This week, director of the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment, Mark Schwartz, organized meetings with a panel of conservation experts to discuss how students can jump into the biodiversity and conservation fields.
Over the course of the day, the panelist’s responses to questions and advice revolved around one overarching theme: conservation is not only about the physical sciences.
“Effective conservation requires a strong grounding in environmental sciences, as well as an ability to think like a sociologist and work like an entrepreneur,” Schwartz said. “Universities struggle with how best to prepare graduate students to enter the world of conservation. Today, business management and conflict-resolution training have become as important as population genetics and statistics.”
Although the field is constantly changing, there are still some basic steps that will lead to a successful and gratifying career in conservation, said Eleanor Sterling from the American Museum of Natural History.
First step: get hands-on experience in the field before pursuing a career in conservation.
“I hugely recommend internships,” Sterling said. “An intern makes maybe $1000 a month now.”
However, the right kind of internship is necessary to accurately gauge personal passion and learn more simultaneously.
“Students come to me to learn on the job, but I don’t have the time to teach them,” Sterling said. “What I want is a student that has a specific skill set to apply.”
“The best way to accomplish that is when a conservation company has a question and a university has a student that can answer it,” Sterling said.
Second step: think about what needs to be done and find a way to implement it.
“If you have a good idea, a functional business model and you’re a good communicator, all you need to do is find someone to listen and get a job,” said Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
“This is a good time because it’s a time period of ferment – everything is experimentation,” Kareiva said. “A single individual can make a difference.”
Third step: stay positive and expand social horizons.
“You need to be optimistic,” Kareiva said. “And you need to get out of your comfort zone and not just talk to like-minded people.”
Kent Redford, vice president for conservation strategy, notes that positivity also helps the field grow.
“We as human beings are particularly bad at dealing with uncertain situations,” Redford said. “It’s always, ‘why you need to stop what you’re doing and why it’s your fault.’ ”
“We need a positive vision of the future. Conservation biologists have too long fancied themselves as professional mourners at the bedside of a dying earth,” he said.
Experts said expanding social connections is also a key factor of success in conservation.
“The most important thing is to build social capital,” Sterling said. “Fellow students, professors and other people in school. You could find yourself working with them decades later.”
Overall, the panel of scientists wanted to make sure students knew that conservation included professionals in the social sciences.
“Many of us are trained in the social sciences and politics, not just the arcane scientific studies,” Redford said. “These lessons won’t be found published, though; it’s community knowledge. Go seek it out.”
DINA MORCOS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.