Volunteering during your degree – proof that it works

I am going to show you how volunteering really does enhance your degree.  Moreover, that it can take you places.

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It’s not often that the perfect opportunity comes along at the right moment.  But thankfully last year it did.  A year ago my life long goal to get my foot in the door at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust came true.  I secured a volunteer role as data processor in the organisations science hub.  Yes – data processor does not sound exciting, or attractive (I worked in finance for four years and swore I would never work in an office again), but these skills are extremely valuable for a role in conservation; there are many jobs in areas such as data analysis and project management that are integral to the industry, roles that we’re often not aware of when dreaming of a career in conservation.

Why is volunteering beneficial?

  1. Demonstrate your work ethic

By adding volunteer experience to your CV potential employers get to see you in action.  Not only does it provide you with essential skills, but it also demonstrates your determination, work ethic, and your ability to apply yourself to different situations.  What’s more, once you prove yourself, you’ll guarantee yourself some job winning references.

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I left sixth form at 17 with three A levels, but I was never happy with my results.  I always tried at school, but considered myself to be more practical than academic (I left that to my brain box brother), so never pushed myself that bit harder.  After being accepted for an animal science degree 7 years later (2 years ago) my tutor told me that the strength of my application lay with my client services job of four years, and more appropriately, my various volunteer roles in the field – proof that gaining yourself ‘in the field’ experience speaks volumes.

  1. Figure out if it’s for you

The conservation world may be small from a networking perspective, but the range of jobs is vast.  Furthermore, conservation science is evolving all the time, therefore new roles/opportunities regularly crop up.  By gaining experience in a number of areas you will learn what the industry expects of you, and the opportunities they offer (this could even help you to narrow your career aspirations).

Most importantly, volunteering provides you with a free crack at it – do you even enjoy the job??

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Prior to, and during, my foundation degree I worked in a number of roles in a variety of different fields including a rescue centre, veterinary practice, stable yard, and in the field in South Africa and Madagascar.  By taking the time to work in the field of animal rescue I know now that it is not for me, this allowed me to make an informed decision when applying for my BSc top up (Animal Conservation).  Likewise, I have learnt just what a job in the field entails, what is expected of me, and whether I think I could manage to work abroad (plus…the data collection skills I developed in South Africa really worked in my favour when applying to Durrell).

  1. Network and shine

Get to know the people in the industry (those people know people, who know people etc etc), ask them for their advice, learn the ropes, and make sure you shine – this doesn’t just mean the with the big cheeses – You have access to such a breadth of knowledge, make sure you capitalize on it!  By demonstrating a willingness to learn, and pitch you will reflect a range of attributes difficult to prove on paper.  You may even get the opportunity to attend events, lectures etc and, hopefully, keep adding to that list of contacts!

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In a few weeks time I will be heading to London with the team at Durrell for an exclusive event – an evening with David Attenborough and Alistair Fothergill – I cannot wait to tick this off my bucket list!!  I would not have received this opportunity had I not taken on my volunteer role.

The guys I work with have been great at welcoming me into the team, they support me with my work, my degree, and provide me lots of advice whenever I need it.  Having proved myself on the tasks provided to me, I have been referred to others within the organisation to assist with their projects.  I also got the opportunity to travel to the wildlife park in Jersey to undertake my dissertation study on their captive population of livingstone’s fruit bats.  Off the back of this (and cost, logistics permitting) I may even be heading back in the new year to carry out further observational studies.

  1. Enhance your degree

Facilitating your studies is second only to networking (in my opinion).  As well as enhancing your portfolio, volunteering allows you to apply the knowledge and skills you learn in the classroom, to real life.  Practical skills are invaluable in the competition process – it’s much less time consuming to employ an individual who already possess the practical experience than to train a ‘novice’.  Additionally, you will gain skills you can’t at college; from technical to social skills.

During my time in the finance industry (I hate to re-live it, but I will do so for the sake of this post) I developed a whole range of administration skills.  One of which was data input/analysis.  I further developed these skills in a conservation context whilst volunteering in South Africa, and now, I am putting those skills to good use in my role at Durrell Conservation Science Hub.  Moreover, I have just started assisting a project using GIS (Global Imaging System) – which has totally allowed me to indulge my inner geek :D.  These skills (whilst sounding mundane) are vital for a career in conservation science, and I am excited to know that I have this experience to prepare me.

  1. Do your bit

If you’re studying conservation presumably you are passionate about making a difference. Consequently, volunteering isn’t just a foot in the door, it’s a rewarding experience.  It can be frustrating as a student to be so close to the end but lack the qualifications that will secure you a job – by volunteering you can contribute to the causes that are important to you whilst completing your degree.

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‘There is no more time for talk or excuses, we are the last best hope’  Leonardo DiCaprio

My role in data may seem tedious and unattractive to many, but my work directly impacts Durrell’s online performance indicator (‘Index’).  Communicating its research and conservation impact is important for a conservation organization.  By directly assisting with this project, I finally feel like I am contributing to the world of conservation.  More importantly, I am finally making a positive contribution to Durrell’s work.

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