kind of classically a conservation job. But they have to demonstrate a real passion for the field and convince us that they’re going to take this as their career from here on.” – Dr Chris Sandbrook, Course Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership, University of Cambridge.
As a career switcher, even if your target role doesn’t explicitly require a master’s degree, a master’s does make you more employable in the sector and also helps to build your knowledge of the industry.
Questions to ask yourself when considering a master’s
Are you still on the fence about whether a master’s is right for you? Try asking yourself these questions when you’re relaxed and have some time to think clearly.
- Why are you considering a master’s?
- Are you motivated internally? Or are you motivated by other people? If so, why?
- What are your goals? How will a master’s impact your career, future, and conservation more broadly?
- Could you achieve your career goals without a master’s?
- Is doing a master’s financially feasible?
- Will doing a master’s make you happy?
What are the typical career paths following a master’s in conservation?
A master’s degree can help prepare you for a career in many fields within conservation, including:
- Work for NGOs, non-profits and charity organisations such as WWF, CI, TNC, as well as smaller organisations.
- Government and intergovernmental Many students who study a master’s abroad return to their own countries to enter the public service.
- Work in consulting and advising, such as for an environmental consulting firm.
- Further study in pursuit of academic and research professions.
- Business and entrepreneurship.
Many conservationists who enter a master’s from a less senior role can re-enter their field in a more senior position.
What can I find conservation master’s degrees?
At Conservation Careers, we’ve built a Conservation Training board specifically dedicated to sharing conservation training opportunities, with hundreds of master’s degrees (and growing!) around the world.
You can search by keyword, delivery method (on-campus, online or mixed), attendance (full-time, part-time, flexible), region and more.
You can also check out how different master’s degrees have been rated by current and past students and read their reviews.
How can I fund a master’s degree?
We know that pursuing master’s education can be extremely expensive. If money is standing between you and doing a master’s, check out these ideas for funding:
- Search for scholarships. There are thousands of scholarships available worldwide for prospective master’s students. They include merit-based scholarships, awarded based on past grades and/or other accomplishments. Many master’s programmes also offer full or partial scholarships to students from specific countries or regions – particularly the global south – to ensure that higher education is available to everyone.
- Work while studying. Studying part-time while working can be a great way to earn while you learn (not to mention continuing to establish your career as you study).
- Ask your employer. Many companies offer tuition assistance to employees who pursue a master’s degree relevant to their field of work. You may want to find out if your current or potential employer offers a scheme, and be prepared to justify your chosen programme.
- Consider lower-cost or tuition-free master’s. The cost of doing a master’s can vary WIDELY depending on the specific programme, it’s location and your citizenship or residency status. In some countries – like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland and others – you can pursue a master’s tuition-free. You may even be able to study free as an international student. It’s worth keeping in mind that many of these countries also have higher costs of living.
Study online. Online master’s can offer the dual advantage of being lower cost while avoiding the costs of relocating or travelling in order to study. Studying online while living in a low-cost location could help you save a significant amount of money.
- Ask current and past students. Students who have successfully fundraised may be able to recommend additional funding options beyond those listed on the master’s website. Ask the institution you’re applying to put you in touch.
- Ask! Don’t be afraid to ask around in your network and let them know about your plans and goals. You might be surprised at the information, resources – and possibly even financial support – you receive. Many people have been in a similar situation at one point or another in their lives, and are more than happy to help others if they have the means.
While there are lots of opportunities out there to find funding, the search for funding can be a small job in itself. If you’re aiming to do a master’s in the next year or two, make sure you allow yourself enough lead time to secure funding and apply.
How to choose a Master’s for a career in conservation?
If you know what your Wally/Waldo (i.e. your ideal job) looks like, and you’ve decided to do a master’s, your next step is to choose the right programme for you.
To help you, we’ve created a Conservation Training board where you can search hundreds of conservation master’s worldwide.
Once you find a promising master’s, there are four important questions to ask to help determine if it’s the right opportunity for you.
- Reputation. What does some online research say about the institution offering the master’s? What independent satisfaction rating to they have? What national and/or international reputation do they have? What do past students have to say? Check our training board for reviews, and don’t hesitate to reach out to the institution itself for contacts of past students.
- Suitability. What is it that you don’t have that you want to get in order to land your target job? Where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years and what programme is going to help you get there? This is essentially evaluating against your personal criteria and asking yourself, is this MY Wally or Waldo? Tip: Forget about all the other possible Wallys out there that belong to other conservationists with different goals (even if they seem very attractive) – you only care about finding yours!
- Value. What are the time and money commitments involved? Does it offer good value?
- Excitement level. Does reading about the master’s make you want to start tomorrow?
Keep in mind that a master’s may not fulfil everything on your ideal wishlist, but you need to make sure that it will satisfy your top priorities.
What other types of postgraduate training exist?
If you’ve done the work of identifying your target job, you might find that you don’t need a master’s degree in conservation, but you do need further training. Or maybe you’d like to explore an area without committing the time or money to study full time for 1-2 years.
The good news is that there are plenty of other options for postgraduate study out there, including postgraduate certificates (sometimes referred to as PGCerts), postgraduate diplomas and continuing education courses.
- Continuing education. This is education for adults who have left the formal education system, and can include short courses or modules. In some cases, individual courses/modules can be used to work towards a postgraduate certificate or diploma, or even a master’s.
- Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert). This postgraduate qualification is usually awarded after an undergraduate degree, at the level of a master’s degree, and requires a shorter period of study than a master’s degree or postgraduate diploma.
- Postgraduate Diploma (PgD, PgDip, etc.). This postgraduate qualification is usually awarded after an undergraduate degree and is worth more credits and takes a little longer than a PGCert.
Should you do a master’s or a PhD?
Given that it’s often possible to enter a PhD without a master’s degree in conservation, you might be wondering, which is best?
Because PhD’s require such a high investment of time, Dr Chris Sandbrook suggests that you should only pursue one if you’re really passionate about the topic and are certain that you will need research skills for your later career.
“…often, people feel that they need those two letters before their name to be Dr Somebody, to be taken seriously and given a really senior job, and actually the skills that you get from doing a PhD may not be the ones that you need to do that well … Doing a PhD is absolutely necessary if you want a career where those research skills will be required but, if it isn’t, maybe there’s a way around that that … and then you can convince employers that, look, I’ve got those skills that you think I might have got from a PhD but I’ve done it much more efficiently … and I’m ready to be employed at that level”. – Dr Chris Sandbrook, Course Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership, University of Cambridge.
How can you stand out in a crowd of master’s graduates?
With more and more conservationists getting master’s degrees, and more than half of conservationists educated to the master’s level or higher, you might be wondering how you can stand out?
We encourage you to always keep your target job in mind and build as many of the required education, skills, experience and competences as possible, looking for ways to fill any gaps before, during or after your master’s.
For example, you might pair your master’s with a relevant internship or volunteer experience to build key skills like fieldwork or creative communications. Or you might take on a leadership role at your university if you know leadership will be important in your chosen field.
You’ll also want to make the most of your master’s degree using these tips:
- Prepare. The more preparation you do in advance – asking questions, reading about the programme’s courses/modules and projects in detail, checking out reference materials, getting advice from past participants, making a list of professors and/or industry professionals you’d like to meet, etc. – the more background you’ll have to build on when you arrive on-site.
- Go in with clear goals and flexible expectations. Knowing what you want to learn and achieve during your master’s is one of the best ways to ensure that you stay focussed, prioritise your time and make the most of your education. But if you start with very specific, rigid expectations about how the experience will be, you run the risk that some or all of your expectations won’t be met, and you might not be in the right frame of mind to take advantage of the new opportunities available to you.
Make contacts! Universities and colleges are often the perfect place to meet new, like-minded people, sometimes from very different backgrounds, not to mention academics and industry professionals. You might be surprised to find that these contacts are the most valuable currency you have when establishing and building your career. For example, you could find a partner for a future project or connect with a potential employer. Tip: if you feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘networking’, remember that starting a conversation is as simple as being curious about what another person does and asking them about it
- Communicate. If something isn’t working well or if you feel you’re not getting the most out of the master’s, let your Professor or Leader/Director know. Speaking up (especially early on) can help ensure you can get the most out of your education and even help improve the experience for others.
- Own the experience. While the institution you choose has a responsibility to help you receive the best education possible, an even larger part of that responsibility rests with you. Ultimately you have the opportunity to decide whether your master’s will help you grow and develop as a conservationist and as a person – or not.
- Share your experiences.Word of mouth – online or offline – is one of the most powerful ways to help others find great experiences. Take a few minutes to share your experience with other conservationists and provide constructive feedback to the organisation you volunteered or interned with. A great place to do this is via our Conservation Training Board, an online board for quality conservation opportunities, where you can let the global community know what you thought of your experiences.
Lastly, don’t discount other, even unusual, skills. Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang, Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Ecological Survey Techniques, University of Oxford says, “…success looks different in different fields and for different people, and ultimately the extra skills that you might gain actually make you more competitive … If everyone else followed through the pipeline, and you bring experience from [for example] governance or even management, those are very valuable skills”.
How to apply for a master’s in conservation?
Applying to a master’s degree in conservation can be much like applying to a conservation job. Most applications require a CV and cover letter (or personal statement), together with evidence of your previous academic qualifications (e.g. a bachelor’s/degree).
Because you’re being judged as much or more on your potential as on your skills and experience, you’ll want to carefully articulate your conservation career goals and how your chosen master’s fits with them in your application. Course/programme leaders tend to value motivation very highly – often more highly than the prior education or skills you come with, and this is particularly true of career-switchers.
“I tend to think about it as a matchmaking process … we want to give people the skills that they actually need. So they need to tell us what skills they have, and what skills they need to achieve what they want to achieve, and then we make that decision”. – Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang, Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Ecological Survey Techniques, University of Oxford.
If you’ve done your homework and really identified the ideal opportunity or opportunities for you, it should be much easier to articulate your ‘fit’ in an application.
If you want to really stand out and give your application to have the best possible chance of success, check out our free guide ‘How to Apply for a Conservation Job: A complete guide to producing successful CVs, Resumes and Cover Letters by Conservation Careers.
More master’s resources
If you’d like to delve in deeper to explore whether a master’s degree in conservation is for you, you can listen to a live recording of our webinar Postgraduate Training for Conservation Careers, and check out these great articles:
- Do you need a master’s degree to work in conservation?
- Podcast: Dr James Borrell | Conservation Scientist, Explorer & Blogger
- Podcast: Professor Bill Sutherland | Cambridge University
- How to become a research ecologist?
- 50: 50 – Working While you Study
You can also check out these specific master’s and postgraduate training options in-depth.
- Dr Chris Sandbrook – Training our next Conservation Leaders
- Masters in Global Ecology and Conservation at Cardiff University
- Podcast: Brendan Godley | University of Exeter
- Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang | Ecological Survey Techniques Course at the University of Oxford
- Mastering Conservation with Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland
- From rainforests to reefs: the Australian-based conservation master’s with four biomes at its doorstep
What are the top conservation master’s?
At Conservation Careers, we’re searching for the Top Conservation Training Opportunities, based on reviews from current and past students. Be sure to check out our Conservation Training Board and stay tuned for lists of top master’s!
Useful links and free stuff
To help you navigate your options, please select which best describes you:
- You want to work in conservation but you’re feeling lost, disillusioned or confused?!? Check out our Kick-starter training designed to help you understand the job market, to navigate your career options, and to get hired more quickly. It’s designed for students, graduates, job-seekers and career-switchers. We’re proud to say it also has 100% satisfaction and recommendation ratings. We know you’ll love it. Find out more about our Kick-Starter – Online Course and Kick-Starter – UK Workshop.
- You feel ready to be applying for jobs in conservation? The Conservation Careers Academy contains the best career-boosting resources, training and support from the leading experts in the conservation industry. As a member you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re getting your career on the right track quickly, and that you’re not alone. Included in the Conservation Careers Academy are 11 ways to make saving the planet your day job. Check out our Conservation Careers Academy here.
- You’re submitting applications, but failing to get many interviews? Check out our FREE eBook – How to Apply for a Conservation Job? This is a complete guide to producing successful CVs, Resumes and Application Forms by Conservation Careers. Download your copy for free here. We can also review your applications, and provide 1:1 advice on how to improve them (and we don’t cost the earth). Check out our application support here.
- You’ve got an interview (well done!) and would like our help to prepare for it? We know what employers want, and have helped many people prepare for and deliver successful interviews. Check out our practice interviews here.