So, you want a job that lets you save the world…

In this week’s QAECO reading group, we changed tack. Rather than a science-based paper, we discussed a recent paper from the Graduate Groups of Ecology and Geography at UC Davis (Blickley et al. in press). Their paper arose from a workshop on graduate education for conservation professionals, in which conservation scientists, managers, graduate students and faculty discussed how graduate students can gain appropriate training for non-academic conservation jobs.

Training graduate students for non-academic conservation jobs is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, these jobs are vital for improved management of the world’s natural resources. We need people in conservation jobs to be well trained, ensuring that the initiatives they implement are guided by up-to-date knowledge of conservation practice, and, more generally, by the critical, evidence-based thinking needed to evaluate conservation effectiveness. Secondly, the number of graduate students being trained exceeds the number of long-term academic jobs. To be sure of a job, students in conservation graduate programs need skills that extend beyond academia.

Blickley et al. analyzed job advertisements for conservation-science positions and interviewed conservation professionals who have experience hiring early-career conservation scientists to determine what skills are sought by employers. They compared requirements in the government, non-profit and private sectors.

The most commonly required non-disciplinary skills varied among sectors, although the following five were prominent: project management, interpersonal skills, written communication, program leadership, and networking.


Ordination plot reproduced from Bickley et al. (in press) showing how skills nominated in job advertisements correspond to each other and to the three employment sectors that were examined.


An ordination of the advertised job requirements explained ~60% of the variation using three axes. The first and third axes are shown in the diagram, along with the location of the government, nonprofit and private jobs. It illustrates that field and technical/IT skills, which tend to have a disciplinary grounding, are opposite to some of the major non-disciplinary skills that are sought, such as project management and program leadership. That is, jobs that require the former skills tend not to require the latter, and vice versa.

Noticeably, the non-profit sector is absent from the lower left quadrant where field and technical/IT skills lie. This sector is also rare in the upper left quadrant. The skills sought by nonprofit organizations tend to be those on the right hand side of the ordination, where non-disciplinary skills dominate (project management, program leadership, communication skills). Of course, these are only some of the average patterns, and there is variation among jobs.

What can graduate students do?

So how might graduate students gain and demonstrate these non-disciplinary skills, so that they can help improve their chances of being competitive in the non-academic job market?

Let’s work our way through the top five skills identified by Blickley et al.

1. Project management

Skills in project management are not demonstrated by simply saying “I wrote a thesis – that was a BIG project”. While it is true that successfully completing a PhD does entail considerable project management skills, employers may not be able to link that with the specific skills they have in mind, such as planning and budgeting, delivering projects within budget, efficient scheduling of tasks, supervision and coordination of personnel, etc. It is important to tease these skills out, and identify specific components of your PhD (or Masters or Honours project) that tick the boxes employers seek. Did you recruit and supervise volunteers? Yes = supervision and coordination of personnel. Did you complete a whole season of field work on a tiny budget? Yes = delivery of projects within budget. Did you have limited time to complete several set tasks (write literature review, complete pilot study and submit grant application all by March 19)? Yes = efficient scheduling of tasks. You have the skills, you just need to provide employers with specific, tangible and compelling examples.

2. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills include motivating others, listening and responding to others, communicating clearly, having a sense of empathy, practising conflict resolution, etc. It’s possible that a graduate student could make it through his/her degree without using these skills. But it seems unlikely. Undergraduate courses are littered with group projects that require, and demonstrate, interpersonal skills. Graduate students develop and employ interpersonal skills in many of the common tasks they perform during their candidature, including giving presentations (communicating clearly), liaising with land-holders/stake-holders/management agencies, attending and participating in workshops, contributing to reading groups, etc. Again, it’s a matter of identifying those skill sets within the (sometimes mundane) day-to-day activities that define graduate studies.

An important point raised during our discussion of Blickley et al.’s paper was that one can look beyond their educational experience to demonstrate the skills employers desire. Participation in community or sporting clubs requires many of the skills listed above (motivating others, listening and responding to others, communicating clearly, having a sense of empathy, practising conflict resolution), and most graduate students will be able to draw on some involvement in these sorts of activities. Employers are likely to value experiences, so volunteering can help. But make sure volunteering is not simply exploitation, and that the rewards in terms of personal satisfaction and skill development are worth the time you invest.

3. Written communication

Now, a recent graduate might say “I’ve got great written communication skills – I wrote a 50,000 word thesis. That shows I can write!” Indeed it does, but being able to write a tome is only one aspect of written communication.

For many employers, the key to demonstrating good written communication skills is showing that you can tailor your writing appropriately to different circumstances. A 50,000 thesis is unlikely to be required in most of these. Writing for a range of audiences can help. If you haven’t already, try writing media releases, opinion pieces, letters to newspapers, articles for newspapers or online equivalents (e.g., The Conversation), magazines (e.g., the Environmental Decision Group’s magazine Decision Point), blog posts, tweets, etc. Many of these activities might not be standard fare for graduate students, but they are clearly helpful for practising and demonstrating your written communication skills. They can also help increase the reach and impact of your research.

4. Program leadership

Most graduate students have opportunities to demonstrate and practise leadership skills. You might be able to help run student societies or other organizations. For example, some of the graduate students in QAECO are members of the executive of professional societies. Others help lead the Botany graduate student organization.

If you can’t find an established leadership position to fill, look for them elsewhere or make one yourself. What is the web presence of your lab group? QAECO’s website arose from three students in the group taking the initiative to say “We need a better web presence”, and then they set about creating it.

5. Networking

Networking is an important skill for academics. Academia relies on knowing about the latest research, collaboration, and making sure your research reaches the intended audience. Again, it is not a simple matter of saying “I go to conferences – I’m great at networking”. You will need to demonstrate that you can network in a variety of settings and across institutions and sectors.

How one actually does that can be difficult to define – it will depend a lot on your location, the networks of those around you and your own personal comfort levels with ‘putting yourself out there’. Two points we wish to make is that it isn’t that hard, nor does it need to entail overt pushiness. On the first point, you might chat to the speaker after the seminar you just found really interesting, email a researcher whose work you’re interested in, ask to meet up with a policy person from the Department of [insert relevant field], etc. You could even write a blog post about someone’s paper (“Hello to everyone at UC Davis!”).

We mention the second point because it is easy (for some of us) to feel that networking is some kind of sordid behavior. But it’s not – it’s just talking to people and getting involved. It is about being part of the conversation. Who knows, you might just enjoy it! Networking in this way, and putting yourself out there is important – it is particularly important for women, who, on average, might be less inclined to self-promotion and networking than men.

To sum up, read Blickley et al. if you’re interested in a non-academic job; think about the skills they discuss – which ones you have, how to develop those you don’t, and how you could demonstrate those skills to a potential employer.

However, even if you’ve got your heart set on being the next Professor of Ecology at The University of Hotshots, read Blickley et al.; many of the skills they discuss will probably be in the Professorship advertisement too.

By Mick, Geoff, Kirsten and Team

Other reading

There are lots of resources about how to get a job as a conservation scientist and in related disciplines. Some of the issues discussed in the subject Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science are summarised here. If you have other suggestions for resources, feel free to submit them via the comments.

Edit (12/11/2013): Here is some more advice about getting a job in conservation:


Blickley, J. L., Deiner, K., Garbach, K., Lacher, I., Meek, M. H., Porensky, L. M., Wilkerson, M. L., Winford, E. M. and Schwartz, M. W. (in press) Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01956.x

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7 Responses to So, you want a job that lets you save the world…

  1. Pingback: Soft ecology | Working on the wild side

  2. Pingback: Soft ecology | The Quantitative & Applied Ecology Group

  3. Here are some resources for non-academic jobs, which Jane Catford from our group came across. Via the Earth Science Women’s Network:

  4. Pingback: Nov ’12: New paper published @ Marit Wilkerson

  5. Pingback: Recommended reading | November 2012 | Cindy E Hauser

  6. Pingback: CAREER (PERSONAL SKILLS) « 2013yearbookblog

  7. michaelbode says:

    Sounds like it was a great discussion. You know, as I was reading through your list of things the average grad student could do, it struck me how few are expected of a PhD student, or rewarded. In the eyes of my department (of mathematics, admittedly), I could have finished my PhD without doing any of those things.

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