Ask the Conservationist

How to Be a Conservationist

We often get emails from young students wondering what they can do to prepare themselves for a career in conservation.

Sanjayan offers up his "Top 10" tips in our monthly column, "Ask the Conservationist."
Shayne T. Holler of La Mesa, CA and Amaris Gardner of Dublin, GA write:

“I am a biology major and for years I have wanted to get into conservation, especially marine conservation. I would like information on what classes I should take to become a conservationist and what is the career path I could be following to get there. My dream has always been to work for The Nature Conservancy and do whatever I can to preserve this amazing planet that we inhabit."


"Will getting a degree in wildlife management help me to become a conservationist? I really want to work with WILD animals and to help them in their environment — I always wanted to work with big cats. Also could you help me to go in the right direction in high school? By the way, I’m in 9th grade!"


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 premeditated.

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.

Want more? Read Sanjayan’s full blog post, "Ten Tips for Budding Conservationists", and check out Conservancy scientist Erik Meijaard’s follow-up post, "What Else You Need to Learn as an Aspiring Conservationist."

Originally posted in June 2009.

About the Conservationist
At the time this was posted, Sanjayan was the Conservancy's lead scientist. He is now the executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.


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