Ten Tips for Budding Young Conservationists


(Image: Sanjayan (left), lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy, working with local professional scuba divers and non-governmental conservation organization staff, investigates December 2004 tsunami damage to coral reef ecosystems in coastal areas near Galle, Sri Lanka. Credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC. )

“What skills do I need to get a job in conservation”?

I visit dozens of states and speak to literally thousands of people each year, often students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one question I get over and over again revolves around preparations for a job in conservation. Unfortunately, my answers are not always timely enough for those on the verge of graduation.

I think about my own preparation for a life in conservation and it’s a minor miracle that I actually managed to pick up some useful skills for my role as the lead scientist for one of the world’s largest international conservation organizations. It certainly was not premediated. And even though I went to good schools, and studied fairly hard, my selection of classes was based on archaic academia-driven criteria at best — and random at worst.

I sometimes teach in the College of Forestry and Conservancy at the University of Montana. The program is considered to be one of the best programs in the United States for big animal conservation.

Recently, senior students in a mandatory upper-division wildlife ecology class asked me to give them some tips of preparing for a career working in international conservation. So, seizing the chance of proactively guiding the development of our next generation of conservation leaders, this is what I told them — my “top 10” most important skills to pick up in school (undergrad or graduate school) for a successful career in conservation.

In no particular order:

1.    Basic Ecology. Basic knowledge is fine here.  If you know what island biogeography is, you are fine. True, our ranks are filled with business types and lawyers, but still, the majority of our staff have some training in ecology.

2.    Economics & Sociology. Conservation is as much about people as it is about wildlife. Understanding economics or business through some basic intro classes is crucial.

3.    Natural History. Know one group well. It could be birds, plants, mushrooms — which one is not really important, but having a passion for one is. It allows you to see the natural world from a different perspective.

4.    Story Telling. Be a strong communicator — develop good writing and speaking skills.  Things like Toastmasters, being a TA in class and writing fiction really help.

5.    GIS Skills. So much of what we do is spatial, and being able to create and navigate around spatial data is a valuable and employable skill.

6.    Foreign Language Proficiency. Any language gives you a feel for working in other cultures, but the most useful language is Spanish. Asian languages have numbers on their side, but English is spreading in Asia fast.

7.    Managing People. Lead a field crew or be the team lead in a lab project — but know how to motivate and lead people. You will be doing it a lot in the real world.

8.    Be Web Smart. Create a Facebook/MySpace page, blog, and use Twitter — know what social marketing is and how to network on the web.  You might hate it, but the web — or rather, the many webs of social networks and different Internet vehicles — is the way huge numbers of people are communicating.

9.    Basic Statistics. Statistics is the way the world is described. Take at least two statistics classes as an undergrad. If you have a choice, drop calculus for statistics. Most people never actually USE calculus — but you see statistics every day all around you, from polls to the stock market. Everyone (not just biologists) should take a stats class.

10.    Community Engagement. Learn how to work with local communities (ranchers to school kids) by doing one simple thing that engages a local community — being a community organizer can have all sorts of advantages.

After going over this list with my class. I asked who felt they had these skills — indicated by a show of hands.  Unsurprisingly, basic ecology and basic natural history were common to all. This is a group of wildlife students, after all.

Surprisingly, many people felt they had good communicating skills (10 of 15), but I suspect this is simply wistful thinking — I find most US college students barely able to write and with no ability to give talks or speeches. Why? Because they never get a chance to do so in college.

About one-half had GIS and statistics skills and one-third of the students knew another language. Unsurprisingly, only one-third of the students had taken an economics course, despite the economy being the biggest factor influencing conservation.

What truly shocked me is that only five out of the 15 students had ever blogged, been on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Many scoffed or laughed when I expressed shock. To them it was a matter of pride that they avoided such “trivial” forums.

When I reminded them that Barack Obama has 275,000 followers on Twitter and that Lance Armstrong, in the midst of racing in California still has time, from his motel room, to send out “tweets” including reporting on his recently stolen and then-recovered bike (recovered thanks in part to Twitter), I could see, perhaps, a glimmer of interest in their eyes.

We are currently developing our next generation of leaders for the conservation movement. Most of them will not work in academia, but rather for government institutions, the private sector and conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy. But the skills they are learning in school is poor preparation for what the real world has to offer.

Though potentially well grounded in sciences, their ability to translate that science into something meaningful to the lay public is entirely missing. Without this, they will once again be preaching to the choir.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. What a wonderful list! My advice had always been to look at job descriptions for jobs that interested you and then try to fill in the gaps. Your list is comprehensive, yet simple, and prepares students for jobs they can’t even imagine.

  2. I worked with many youth in my 32 yr. as a federal National Wildlife Refuge Manager [USFWS] starting as a GS-3 student trainee and ending as a GS-14 senior project leader. I believe your advice is extremely over-balanced toward academics. In my experience more important than high level classroom achievements are work ethic, hands-on skills [operate equipment, etc.] and hot-and-dirty field experience. Free volunteer work on parks, refuges, preserves and summer intern positions as well as federal and state YCC [youth conservation corps]. SCA [Student Conservation Association] is another good start. Walk into a big private, state or federal park or refuge and offer to help…keep coming back. Make contacts; build-up field skills and experience; keep in touch with “everyone.” Take any job available then work diligently to get a transfer into more of your “dream” position.

  3. Now in my third or fourth career (the previous being laboratory biologist, college professor and writer), I find that the biggest gap in my knowledge, skills and experience is farming. Here in Missouri, hands-on knowledge of agricultural practices is invaluable to getting conservation done. Some basic outdoor skills (camping, hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, etc.) will also serve you well. The other recommendations are excellent.

  4. Hi, Ive always been intrigued with The Environment, and the animals that thrive in it, and as a Senior in high school now, i am majoring in biology, but i feel like i want to be in the field more and help the environment and animals, as i guess a conservationist would do. But i haven’t seen this as a major, option on colleges i am applying for. I was wondering if anyone can tell me what I should do in this situation, for I would love to take part and help in the field.
    also how does this actually occur? For say I have finished my years in any field related to this, would I have to find followers to help, or do i get drafted to a specific area?

    1. Hi Robbie,

      My name is Brad Parker and I work here at The Nature Conservancy. A while back in our Ask the Conservationist series Sanjayan listed his top 10 most important skills to pick up in school (undergrad or graduate school) for a successful career in conservation. You can find that article here: http://support.nature.org/site/PageServer?pagename=asktheconservationist_200906

      I hope that helps.


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