Who am I to conservation: shaping how our career trees branch

The root and the trunk

Students of conservation and wildlife studies often start off with field experiences. I volunteered and interned on ecological projects, and fell in love with hiking in remote or human-dominated landscapes, looking for animals and watching them behave. Conservation career trees often seem to root us in this love of nature. We commune with open spaces and despite, or perhaps because of, all the challenges of living in sometimes harsh or isolating conditions, we want more. These early internships and volunteer experiences often form a solid trunk, launching these next few experiences. Many of us then go on to become conservation practitioners, playing a variety of support and leadership roles in conservation efforts, or going on to study conservation further in formalized ways. Either way, to succeed in this relatively non-traditional career path, we often need a strong support network of family/friends and teachers, nourishing and encouraging our advancement past these early stages of growth. I have managed to get to a postdoctoral position after years of studying ecology in various roles, nourished by my personal and academic communities.

The branches

As we progress into further positions, we may branch out to learning statistics and data analysis and study design. Or to developing connections and trust with a diversity of local people at our field sites. Perhaps we pour our energy into learning how to self-manage our time and write grants, read papers, and/or write papers. And then our time often shifts to include managing other people, perhaps teaching others what we have learned. Somehow, we spend much more time studying wildlife by sitting at a computer, filling out paperwork, coordinating people and money, analysing data, or writing up our work. By the time we reach our mid-thirties, our priorities have often shifted—subtly, or perhaps multiple times, abruptly. Some people transplant themselves into conservation careers after building their career trunks elsewhere— maybe engineering or journalism or law. By this point most of our career trees look quite different than we might’ve imagined a decade earlier. You might have shifted the species you study, from insects or birds or maybe even humans. Moving around and traveling as much isn’t the primary focus anymore, and fieldwork is a rare luxury. Your tree has perhaps become more sedentary. You hopefully think of your tree like a long-lived banyan tree—you can keep growing indefinitely and branching in whatever directions nourish you best. Do you want to learn more methods and scientific skills, or bolster your leadership skills? Perhaps consider taking management courses, which your younger sapling self might never have considered?

The leaves

Though most of your everyday perspective might focus on the root and trunk and branches, what people really see on your tree are the leaves. What outputs do you have, in your papers and reports? How do you present your work to various audiences? And how do you interact with people during meetings and conferences and in emails? These outward components decide your tree’s appearance, and help people identify your tree species. I think I’m a bit of a deciduous tree– I have to keep refreshing my leaves, questioning whether they’re the right ones for me, to feel alive.

Shaping your tree

There are a few things to consider about shaping your career tree, no matter which career stage you are at and regardless of the shape your tree has taken. Consider that some branches are and will be dead ends— you might spend months working on an project or analysis or a professional relationship that doesn’t work out. But this is par for the course in the life of the tree! These experiences often lead to other side branches, exposing you to new environments and ways of thinking. At the very least they are wonderful learning experiences; opportunities to learn what not to do.

Another aspect of career growth is our attitude to our ‘gardeners’: other conservationists or scientists, who could shape and help optimise the trajectory of our career’s growth, if we let them. It took me a long time to learn that even at a given time, I often need different inputs from multiple people to make progress.

Tree alignment

I feel the most motivated when I have a vision of my destination in mind. It’s helpful for me to envision what my future career tree could look like, perhaps in five years. What do I want to achieve, how many people or habitats do I want to have an impact on? What fields will my work touch, and what is missing for me to get there? Using the fundamentals of my knowledge and experience, how can I grow in currently relevant directions? If a funding theme becomes available, or a pressing conservation gap arises, can I adapt my research questions feasibly in that dimension, while still remaining aligned with my goals? One strategy I have developed to assess these alignment questions is to evaluate where I spend my time.

As an ecologist, I often find my time fragmented across many types of tasks. This is inevitable in most careers. As in the sample week below, I try to periodically assess whether I am allocating my time in a meaningful way considering my envisioned tree. One tangible way to do this is to set quarterly or semi- annual goals, but in practice to only act on a daily or weekly to-do list, that is organised in such a way as to prioritise important, longer-term goals.

Figure 1: In my academic postdoctoral research position, I’m often curious about how I spent my time, and whether I can be more deliberate in how I allocate it. I have found that by tracking it, I can allot my time more consciously. Left: This is a sample week during which I worked for 31 hours, and this view is divided by broad categories rather than by tasks. I spent 10.7 hours (11%) on administrative work; 1.8 hours on mentoring (6%); and 26 hours on research-related activities (84%). Right: This was a week during which I worked for about 41 hours. Grouping some of these categories, I spent 5.5 hours (14%) on administrative work; 4.67 hours (12%) on mentoring; 7 hours (17%) attending seminars, webinars, and lab meetings; 21.26 hours (52%) on my research; and 2.16 hours (5%) on outreach work. I have found it useful to periodically assess whether the way I spend my time is aligned with my shorter- and longer-term goals. I find it most productive to be flexible but deliberate in how I allocate my time, and have found that this allocation changes drastically across career stages.
Tree appearance

If you want to advocate for conservation, you need to be a reliable, appealing, trustworthy, and resourceful person yourself, first. Your career tree, even if it felt like it meandered through time, retrospectively forms one cohesive whole. Students the world over, but especially in cultures that reward humility, like India, are reticent to deliberately shape and cultivate how this tree appears to their employers; to “sell” or advertise themselves. We have been taught that singing one’s own praise is bragging. And bragging is bad. So often, what we have done and what others think we have done are disconnected. We also somehow develop this idea, as students of nature, that we don’t and shouldn’t want money, really. So, marketing ourselves to increase our income also is anathema to many of us. But over the years I have learned that we are each our own greatest advocates. We need to advocate for ourselves and negotiate to satisfy and align our own needs and grow ourselves in useful dimensions.

For a moment, consider your career tree—yourself—as a brand. The world sees you by how you choose to present that brand. The posts you choose to put out on social media, the way you present your CV, the way you interact with people in every professional setting, these are all aspects of what should be one cohesive brand. If you send friend requests to professors or conservation professionals from all over the world, then your social media accounts are verging on professional. If you then post personal selfies and your thoughts on a political agenda, or share cat videos, remember that these are all part of how you choose to present your brand. If the messages the various platforms display are at odds with each other, it will look like your tree is a chimera—a confusing mix of species—rather than one cohesive whole.

This article is from issue


2021 Mar