Traditionally, it has been true that the route to a job in conservation was via a university degree in Life Sciences, such as Biology, Botany, (Marine) Ecology and Zoology. Over the decades, the number of degree subjects has expanded to include interdisciplinary courses ranging from environmental management to conservation biology and sustainable development. Worldwide, there is now a huge number of undergraduate and Master’s courses on offer involving environmental stewardship and sustainability, as this blog post indicates. Academics have observed that there is a generational shift towards a new type of sustainability scholar with a more holistic view than the older scientists.
The growth of university degrees in conservation, especially in developing countries for example in Asia, is a positive trend. However, for many students the cost of a university education has increased even more, so they wonder whether it is worth making such an investment in a university degree? This is a valid question given the current competitive job market all over the world. The answer is tricky and almost always goes “it depends..”. The latter means it is not just a matter of finances, but also what career path you would like to follow, based on your own interests, and at what level.
Our advice, for those who are genuinely interested in working in conservation, is to educate yourself about the diverse career paths from an early age. This can be through school clubs or local projects, and especially by talking to people who already work in conservation. In this career guide, we have identified seven broad directions, ranging from fieldwork to NGO jobs to media-careers. Many of these opportunities do require a degree, however there are certainly exceptions, and we will highlight these with real-life examples throughout the guide.
The bottom-line remains that a university degree certainly helps when applying for jobs, but employers also look for work experience and skills. This is where volunteering can be very useful, but make sure to select high-quality projects that can provide plenty of such relevant experience and skills. If studying at Uni is not for you, then there are certainly new options that are based on vocational training and work experience.
Not going to Uni: the choices
These days, with conservation and sustainability becoming more widespread, there are more opportunities to work in conservation without a university degree.
There are great examples, such as former volunteer Chris. He has a burning passion for fieldwork in the Asian rainforest, but did not go to university. Chris managed to find his current dream job working to rehabilitate elephants in Cambodia through a variety of valuable volunteer experiences.
The RSPB advertises entry level jobs for non-graduates, which range from roles such as ‘Membership Development Officer’ for those who love to promote conservation, to ‘Assistant Warden’, if the outdoors appeals to you. The National Trust recruits Trainee Conservation Assistants where on the job training opportunities are provided – within 12 months, you could become a fully-fledged Conservation Assistant! Finally, the World Land Trust also has non-graduate opportunities, so keep an eye out!
Unlike working as a doctor or a lawyer, you do not need a professional qualification to practise conservation. Even so, there are a number of professional bodies offering diplomas and training, which non-graduates can join once they’ve built up relevant work experience. CIEEM is the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and presents itself as a leading professional body due to its Royal Charter and diversity of membership across government, NGOs, academia and industry. It offers two chartered titles: Chartered Ecologist (CEcol) and Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv). Non-graduates can start at the ‘Qualifying’ level before working their way up.
The Institute of Enviromental Management and Assessment IEMA offers a wide variety of learning options. This ‘not for profit’ organisation has more than 14,000 members and collaborates with providers of higher education and training to promote their professional certifications. Non-graduates can start at the affiliate level to receive regular updates on relevant webinars, events and sector information. With work experience under your belt, the next level is ‘Associate’ level (AIEMA). Eventually, members work their way up to leadership, as a Fellow FIEMA.
If these professional certifications still sound too academic for your liking, then the good news is that the choice for more vocational courses is increasing. Established providers such as City & Guilds and BTEC are offering more subjects in environmental sustainability.
Never stop learning!
Whatever your early educational choices, it is almost certain that in today’s fast-changing world, you will need to upskill thoughout your working life. Life-long learning is now a reality for the evolving job market and your own personal development. With the issues of biodiversity loss, climate change and ocean pollution becoming more mainstream, the opportunities to learn as part of your CPD are set to grow with many interesting courses, for example this mid-career MSc, that are yet to be created.