Early career pathways in science and conservation: Where will I be in 10 years?
Are you enrolled in or thinking about embarking on a graduate degree? Do you have a clear idea or goal for where it might take you in 10 years’ time? What skills and personal attributes do you think will be most valuable in getting you there?
Perhaps you are already a decade or more into your career. If so, are you where you thought you would be 10 years ago? Do you think you’d had have some useful advice for your former, younger self (and would you have wanted to hear it then)?
For us, the answer to the latter question was yes. And as we brainstormed what to do for a 10 year reunion of our 2008 MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management (BCM) at the University of Oxford, we realized that synthesizing and sharing the answers to these questions would not only be interesting for us, but (hopefully) valuable for others as well. And not only for those currently enrolled in or thinking about graduate programs, but also for those designing and leading graduate programs that aim to prepare students for careers both inside and outside academia.
The four of us were among 26 students who graduated in 2008 from the BCM course, which was (and still is) very interdisciplinary. We were a diverse group coming in, at various career stages and backgrounds including sectors in natural sciences (government, consulting, fresh out of undergrad), through to veterinary science, law and even English literature. We were also a diverse mix of nationalities, with home countries spanning Australia, Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada, India, Japan, Pakistan, the UK, the US and Switzerland.
As part of our reunion, we held a workshop to synthesize our career pathways since graduating and to identify key lessons learned along the way; each of us presented short ’10 years in 10 minutes’ summaries of where our careers had taken us in the intervening decade.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the diversity of the group coming into the program, our career pathways over the 10 years since graduating have been similarly diverse. What was surprising, though, was how consistent the messages were about the most important personal attributes and professional skills that had helped us along the way, and the things we had found most useful about our MSc program.
Stories of smooth sailing were exceptions, while bumpy paths with personal and professional challenges were basically the rule. Gender issues, including sexism, discrimination, harassment and “mansplaining”, were consistently highlighted by female graduates. Several of us have dealt with mental health issues over the past 10 years, particularly depression during PhD studies. Many of us (both male and female) have also struggled with Impostor Syndrome. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom: growth through adversity was also a common theme.
In reality, most of us are not entirely where we thought we would be a decade ago. This is partly because few of us thought about it very much (then, or in detail along the way), and partly because ‘life happens’ and goals and priorities seldom remain static. Nevertheless, regardless of pathway and sector, a handful of themes, key professional skills and personal attributes consistently came up as having been particularly important to ‘success’.
Ingredients for success
Perhaps the most common and cross-cutting theme in career stories was the importance of being passionate about what you do and also working in a role that matches your values. This is, of course, much easier to do if you know what your values are, and growing awareness of personal values with experience was also a consistent theme. Professions in conflict with values often led to low points, challenges, career re-directions, and/or tough decisions.
Project management skills and being able to work with and lead teams were universally highlighted as assets, regardless of sector. Similarly, the personal attributes and skills of flexibility, compromise, and understanding different perspectives that underpin project management and teamwork, have been essential across the diversity of our careers.
Understanding different sectors and stakeholders and being able to communicate with them effectively was also repeatedly highlighted as a key skill, as was the related skill of being concise in written and verbal communication while retaining the key information, particularly when communicating with non-experts. In many cases, being able to do this quickly was also critical. For those who entered the political field, where scientific fact often does not win arguments, being able to quickly communicate a coherent economic and social argument was crucial.
Business-case awareness was something that consistently came up as being important among those who had worked in the private sector and politics. While it wasn’t initially identified by those working in academia and the public sector, we all appreciated that improved business-case awareness would likely become increasingly important as our careers continue to progress, regardless of sector.
Some male members of the group highlighted that humility was a personal attribute that they had benefited from focusing on. Interestingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) was that this was not something mentioned by any female members, but instead many emphasized that they had benefited from focusing on self-confidence.
Lessons for designing useful graduate training programs
The BCM MSc is designed to be interdisciplinary, and the broad perspectives and generalist knowledge gained through the program were consistently identified as having been particularly useful over the past 10 years. For those of us who have continued to work in the biodiversity and conservation management field, the course also gave us a critical awareness of the societal and international contexts of conservation science problems.
Many of the key skills and ‘ingredients for success’ highlighted above are things that cannot be taught in a graduate program but are learned on the job. Still, the project management skills and independence required to complete independently developed, funded and executed thesis projects were hugely valuable, even though most of us felt that we had been ‘thrown in the deep end’ at the time.
Advice for our 10-year younger selves
Part of each of our ’10 years in 10 minutes’ presentations was three pieces of advice that we would have liked to have given our 10-year younger selves. Common messages across all presenters can be distilled into three key points.
- Network proactively, widely and genuinely. Invest in building your network, but don’t try to impress or ‘schmooze’ by being be false or insincere.
- Be confident in your abilities and persistent. Try to be resilient and adaptable, and do not be put off by setbacks.
- Follow a path that you are passionate about. Those of us who had jobs over the past 10 years that did not align with our values and passions ended up shifting careers; recognizing this early, and being responsive to it, saves time and stress.
Finally, many of the graduates spent time in unglamorous part-time jobs, often coinciding with time spent living with parents, while in periods of transition. So, if you have a freshly minted fancy degree and you are wondering how you have found yourself working a job that you would have been qualified for pre-high school, do not despair. Instead, network, build confidence, and find a pathway with passion!
About the authors:
Rowan, Anne, Lydia and Laura met at the University of Oxford in 2007 as students in the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management. A decade later, Anne is a PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota, and works at a large Washington, DC non-profit on Antarctic conservation issues, Lydia is a Research Assistant in Conservation Ecology at the University of Liverpool, Laura is a freelance writer and researcher, and Rowan is a Research Fellow with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC at the University of Tasmania.
Featured Image is used under a Creative Commons license CC0 Public Domain.