Thursday, 13 January 2011

"How do I get a job working with animals?" (or models?)

This week The Bug explores how to get a job in wildlife conservation, what is a Science Fair, does wildlife conservation actually work, what is the new DDT, and is Chris Packham married?...

A curious thing happened to the internet about six months ago. Google started trying to finish your sentences. For instance, type in ‘Angelina’ and it tries to finish your sentence with ‘…Jolie’. It makes this presumption by looking at what most people on planet Earth type into Google and predicting what you'll write, a process it calls autocompleting.

This makes for some interesting lunchtime fun. Type in “Chris Packham” and you can see that most people finish this search sentence with “married” (or “gay”). Type in “how do I get rid of…” and you’ll see that most people (well, kids) are searching Google trying to get rid of the parental control settings on their internet browser. That or fleas.

Well, the point of all this is because if you type in “How do I get a job working with…” guess what comes up tops? Yep, you guessed it: “…animals”. Incredible. In fact, two of the top ten searched items on this planet are “…working with animals” or “…working with wildlife”. (For interest, “How do I get a job working with models” is also in the top ten*).

So, animals is top of the list then - interesting? Yes. Entirely surprising? No, not for those working in wildlife conservation who have to sift increasingly through reams of graduate CVs that come in for each and every paid position.

The truth is, working with wildlife –certainly paid employment in conservation- is really hard to get. Lots of people want to do it. Lots of people have trained for it, and lots of people have gathered lots of experience to help them get it. But with budgets being shaved on pretty much all sides of the conservation arena, there’s undoubtedly growing numbers of graduates competing for fewer and fewer paid graduate posts.

The RSPB, increasingly the mothership of UK wildlife conservation, this week reminds us of the struggle that graduates face: they have a new project that’s offering eighteen paid graduate places within their science teams, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It can certainly be viewed as a sign of the times when the Lottery is funding paid employment for wildlife conservation, while the government quietly and politely sweeps the curtain back…

I’m undecided as to where, as environmental educators, this puts us? Should we be pushing undergraduates (and sixth formers for that matter) harder, pushing them to take on more and more volunteer work to add nitro to their CV’s and better guarantee them the job at the end, or should we be promoting the notion throughout education (including within university) that good old amateur naturalism is as worthy a pursuit as a paid career?

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between, if you provide enough inspiration, pupils may find some thirst within life for paid, or unpaid, conservation work. They’ll get it where they can. Either way, wildlife conservation wins.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own top-five advice for graduates to get paid work in wildlife conservation (or at least get an interview!):

1. Volunteer – if you haven’t got experience, then get in line. Charities depend on volunteers for a number of things: office work, field surveys, event preparation are but three. It’ll make you stick out to show that you have worked in some capacity for a wildlife charity, volunteer group, or even an environmental consultancy (depending on what sort of work you’re after). Many charities have started special schemes (apprenticeships) offering six month unpaid positions – these can give you a good spread of skills (office / site-based / working in teams), if you’ve got the savings… (ha!).

2. Get admin-savvy: because budgets within wildlife conservation are getting tighter by the day, there won’t be a Miss Moneypenny on hand to sort out your filing, to walk you through the office software or to organise a meeting using Outlook. You’ll need to show you’ve got these skills. They don’t sound like much, but they can help show that you are the sort of person that can fit in, and start working quickly.

3. Try and manage your own project, or show that you ‘own’ something: Consider writing a blog, starting a volunteer group, campaigning on a local issue – anything, as long as it’s yours, and you managed it yourself. If you can manage a project successfully it shows to your future employee that you’re capable of seeing something through, of working with other people and of problem-solving ‘on the job’. It shows them that you’re a known quantity, and that you’re capable. Depending on the project, this sort of thing can shine out on a CV.

4. Don’t fly-CV, and be concise [unlike this blog]: If you’re struggling to come up with reasons why you can do the job you’re thinking of applying for, then give up and invest your energy in a job application where you feel it’s more ‘you’. Also think carefully about honing down your CV, for instance picking out the top three things you’ve done for each of the given skills they outline that they want – almost like a tick list. Punchy, powerful CVs are always better than tomes of single-side gumph.

5. Read the advert: I cannot underline how important this one is. CAREFULLY READ THE ADVERT: if they ask for a covering letter outlining why you’re suitable then do one. Don’t just say: “Dear sir / madam, here’s my CV”. Take note of the deadline too!

(Ok these are just my own modest thoughts, but they might be helpful to someone who has just typed “How to get a job working with…” into Google). Please feel free to add your tips below.

IN OTHER NEWS…Field trips, errr, make the news…

Of course, experience counts for a lot when it comes to CVs, and what better early experiences are there than the biology field trip? Well, it was fantastic to see the Association for Science Education’s message this week that increasing the number of school field trips could help improve children's understanding and knowledge of biology and chemistry.

Science legend Steve Jones sums it up in a lovely piece in the Telegraph:
“I have vivid memories, once I had escaped screaming from my grammar school chemistry lab, of being taken at the age of 14 on a trip to the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Field Centre in Yorkshire; and being enthralled by the possibility, even in the rain, of actually discovering something about animals (fresh water snails, as it happened) in the wild.”

“That first experience of field work formed my scientific career as it has that of many others.” he says.

ASE hopes to bring the field trip back to the centre of the school experience. Next week, it launches a report on the issue at the House of Commons. Good luck to them!

Google does a science fair

Ah, the science fair. That piece of American culture that we in the UK only know of through occasional references in US teenage sit-coms (Saved by the Bell anyone? Anyone?). The idea is that you pick a problem and you solve said problem with a little table display, ideally with a diarama, or a hamster in a mini-blimp. Well, hats off to Google for coming up with an international Science Fair (International? Ssshhhh... just don't mention the Chinese...) for 13-18 year olds. Prizes include expeditions with National Geographic, Google scholarships (worth £25k) and something about Lego. Just don’t ask them what they do with the ideas…

Reasons to be alive…

Didn’t I read that January was one of the most depressing months of the year? Well, here’s one reason to be cheerful. Conservation works. It’s easy to forget that conservation does save species, and that species once on the brink of extinction can be pulled back. A nice summary of conservation success stories can be found here on Treehugger's beautiful blog: You might want to tell others (pupils or colleagues), to help keep their peckers up.

…but not necessarily blind to the challenges
Remember DDT? Course you do, it’s the staple example in biology textbooks of how pesticides can multiply up the foodchain and do massive damage to species, and ecosystems. Well, if you’re looking for a more recent example to discuss with pupils or fellow wildlife fanatics then look no further than neonicotinoids. These pesky chemicals are increasingly thought to be behind recent bee declines. But will the government listen to the science-based arguments from Buglife and The Independent? Answer: probably not yet, so write to your local MP.

Hmmmmmm…MPs working with animals? There’s something you won’t see in Google’s autocomplete listings any time soon.

Until next week, Jules

*answer: grow-up or get a Saturday job in Games Workshop.

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