PhD-level conservation careers for maximum real-world impact
March 18, 2014 5:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a PhD program pursuing a degree in conservation biology. When I finish (and possibly after completing a postdoc or two) I'd like to end up in a job where I can maximize my real-world conservation impact. I'd like to hear some suggestions on how I can do that; lots more detail to be found inside, as well as my reasoning on the subject so far.

So I'm working on a PhD in conservation biology, with focuses in ecosystem health, evolutionary potential, molecular techniques, and geographic information systems (GIS). My program also involves significant collaboration with researchers, conservation managers, and policymakers in the developing world. I'm still in the first year of my program, but I feel that it's never too early to be thinking about the ultimate path I want to take in terms of my eventual career. I'm looking for advice in that regard.

The main thing that I know I want out of a career is the opportunity to make a significant real-world conservation impact. That's why I went into conservation biology, after all; aside from the fact that I love research, find ecology fascinating, have always felt a deep affinity for nature, and wanted to build a deep knowledge of a specific field, it is a deep conviction of mine that the ongoing environmental crisis is one of the biggest and most important societal challenges of our time and I wanted to equip myself to participate meaningfully in that struggle. However, I've come to realize that my choice of career (and my choices within that career) will end up largely determining whether or not the expertise I am acquiring will translate into meaningful change.

One thing that concerns me is that a career in academic research – the default career path for PhD graduates, despite the increasing difficulty of finding good jobs in academia – does not necessarily involve creating that change. Even in a field as relevant and applied as conservation bio, so much of the incentive structure for an academic is based around grant funding and publication in academic journals that it's perfectly possible to have a productive and even illustrious career as a conservation biologist without ever actually creating any change in the real world. Those two activities (plus teaching) take up such a large portion of an academic's time that I know it can be difficult to do just about anything else, and neither of them necessarily have any impact outside of academia itself. Also, academics often frown upon those researchers who are perceived as activists or advocates or who spend a lot of time doing public outreach, as those activities can be seen as compromising one's neutrality and scientific integrity.

Therefore, I'm becoming increasingly keen to find ways that I can get outside the academic box and do work that focuses on making a real positive impact on the environment. I'm interested both in ways to do this from within a traditional academic career – because some academics do manage it, so I know it's possible though it's not yet clear to me how one goes about doing it – and in alternative careers (not necessarily even in research per se) where the expertise and qualifications I am developing would be put to good use in a more applied way. I'm particularly interested in working to effect change at the systemic level, the level of culture, policy, and societal behavior, because I see the environmental crisis as being fundamentally due to systemic processes (rather than isolated events or individual acts) stemming from a distorted societal worldview and the policies and practices that this worldview engenders. I want a career where my PhD and research experience would be put to good use, though I would be OK with stepping back from the actual practice of research itself if it meant I could have a better chance of creating meaningful positive change in the world.

Ideally, though it's not a strict requirement, I would also find a career that afforded me the opportunity to travel to and spend time in parts of the world that are most in need of protection. The part of my work that I enjoy most as a graduate student is the fieldwork, and while I recognize that big changes are more often made in conference rooms than they are in the field I would really like to be able to retain a fieldwork-style component in my work over the long term. I also would really like to be able to continue to do research; it wouldn't necessarily have to be academic research (I am aware that many research projects happen outside of the academic model) but I do love doing science and learning to do research is obviously a huge part of the training that I am undergoing and I would like to put that training to good use. I also wouldn't mind continuing my education after I get this PhD, to acquire a complementary qualification in another field that would position me for a more influential career – if I do take the academic track then I'm probably looking at between two and six years of postdoctoral research after graduation anyway, so I would not see a "detour" into a complementary field (something policy-related like economics, political science, or environmental law perhaps, or something else like sociology or journalism or environmental engineering?) as a waste of my time as long as it meant that in the end I was better equipped to achieve my ultimate goal of having a significant positive impact on the environment.

I apologize for how broadly-phrased this question is, but I'm trying to cast a wide net here. Partly that's because I am quite agnostic regarding what career path I end up in so long as it serves my ultimate goal of helping to alleviate the environmental crisis, and partly that's just because I don't really know what my options are. Non-academic career options aren't discussed much from within academia, nor are activities that involve creating real-world impact from within an academic career (in my field and in my experience, anyway) so I'm really just beginning my search for a career that suits my goals. I have plenty of time to search – another four years, probably – but I'd like to get started right away. Any suggestions you have regarding career tracks to look into, plans for positioning and equipping myself for those careers, strategies for effecting real-world change from within academia, or even specific individuals whose life and work I might look to as sources of inspiration, would be very much appreciated.

Thanks as always for your time and your advice. Much love to the Hivemind.
posted by Scientist to Work & Money (3 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I work in a related field and my observation is that people can make meaningful impacts in academia, agencies, consulting, and policy jobs -- the difference in impact comes from smartness, effort, and ability to work with others, not from the sector.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:22 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

A career path not every grad student thinks about is government science and science policy. Public science does many things that academic, private or commercial science cannot.

Researchers are full time, and professionalized. Rather than students, most work is done by researchers themselves and technicians. While this doesn't result in necessarily better end product, it does mean that experienced people are generally quicker and make fewer mistakes than students, who need to learn as they go. This allows us to be faster (but not cheaper!) than many of our academic peers.

Funding horizons are long, decades, and large projects are (more) possible. Field studies lasting in the decades are common. I've inherited a number of sites we have visited every few years for a half century. The ability to have really long-term continuity is such a luxury.

Public scientists often have access to funding sources which are not or not as available to academics or industry. There are several pseudo-granting bodies/funding programs, both nationally and internationally which I can access as a government researcher, which are harder for academics and private research consultants to be part of.

The potential to influence public policies are very direct: with a good publication record, you will become the resource for policy makers. I can point to portions of regulation, legal decisions and regulatory hearings that I've had a direct effect on, in some cases altering national priorities. If you choose to go that route, you are well positioned to become a policy maker yourself, in your later career.

There are very significant downsides too.

Funding is very dependent on political mood. Priorities can change, and you have to be able to roll with that.

Secondly, what you study is defined by your public mandate. Unlike the freedom given to an academic, you are usually working for a policy or regulatory "client" who needs certain research done. You have some, but reduced, ability to choose your research topics.

It's also true that the level of bureaucracy is very high---hiring, procurement and departmental bumf will consume significant amounts of time.

Public science can also give you a public role sometimes, where you are put forward as a spokesperson, or on point during a crisis. While rewarding to some, others find this very personally stressful. Burn-out is a real possibility.

Finally, public science, while comfortable, is not the ticket to wealth that research in the private sector can be. Pay is typically less than academic salaries, but the top ends are similar.

Some concerns are overblown: I've never found that there are great restrictions on publication, for content. It does happen, but governments are becoming increasingly aware that it's not kosher to vet journal publications. I frequently have embargoes on my research publications---common when part of what you do is involved in regulation "rule-making" or a court case---but that's a delay, not a restriction.

In short a public science career is a world of contrasts can be anything from a quiet full-time research job, to a public spokesperson role to a policy-maker position, depending on your personal capabilities and interests.
posted by bonehead at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I work in your field (and based on those keywords, *really* in your field). I can't honestly solve the problem of how to maximise your effect, but if it helps at all I have chosen to try and maximise mine by spitbull's route above. People are more effective - far more effective - than most ideas I've ever had, and probably more effective than all of them. Every year I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to challenge about 25 young conservationists at the start of their careers with facts, concepts and questions that should force them to develop a set of intellectual tools that will mean they cannot do anything but impart subsequent change. It's not my job to tell them what that change should look like, and in fact that rather defeats the purpose. I'm never going to save a species, but some of them will.

I really recognise all the concerns you mention, too. I just wanted to mention that if your talents do lie in academic conservation then it's not a dead end at all.
posted by cromagnon at 5:20 PM on March 18, 2014

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