How did I get into Conservation? | Advice

by - December 16, 2018

I get asked this question all the time. How did you get into conservation? Why conservation? How do I get into conservation??

A career in conservation is really hard to kick-start, or to land in general. There aren't a lot of jobs, and there are even less paid positions. I grew up in the UK and I was that kid who's obsessed with animals, and all things animal related. Growing up here, where, let's be honest, we have limited wildlife (due to previous generations chopping down all the forests and hunting down all the wildlife). I thought if I wanted to work with animals, I'd have to be a vet. 

This dream came crashing down like a headless pigeon when I first took 'separate sciences' at school (i.e. biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects instead of under the very broad title of "science.") I wasn't particularly strong at any of them to be completely honest, but chemistry was definitely my weak spot. Turns out, in the UK (and I'm sure elsewhere) to study veterinary medicine at university, you have to have chemistry A-level (our highest academic assessment level in school). Coupled with the fact that there are only about 6 veterinary medical schools in the country, and so are highly competitive, 13 year old Kate's dreams of becoming a vet started to fade. 

This led to a bit of an identity crisis in my life. Nothing dramatic don't worry; I didn't buy a sports car, change my name, or tattoo my mum's initials onto my face. (Technically I wasn't legally old enough to do any of that, but that's not the point). I really did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

This shouldn't matter to a 13 year old, and it doesn't! Obviously at the time it seems like you have to have it all figured out but you don't. However, it does make things daunting and make small decisions (that seem like big ones) difficult. For example, I was the worst at deciding what subjects to take at school. I remember at the end of year 8 we were allowed to drop 2 subjects (not 'core' subjects - not my label - but you could ditch an arts subject or a language as long as you still had at least 1 of each.) I could not decide! 2 out of about 16 classes and I was scared I'd make the wrong choice. 

I think the reason I couldn't decide was because I didn't love any of them. I never hated school or anything, I actually quite liked school at this point. I just hadn't found my passion so I didn't know where I fit. 

It only got harder. Choosing my GCSEs (exams we take in the UK when we are 16 so year 11: you take around 10 subjects) was a huge challenge and I think I changed my options 4 times over the summer between year 9 and 10 (when you finalise your choices). I finally decided 3 days before year 10 started (I was so close to not taking Geography and that prospect haunts me to this day). 

I had the same problem again choosing my A-levels. Narrowing 10 to 4 seemed like such a huge decision that seemed all too easy to get wrong. Again, I really didn't feel strongly for or against any of my subjects, except maybe Geography. But because I didn't know what I wanted to study at university, or do for a job, I didn't know what to do. What if a few months down the line I decide on a degree I like but I don't have the right A-level options? 

Obviously, it was all fine in the end, but my point is I was quite lost at school because I didn't know what I wanted to do or what I liked. 

But everything changed in the summer of 2014, in between year 12 and 13, and so half way through my A-levels. 

I went to South Africa for the first time and it opened my eyes to the world of conservation, and I realised for the first time that I could have a career in conservation. Being a vet was not the only way to work with animals. Obviously, this sounds really stupid now and of course I did know there were other things to do, but they hadn't been put forward to me in a tangible way. Ever. I knew conservation existed obviously, and I was fascinated by it. I knew there were people all over the world doing incredible things to protect our wildlife. But this was the first time I ever thought I could be one of them. 

I came back from this trip and decided straight away to do Geography at university. The man who organised the trip helped me with where to apply, I got my application in super early, and had 5 university offers within 3 months of landing back in London. I ended up of course at the University of Southampton and it was the best; I absolutely loved it, I miss it every single day, and I could not have chosen a better degree than Geography. From there, I have increased my conservation experience, made incredible contacts, and even wrote my dissertation on critically endangered black rhino which included 2 months in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, collecting data and carrying out fieldwork. 

South African sunsets are breathtaking 

South Africa 2014: Why was I there?

So, I've explained that this trip was a turning point in me pursuing a career in conservation. For anyone who just read my life story and is patiently waiting for the bit where I actually help you.. here it comes. 


This one word, changed my life. Earthwatch is a a non-profit organisation that essentially runs scientific research projects all over the world centred around the ideas of sustainability and conservation. This is their mission statement taken from their website:

"To engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment."
Website link:

So, if you wanted to join one of their expeditions, you simply sign up to apply and if there's space, you can go! They run 'teen' expeditions for 16-19 year olds, and then separate ones for adults. The teen ones are slightly subsidised as a way to promote science among young people. 

I joined a teen expedition to South Africa to study scavengers. I just really wanted to go to South Africa to be honest. The words "South Africa" caught my attention in the email (just a chain email sent round from some mailing list I'd obviously been added to) so I inquired. I had never heard of Earthwatch, and no one in my school had ever done an expedition. But I thought f*ck it, I had some money saved, I asked my parents, they said yes, and I signed up. 

Photo taken by me during my Earthwatch expedition. It was on this trip that I learnt so much about the rhino crisis and became so passionate to help prevent us losing this iconic species. 
I could not recommend an Earthwatch expedition more to someone trying to get into conservation if I tried. They are highly regarded and well recognised and so really do stand out on your CV, and allow you to make some great contacts. The friends I made on that trip are still some of my best friends, and we see each other all the time (even though we are scattered around the country). 

I also made great contacts, both through the Earthwatch Institute (which have offices in Oxford) and in South Africa. The reserve we visited on the trip, I returned to the following year with some of my fellow Eartchwatch volunteers, and it is my favourite place on this Earth. It stole my heart and will keep it forever. It is the reason I am who I am today, and I am where I am today, and I owe everything to the people there. 

There are trips all over the place working with all kinds of wildlife: marine and terrestrial. If you're thinking of doing an expedition but don't have any specific in mind choosing a project could prove tricky because they do all look amazing, but I'm sure one is bound to jump out.

If you are someone 16-19 and you want to get some experience in conservation, look at the Earthwatch website and see if there's a project for you. I will warn you, it can be expensive. If this is an issue, talk to them about it - I don't know if they can/will do anything, but if you don't ask, you don't get. 

Earthwatch is not just for young people though, so anyone of any age; have a look. 

Even if you have some experience already, you can never have too much in this industry! 

Field Work with Earthwatch

Moving forward:


Volunteering is unavoidable for getting into conservation. I loved every second of my volunteering experiences don't get me wrong, but it can cost an awful lot of money (especially abroad). It is just how it goes though; people start with gaining as much volunteer experience as they can. If you can do this along side a degree, i.e. in your summer holidays, or even while at school, then that's great! Otherwise, I would recommend taking a year out after school/uni (I would say uni) to gain as much experience as you can.

There are countless volunteer organisations offering projects around the world you can go on. Do your research (obviously) to check they are legit and ethical projects, but there are so many great ones to choose from! Ask advice from people: teachers, professors, people you know doing a similar thing, me (if I can help I will). 

This is completely dependent on you! University (although I know I rave about it) is not for everyone. Depending on what type of conservation you want to get into, you don't have to have a degree. However, research is a massive part of conservation: there are obviously jobs in research, and this research shapes the policy and management of practical conservation. Having a degree in an environmental science is only ever going to work in your favour (e.g. biology, ecology, zoology, geography, oceanography, etc). You can study wildlife conservation as an undergrad as well at some universities in the UK, and worldwide. 

When it comes to post-graduate level, I do believe a masters is a good idea. I am about to start one (eeeek! so excited) at the University of Cape Town in Conservation Biology. I think having an Msc is beneficial as a lot of research placement paid jobs advertise for someone with these qualifications. However, I do not think masters are something anyone should do for the sake of a qualification. Same goes for a PhD - if you want to go into academia or be a top researcher, consider a PhD. Personally, I can't see myself doing one, never say never, but it's not the path I currently want to follow. 

There are of course, non-university qualifications: for example FGASA levels (Field Guide Association of Southern Africa) or the equivalent for your region, or such like. 

To be honest, I am not qualified to give you advice on what qualifications you should or should not get/look into. I can just reiterate that research plays a massive part in a lot of conservation related work, and so having an understanding of the research process is important. 

Hustle & Network
As with an industry: who you know is extremely important and having the right contacts can help you out. I have some incredible contacts that have made a huge difference to me. One important piece of advice: University is not the only place to build connections. It is a great place to, but knowing people from outside that circle is so important. 

Once you have a connection, use it. If you have nothing immediate to say, a friendly email every so often to update them on your life or ask about any projects they're involved in... basically just remind them you exist. Make sure they know what you are interested in, and so if somethings comes to them that might suit you, you are the first person they think of. 

Final thoughts:

In the end, I did 'dual award' science for GCSE. This meant I took the subjects as separate subjects, but ended up with 2 Science GCSEs rather than 3 GCSEs: one in biology, one in chemistry, one in physics. I didn't take any of them for A-level. 

I am about to start an MSc in Conservation Biology. 

The decisions you make do not always have the impact on your future than you think they will. If you'd told 13 year old me that I would be doing a biology-based masters I would have found it  hilarious and terrifying in almost equal measures. Now, I couldn't be more excited, and I am honoured and over the moon to be given this opportunity. 

I am so lucky to have found my passion aged 17. That is still so young! Do not worry if it takes you longer to find yours! 

And even though I know I want to work in conservation, particularly of endangered species, specifically what job I want... I have no idea! But that's part of the fun, and something I am hoping will become clearer with time and as my experience and expertise grows. 

Thanks for reading! If you have any more specific questions about Earthwatch or anything else I spoke about feel free to comment below (or email me if you'd rather using the Contact Me tab at the top!)

Ps. I am not affiliated with Earthwatch: I just think they're great!

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