Not so long ago I was at a lose. I had recently finished my M.Sc in biodiversity and conservation and literally had no clue where to go from there. Even after a degree, and now a masters, in the study and conservation of the natural world I still saw that career path out of reach for me. I felt I was not yet ready to enter this fictional zoology world I had made in my head, where everyone had a species named after them and several PhD’s behind them. I felt the only next sensible step would be to do a PhD regardless of the topic; I just had to get one. With this attitude I only further depressed myself by applying for PhD’s I had absolutely no interest in. I was getting rejections on an almost weekly basis to research I knew, deep down, I would not finish to any degree of standard due to lack of interest, or even drop out in the process. On looking back now I remember one I applied for was “the study of parrot terrestrial locomotion in trees”. I am very grateful now the supervisors of that project clearly seen through me as someone who was just applying for the sake of it. If I were offered that research I would have lost what little common sense I had left and gone completely insane. I eventually came to my senses about PhD’s not so long ago and now treat them for what they are, which is a excellent extension to a career in research and study, so long as you know exactly what questions you want to challenge yourself to answer and in what particular topic. Before beginning one you have to realise the commitment that is required and if you’re not ready to enter a very specific area with such drive a PhD isn’t quite for you yet, as it is not for me. So if not a PhD this year (that’s not to say why not next year), what then? Technically in the area I want to study I had left “official” study/research. This is where I suppose I get to the point of my article. If your ambition is to remain working/studying in the natural world you never finish studying; you are studying until your cold in the grave. That may scare some but for me it keeps me happy in the knowledge that even if I need to enter the world of work in a completely unrelated area to make ends meet, I know that won’t define me I am always a naturalist regardless of current job. It doesn’t have to be related to your true career path. Once I had posted on my LinkedIn profile I’d completed my thesis on the effect of urbanisation on frogs the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) approached me to offer me a voluntary position of project managing a frog survey of County Cork. Although it was voluntary I leapt at the opportunity and am extremely grateful to this day for it.
When arriving in Cork to do my first talks to my volunteers the theory behind “citizen science” was completely new to me so I decided to read into the area. To survey the earth’s biodiversity is such a gigantic task, realistically, it will probably never be finished (good news for us up-and-coming conservationists). Harnessing a good grasp of what is out there is necessary though for making conservation targets and goals for areas. This task cannot be done using just professional biologists. There just isn’t enough of them. This is where the role of the amateur naturalist and citizen science comes to play. In today’s press there seems to be a lot of bad connotations connected to the word amateur. One’s that spring to mind are “lazy”, “less qualified”, “less drive”, “less motivation”; basically less of everything. The way I see it though nothing could be further from the case! These people are “self motivated”, “self taught” and maybe most importantly “self funded”. They don’t get grants or scholarships or pay packages once a month. They do it for the sole purpose that it interests them and they are hungry to find out more and contribute. Sometimes I think us graduates, and even undergraduates, need to be reminded that Charles Darwin was far from the top of his class, in fact in some occasions he was just hanging in there and was considering a quite life as a country gentleman and not the most well known scientist to date. His competitor and one of the founding fathers of our area ,Alfred Russell Wallace, left formal education at the age of 16 or 17 and was originally just a animal collector in Dutch Indonesia collecting the feathers of exotic birds to be sent to hat makers in London and Paris for the fashion of the time. Both these men had things in common and one of the main ones was the awe and fascination with the diversity of life forms on the planet. We all know what was formulated from that awe and fascination: basically a kick in the face to established knowledge, a kick to the face that some places and sections of society are still reeling from! My point here is even the two grandfathers of our area of study relied on “citizen science”. They relied on people just as interested as them bringing them specimens to identify. Darwin by his own interest and devices ended up becoming the world’s expert in barnacles and had letter correspondence with hundreds of people from around the world with a similar fascination with the barnacle who would send him dead specimens to identify and catalogue. Not class toppers in any regard but are there two people that have contributed to biology more? Ever? Returning to Cork, in total I did four talks in different areas of the county and was happily surprised by the interest there was in Irish amphibians. Now for the next two springs and summers I have 107 people going out looking for frogs, tadpoles and spawn for me in the county and am delighted to say that the data we will get from those 107 volunteers will be of great help in understanding the current distribution and threats to Ireland’s only native frog in Ireland’s largest county. An article by one of Ireland’s top naturalists, Michael Viney, in the Irish Times also stressed the huge benefits of the citizen science to the area of biodiversity. He mentions the many organisations that people can enter their natural world data and information like Coastwatch, the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Nature’s Calender Ireland and many more. Since 2012 the biodiversity data centre has been sent 57,000 records of Ireland’s fauna and flora from every corner of the country! Were these records collected by professors, experts or deans? Some yes of course and the above are fantastic at encouraging the interest in students and others, their efforts can never be regarded high enough, but the vast vast majority were recorded by people with normal jobs, some jobs they don’t even like, that see wildlife and nature as their interest, their passion and something they look forward to participating in and studying come 5pm every Friday. For 48 hours they can leave their offices, stores, factories and building sites and join the ranks with Darwin, Wallace, Dawkins and Sir Attenborough. To make a long story short, I was almost taken by the stereotype that nearly every zoology student I presume encounters regularly enough:
Stranger/Friend/Family member: “So what are you studying?”
Stranger/Friend/Family member: “Oh so you want to work in a zoo?… Why?”
You: “No I don’t.”
These conversations are not helpful with your esteem or why you picked it, or maybe some of you are like me and think it was only half of you that picked biology and for the other half wildlife picked you. Either way do not despair! You’re not going to become a professor over night and even when you do, if you do, your job is never finished. There is always room for improvement. You could go straight into a PhD after your degree, which is fantastic for some and not for other’s. There’s as many different choices and personalities in the biology sector as there are species to identify! So it really is different courses for different horses. It is a good idea that everyone should do voluntary work. This will always bode well for you before seeking out paid work. So don’t despair! Just become a biologist! Simple! Don’t get bogged down with questions like who will care? What’s the point? Will anyone take any notice? These questions will leave you numb with depression and you won’t want to move a finger. Stop asking them and starting asking what interests you the most? Do I need to find loads of literature on it? Do I need to find organisations I can join? Do I need to start collecting data, even if that just means recording local birds or hedgehogs or whatever, to you it might seem childish or below your qualification but remember Darwin was a barnacle expert before he was anything else and Wallace left school at 17. So enough despair! Just pick yourself up off the floor and let yourself and everyone else know “I’m a field biologist!”