Some tips for aspiring conservation researchers

I wrote this back in 2016 or so, but most of it should still hold true!

I often receive emails from aspiring students and researchers.  Some want to work with me, others are more generally interested in advice about finding field jobs or grad school.  It’s wonderful to get these messages and to see this enthusiasm! However, I am not currently in a position to take on any students or interns; as a humble postdoc, I simply don’t have the capacity in terms of funding or time to mentor a student or intern full-time here in San Diego, and I only hire field assistants who are local to the countries where I do fieldwork.  These circumstances might change someday, but at present, the best I can do for those who send me these emails is to provide some advice in my email response.

…I do not have the means to get you here.

Since I’ve received several of these emails, I have decided to post the tips that I include in my responses, in the hopes that they’ll be helpful to a more broad audience.  NOTE: These tips are not exhaustive. They are also based on my somewhat long-ago experiences looking for field jobs and PhD programs, conversations I’ve had with friends who have gone through the same process, advice that I’ve received from mentors and advisors, and the things that I look for in emails that I receive from aspiring researchers and students. Much of this might be subjective, and some might be outdated… ! *In particular, this is US-centric – if you have advice that’s more appropriate for your country, please share!*

How to email potential mentors/advisors/employers

As much as we might appreciate your interest in our work, we are also usually overextended and drowning in emails. Professional, polite, succinct, and clearly-written emails that present relevant information about your interests, why you are interested in our work, what you are looking for in an opportunity, and your background, are more likely to get a response.

A few reasons for this: (1) if it’s clear you put time and effort into your email, we’ll be more willing to put time and effort into a response; (2) if you demonstrate professionalism in your email, you will seem like a more competent and serious candidate for whatever opportunity; (3) it makes it easier for us to know how to help you, e.g. whether we can actually offer an opportunity for you on our projects or to whom we might be able to refer you.

  1. Make the email subject short and clear
  2. Begin the email with a polite salutation (Dear Professor So-and-so, Dear Dr. Y, etc. – make sure you know the correct title).
  3. The body of the email should be succinct. Briefly mention what you are interested in (“I am seeking opportunities to build my skills in studying behavioral ecology of primates,” perhaps with any more specific interests mentioned) and why your contact’s work interests you (demonstrate that you are familiar with their work!).  The rest of the email should cover some of the topics I mention below – these will differ depending on what type of opportunity you are seeking.  More detailed information should go in a cover letter that you attach.
    1. For internships, field tech positions, etc: Provide a summary of your background (briefly! your CV, which should be attached, will provide more info), such as your most advanced degree and major, and any major fieldwork.  State your immediate goals and requirements (“I am looking for a field assistant position so that I can gain additional field skills” and “I am willing to volunteer, though I am unable to cover expenses for room and board” and “I am available for an internship between June 1 and September 2,” etc.) as well as more long-term goals (“Ultimately, I intend to apply to a PhD program in oceanography”).
    2. For grad school programs: Provide a summary of your background (briefly! your CV, which should be attached, will provide more info), such as your most advanced degree and major, and any major fieldwork. State your interest in graduate school, and in the program that the potential advisor is affiliated with (“Given my interest in interdisciplinary marine conservation research, the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation would be an ideal fit for my graduate school goals”).
  4. Attach your CV!
  5. Attach a Cover Letter (1 page is good) with more detail. For grad school applicants, it might be a good idea to describe an example of a project you’d be interested in pursuing with the person you’re emailing (“A potential project that demonstrates my interests would be the study of social behavior of marine otters in coastal Peru, and how that interacts with conservation threats facing these otters. This research would combine radio-tracking of otters to determine habitat use, as well as focal observations…etc.”), but to also make it clear that you are open to other ideas. This shows a good combination of direction and adaptability.
  6. If someone does put the time into sending you a thoughtful reply, do send a “thank you” email!
How to look for potential field positions or student opportunities

Now, this is where I might well be outdated. Back in my day, I scoured job boards and researcher/faculty websites, applying to posted opportunities as well as “cold emailing” to see what opportunities might arise.  It is worth asking your network for sources of job/student info that they know! And much of this is worth some serious Googling.

For grad school, my approach was a little different. While many of the job boards, email lists, etc. do advertise grad school programs and positions, I mainly looked on program websites (based on what institutions I knew were strong in my interests, including recommendations from friends and acquaintances in the field) to learn more about the programs (how many years, funding, course offerings, general requirements for admission, etc.) and then looked up faculty associated with those programs (sometimes, though, I looked up the faculty first, and then learned about their institutions and programs after). Then I would email the faculty member directly to introduce myself; at least for PhD programs, linking up with a faculty member is almost required for admission – they will vouch for you during admission decisions and, in most cases, will be your source of funding, unless you come in with your own (e.g., an NSF Graduate Fellowship). I also emailed people linked to the administration of the program asking about general information and if they had any recommendations or tips.

I kept an Excel worksheet of all opportunities that I applied to, how I learned about them, what I had initiated, and what kind of response received (if any) to keep myself organized – I advise a similar approach!

I recommend writing out a list of what you hope to gain from these experiences, and what you expect from these experiences in terms of time commitment, funding support/pay, connections, transferable skills, etc.  This can help keep you on track while immersing yourself in the search.

Please, please also read the section below, How to assess if opportunities are a good fit for you.

  1. Online job boards:
    1. Texas A&M Dept of Wildlife and Fisheries has a job board and career links
    2. Society for Conservation Biology job board
    3. Just found out about this one: Sevenseas Marine Conservation job board
    4. Various other research societies have their own job boards
  2. Listservs: There are several of these by topic of interest. Many of them include postings on job, internship, and student opportunities, in addition to being platforms for discussion, sharing interesting information and new papers, and posting news about conferences, etc.
    1. For marine mammal enthusiasts: the MARMAM listserv
    2. For coral folks (though be warned, this one involves *a lot* of messages): Coral-List
    3. IUCN’s Global Marine Community weekly newsletter and jobs list
    4. If you are linked to an institution/university, there might well be an email list about job/internship/grad school opportunities that some kind soul keeps up – ask around!
  3. Browse websites: Browse websites for researchers and faculty at universities and other institutions, including government agencies; for NGOs and international agencies; for conservation initiatives and projects.  They might well have “jobs list” or “career” links, and email lists that you can sign up for to receive “job opening” alerts. Another key benefit of this is just learning names of who’s who in your field of interest, and what they do, and sending emails to those that interest you.
  4. Funding, fellowships, internships: A major obstacle to otherwise willing research mentors is lack of funding. So, consider fellowship opportunities and grants that might allow you to develop and fund your own research project/partnership.
    1. For graduate students: As I mentioned above, the NSF Graduate Fellowship is a well-known one, but there are many others to look into that are relevant – including ones available through the institutions that you apply to. For PhD students, funding needs to cover your stipend/salary and tuition and fees, and some fellowships include research funds (other fellowships/grants are only for research funds; see below for more on research funds). This might be available through your potential advisor and institution, but in many cases, it’s not. Having your own relatively independent source of funding can be a nice advantage in that you are not as closely tied to whatever project your advisor currently has funding for. For Master’s programs, candidly, I am not the most informed person to ask – but generally, there is no stipend/salary, and scholarships to cover tuition and fees can (unfortunately) be difficult to come by – but they are out there! Your potential institution, advisor, and future colleagues/peers should be able to guide you on this.
    2. For non-academic positions and research funding: Fulbright scholarships can involve developing a project with partners abroad – and you do not need to be a currently registered student to apply. In the past, I received funding from the National Geographic-Waitt Grants program (since discontinued, I believe), but no particular affiliation/position was required to apply, as long as you could demonstrate that you had the skills and collaborators to effectively conduct your project – it’s worth looking into other National  Geographic grants programs. And there are also more formal internship programs – I am not so familiar with these, but I know they’re out there (so helpful…)! A common route that my friends have taken involves a stint with the Peace Corps – it’s a commitment, but it is often a life-changing experience that can inspire future directions for your research/career and yield great connections. Some of the researchers I admire most have gone this route.  There are resource management-relevant streams within Peace Corps.
  5. Network, network, network: This is so important. You don’t have to be schmoozy and sycophantic, just be polite, genuine, and enthusiastic. You don’t only have to focus on the big names, either – some of my most interesting and productive connections have been with people in the same stage as me, but as we progress in our careers, we continue to lift each other up and collaborate on opportunities.   Connections and opportunities that don’t work out now might work out later, especially if you’ve established good communication with someone you’d like to work with. For example, I emailed a group in Peru to see if they had any opportunities for internships working on marine otters. They did not have any funding, but were kind and enthusiastic. When I procured funding through my PhD program for external research experience a year later, I was able to follow up with that connection and spent a summer doing research with them!
  6. Be open to diverse opportunities: You can learn valuable field (and other!) skills that transfer nicely across taxa, ecosystem type, and disciplines.  My first field job was studying behavioral ecology of monkeys in Thailand – I knew I wanted to transition to marine megafauna, but this job offered relatively good perks, was in an amazing location, and – most importantly – offered solid experience in research. Out of the blue, I emailed Dan Costa, known for his pinniped research at UCSC, basically saying, “so, I just got a terrestrial field job – if a student with only terrestrial experience were to apply to your lab, would you be open to accepting them?” He kindly responded that as long as I had a foundation in research skills (and wasn’t just doing tedious chores) that could transfer to his lab, he welcomed experience, whether it be with seals or monkeys.  Later, I was nervous about my chances of getting into Scripps Institution of Oceanography for my PhD, given my terrestrial-heavy experience; however, the faculty actually liked my “diversity of experience” and thought that my more general ecology background could contribute a valuable perspective to the program. So, what I thought was a weakness was actually seen as a strength!Even skills from marketing, administration, the arts, media, other international work etc., can be translated into something valuable for science and conservation.  So, it’s worth referring to your list of skills you hope to gain (see above), but also keeping an open and creative perspective on how you can gain those skills.
How to assess if opportunities are a good fit for you

Even if the search might seem desperate at times, that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice what you need and what you’re looking for.  I can identify at least four key things to pay attention to:

  1. Will I develop the skills (and connections) I need and want through this opportunity?  The list I recommended you make when looking for opportunities is important here. Make it clear to your future employer/advisor what you aim to accomplish and learn, and discuss with them how this opportunity will lead you there.  For example, if you are working a field job/internship, make sure that your role does not devolve into being an ecotourist used mainly to generate funds for a project (there is nothing wrong with that, but if you are there to learn rigorous research skills, then make sure you are getting that experience!), or being an errands-person, etc.  Above, I mentioned PhD positions being posted online – often, these are for pre-designed projects that the advisor has funding for. While this is nice in many ways, remember that developing your own project can be a huge part of the PhD skills-building experience – so keep in mind how much room for independence and creativity you want in your PhD project. Also, PhD programs differ widely – some offer intense coursework, while others are almost entirely research-based. Do you need more coursework (I certainly did, as the marine realm was new to me)? Or do you already have the background to go straight to dissertation research?
  2. Will I enjoy working with these people?  It’s puzzling that, in a field where people are ostensibly working to make the world a better place, there still are personality clashes and petty feuds and difficult egos. But that’s the reality. Working with wonderful people is an absolute pleasure. Being stuck working with not-so-wonderful people can be miserable. And even fairly innocuous traits, like different working styles, can cause friction.  It’s worth asking others who have experience with the organization, lab, institution, advisor, etc. that you’re interested in, and making sure that you feel comfortable with the people you’ll be working with.  And – for graduate school – check to see if there is more than one potential advisor at the institution of interest. In case the relationship sours with your main advisor, will you have other faculty to continue working with?
  3. Will I enjoy working in this environment?  This is a broad point and depends heavily on the position you’re looking for. Will you really be comfortable working in a remote field site with no/limited electricity, in humid and rainy and muddy tropical conditions, where you don’t yet speak the language? Will you be comfortable or satisfied working in a lab for much of your time? Will you be OK working in a lab dominated by, say, white males, when you are the only woman or person of color? Will you be able to handle being far from your loved ones and unable to contact them by phone more than, say, once a month? Does this institution look out for its students and treat them well? etc. etc.
  4. Logistically, is this a good step for me?  Candidly, there are times when I have regretted taking on low-paying field jobs, and grad school is certainly not a move of financial wizardry, and I am certainly dissatisfied with my postdoc salary (more an issue of the institution where I work… topic for another post), even though I love the work I’ve been doing. This is not to discourage anyone, but it is important that you realize that this is not an easy path, financially speaking. It might pay off down the road with a tenured position, but those are hardly guaranteed, and maybe you’re not interested in academia long-term anyway.  Of course, money isn’t the only concern. Other logistics come into play – some of them overlap with #3 above. As another example, these jobs and even grad school generally involve moving, and sometimes not for long (e.g., for a 1-year Master’s program).  A field-heavy PhD with international research involves a *lot* of travel, which is awesome, but also logistically challenging at times. Again, this is absolutely not to discourage anyone – it is just to raise the point that these are things to consider and anticipate.

This can be a tedious, disheartening process. I remember being there myself, despairing about ever finding a field job that would teach me the skills I wanted to learn and not wipe out my savings account.  It’s unfortunate that many field opportunities are unpaid or even require the volunteer/intern to cover all of their expenses (there are some great articles on how this perpetuates lack of representation of diversity in the field).  I ended up moving in with my parents and working as a vitamin clerk across the street from my parents’ house in between field jobs before grad school, because I’d had to get my wisdom teeth pulled and had no insurance, and there was no way I could afford to go on another field job with essentially zero salary.  However, I also made the best of the situation – I used my time as a vitamin clerk to apply to grad school, I learned a lot about interacting with people during that health food store gig (that I actually use in my research today), I visited the UCSD library to download and read scientific journals, and – looking back – it was a wonderful window of time to spend with my family before moving onto my travel-heavy career, where time with them is limited and precious.

My 2 cents: be persistent, but be smart and strategic in your persistence. You probably will not get responses to most of the emails you send out.  If you’ve put work into crafting a good email, cover letter, and CV, realize that this low rate of return is more likely due to your recipient being incredibly busy rather than to your lack of attractiveness as a candidate. Most of us have been through the same process, and made it to where we wanted to be – even if it was challenging.  Be adaptable, and (as mentioned above) keep your mind open to how you can learn and grow from whatever opportunity or position you find yourself in 🙂

There is a wealth of guidance to be found online. A couple of links that come to mind:

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