Making a career change into the conservation sector

Jazz Austin is an avid conservationist, and seven years ago realised that she wanted to use her career to make a difference for the environment. However, she was midway through an architecture degree at Cambridge University, had little professional experience and no idea how to make it happen. She is now managing an environmental engagement project for one of the UK’s largest conservation charities. Jazz has kindly put together some of her top tips for making a career change into the conservation sector and shares some of the key things she has learned throughout her journey. 

Understand your skills through a non-environmentally focused job

‘Soft’ skills such as communication, creative thinking and teamwork are transferable for almost any role and one of the best ways to gain these is in the workplace, even if it is not in the environmental sector. Take some time to analyse the things you are good at in your current role and how you would demonstrate the transferable nature of these skills to a potential future employer.

There are a huge variety of roles in conservation organisations, which require different expertise, routines, and responsibilities. From being outdoors completing habitat management work, delivering education and outreach, conducting research, influencing policy, fundraising, and leading teams. Explore the requirements for these different roles to help focus the areas you need to build on. Depending on your employer, you might be able to build on some of these requirements in your current position.

Another option is to research the environmental impact of your current sector or organisation and understand if you could help improve this with your own skills and influence. From technology, teaching, hospitality, law, finance – there are so many opportunities to make a difference for the environment by adapting existing processes and systems.

Find ways to keep learning

Independently learning about conservation and environmental issues will help prove that you are engaged and willing to learn. Some of the simplest ways to do this are to read popular science books and magazines, listen to podcasts and watch documentaries. You could also subscribe to a scientific journal or discover the reading list from a university course.

Online platforms, such as FutureLearn, offer short online courses from a variety of recognised institutions that you can complete in your own time. You will also find a plethora of recorded talks and lectures online, which may help you explore a topic in more detail. Make sure your social media accounts are professional and follow local projects and interesting people in your sector to help stay up to date.

Also, if you’re in a position to do so, there are also a number of universities who offer masters degrees in conservation related fields and organisations offering practical long-term courses. I went back to university to study Conservation Science and Policy with Exeter University, as many of the roles I was interested in preferred a masters degree. This was fantastic for developing my academic research and survey skills, which I felt I had not been able to fully develop independently.

Gain experience and meet people

Volunteering is often regarded as a key part of getting experience in the conservation sector, however if you are in full-time employment, some of the longer-term overseas options may seem inaccessible. Firstly, find out if there are any local groups that you could get involved with regularly e.g. a local nature reserve, bat group or wildlife gardening group. If committing to a regular session is problematic, then investigate the wide range of citizen science initiatives that you could get involved with independently and research charities that are looking for ambassadors.

Many organisations offer short-term residential volunteering opportunities both in the UK and abroad. It’s possible to do many of these during periods of annual leave, and over the years I have spent time volunteering in Scotland with both Trees for Life and Sail Britain using annual leave. There are plenty of other short-term residential volunteering opportunities available including with the RSPB, the National Trust, WWOOF and the Ambios Project!

Not only will these opportunities help you learn and gain experience, you will hopefully meet some like-minded people. Another way to make connections is to keep an eye out for science and conservation talks, events, festivals, and conferences which are likely to be held at museums, universities, and societies.

It is likely to be a bumpy road, but if you keep learning, actively seek opportunities, and understand how you can truly add value to an organisation or cause, you will get there!

Written by Jazz Austin