Q&A with conservation job market researchers

  • Intense competition, a flood of unpaid internships, a prevalence of short-term work, high student-loan debt: young conservationists are reporting a tough, rough time in the job market.
  • A recent study in Conservation Biology attempts to uncover some concrete data on the hard-to-quantify conservation job market in an effort to help students prepare themselves for the competitive hunt for paid employment.
  • Mongabay interviewed study co-authors Jane Lucas, who is now doing a postdoc at the University of Idaho, and Evan Gora, who is now doing a postdoc at the University of Louisville, to hear what they learned.
  • Their advice? Start researching the job market early, even before you’re actively looking for work. Reach out to people who have the career you want. And make sure you’re gaining diverse skills.

You grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries and reading Gerald Durrell memoirs. You volunteered banding marmosets in Brazil. You have a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in conservation biology. You spent a year interning at an international NGO. You’ve got the passion, the education, the experience — but now you just can’t find a job. And you’re not the only one: young conservationists are reporting a tough, rough time out there, with intense competition, a flood of unpaid internships, a prevalence of short-term work, and high student-loan debt.

A recent study in Conservation Biology attempts to uncover some concrete data on the hard-to-quantify conservation job market in an effort to help students prepare themselves for the competitive, challenging hunt for paid employment. Headed by Jane Lucas, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in rainforest ecology from the University of Oklahoma, the study looks at postings for 200 conservation-related jobs, half in the U.S. and half in other countries. She and her co-authors used the postings, as well as interviews with 20 conservation professionals, to find out where the bulk of the jobs are and to compile a comprehensive list of the most desirable skills for young conservationists seeking careers.

Looking at four sectors — nonprofit, academia, government and private industry — Lucas and her colleagues found that the nonprofit sector had the biggest piece of the pie, comprising half of the job listings. Meanwhile, government jobs made up 21 percent, private industry nearly 16 percent, and academia just 13 percent.

The challenges the field of conservation presents to job seekers have prompted some observers to call it a “rich person’s profession,” meaning students often need significant financial resources just to make it to the job interview. This has led to concerns about access and the diversity of backgrounds within the field.

Evan Gora, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in tropical forest ecology from the University of Louisville and a co-author of the paper, points out that conservation — long the purview of wealthy aristocrats — has in many ways always been a rich person’s profession.

Indeed, today conservation careers may be more accessible than ever before. But there are also more people intent on pursuing them, and not as an unpaid obsession to take up while living off the family fortune, but as a fulfilling career expected to put food on the table and a roof over the head. While Lucas and Gora recognize the challenges conservationists face in finding a paying job, they believe that early preparation can help students get a leg up.

Both Lucas and Gora plan to stay in academia for the time being. Today, Lucas is a postdoc in the University of Idaho’s Department of Soil and Water Systems specializing in how antibiotics in livestock impact the environment and antibiotic resistance, and Gora is a postdoc at the University of Louisville studying how lightning strikes affect trees in the tropics.

Mongabay interviewed Lucas and Gora to hear what they learned and gather some advice for young people entering the field of conservation.

Jane Lucas. Image courtesy of Jane Lucas.

Mongabay: As Ph.D. students, what made you decide to study the conservation job market?

Jane Lucas:Both of us are interested in conservation, but we’re both in programs that are not specifically conservation focused. So, [we pursued the research because of] a strong interest in this field but also knowing that the career I wanted to pursue is not exactly the same as [that of] my adviser. Advisers can do a lot for you throughout your time in graduate school. However, expecting them to know all job markets and how to get a position outside of academia may be a bit much.

In particular, we wanted to highlight the skills needed for success in different conservation job markets and sectors and in various countries.

In what sectors can people find the most conservation-related jobs today?

Lucas: Just breaking it down, it was very clear that nonprofit agencies had a lot of positions. In particular, in developing countries this sector made up about 76 percent of the job market. Once you move to more developed countries, it starts to even out a little bit more.

Did you look at how difficult it is to get a job in the conservation sector?

Lucas: It’s really hard to find hard data on that. In particular, it’s hard to see who doesn’t get a job. You can see when jobs are filled but it’s harder to see how many people are applying. Those types of statistics are rarely published — and this was a big reason why we followed up our job search portion of the study with interviews of individuals currently in conservation positions.

I would say that unfortunately, we can’t conclusively say from a statistical viewpoint how hard it is to get a job in conservation. I don’t really think there’s a great database out there that would allow you to know the hard numbers on this. We frequently hear that it’s a really competitive market, but one person’s opinion may not reflect the true market.

Evan Gora: There certainly are jobs. We only looked at tertiary jobs, requiring [a] master’s or Ph.D., and we found more than a couple hundred job listings in just two months. The jobs exist, but I don’t know [how difficult they are to get]. We have information about the demand side of the labor market here, but the supply side, there really isn’t reliable information.

Do you think that young students interested in going into conservation should assume they’ll be able to get a job in academia?

Lucas: I think the one nice thing about academia is that there are somewhat clear steps [to build a career]. You need to be publishing your research and you need funding. If you are doing these things, you will be on a better track. You can’t be guaranteed a job, but academia does, to some extent, have clear goals and guidelines for how to become a well-prepared academic.

But as soon as you start getting really strict about things like “I need to be at this university” or “in this town,” positions get very tight. It is already a tough market and adding additional restrictions on yourself can make that particularly difficult.

Can you tell young conservationists what the most important skills are to give them flexibility in their careers and a real chance in a competitive market?

Lucas: First and foremost, we found that you needed expertise in a general scientific field like biology or conservation. But then also having a more specialized expertise, like a sub-discipline in conservation, was also helpful. For example, elephant conservation.

If you know the type of job you would like to have — what sector, biome, organism of interest — then you can quickly [home] in on that. Of course, you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself too much, but having direction early is very helpful.

There are also additional skills to build on, technical skills like coding, GIS [geographic information system], managing big data sets were frequently brought up in almost all of the job announcements.

I think these skills are the types of skills that can cross sectors or biomes. For example, you may have experience working in a tropical ecosystem, but if you know how to map the environment there, you probably can do it in another place. These are potentially the skills that you could help compensate for not having direct experience with the biome you are applying for.

Are those kinds of skills offered in graduate classes?

Lucas: Definitely. I feel like most universities have the courses a student needs. You may need to pursue a course outside of your department but universities are amazing resources and odds are somebody could help you with what you want to learn. It just takes a little bit more initiative to know that those are the skills you need and to work to figure out how to find the course and person to teach you.

Gora: We know people in particular who have gone out of their way during grad school to pursue those skills. Very frequently, you’ll find someone in another department who’s really good at something and they really just want to tell somebody about it. You can go to their office and they’ll give you the lowdown on how ArcGIS works and they might meet with you a couple of times to get you started and give you a manual. That’s generally enough as long as you’re motivated to gain that skill.

Evan Gora. Image by Evan Gora.
Evan Gora. Image by Evan Gora.

A lot of people trying to break into conservation are, anecdotally, getting stuck in unpaid internships. What is your feeling about this?

Gora: It’s a hard one.

Lucas: Let us just solve that.

[Laughs] Yes. Why can’t you two just figure that one out?

Lucas: That would be nice. [laughs]

Gora: I think part of the reason it’s a hard one is that the nature of the unpaid internship depends so much on the institution or the business offering it. I personally did an unpaid internship and then a very poorly paid internship with people who cared about my future while I was an undergraduate. It gave me opportunities; it got me interested in following the path that I followed. And it enabled me to get data that I used for an undergraduate thesis.

That experience helped me get a technician position which helped me get another one that got me into a lab [where] I did my Ph.D. If you’re working with the right people it can be a very positive experience and often groups don’t have the funds to hire people in an alternative way.

On the other side, there are certainly lots of institutions who are just using unpaid internships as free labor. I don’t know a solution to that practice. I think it comes down a lot to who you work with.

As a student, I think the best case for you is to talk to the people you are working with and establish [that] you’re going to get some other type of compensation that’s not monetary. Maybe they’re going to set you up with something in the future, where they have a plan that “If this goes well, you get hired next year.” Or while you’re working there, if you’re a graduate student, you’ll have data you can use to write one of your [thesis] chapters.

Something needs to come out of it that isn’t just you being there for free labor. Given that the practice exists, I think students can protect themselves by having a very frank conversation to figure out what non-monetary compensation [they] receive.

Lucas: You do need to be the person who brings up the conversation to say, “Are there future positions here? Are there future opportunities? Be realistic with me.” Addressing these concerns early on is hard, but it will pay off in the long run.

When you are getting a Ph.D. is it OK to start saying, “You know what? Now I need to be compensated”? Pursuing a master’s or a Ph.D. takes a lot of time and money.

Lucas: For me personally, I don’t think I would have taken a position if I knew that I wasn’t going to be publishing out of that position or taking a job with that organization in the future. However, when we spoke to different conservation professionals it was very clear that having experience with an organization does give you a leg up on being able to potentially get hired or even just knowing that job opportunities are coming up.

Sometimes you’ll find out that there was a job you wanted but you didn’t even know the position was available. When you’re working in the system or for an organization, you may be in the position to say, “Well I know that this person is leaving.”

Do you think that science and conservation professors are really aware of the challenges in the job market and are doing enough to help prepare their students?

Lucas: It definitely depends on how long that professor may have been away from the market, because it really has changed rapidly. Some of the people we spoke to were maybe 10 or 20 years out of their job [search] and they were talking about how in school they never had conservation biology courses. I would hope that people work for advisers that they can be honest with about their future goals. And if they are potentially looking to go outside of academia, then they really need to have a mentor that is in that field. It was really beneficial for me to speak with a variety of conservation professionals and ask, “What was your experience? How did you get your job?”

People have been incredibly nice and have been open to providing insight. It doesn’t take much to send out an email and say, “How do I get the job you have?”

You mentioned in your paper that some academic programs are now including paid internships as a part of the program. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Lucas: As a student you often need to conduct research. Many agencies need well-trained individuals to conduct conservation-based work. This has led to certain universities partnering with private, NGO, and governmental agencies through grants to encourage students to shape their research in the same vein of the goals of either those private, government or NGO industries. That way students gain experience with a different group while also conducting their graduate work.

Occasionally, there’s extra funding to be had there. This is certainly a shift in the idea of how students make an income, but if it works out, it may be a great way to prepare students for careers in a variety of positions.

Ebony langur (Trachypithecus auratus). Image by Rhett Butler.
Ebony langur (Trachypithecus auratus). Image by Rhett Butler.

Are there specific programs that you think are at the cutting edge of making sure their students are ready for the job market?

Lucas: The Smith Fellowship [through the U.S.-based Society for Conservation Biology] does a nice job of connecting recent graduates to different nonprofit groups and shapes students into leaders in the conservation field. A lot of the individuals that I spoke to mentioned that fellowship in particular as being a great opportunity to understand what it’s like to work outside of an academic setting. However, this is a very competitive position and is only available to individuals with a Ph.D.

Is that something you could see being replicated at other places?

Lucas: Yes. I think so. The benefit of the Smith Fellowship is that it has its own funding source. Funding is always going to be a limitation, unfortunately. But if you can set up a pipeline and funding isn’t a huge issue, I think it’s something that multiple academic programs can be joined in.

Gora: We didn’t look at postgraduate positions in the paper, but just anecdotally there certainly are quite a few postgraduate jobs. Particularly using modeling to look at conservation strategies.

Lucas: Also, the National Science Foundation does have something for graduate students in particular, called the Graduate Research Internship Program or the GRIP. This program is like a mini Smith Fellowship, where students get paired with individuals in government positions. Students can work with, for example, the U.S.D.A. or U.S. Forest Service.

Actually, both of us have done this fellowship with the Smithsonian Institute. That was a nice opportunity to get some experience working outside of academia. I think that, in general, funding sources are starting to see the benefit of training students early for positions outside of the traditional academic institute.

What advice would you give to a young conservation student who is interested in working in a very specific country or region?

Gora: I think my advice would be to try and work in that location early. Often the way to do that is to find someone in your home country, state, or city that already works in that location. Find a specific person and go talk to them. Maybe join their lab. There are even opportunities to get your own funding to go work with people who already have programs in the desired location.

Once you have experience working in a specific place or in a specific biome, a lot of the puzzle pieces will then fall into place. You might gain language skills and people will trust that you can navigate that culture. And that will help you get jobs there in the long term.

Lucas: A lot of the positions that we saw in developing countries had language skill requirements or strong preferences. I think it would clearly give you a leg up to have a good working knowledge of the local language.

Do you agree with the assessment that conservation is in danger of becoming, or maybe has already become, a rich person’s profession, given how much education and experience is needed to start getting paid?

Gora: I would argue that it’s always been a rich person’s profession. Not that that’s a good thing, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed. Charles Darwin, he was an aristocrat; he was super wealthy; he could afford to just hang out on a boat. [The] Roosevelt[s are] super important to conservation in the U.S., a famously rich family.

I think it’s probably become more accessible; you probably have a lot of people who can pursue conservation and wouldn’t have been able to a few decades ago. At the same time it is notsuper accessible, you’re probably unlikely to pursue it unless you grew up in a setting where you feel very comfortable with the risk of not making a lot of money in your career.

I don’t know about a “rich person’s profession” — that’s an ambiguous term — but it’s certainly not the most accessible profession and I would guess that’s just always been the case.

Lucas: Of course, funding is already hard to get but I think the way you get people into conservation and maybe make it more diverse and accessible is by offering paid opportunities early on. And then hopefully once they begin, they will get a passion for the work and that helps encourage people to stay within the profession.

Gora: Along those same lines, a way to make it more accessible is also related to getting specific skills. For example, if you get a tertiary degree in the sciences and you learn how to code well, maybe conservation falls through for you, but you’re still going to get a job.

You’d be more willing to pursue conservation, I would assume, because you know when you finish you can go work in industry or tech jobs and be employed because you know the scientific process and have specific skills. It can give you security.

An aerial view of rainforest in Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
An aerial view of rainforest in Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Do you suggest that students have to be a little bit more realistic and maybe think, “OK, well, worst-case scenario, what can I fall back on?” Or should we all go for our passion?

Lucas: Ideally we would love to say if you want it enough, you’ll get it. But I think it’d be unwise to go into any job not thinking about “Am I pigeonholing my expertise so that I can only do one thing?” What if you don’t even like it?

I think part of that is having conversations early on about where you see yourself in the future. Also, talking to people in the positions you think you might like to have is really helpful. Then I think a big part of finding a job is understanding what your skills are and making [them] marketable.

It probably is unwise to go into any job without thinking, “If this isn’t what I want to do, or if it doesn’t work out, are there other opportunities?”

Your paper in Conservation Biology is behind a paywall. Does that make it a little harder for a young conservationist to access it?

Gora: Being behind a paywall certainly limits its access to some degree. ButConservation Biology, in the conservation world, is about as [high-profile] as you’re going to get, and we wanted to make sure people would see it. You can pay quite a bit of money to get the paywall removed, but as graduate students we don’t have that money available.

Lucas: To get open access is quite expensive, because we pay most of our publishing costs ourselves. It costs more to publish it than it does to do the entire project.

Gora: If people contact us, we will provide the information that’s relevant so that they’re informed.

Lucas: For most of the students who are currently in school this has been a relatively easy-to-access paper because many universities have access to Conservation Biology.

Any other advice you would like to give?

Lucas:Really trying to figure out what you’re interested in early, because I think a lot of people don’t start looking for jobs until they’re in their last years of [their] master’s or Ph.D.s and then they’re like, “Oh man, I didn’t even know how important maybe business management or something would be.” By looking at job announcements early, it can help you with deciding what courses to take and skills to focus on.

A lot of the skills you gain in grad school can be marketed. For example, you know project management if you’ve ever run a lab or had undergraduate assistants.

Another helpful tip is to read the CVs of other scientists. This may give you insight on how to highlight some of your own strengths. I think people don’t know how marketable they could be, and then they miss out on these opportunities to apply for jobs because they may say “I have no project management experience.” However, if you have ever conducted a research project, then you have ample project management experience.

Gora: Find some people who have a job you want to have and go ask them how they got it. Ask them what they look for in people they hire to work under them. A lot of positive changes you could make are really minor things that you just twist out of something you’re already doing. For example, maybe you do involve that undergraduate you wouldn’t have involved previously, and now you have experience managing people.

Anything else either of you would like to add?

Gora: I want to say it’s not all doom and gloom. There are things you can do to make your chances a lot better. Sometimes it’ll be awkward, it’ll be weird, and you’ll feel that, “Oh I shouldn’t talk to this person, I’m so far below them.” But most of those people, they want to tell you about what they’re doing and how they do it.

I think that aggressively pursuing skills and your future can go a long way. A lot of that aggressiveness is literally just talking to people. I would encourage people to go for it. It’s not the most negative environment: people want to tell you how to succeed.

Lucas: It’s never too early and probably never too late to make those types of connections or reach out. Do it the first day but also if you’re on the market now and you’re feeling frustrated, then reach out to people who have jobs you would like. This might give you the insight that you were missing.

I would say that this project actually was more encouraging than we anticipated and it doesn’t feel like there’s just nothing out there. Not to discredit people who are struggling. I know that it’s a hard market. But I wouldn’t say there’s just no chance in conservation.

Turquoise blue katydid larva in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
Turquoise blue katydid larva in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Citations

Lucas, J., Gora, E., Alonso, A. (2017). A view of the global conservation job market and how to succeed in it. Conservation Biology31(6):1223-1231. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12949

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