Hello! Long time no see.
I made this blog in 2014 whilst studying my MSc in Primate Conservation, and whilst travelling to Mexico each year to help at a struggling primate sanctuary. It’s been 4 years since then and I’m finally ready to get back into blogging. I’ve decided that I need to be brutally honest about my journey since graduating from Oxford Brookes, because quite honestly it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride. I think it’s important for those considering higher education in order to work in the field of conservation to really understand the risks involved. If like me you don’t have the luxury of having the “bank of mum and dad” and you’re only option is to take out a bank loan (which I can assure you is NOT the same as a student loan), then you should seriously consider the financial burden you’ll face whilst looking for work in one of the most competitive (and class bias) industries in the world. I wanted to highlight my experiences here to give a less “university prospectus” perspective of becoming an MSc graduate.
What happens if you join the postgraduate cliche of working for minimum wage in a field totally unrelated to which you studied? Will that level of debt and time investment be worth it?
THE GOOD NEWS IS THERE IS A HAPPY ENDING! I am now working as a full time Zoo Keeper and part time Zoo Registrar. I mainly work with the Tamarin section of the zoo looking after callitrichids, sloths, and a few reptile species. I also work with farm animals and spend a couple days a week (if I’m lucky!) in the office as the zoo’s registrar-assisting with the zoos wider conservation objectives such as inputting all our animal data onto ZIMS (Zoo Information Management Systems) and organising import and export of animals for breeding programs. I love my job more than anything, but it has been a long time coming.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM MY MSC I WAS NIAVE. I strongly believed that in six months I would land my dream primate job. I’d soon be immersed in the conservation sector using all the important knowledge and skills I had painstakingly learned (and paid for in the form of a hefty career development bank loan). My dream was very very short lived. In two years I applied to over 300 animal jobs and was rejected from all of them. I attended panel interviews, group interviews, and even drove >100 miles the week after passing my driving test to go to a three day interview-which I never heard back from. The most common reason for my rejection (if I was lucky enough to get feedback) was that I was too over qualified, closely followed by I was too inexperienced. My experience was not specific enough (wrong species of primate), too specific (not enough variety of species), didn’t count because it was too short or because it wasn’t paid. I don’t think there is a reason in the book that I haven’t been given. It was so frustrating to learn that someone who had interned for a year got the job over me. I would have loved to have that level of experience, if I could have afforded to do so. Zoos rarely offer accommodation, transport or meals to their volunteer interns, so only the privileged (or more privileged than me) could take advantage of such work placements. I mean seriously, this does nothing to ensure the most suitable person for the job gets it. it simply rules out the working classes from joining (and benefiting) the field of conservation even if they are the most suitable candidate. They really could have groundbreaking ideas that will never be realised because they will never be heard.
All of this was made so much harder by the letters that kept arriving from the bank. They knew I had graduated and they now expected monthly repayments upwards of £250. That on top of average rental prices in the South put my monthly outgoings greater than the average monthly salary. Yet I couldn’t find full time work in any sector that would take me, let alone the one I wanted to be working in. If the conservation industry thought I was over qualified, my local cleaners and supermarkets definitely thought so (though I never actually got a letter of rejection from them, I just got ignored). I turned to the job centre and was laughed at (no, really, LAUGHED AT). As I sat waiting for my “adviser” to read through my application he did a double take at the screen, looked up at me, back at the screen, then said “you don’t seriously have this many qualifications?”. When I nodded he called over a colleague so they could also take a look. They both laughed and told me I was the most qualified person they had ever had in there. Cheers buddy, that really made me begging for the £70 a week less painful.
LOOKING FOR WORK AND FACING REJECTION AFTER REJECTION was soul crushing. My dream job was quickly becoming a pipe dream, and I was left to face the crippling debt whilst working part time in a cafe for minimum wage. I didn’t last long in the cafe as my boss was an absolute nightmare and the final straw was when she started offering me alcohol at 10am and all of a sudden the cause of her erratic behaviour became startling clear.
I didn’t completely waste my time in the years following graduation though; I left the cafe to work as a Volunteer Coordinator for The Real Junk Food Project Brighton where I felt like I was at least instilling social and environmental change for my local community. It was a start. But unfortunately as a start up enterprise the wages came in the form of funding and that was hard to come by. So once I had learned as much as I could from the project (I had all but given up on a career with animals by this point), I decided to pursue my creative interests instead. I became a self employed wildlife artist (you can see my work here). My little business bloomed and I was finally able to support myself, albeit not repaying my bank loan (my income was enough but it was modest at best). I had thankfully sought the help of StepChange, a debt advise charity that helped me arrange a £1 a month repayment plan given my dire financial situation. Scary thing is there was even a month when they couldn’t even take that. Although I was finally in a much better situation, I still desperately missed working with animals and couldn’t help but regret doing my MSc. I had actually secured more interviews by omitting my MSc from my job applications than I did by including it. It seemed to be a barrier to the jobs that I was going for.
FINALLY I CAUGHT A BREAK two years later, when my local zoo was hiring. I had worked there before as a casual zoo keeper before completing my final year of my under grad in Animal Science. Maybe my interview was a little less intense because I knew them, or perhaps by that point I was so accustomed to rejection I felt I had nothing to loose. I wasn’t shocked when I was asked “but how long will you be here?” It would seem my qualifications and experience abroad screams “I could be anywhere so this is just a gap filler”…which couldn’t be further from the truth. All I was trying to do by completing my MSc was to prove to myself that I could do it and prove to employers that I was dedicated to conservation and animal care. Ironic I know.
Either way I was offered the job and I have been grateful for it every day since. Even when my days are long and things don’t go to plan-which can often be the way when working with animals, I have at least one moment a day when I think to myself “I love my job”. Working with new world monkeys is a privilege. I get so much joy from learning about their individual idiosyncrasies, their preferences, their social behaviours, and watching the infants develop.
I’M NOT SAYING MY MSC WASN’T WORTH IT. It has helped me in countless ways and the skills and knowledge I gained from it are put into play each and every day in my current job. I’m also not saying that everyone will have the same post graduate experience as me. Many of my fellow class mates gained work in the conservation sector within months of graduating. They work all over the world for grass roots initiatives, NGO’s, eco tourism, and many are involved in pivotal primate conservation research. One thing I would say though is that many of those people had prior connections. They knew professionals in those industries before enrolling on their masters. It is definitely as much about who you know as it is about what you know. My current employers being a case in point. As a working class girl from Brighton (where the most exciting animal is a seagull) I needed to spend more time networking at uni than burying myself in my own project. I missed opportunities by not attending trips because I couldn’t afford them, and I found it difficult to speak to our guest lecturers in a class of over 40 students all contending to have their name remembered. I’m not a loud person and I find it difficult to stand out from the crowd. Nine times out of ten I’d rather go home and read literature on the subject than vie for the attention of my professors at the pub (which I also could rarely afford). In the long run this shy non-competitive side of me did me no favours.
So if you are considering a post grad in the conservation sciences consider this:
Can you afford the long term debt?
Can you mentally take repeated rejection by competing for work in a highly competitive field?
Is the job you really want dependent on a MSc and will it pay your loan repayments?
Never underestimate the importance of networking
Never ever give up. At the end of the day, no one can take your degree away from you and if you really are determined then the wait will be worth it in the end.