If, as a child, your favorite channel was National Geographic, Sir David Attenborough was your idol, and you dreamed of growing up to work with wildlife, then perhaps you have considered a job in research and conservation. But what is that really like? Read on for my experiences in the field.
*Disclaimer: I am still only beginning my journey, so this article will likely get updated as I gain new experiences! I will provide links to other articles and helpful resources below.
The Pros and Cons of Fieldwork
Research is at once the most and least rewarding career. Here is my pick for the top 5 best and worse things about it:
- You really can make a difference, even if it often feels like you can’t (check out these conservation success stories).
- You get to visit wild and wonderful places.
- You find yourself working with people who share your interests and values.
- You learn a lot, and gain new hands-on experiences (read more).
- You might get to spend time outdoors.
- It often feels like you’re fighting a lost cause.
- Constant travelling, tight quarters and irregular work hours can take their toll.
- Opinions don’t always match, and you might spend a lot of time arguing with other researchers, locals, companies and politicians .
- After 20 consecutive days in the wind and rain you might long for the warm and comfortable office.
- For every day in the field, you spend twice as many behind a desk, in the lab, or at meetings.
Bottom line: research is super fun, but you will have to work hard for it.
Working for Free – the long running debate about volunteering and unpaid internships
This is a common issue in biology (and, granted, many other fields) – most research opportunities are unpaid. This is especially challenging for students and recent graduates, hungry for experience but burdened by loans. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many university labs and conservation agencies are underfunded, and thus unable to provide payed positions to students (however, not that there a also some companies that will simply take advantage of students being willing to work for free). So what is one to do?
On the one hand, a research opportunity, payed or not, is invaluable experience that can teach you applicable skills and help establish connections. On the other, unpaid internships and volunteer positions can be a burden to low-income but eager researchers, and some view this as exploitation that undermines the value of the research being conducted.
Ultimately I think it’s up to you – what you hope to gain, and what you feel comfortable with. However, I have worked some unpaid positions and I think it’s a very valuable thing to do. At the end of the day, the priority in research is the work being done and the experiences gained, not earning money. And if you are willing to stick it out at the start, you are likely to get a paid position offered down the line.
Bottom line: A job in research is extremely unlikely to make you rich – do it for the experience, not the money.
I love animals! Does that mean I should become a biologist?
We all love animals – spending time playing around with pets, enjoying the company of animals out in the countryside, or wildlife watching are wonderful experiences. However, if you think this is enough to justify a career in biological research, think again.
Unfortunately, doing what is best for the natural world often results in difficult decisions and tough actions. This might include the eradication of invasive species, culling populations that have lost their natural predators (such as white deer), teaching captive predators how to hunt, or, sometimes, doing nothing at all and letting nature take its course (such as letting an animal die, if the alternative is to take it into captivity). These are difficult choices to make, and can take their toll on even the most experienced researchers. But sometimes, the consequences of doing nothing can be devastating (such as with invasive species).
Make no mistake, working as researcher is a highly rewarding career – anyone working in the field will happily share their heart-warming and exciting stories, and they will most likely be beaming at you when they do so – but there is also a tough side you must be ready to face, and I think it’s very important to come to terms with this early on.
Bottom line: understand what the job might require of you, and only do what you feel comfortable with.
Graduate Education, do I need it?
Academically there are lots of advantages to having a Masters or PhD in terms of gaining a deeper knowledge of your field, future job opportunities, and applying for grants. They can, however, cost quite a lot of money, and of course take several years to complete. If you are considering post-secondary education, there are a few things to think about:
- Do you enjoy the academic environment?
- Will it help you get to where you want to go?
- Are you willing/able to pay the fees associated with a MSc/PhD program?
- Are you able to handle the extra workload, and manage your time accordingly?
- Do you plan to continue on into an academic career?
* For more information, check out my post on BEING A GRAD STUDENT
In my own biased opinion, graduate school is a fantastic way to learn a variety of useful skills, and to establish connections in your field of interest. However, there are other programs available for those more interested in practical work. I also think that academic knowledge is only one type of knowledge, and you can learn a lot from collaborating with other stakeholders, even if your opinions don’t always agree! For example, through my research at the Coastal Ecology Lab I have met with energy corporations, government scientists, members of local conservation groups, and the general public. All of these experiences are an invaluable part of my research, and at the end of the day, I believe that having these diverse experiences is the best way to find out what you are truly interested in.
Finally, you don’t necessarily need to be a researcher in order to contribute to it. Fields like conservation require more than just biologists – they are complex machines that incorporate numerous disciplines, including business, politics, statistics, engineering, and education. At the end of the day, I think it’s enthusiasm and motivation that really counts – how you apply those is up to you!
Bottom-line: Many useful things can be taught in the classroom, but when it comes to topics like conservation and the environment, there is really no substitute for hands-on experience and networking.
Research in biology isn’t just about playing with animals in nature reserves – this is a large, complex, and demanding field. Most of all, I am a strong believer in the idea that research does not end with simply amassing a vast library of knowledge. Researchers also need to:
- maintain a non-biased perspective
- come up with new ideas and solutions (and be willing to compromise on some things in order to successfully work with your team)
- reach out and share their ideas – because we need to work together to protect our planet, and an educated next generation will more readily realize the value of our natural world.
Finally, if you think you might be interested in doing research, get started early!
- Learn more about the topics that interest you
- Approach people or organizations you would like to work for
- Volunteer for as many things as possible (even if it’s not exactly what you were looking for, stay open-minded and try something new)
- Attend talks, open lectures, meetings and film screenings
- Get involved in Citizen Science
- Join a research expedition
- Keep up to date on research projects around the world
- Be persistent and learn to accept failure – your success won’t happen overnight!
Read more about the lessons I learned in the field.