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Getting a job in conservation: 5 tips for success

work-with-wildlifeFor many people, the idea of working in the conservation field represents the ultimate dream job. Conservation, in general, refers to work studying, managing, and protecting natural resources. It includes a wide array of jobs ranging from wildlife biologists studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park to ecologists restoring lost wetlands in the Everglades.

Unfortunately, given the cuts in funding, the bad economy, and the fact that the conservation field is an extremely popular career option,  it can be very difficult for even highly skilled professionals to find good jobs. But if you still hold hope of someday working as a forester, marine biologist, or park ranger, fear not!

As I illustrate below, there are steps that even people completely devoid of relevant education or experience can take to help them one day find their dream job in conservation.

1) So what exactly do you want to do?

Conservation represents a diverse array of sub-fields. Do you want to spend your days identifying plants or do you want to work with birds? Do you want to make real estate deals to protect forests from the bulldozer, or do you want to teach school children about marine life? The better you know the specific type of job you want to do, the easier it will be to develop the right skills and hook up with the right organizations to get on your way. Conservation job sites can be a good starting point. For example, skim the descriptions for ecology jobs or marine biology jobs, and you will get a quick sense of the work that ecologists and marine biologists do.

2) Observe a wildlife biologist for the day

Informational interviews with local conservation professionals can help you further explore potential areas of interest. But take the informational interview concept a step a further. Ask if you can spend a couple of hours with them in the field observing them in action. This will help you network while giving you insight into whether this is really the work you want to be doing. And you may want to observe the office environment as well since conservation work often happens in front of a computer.

3) Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!

If you have little experience, then volunteering is likely an essential step on the way to paid employment. Formal programs such as AmeriCorps will enable you to take on a volunteer position in an organization while receiving a small stipend and money for education. If you are looking for something immediate and less formal, you can hook up with an organization yourself. Conservation non-profits are usually starving for adequate resources. So in the right setting, you can gain great experience doing technical work. In addition, many organizations hire heavily from their volunteer rolls. But it is important that you connect with the right organization. Conservation umbrella groups like the Land Trust Alliance have great resources for researching prospective organizations for volunteering. In addition, some organizations will list volunteer opportunities and conservation internships.

4) Get with “grunt work”

It almost is a rite-of-passage that new graduates from programs in ecology, forestry and related fields will do at least a couple rounds of seasonal field work on projects – usually long hours in harsh conditions for little pay – before gaining enough experience for permanent employment. However, even those with very few qualifications may be able to get hired last-minute onto a field crew. Seasonal work has to start on a very specific timeline, so employers sometimes get desperate – for example if someone drops out last minute – and they may be willing to hire you figuring that the better qualified crew members will get you up to speed. Once you make it onto one crew, getting future gigs should be much easier.

5) More education can help you specialize

Conservation job seekers will have an easier time finding work if they have a specific set of skills that they can offer. For example, environmental consulting jobs often require skills in identifying plants or delineating wetlands. Land Trusts need people with a real estate background to help with conservation transactions, while most non-profits need people with strong GIS computer skills. There is nothing wrong with being a generalist, but if you currently attend college you should take some coursework that will help you develop at least one highly marketable skill. If you are not in school and can’t return as a full time student, consider taking courses at a local community college or university to develop some specific skills that you can offer an organization.

–Rob Goldstein is creator of the Conservation Job Board and the blog Conservation Maven. He has worked as conservation professional in California where he has experience on both the hiring and job search side of natural resource employment.

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