Putting Passion to Work


Saving the Earth as a Career: Advice on Becoming a Conservation Professional . Hunter, M. L., D. B. Lindenmayer, and A. J. K. Calhoun . 2007 . Blackwell Publishing , Malden , MA .

Conservation professionals do indeed serve as “doctors for the earth,” as the authors suggest, yet despite such profound responsibility, the profession lags far behind the sophistication of human and animal medicine. That diagnosis and treatment for the “patient” (earth) is difficult, sporadic, mostly untried, and often politically unfavorable is a reflection of the complexity and scale of the endeavor. It is not surprising then that aspiring conservation professionals have no standard courses of study or certifying exams. Saving the Earth as a Career, one of the first books to provide a much-needed reference for navigating the confusing mass of choices, pitfalls, and opportunities goes a long way toward filling this rather large void. An added bonus is that Hunter and his coauthors manage to do so in a casual style that is easy to read, interesting, and even funny. The wisdom these three accomplished professors have gained from their own experiences and that of their students is obvious from the beginning, shines throughout, and is shared generously. I wish this book had been around when I was making my own career decisions.

The quest for career satisfaction begins from within, and self-examination is the theme of the first chapter, “Is this the right career for you?” Conservation careers span a wide range from naturalist to environmental consultant, from government scientist to community organizer, from water-quality specialist to conservation planner. For any of these, the overriding requirement is a passion for making a difference to the environment. It is also necessary to weather the realities of the job, such as comparatively low pay and large amounts of computer time. In this chapter, the authors successfully foster introspection and guide expectations (like pay scales) to a realistic level.

Most of Saving the Earth as a Career covers undergraduate and graduate university preparation for working in conservation. The advice is solid. Take relevant courses, work hard, and do well academically and socially (having a good attitude and getting along with people is important in most conservation work). Pursue activities outside academia and begin to think like a “conservation professional who happens to be at the student stage” (p. 20) rather than a “student studying a conservation discipline” (p. 20). The intricacies of graduate school, from deciding which type of program to pursue (master's with thesis, professional master's, PhD) and finding a good advisor to getting accepted into graduate school, are outlined with detail and insight, making the reader an instant insider. An example of one such tidbit of helpful advice: “choosing a program without a visit to see the university and meet your advisor and future colleagues is like going on a very long, very important blind date” (p. 51).

The authors also give valuable insight into what it takes to succeed in their world once you have arrived. Of particular importance is resilience, especially during the first season of collecting data. “Weather, plants, animals, and human subjects do not always behave according to plan. Study sites may be bulldozed. If you assume every data point will make or break your project, you will generate a lot of stress and you may be blind to assessing things that should be abandoned and new opportunities for exploration” (p. 109). Acknowledged also is the importance of communicating well (teaching assistantships are great for improving communication and public-speaking skills), publishing, attending professional meetings, and making contacts. The hard-knock lessons the authors have learned (and watched students learn) are truly a gift with the heartfelt intention of giving future conservationists their best chance.

With degree and fleshed-out resume in hand, it is time to see what opportunities are out there, time to revisit career goals, and to use those personal contacts to land your dream job in conservation. Academia may seem like a natural choice (and indeed the one that the authors all made), but the authors make it clear that going the academic route will virtually guarantee a support role in conservation, rather than one on the front line. Those seeking more direct involvement may want to consider employment with a government agency, nongovernmental organization, or consulting firm.

The final advice-filled chapter, “Making a Difference,” is essentially an encouraging and gentle shove into the conservation world. Ways for new conservation professionals to avoid a few key “pitfalls” include recognizing there is more to conservation than science and remembering that great leaders may be conveners rather than authoritarians. In addition, the authors wisely recommend checking in periodically with a code of ethics, including that of the Society for Conservation Biology.

I put the book to the test when I gave Saving the Earth to a diverse group of interns working on conservation projects for The Nature Conservancy around the world. One of the interns, a senior in college thinking about graduate school, said the book really helped her and provided answers to many of her questions. Another intern, just beginning her second year of graduate school, thought the book should be kept at hand and that each chapter should be read as one reaches the next step. She liked the “tips on admissions, conferences, research topics, and all the other things students have no idea how to handle when [starting] graduate school” and thought the book was clear and easy to read.

Although these students belong to the audience the authors appear to target (students in the sciences heading into or already attending graduate school), others are likely to find the book less helpful and even at times frustrating. This brings me to the one downside of the book, its exclusivity. Whereas the title of the book and the first chapter appeal to a broad audience—anyone wanting to make a difference in conserving the Earth—the focus thereafter veers strongly toward academia (courses, graduate school, research, publishing, and conferences) and remains there for most of the book. Readers interested in, for example, the politics and policy-making side of conservation or who cannot pursue further formal education may not find as much help here as they would like. The authors admit their academic bias, but I suspect this will not assuage the disappointment of those enticed by the title and introduction. One student explained it this way, “[I]n the opening chapter it states that people make their way into conservation from all kinds of academic and social backgrounds. The authors repeat the same statement at the end of the book, but in between those two instances there is very little to indicate that one could actually end up in conservation without going to grad[uate] school in hard science.” This intern went so far as to say “the book … could serve as a total turn-off for somebody who lacks … academic privilege.”

Two remedies come to mind. The authors could (for the next edition) simply give the book a different subtitle, say Saving the Earth as a Career: a Guide to Education and Employment for Conservation Science Professionals. Alternatively, the authors could appeal to a broader audience by paring down some of the graduate school research and publishing details and adding new sections. These could include, for example, the current trend in professional masters’ degrees (such as the Master's of Environmental Management degree at Duke University) or how those in countries without such programs might learn from on-the-job training with an international nongovernmental organization (some of which will sponsor further education). Additional sections could include a host of skills that conservation professionals in various careers will likely need. For instance, information specialists and geographical information system (GIS) technicians and analysts will need specific GIS, remote sensing, database, network, and, likely, statistical training. Working for a conservation organization to change national or local policies will require an entirely different set of skills. It would be marvelous were this book to evolve into a comprehensive guide for anyone preparing for any type of conservation career.

Saving the Earth as a Career is a valuable reference and the authors have taken a momentous step forward in guiding future generations to protect the planet's natural assets. For students interested in pursuing the science side of conservation via graduate school, there is no better guide. As these students graduate and begin their careers, perhaps Hunter, Lindenmayer, and Calhoun will continue to tap their wisdom, expertise, and experience to create a sequel, possibly something like Success in Saving the Earth—Long-Term Impact in Your Conservation Career.