Is an academic career in conservation research and teaching worth pursuing ?

Here are the pros and cons

It’s no secret that trying to cultivate an academic career is a long and arduous journey. If you have a bachelor’s degree, it is only the beginning. You will need to study further for a Master’s and Ph.D. Competition for these post-graduate places is intense, so you will also need to have plenty of field experience gained from several self-financed stints of volunteering or internships. By the time you have completed this part, probably in your mid to late twenties, you will have to work your way towards a so-called ‘tenure-track job’.  This is the term for an academic permanent contract, such as a professor or lecturer, after a probationary period which can be as long as 9 years depending on the college or university.

acacdemic career in conservation research

It get’s worse

If you have not dropped out yet, then there are other negatives to consider. The pool of tenure-track jobs is generally shrinking, due to more hiring on temporary and fixed term contracts. So candidates have to be prepared to relocate to anywhere, which can be hard on relationships and families.

Needless to say, there are many gloomy personal stories about what it takes to achieve an academic career. A recent article by Mongabay has suggested that conservation is now a ‘rich person’s profession’, since the cost of all this study and serial unpaid internships is beyond the reach of anyone except those from a privileged background.

So, is it worth it?

Well, you need to consider the benefits to decide whether it is worthwhile to try and cultivate an academic career. Fortunately, academic salaries are highly structured and well-publicised. For instance, the average annual pay for professors in the U.K. is about £75,000.  In the US, it is about $ 85,000. As a comparison, the academic pay scale in India has just been upgraded and professors earn the equivalent of Rs. 144200 or about £1700 a month.

Many academics highlight the non-financial benefits such as working in an intellectually stimulating environment with a lot of freedom and independence. They also value the satisfaction from rewarding working relationships with colleagues and students. Of course, the good work-life balance is highly rated. Conservationists generally also enjoy stints of stimulating outdoor fieldwork and travel to international conferences. They have the added fulfilment that their work generally really does benefit the planet and society at large.

academic career - environmental education

So, the pros and cons certainly need careful consideration before you embark on this gruelling and possibly uncertain track. One professor from Chicago University put it in a nutshell “ Getting a job in academia is ridiculously hard. But once you get there [.] everyone else around you is as smart as or smarter than you are.  That makes life/work fun”

Here is our advice

Only choose this career path, if you have these qualities in abundance:

– You excel at academics and research

– You are very tenacious

– You are willing to put up with international moves and periods outdoors, possibly in difficult circumstances

A valuable tip is to give yourself a cut-off point, in case you don’t make it. Remember that there are alternative ‘new’ conservation jobs out there: many of those who drop out have reported finding other work in teaching or media, where they can still apply their passion for nature. This mirrors the debate about old and new conservation. One insightful caution from a senior lecturer in wildlife biology highlights the realisation ” that we have to deal less with animals, but more with people from all kinds of backgrounds [.] you need to have extremely good interpersonal skills”.

Don’t forget to check our Conservation Career Guide Blog and sign up for regular updates!