This week we chat to…Sam Wilson, Science Officer with Marine Conservation Philippines. Sam realised that just applying for jobs via email wasn’t working for him. Getting out into the field and making those personal connections is what made it happen. He has heaps of practical advice for anyone wanting to do marine conservation fieldwork including how you can make a sideways move into the sector and is yet another one of our interviewees who stress the need to take more notice of your statistics modules at university!
Name: Sam Wilson
Job Title: Science Officer
Organisation: Marine Conservation Philippines
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I actually didn’t start out as a marine biologist; I was more of a general conservation biologist and ecologist for a few years before re-discovering that I was much happier being near the ocean. I took an internship, like most people who start out in these kinds of NGOs, and just got addicted to the life and the adventurous feel of diving. The more I learnt about the marine environment and all the ways we are impacting it without even knowing, the incredible creatures you can find, how much we still don’t know, I couldn’t get enough! So I continued my studies and focused on the management of marine protected areas. The feeling when you can see an area has improved because of the right management, and the excitement on each dive knowing that a spectacular animal may just suddenly appear is what keeps driving me onwards!
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
At least a degree in marine biology is obviously a good start, but these days a masters is seen as more appealing to employers, the more specific the better. I never knew what I wanted to specialise in, so I kept my skills broader and just tried to collect as many of them as possible. I got a powerboat license and learnt how to maintain outboard motors, took courses on GIS, started a wildlife photography website, became a dive instructor etc. Really just anything that seemed to relate to the area of conservation that I most enjoyed, which was always the more ground-up style of field and community work. In future, I’ll be looking at more project management, developing photography and communication, and learning how to pilot underwater drones for the purpose of habitat mapping.
- How did you land your current job/position?
Well, here I have to admit that my “career” in marine conservation has relied as much on luck as it has on my skill set. I went through the usual uphill battle that all marine biologists suffer from when applying for jobs through a variety of application processes. In the end, I remembered that one of my best strengths is simply meeting and engaging people, which was all but useless when sending email after email. At the same time, I felt ready and willing to invest in a dive instructor course so I set off to complete that in the Philippines, where I knew that there would be plenty of organisations I could travel to (affordably as well) and meet in person, rather than attempting to put my personality on paper. After over a year of sitting in the UK filling up to 20 applications a month, it took me less than a week to land my current role after completing my instructor course. Guess I made the right call!
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Well, the diving is an obvious answer to this one! I’ve always been more suited to fieldwork and the hands-on, almost improvised nature of it. So, my favourite part is the ability to work in a variety of environments, being able to collaborate with different organisations where my skills are needed. To me, it means that even though our days are on a relatively consistent schedule, there’s always exciting new projects and different impacts I can have popping up throughout the year.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
The community engagement is easily the greatest impact we have here at Marine Conservation Philippines, especially with the younger generations. Helping educate the kids during our Sea Camp and then hearing their heartfelt feedback about how they want to change things and improve their communities’ impact was one of the best feelings ever!
My job is more specifically focused on the training and education of the volunteers, and while it’s hard to get a feel for how much I will have convinced them to change after they leave, it feels great to see them engaging in more conversations about their impacts while they’re here. Turning regular people in marine conservation nerds, hearing them get excited about corals and the weird and wonderful small things as well as the big fish is really satisfying. It makes me feel like if I can just show people what we are trying to protect, then maybe I can encourage them to convince other people to change too.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Wow, I’ll try and keep this list short! I wasn’t exactly a child prodigy; I didn’t grow up reading books about the ocean or planning exactly how I was going to change the world. If you’re going the pure research and biology route into this field, then I really can’t stress how important maths and statistics are! I was never good at this, and my undergraduate allowed me to skip any statistics or calculus as optional classes, but WOW do I wish I hadn’t now. I know there are probably some people reading this and thinking this is obvious, but it wasn’t to me so hopefully, this might help someone!
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
And I admit that this one isn’t considered a technical skill, but positivity. I knew that I liked being positive, because it helped me to deal with the knowledge of everything bad we do and the responsibility that brought with it to change things, but actually I’ve also found that it’s the best way to get others to change. It’s easy to get frustrated when trying to convince somebody to make positive environmental changes to their lifestyle but being negative really pushes people in the opposite direction. There are actually psychology studies and books which can explain the reasons behind this which are well worth a look.
If we’re talking about technical skills though then photography was something I didn’t realise would be as integral to my job role. It was always more of a hobby, a way of recording the interesting things I’d seen. But now I’m using it to document wildlife in our mangrove projects, and to improve our training materials so our volunteers can improve their ID skills while on land as well as in the water.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Think about where you want to go, and what you want to change. If you’re starting out in university, whether it’s an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, try and get your foot in the door with an organisation you want to work with when you finish. Your dissertation/thesis is a great way to do this. Organisations inside and outside of government are perpetually underfunded, and as part of your dissertation you come with funding! Get in contact with them and see if they have any projects that are achievable in your time frame, this will go a long way to giving you credit. There are so many people applying for each job that these days it’s more about who you know than what you know.
If you’re not looking to go back to university, or you’re looking to change careers, then this is also really doable as well. I won’t say anything cliché like “follow your dreams” or “do what you love”, but conservation really isn’t a purely biology-based career anymore. I won’t go into too much detail but a few examples of unusual fields I’ve seen people use is accounting (environmental economics, look it up!), general project management, financial modelling (modelling is really important for identifying sources of problems and where to focus conservation efforts), media, photography, music, carpentry. Really anyone can join in if they can figure out how to use their skills in a new way.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Honestly this question gets harder every time I get asked! The more you learn about anything in the ocean the more difficult it is to figure out what “favourite” would even mean! My typical answer would be the octopus, they are so intelligent and the more we study them the cooler they become! I mean each of their arms basically has its own brain and operate through bypassing the main brain, they’ve escaped aquariums to eat fish from other tanks and then gone back to their own AND closed the door behind them!
My other answer though would be corals. Other than the obvious fact that they build reef systems which are beautiful, their complex relationships with the algae they absorb and all the other marine life that they literally build homes for and the scale they do this on. It is the definition of awesome!
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
This one might not be the kind of experience many divers would consider to be a once in a lifetime event, but while I was out surveying with two colleagues in a relatively desolate reef area in Mexico we were lucky enough to come across a great hammerhead shark! The visibility was only about 5 meters, so it was really close. They’re one of my favourite sharks so I was bound to enjoy it, but the fact that it was just a small group of us, in an area no one else dives, and the totally unexpected appearance made it feel so special. It’s one of the reasons I love diving so much, you just never know what will pop up and to see something so special and natural was unforgettable.
Thank you Sam – there’s lots of great advice for any budding marine conservationists there. If you would like to join Sam in the Philippines then take a look at Marine Conservation Philippines’ expedition page.