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Balancing volunteering, studying and employment

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By Eva Freegard, TCV Trainee

Eva in the foreground
Eva in the foreground (TCV)

I’m sure there’s no such thing as an easy career path, but from the offset I was very much aware that working in conservation wasn’t one. Being hugely competitive, with so many qualified and passionate people in the field, it can be incredibly difficult to ‘get your foot in the door’. For that reason, I have tried to gather as much, varied experience as I can to not only expand my skillset but navigate which roles are better suited to me. It might have made my life schedule very hectic over the past few years, but I hope it will pay off in the long run.

As clichéd as it sounds, I have always been fascinated by the natural world and get a lot of enjoyment through learning about wildlife and spending time outside. But it was my time at university that really led me down the conservation career path. My undergraduate degree was in Biology, where I quickly found out that my real interests sat within ecology and nature conservation. I also began my volunteering journey at this time, with various conservation charities including St Nicks Nature Reserve, Leeds University Union Conservation Volunteers, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). It was always made clear that volunteering is a crucial piece of the puzzle for securing work in the sector. I suppose it is a valuable way of demonstrating commitment and interest, whilst diversifying your skillset and getting an opportunity to learn from people already working within the field.

Masters research
Masters research (Eva Freegard)

I found I really enjoyed learning in these different ways so my next steps were to continue my studies with an MSc Biodiversity & Conservation, and to take on more responsibility in various roles with TCV. Balancing it all was a bit of a fine art, but the combination of learning both academically and practically was a great way to gather a huge range of skills and improve my employability.   

Academia

Although studying Biology gave me a great baseline understanding of important ecological principles and an insight into the conservation world, it was my masters course that really enhanced my knowledge and understanding.

The course at the University of Leeds was particularly great as the range of modules covered both theoretical and practical topics. This included modules such as habitat management, plant and insect identification, GIS and even practical conservation with the National Trust. Again, these mixed methods of learning were an effective way of picking up different skills. Many elements of the course involved meeting people who already worked in the sector for hands on learning in the field, especially for more practical modules involving identification and understanding habitat, but the written elements were also very variable. Research report writing made up large components of the course, but emphasis was also placed on other writing formats including vision statements, management plans, presentations and public understanding of science articles. My masters research project was a great way at tying lots of these skills together by planning and executing a field investigation to assess how beneficial ecological restoration at Carrifran Wildwood been for invertebrates. 
Examples of the skills I used here include knowledge of land management, identification skills, experimental design, data analysis, report writing and presenting results.

Volunteering

Alongside my studies, volunteering helped me learn workplace skills and apply what I was learning at university to real-world projects. Initially, this was on a casual basis, being focused outside of term time or on the occasional day I had a day off university. The flexibility of volunteering worked with the inconsistency of my location and the days I was available. This meant I got to work with a range of different conservation charities, on different projects, in several habitats. I gathered lots of practical conservation knowledge and it was a great way to spend time outdoors and remain connected to nature (which is not always the easiest thing to do when studying in a big city). It was also a good way to meet like-minded people and share information about opportunities for pursuing a career in conservation.

This is how I became aware of the Volunteer Officer (VO) role that TCV offers as a way of taking on more responsibility than a casual volunteer would. When I was studying full-time this was less of an option for me as the position requires more time commitment. However, when the Covid 19 pandemic hit, I made the decision to take exceptional leave from my masters course to ensure I could complete the remaining modules in person the following year. This meant I suddenly had lots of free time! So, between lockdowns and finding some part-time retail and tutoring work, it was the perfect time to become a VO.

Pond clearance
Pond clearance (TCV)

In my new position, I led volunteer projects that aimed to improve green spaces around North Yorkshire. This role also allowed me to get more of an insight into the planning process alongside gaining experience delivering sessions. These new volunteer management skills, along with completion of training courses including risk assessment, safeguarding, and project leadership were great ways to gather vocational experience different from what I was learning at university. It was also a great opportunity to improve communication skills, as our volunteer groups are made up of a diverse range of individuals including retirees, students, and people with additional needs.

Luckily for me, as I was coming towards the end of my VO placement, I was successful in securing a paid traineeship with TCV. The combination of academic experience, willingness to learn new skills and practical conservation experience through volunteering put me in a great position to be offered the job. Although it was very tiring trying to balance my workload when university restarted, it was great that I could still earn money whilst gaining relevant experience and I didn’t have to choose between the two. It was also nice to have the opportunity to escape from the depths of dissertation writing to spend some time outdoors!

Traineeships

The WildSkills traineeship was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and was a great opportunity to continue my professional development. The programme aimed to gather skills useful for employment in the conservation sector within three key areas: biodiversity, community engagement and practical conservation. I continued working on practical conservation projects, including planting 19,000 trees on an old colliery site, managing significant areas of meadow in York and removing tonnes of Himalayan balsam. Understanding why habitats need to be managed in certain ways and then getting the opportunity to physically do that management really makes you aware of how worthwhile the work is.

I also spent time working on our community sessions based at Hull Road Park. It was great to be involved in setting up and delivering new sessions to engage people with nature. This gave me a new opportunity to gain skills in project planning and nature education for different audiences than I was used to at university. It gave me a real appreciation for making nature accessible and interesting for as many people as possible no matter of age, experience, background or needs. Examples of activities within these sessions include citizen science sessions such as bird watching and minibeast hunting, improving the park for wildlife and creating nature inspired art to display in the park.

I was really pleased to be offered the opportunity to remain working with TCV through the UK Year of Service traineeship funded by the National Citizenship Service. This meant I could continue working on existing projects, whilst learning other new skills useful for employment in the sector. I am now in the process of organising the installation of a nature trail within the park and am gaining experience in science communications through social media management, writing press releases, creating promotional online and print content and writing blog entries (just like this!). Having gained lots of practical experience, I am now focusing on gaining office-based skills for planning conservation projects, through estimating, liaising with clients, sourcing materials and putting together grant applications.

Tansy beetles
Tansy beetles (Eva Freegard)

Next steps

Once I’d secured paid work in the conservation sector, the volunteering didn’t stop there for me. It is key to keep finding new opportunities to learn more skills and network with more people. Last summer, The Tansy Beetle Action Group (TBAG) were recruiting a Volunteer Tansy Beetle Coordinator. This seemed like the perfect role for me, as it would enable me to see how important both research and practical conservation is for the survival of an endangered species. I am pleased to say, I did get selected for the role and have had the opportunity to raise awareness about the beetle, be involved in surveying work and help develop invertebrate conservation strategies.

Unfortunately, my traineeship with TCV doesn’t last forever. Who knows where I will be this time next year? Hopefully gathering all these skills through academia, volunteering and employment will put me in good stead to secure a new role within the sector. I am look forward to seeing what’s next for me!

To find out more about TCV traineeships go to https://www.tcv.org.uk/getinvolved/

First published in CJS Focus on Employability on 23 May 2022. Read the full issue here

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Posted On: 30/04/2022

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