This week I found a guest article on Mark Avery’s great blog giving ten tips for getting a job in conservation. I reasoned: I’ve studied Conservation, I’ve volunteered for environmental organisations, I now have a job vaguely in the sector, therefore I’m equally as qualified to offer advice. Either that or I’ve run out of ideas and have started plagiarising.
There’s a lot of ‘traditional’ advice you will probably have heard a hundred times if you’re an aspiring ecologist or environmental educator, but I’m going to assume you’re not a complete numpty and forgo advising you to check your spelling, tailor your CV, research your employer, practice your interview questions – if you’re reading my most excellent blog and have stuck with it this far, then you’re obviously an intelligent bird. Obviously. So here I’m offering some tips you perhaps won’t find elsewhere. You can take it or leave it. It’s a competitive market, perhaps I’m sabotaging you?:
1. Volunteer – Education is great, experience is better
No brainer, this one. Yes, many of us could have stupid letters after our name if we chose (vanity is not a common trait amongst conservationists – see point 7), but it’s the hands-on experience that really counts in the sector.
2. Put thought into the course you choose
That said, if you’re going down the further education route, have a serious think about the course content and how it will help you get a job. Think specific skills. An MSc in Conservation has earned me a broad tick mark in many application processes, but a chainsaw license has got me interviews. Lots of little, focused, courses are often a better investment than one large one.
Try everything once except incest and morris dancing – even things you think you won’t be good at or have no interest in. My first breaks came through volunteering on projects with young people who were not thriving in a classroom environment (one of my favourite euphemisms, that). This was something I didn’t really think I’d have an interest in or be good at, but my volunteer coordinator twisted my arm. Create yourself a solid and broad base of general skills, you never know when they might come up in an interview or an application. Sticking your hands up gets you noticed, too.
Contradictory so and so, aren’t I? I promise I’m not just confused (well, generally I am, but not about this). It’s always good to have a ‘thing’ (this coming from a man who chased Wallabies around the Isle of Man – I swear I’ve been invited into interviews just for that). Ecology, for example, is a huge school – perhaps start with one group to develop some serious skills in.
5. Input into your volunteering experience
I’ve written about the changes to volunteering offers before, and I think people are becoming more turned on to the idea that it’s a two-way process. Ask to see and input into volunteer policies, suggest setting up a volunteer council, ask for representation at meetings. All environmental charities worth their salt should realise the importance of their volunteers and the work they do and should make efforts to involve their input in the process.
6. Go to the Pub
Now there’s some advice I can get behind. I’d hate to perpetuate a myth that we’re all a well-oiled bunch, but a lot of networking does seem to happen in a venue with access to copious amounts of social lubricant. It’s also a place where you can keep educating yourself – conservation always has a new ‘issue’ to get your head around. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, (a life lesson in general, there) ask questions – something you might find easier after a pint of mood enhancer.
7. Don’t be too pushy
Ok, I’m going to get all psychoanalytical about the sector here. This is a counterpoint to the usual advice about networking – and believe me there are few sectors where making contacts is as important. But it’s also about making the right impression. You’re working in a pretty small pool – I bump into someone I’ve worked with before seemingly everyday. Use these contacts, but don’t abuse them. Conservation is not like, say, marketing – by all means be assertive, but as a group of people (sweeping generalisation) overt and continual self-promotion tends to rub us up the wrong way.
8. Have rich backers
Ok, so I may not be entirely serious there, but there is probably a reason the sector tends to draw from such a narrow demographic. You’ll be unemployed for periods, and you’ll want to go on courses to improve your employability – it’s not a sector to get into if you aren’t prepared to work elsewhere to fund your start (see point 10).
9. Interviewers are sometimes crap, accept it
Gods, I have given some awful interviews, but I’ve also been subject to some awful interviewers. I will try and limit my tales of interview woe, but here are a few examples:
- – An interview which for an hour concentrated on one sentence under the ‘desirable’ section of the person specification, and not the other page and a half of ‘essentials’
- – An interview for which the job title had changed that morning.
- – An interview in which the previous candidate walked out, and sat back at his desk in the office.
- – Feedback which suggested a lack of experience (default feedback position), though I later discovered they had employed a cheaper intern with limited experience.
The truth is – Interviews are an absolutely terrible concept for picking the ideal candidate. But we are rather lumbered with them.
10. Give up
Yes, really. Ok, maybe not really, really. But be open to the idea that you may need to think again about your dream job. The sector is really, really, really competitive and in the immediate future there isn’t the prospect for a great many more jobs coming on the market (though I’m more hopeful for the near future). You may have to consider developing alternative skills that will allow you to move sideways –this is why I believe environmental education and outreach is an important transferable skill to work on. Or, like I am now, work in a post that is perhaps half ecology, half something else. You may have to accept, for the sake of your sanity and your bank balance, that you take a non-related post and continue to volunteer on the side. Don’t see it as a failure; everyone in the sector has had to do this at one time or another.