Story written by Patrick Tomkins
This isn’t a conservation success story. It might be one day, but it definitely isn’t yet.
Like most people here, I’ve always wanted to work in conservation. I’ve never once considered doing anything else. When I finished school, I followed a fairly predictable pathway – BA, BSc (hons), then a PhD in ecology. 11 years of uni without any full-time work in between. I know, heavy.
During my PhD, I investigated the impact of agricultural contaminants on the behaviour of fish, and I ticked all the boxes – I finished within four years, I published multiple papers, I attended heaps of international conferences, I made loads of connections in the field. There was only one problem – I hated it. By the end of my PhD, if I had to dissect one more guppy or watch one more goddamn behavioural trial video, I would have drowned myself in one of my fish tanks. I was completely done with behavioural ecotoxicology. In fact, I’d had enough of academia altogether.
It was time to chase the dream and work for a conservation group. I wanted to be on the front line, wielding conservation’s metaphorical sword against the multitude of threats that are currently winning the fight with our native flora and fauna. The problem is, when you go straight from school to uni, and then straight into honours and a PhD, the only thing that you’re qualified to do afterwards is a post-doc. And not just any post-doc, specifically a post-doc in the extremely narrow field (in my case, behavioural ecotoxicology) that you completed your PhD in. This really limits your options.
I applied for conservation jobs anyway. Oh man, did I apply. I contacted every conservation group in Australia and pleaded my case. I applied for every job with the word conservation in the description, even if it was only loosely associated with the industry. I volunteered as much as I could, but when you’re 29 and have bills to pay, volunteering isn’t quite as simple as it is when you’re 18 and living with your folks. My life entered a cycle; I’d work, save up enough money to support myself while I volunteered, volunteer, run out of money, then repeat. All the while scouring SEEK and applying for every job that popped up in the field. I couldn’t even get an interview. Sometimes, I didn’t even get the volunteering positions that I applied for. 11 years of uni, 3 degrees, and a PhD. Lol.
Fast forward 18 months, and I still haven’t landed that dream job. I’ve spent the time building my resume, gaining valuable experience in the field by volunteering as much as possible, getting my name out there. Ironically, last year I worked as a teaching associate at Monash University, and one of my subjects was Conservation Biology. What a fraud, ha. But I feel like I’m getting closer, and last week, I actually got an (unsuccessful) interview. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
People always ask me if I should consider doing something else, something with more prospects. But what they don’t understand is that I don’t feel sorry for myself. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Not many people have a genuine passion; something that they want to dedicate their life to. And even fewer get to combine their passions with their career. I might have no money, a giant HECS debt, and an uncertain future, but I still consider myself extremely lucky. I’d much rather be a broke conservationist than a financially secure 9-5er any day of the week.
Go on, follow Patrick on Instagram @pattomkinswildlife