Ada-Grabowska-Zhang-University-of-Oxford-podcast

Podcast: Ada Grabowska-Zhang | University of Oxford

Are you interested in switching careers into conservation? Or perhaps you completed some studies and you wish you’d done something more conservation-y instead? So how do you transition across and how do you reskill?

Today we’re talking to Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang, from the University of Oxford. Ada is the Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques, a one-year flexible course which trains people in the practice of working as an ecologist or a conservationist.

We talk about the course, who it’s aimed at and how it works, and we also discuss Ada’s career path and she shares her advice for people seeking to work as an academic or as a lecturer. It is an insightful conversation about a fabulous course. Enjoy.

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Audio Transcript

Ada  

Hi, my name is Ada Grabowska-Zhang and I’m a Departmental Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the Department for Conservation Education at University of Oxford, and I am the course director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques, which is a course that we run here from the department.

Nick 

So this is the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques and you’re the Course Director for that. The first question, I guess that jumps out for me, and maybe others is what’s a Postgraduate Certificate? People have heard about degrees and masters programs and different things and how does the postgraduate certificate sit within that?

Ada  

A postgraduate certificate is taught at the same level as a Masters. So you would expect the same sort of difficulty, the same sort of level of reading that you’d be required to do. The difference is that postgraduate certificate is shorter. So unlike masters, where we usually spend a year or two first being taught and then doing a larger research project, it’s a much more condensed for a postgraduate certificate. And that’s really because we want to introduce people to the methodologies and to the skills that they might need for their career. But we want to be open to people who already work. We want to be open to people who have got other things going on in their life, and they just simply cannot commit to a full time masters.

Nick 

So people can do this alongside their daytime job or their life. It can be a flexible learning experience for people?

Ada  

Correct. And in fact, most of our students have other life commitments. So some of our students are working full time or part time, some of our students have got family commitments so they’ve got caring responsibilities. Even though they don’t work, they want to retrain themselves after a period of caring responsibilities, so for example, they’ve been raising a family and they want to go back to their career and they need either a reskill or a refresher in what they used to do.

Nick 

Who is the program aimed at then? Who are the typical people that come to you? You sort of described them, they’re sort of maybe they’re a mother or you know, on maternity leave or they’ve been doing another job, but who typically are the sort of people that come on the program?

Ada  

So we get a great diversity of students. It’s actually quite incredible but they usually have a few things in common. So usually, these are people who need something that is compatible with their other commitments. So it’s usually people who already have had some kind of experience in doing what they do, have had some kind of career already. Although we do get a few recent graduates every year and that’s usually when they either studied something that is not quite as aligned with what they want to be doing and what they want to be doing is usually something in the ecological sector. Either that or they don’t have the field skills, because not all universities allow you the freedom to do your research project as an undergraduate in the area that you choose and sometimes you are a little bit constrained. At the moment, we’ve got two students who were constrained in that way and as a result, they don’t have that sort of the entry level requirements for environmental sector jobs, which require a field experience even though they’ve got a science degree. They’ve done their research in, say, neuroscience or something else that was available, but they were a little bit constrained in what they could choose. On the other hand, we also have a lot of people who are career switchers. Some people who would have left, graduated a while ago, and either they’ve been working in the related field, or they’ve been working somewhere else all together and they need, again, they need to skill up in order to make that lateral move in their career.

Nick 

So before we dive into this just hearing a bit of about what people cover through the course that sounds really fascinating? What sort of roles do people leave and go into, you know, what sort of career paths follow out of the course? People come from a variety of backgrounds. Maybe they’re transitioning from a course that wasn’t quite right for them, you know, into something more ecologically focused, maybe we will field focus or someone switching careers entirely, as you just described. What sort of roles do you see people go off and lead after your course?

Ada  

So similarly, with a diversity of backgrounds, there comes a diversity of destinations as well. So people end up you know, progressing in the career that they’ve been doing. So inside their organisation, for example, one of our graduates recently has been sort of internally promoted to an executive position, which was really nice to hear. Then we have people who through training with us, they actually gain experience and occasionally they’ll gain new connections in the environmental sector, and they end up actually securing a position in those organizations. So local conservation charities, trusts and all sorts of things, people go on to do the jobs that they do already better. And so we have people who manage Natural Resources already and the reason why they do the course is, because they want to have some more evidence based management options at their disposal. And so they do our course and actually it enables them to actually ground in the place where they are, the nature that they manage, and then they use that to achieve better conservation outcomes.

Nick 

And you get people go into like ecological consultancy and that sort of stream or is that not really…?

Ada  

That’s quite a common destination for our graduates. There are people who also go on to do Masters and PhDs and go into academia, which is really nice to see as well. But ecological consultancy is a very common destination. Because when people can demonstrate that they actually have this ecological surveying experience, that’s straightaway a tick on their CV that consultancies are looking for.

Nick 

Yeah, absolutely. We talked to a lot of people who have great university degrees, but as you kind of touched on, you know, they have the knowledge but not necessarily the practical skills, or the field skills are often missing in their career, and that holds them back from gaining employment. So it sounds like what you’re doing is sort of covering up quite a few of those key skills that are going to make people better ecologists.

Ada  

Exactly and actually, quite ironically, we get people who are exactly as you described. They have the knowledge, but they don’t have the experience. We have students who have done their masters, maybe they have done their PhDs but their PhDs have been sort of enclosed in a very narrow area of reading fruit flies or doing something related like hydrological aspects of ecology, perhaps. And they’ve got very, very specific knowledge and very, very kind of in depth knowledge. But their degrees were too specific to give them the range of experience. That’s what we’re trying to give them through our course.

Nick 

Let’s paint a picture of what the course looks like? What do people cover during a typical year?

Ada  

People start by coming here to Oxford for a week. This is our favorite time of year. We call this face to face week and we’ve got a lovely cohort of people who are all very motivated and the first experience that we give them is to take them out to the field and demonstrate a lot of the techniques that they’re going to be learning about later on. So we involve them in, for example, small mammal trapping, or bat surveying. We show them techniques for monitoring bird populations, vegetation and reptiles and amphibians, and so on. What we also do is we introduce them to geographical information techniques. So GIS and they spend the week learning this open source software called QGIS. And we put a big emphasis on using open source software, so that the skills that you gain are always useful. They’re not restricted by the license that you or your employer might have to buy and we give them quite an intense week, and we give them an experience of doing other things in the field.

And after that, all our modules that we teach them are online, so that gives them quite a lot of flexibility in when they do the work, they could do it, they can complete the modules, you know, every day in the evenings or on weekends or even if they for example, are going into the field for a week, and they can’t participate in the course on that week, they can even take piece of that course offline and work with it.

And then when they come back online after they’ve returned from say, a field trip, they can get right back into it. So we have two compulsory core modules. The first one is techniques for surveying vegetation. And this gives our students a grounding in assessing habitats, because you know, as ecologically plants are, you know, at the base of every ecosystem, and so that gives them a very good grounding in what they need to do. And then the second compulsory module is data analysis. So that introduces our students to statistical analysis and quantitative analysis of their data. It also introduces them to the statistical software, which is another open source software so that they can, wherever they are in the world, they can download this for free and they can do their statistical analysis without depending on the license.

And then after that, the students can choose two optional modules. And these are surveying mammals and reptiles, surveying birds, surveying fish and amphibians and surveying and invertebrates. So depending on people’s interests, they can tailor that to their interests or career needs. In fact, if they want to take more than those two modules, they can, they can tag them on at the end as a separate course because all of our modules run as separate short online courses, which is great. Some of our students do a single course online, and then they realise well, I want more of that and then the sign up for the whole certificate and it’s great and flexible and if they’ve done it for credit, so they’ve done their assignment for it, then they actually incorporate it into their postgraduate certificate later on.

Nick 

Sounds fab. And do people then meet up again, or is it all remote after that first week? Is the contact through Skype and online platform, you know, what’s the sort of interaction having had a week in Oxford?

Ada  

People form a cohort online, of course. There’s also Skype interaction with the tutors. So for example, myself, but also specialist sort of project supervisors that will advise our students on their research project, which is the last module actually, that they do is that they go out, and they actually collect some data, they analyze the data and they write it up and that gives them that field experience and report writing experience that some of them might need.

Nick 

That sounds fab. It sounds like a great course for anyone who’s looking to kind of just further their skills in ecology, and it’s nice it’s not just limited to people that are you know in the UK or close to Oxford. You can jump into a week and then from wherever you are in the globe, I guess you can do it through online learning Skype, kind of take your career to the next level. That’s fantastic. Yeah.

Ada  

To top it all off after you finish, there’s an option of attending a fancy graduation ceremony in Oxford.

Nick 

Who doesn’t like that? Thanks for telling us about the course. That’s really interesting. I’d really like to hear about you as well Ada, and your role and your career to date. So you’re the course director of the PG Cert, in ecological survey techniques. Now what are the main activities of your current role? I mean, how would you describe it to someone who’s never met you before and doesn’t really understand what you do?

Ada  

Maybe I can take you through like a typical day or a typical week. What I do day to day is, I oversee the academic content of the course. So sometimes that means updating certain things because obviously the field is moving rapidly. So I keep track of what we’re teaching and that we’re teaching up to date skills, maybe something needs improving. So that keeps me on my toes. And also together with my colleague Thomas, who’s co-directing the course, together, we have a lot of contact with our students. We advise them on boring things like the procedures within the university, but also exciting things such as, you know, developing of their own independent projects. This is something that we’re doing at the moment; actually, it’s a very exciting time, because people are getting all sorts of ideas. So we talk to them on Skype about the research question, that they might want to test with a research project and what it would entail to get a successful project going, how to get enough data, and what kind of data they might want to collect in order to analyze it reliably. And that’s really excellent. And then we supervise those project ones that are within their kind of specialty to really do some really useful and exciting pieces of research.

Nick 

The job that you do, do you enjoy it? I mean what are the best bits? And what do you enjoy getting out of bed to go and do and what are the worst bits? What are the biggest challenges of the role that you’re currently in?

Ada  

Well, I feel really privileged to have the job that I have. And the best thing about it, I think, is the intellectual stimulation that I get from interacting with very interesting, bright people who have got great ideas. And I think my job is a little bit different to, for example, my previous job, or maybe a typical academic in that it is very, very applied. So it’s less of an ivory tower, which I enjoy immensely. My previous research was a little bit more about kind of very detailed questions that a normal person will say, well, what’s this have to do with everyday life or how does that impact anything? And that question, if you are to ask me this question, a few years ago, it would be hard to answer whereas now, I can tell you that, you know what I do has got impact on management of nature reserves and gain reserves and shows the effect of urbanization on biodiversity. And it’s great. It’s probably the best part of my job. 

Nick 

What are the bits of the job that you find less interesting or more challenging? Are there any aspects that you’d like to share with people who might be interested in the career that you have and you know, maybe following your footsteps?

Ada  

Everyone’s got bits of their job that maybe they don’t enjoy as much. For me, it’s maybe the things that I don’t feel as competent at, and being part of a big organization like the University of Oxford, and there’s always something that I don’t know about the organization. So when we have to, as a course director, for example, change something to our course there are rules and regulations that involve reading hundreds and hundreds of pages, to see whether we can change the name of our module or whether we can change a specific paragraph in the course, or handbook, because it’s always kind of navigating. If I was a lawyer probably really, really enjoy kind of scrutinizing or if I was a policy expert, maybe I would enjoy scrutinizing these documents much more, but my heart is out in the field with the birds and the bees. So I find that quite challenging.

Nick 

Yeah. And I think that’s quite typical in academia. We’ve heard that many times. Actually the bureaucracy and the red tape can be frustrating, I guess.

Ada  

It can be. I know why it’s there and it’s useful, if cumbersome to get through.

Nick 

Yeah, that makes sense, yeah. What have you done prior to your role? You’ve alluded to that, you know, a few times now, you know, looking back at your career, like what have been the key steps you’ve taken so far, what have been your career highlights, you know, what’s your play reel?

Ada  

Students-celebrating-graduation-in-the-search-for-the-Top-Conservation-Training-Opportunities

So maybe I’ll just start from the beginning, apparently, there’s a very good place to start. Don’t worry, I won’t sing. So I started with a degree in Biology and followed on to a PhD, which are not sort of we call it D fail, because we’re special. There is a historical reason why it’s a D fail and not a PhD. It’s still a doctorate as I’m told. I specialized in bird biology. So what I did for my doctorate was on the interface between ecology and animal behavior. So we call this field behavioral ecology. And it’s a really incredibly interesting field. I did my research on the ecology of the great tit in Witham Woods.

Nick 

I’m looking at one right now, actually, on my bird feeder here.

Ada  

Oh perfect. It’s still one of my favorite birds. They’re very, very lovely bird. And it was incredibly interesting and in fact, it gave me grounding in a lot of useful techniques that I now for example, use with my students today. So it wasn’t that long ago. So I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the kind of more modern techniques of population monitoring and bird surveying, such as RFIDs and remote sensing.

Nick 

What are RFIDs?

Ada  

Radio frequency identification, so on a big animal that would be a radio collar. On a smaller animal that might be a smaller collar. On a very, very tiny bird that is a passive integrated transponder tag or a pitch tag, which is a small kind of grain of rice that resembles it’s actually the same type that you would put in your pet to trip your pet. So I use these to monitor the population and the behavior of the birds. I’m also an experienced bird ringer, which is something that I picked up during my PhD and that’s something that we demonstrate. We are not able to actually teach people to ring birds because that’s under the authority of a different organisation, but we signpost where they could learn it. So it gave me a good grounding in monitoring techniques, but it was not as applied as I would have liked perhaps. I subsequently did some research in conservation but again, it was actually not field based at all and it was to do with integrating conservation, specifically bird conservation in endangered cultures, because endangered cultures around the world are often the ones that are closest to our biodiversity. So I worked with an interdisciplinary team. We had, you know, anthropologists on board and linguists, and we had conservation NGOs, working together to try and bring that kind of integrated view of conservation, which is incredibly interesting.

Nick 

Where are you working for that? Which endangered cultures were you kind of focusing on with regards to it?

Ada  

We were trying to create actually a global archive of culturally significant knowledge of birds and through that we were trying to engage with both the people who are engaged in bird conservation but also the people who are closest to those birds, and to make them talk to each other. So we’ve had some successes in getting people to talk about the challenges of conservation when you’re doing conservation with people. There are species of birds, for example that you’re trying to conserve, but they have a very bad reputation in the local culture, and that’s going to make it very challenging for you. So knowing that and knowing how to work with these kinds of caveats really was incredibly interesting.

Nick 

Fascinating! Yeah. And did you then go from that study in that research as part of that group into your current role, or was there another stepping stone too?

Ada  

Yeah, so research wise, this is how I transitioned into ecological surveying techniques. It gave me an opportunity to actually do more research and so something that I was looking for. It gave me an opportunity to do something that is going to be directly applicable. So write a paper which has got management recommendations. So, much more direct influence on the world around us.

Nick 

Yeah. So less about the theory that you’re studying through the PhD, more about the application and the hands on conservation efforts if you like.

Ada  

Yes, I think you put that really eloquently there. I think I really wanted to have more impact. I wanted to be in the Applied Science and it took me quite a while to figure that out. And now I have and it’s incredible.

Nick 

Well, it’s good to hear that you found your career happiness and found your career in fact where you are. That’s what we want for everyone.

Ada  

I have indeed found my happiness. If you think that that might be for you let me know and we’ll work together.

Nick 

That’s good which leads me on perfectly I see to more career advice really. You know, there are people listening to this podcast, a large reason why many people listen to this podcast is they’re looking for well (a) to hear what the sector is like and what different jobs are out there, what’s it like to do those jobs. But then, you know, more importantly, how do you secure them? You know, what are the career paths? What’s the careers advice, that’s going to help people to get hired more quickly and find their career happiness and an impact like you have? So, you know, if people are listening, they’d like to explore working in academia, possibly want to become a researcher or lecturer or course director even. What are the kinds of secrets to a successful academic career or more importantly, what advice would you offer to them?

Ada  

So my advice is going to be frustratingly generic, because obviously, everyone’s different. But I think what I learned very quickly is that you always have to keep learning, because you might be an expert in your field but as soon as you venture out, you’re going to have to learn something new. And not in the sense that oh, well I have to because I’m not good enough. No, it just gives you more tools that will be useful for you when you either figure out where you want to be or in order to figure out where you want to be. So I think my first advice is sort of never stop learning. Or you know, it doesn’t have to be structured learning, but it could be, you know, shadowing someone, or taking a secondment, whether it’s taking a secondment to try and figure out what a job is really like. And that’s it, there can be amazing learning curves. I think that would be my first advice. But if someone wants to become an academic, and perhaps maybe they don’t have the academic credentials yet, I would advise them to have a look on how to requalify. So this is something that our course does really, really well. And in that maybe you did your undergraduate degree in something that you don’t want to be in anymore or ever, and you just need to reskill and that gives you a step up and if you want to be a researcher then ultimately, you need to follow on to a PhD pathway. But some people don’t have the entry level requirements for that yet because they haven’t got a science degree. They’ve done their degree in business or humanities or politics, and what we do is we give them that science training. And just in the last couple of years, a handful of our graduates have gone on to Masters and PhD programs.

Nick 

Interesting, fascinating. Yeah, if people are listening, you know, they’re coming out of a Masters thinking about maybe doing a PhD actually, you know, become you know, a doctor of conservation, if you like, and that maybe they’ve got a research idea, and they’re looking to kind of find that supervisor, find a professor, maybe get some funding. Do you have any suggestions as to how to go about that process, you know, going from an idea to actually, you know, starting a PhD and delivering it? Do you even receive, you know, suggestions from people at the bloom on what works and what doesn’t work?

Ada  

Yeah. So I think that is actually what you just mentioned, suggestions from people, emails, as academics, we do get people who are trying to get out there and actually ask about, well, I am really interested in this, would you supervise me? Or would you recommend something? Or is this something that your department does? Or do you know, if a colleague of yours might be interested? And actually, a lot of the time, this leads somewhere.

Nick 

Right.

Ada  

It might not necessarily immediately lead to a research project, but it will lead to you getting more advice on your project. And someone will tell you, well, actually, you need to go and see this person because they work in it already. The last thing you want to do is to develop an idea and then find out that someone’s already done it. You need to be talking to the right people who know what’s been done and what is novel.

Nick 

And also, I guess, enables you to kind of form that early network of people who are working in that area, get yourself known, and start to kind of just to shape and mould that idea, refine it, you know, through the experts and through support.

Ada  

Absolutely. And I know that it can be hard to send that first email to someone you don’t know who’s got a professor in front of their name and it can be very intimidating. But more often than not, you will get something out of it, you will get a reply, and you will get some advice. And even if it doesn’t lead you where you think it will or where you thought it would, it’s definitely worth doing.

Nick 

Okay, well, it’s been really nice talking at the end, I wouldn’t mind if I could just sort of open the conversation up to ask you some sort of open questions about you know, where you see the ecology and conservation movement going actually, or what’s important to you. So, let me ask you a couple of questions and then we’ll sort of wrap things up then. So, one thing I ask people I think it’s really telling is, you know, if you could change one thing that could make a huge impact on the planet. If I made you Czar Ada for the day and you could implement a new law and it could be a global law. It could be a global switch, a change, it could be whatever you wanted, but something that you think would have a real impact on the planet. If only we could do this. Do you have any ideas as to what it is you might implement Czar Ada?

Ada  

I’m not really a top down person, but I would have to be a genie and influence people through magical ways it would be for people to employ more nature based solutions to our problems and look at the natural processes that operate in nature, and look for solutions there. So recently I’ve been very interested in ideas of process based conservation. So some people might know it as rewilding and some people know it as nature based solutions so for example, mangrove conservation and other things. So I think if I had a magic wand, and could influence what people do and how they implement their policies it would be to change their approaches to more nature based, process based solutions.

Nick 

So nature providing solutions to some of the problems that we’re creating as humanity. That sounds like a really nice way forward. I will certainly give you a magic wand if I could. I think the other question as well is the conservation movement is inherently an optimistic movement. You know, we’re here because we can see problems, but we also, we think we understand some of the solutions and we want to make the world better, you know, to improve our outlook to improve whatever it might be climate change, you know, wildlife, biodiversity loss as it is often called but when we look at the movement as a whole, we’re just not quite having the impact that we would like you know, on land, half of nature’s forests have gone into the sea, 76 percent of fisheries are exploited or overfished in the end, 4 percent of migratory birds, it can be quite close to your heart are declining. What do we as conservationists need to do more of this sort of things? You think actually the movement needs to be focusing on this or doing less of that? Are there any things where you think actually we can have more impact if we made these changes?

Ada  

This is going to sound very civic minded but I think it’s important that not just as conservationists, but as citizens, we need to make sure that the people who represent us know what’s on our minds and hearts. And I think that sort of almost grassroots lobbying is very important. But as conservationists, I think we need to always really make sure as people working in the science of conservation, we always need to make sure that the evidence based for our efforts is there. Because if we missed that, then we might be doing more harm than good.

Nick 

Absolutely. And we spoke to Professor Bill Sutherland a few podcasts ago now where he said that the words are still resonating with me which is you know, we need to do more of what’s been proven to work and less of what’s not been proven to work which I think is a simple thing that you’re saying.

Ada  

Absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree.

Nick 

Follow the evidence. Ada it’s been really nice talking to you, hearing about your career story, hearing about the course that you’re leading as well, it sounds really interesting and the careers advice that you shared too. If you want to find a bit more about you, or perhaps the course where should we point them? Where should they go?

Ada  

So the easiest way to find out more is to find the listing for our course on Conservation Careers, which is where the details and all the links to postgraduate certificate in ecological survey techniques and can be found, or just Google it with search engine optimised.

Nick 

That’s great and we will drop a link also in the footnotes of this podcast. Great. Thanks so much for your time. Thanks for sharing your story Ada it’s really nice to talk.

Ada  

Okay, thanks very much.

Nick 

Okay, well, I hope you enjoyed that everyone. If you did, then please do hit that subscribe button to get notified when new episodes are live. And also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews, we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free eBook, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConservCareers. We’d love to hear from you. Okay, till next time, guys, this is Nick signing out.

Conservation Jobs & Careers Advice, Podcast

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