Written by Manon de Visser
Young and maybe a little naïve: that is what makes us great conservationists!
Once, I was at a job interview. I was nicely dressed and felt pretty confident. I had gotten through two rounds and was in the third (and final) round of the application process. The first two times I had met with one of the two directors of the firm in question, an environmental office. She was co-CEO, a polite and friendly woman. This time, however, I would meet the main CEO. My first impression of him was less positive. But… I told myself it was probably just me, so I did what I had to do and was certain to make it through the entire application process! In case I indeed succeeded, I would become the newest project manager/advisor of the company.
One single, itsy-bitsy natterjack toad
As the interview progressed, the man started talking to me about natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita), a protected amphibian species in our country, the Netherlands. He asked me what I would do in case there would be a building site of a client that I would – hypothetically speaking – be working for, and one of these toads would be spotted by someone on the construction site. I told him I would advise the client to perform a research or monitoring project, to investigate the population of natterjack toads at the site before any building activities would continue.
His response: we do not care about one, single toad. His tone was blunt and shameless; I immediately knew that this was his true opinion. Without missing a beat, he carried on with the interview explaining how my focus should be on the building project. The rest of the interview went in one ear and out the other. I could not shake this toad thing off of my mind.
Towards the end of the interview, I brought up the natterjack toad one more time, but he was completely uninterested. I was surprised, but did not let him get me off my guard, because I knew that I do care about that one individual toad and even though I did not have any work experience, I felt like ignoring the toad would maybe even be illegal! And I knew, as a biologist, that if there is one individual, there are always more… After chatting for a little while longer and answering every question with honesty, the conversation ended and I left.
Did I take the job? Hell no!
As I got home, the co-CEO called me to offer me the job right away. I declined it immediately. She appeared to be quite astonished. It felt like she did not know what to say to me, probably because we had lovely conversations during the first two interviews and I suppose she did not expect this to be the outcome at all. She remained quiet for a brief moment and I felt bad… I told her that the CEO of the company does not seem to care about protected species at all and that I, as a biologist, did care. Of course she said that the company overall cared (“sure…”).
I responded: “I’m sorry, but I am pretty confident that this is not going to be a good match for me.” She stumbled some more as she tried to convince me to take the job anyhow. She even promised to increased my starting salary with a substantial amount. And to be fair, they already offered me a relatively high starting salary before that. In fact, I have never been offered more money than in this moment. So, yes, the money was really tempting, but I still decided to respectfully decline the job as I simply did not want to work for this company anymore… After we both ended the conversation in good conscience, I hung up the phone (and felt like a complete bad-ass, by the way!)
I learned a lot about myself
The lady sounded quite angry (not with me, but with the other CEO), so I hope that, in the end, my actions did at least lead to some changes in the work attitude at that office. Some people may be thinking: but why did you not take the job and try to change the company for the better from within? I’ll tell you why: as I was (and still am) so young, I decided I wanted to gain more work experience first, at a company or organization where I would feel more at home, before I would go trying to change the world all on my own. I was afraid that would lead to me ending up frustrated and feeling alone in this particular company.
Also, when I rejected the job I realized that me liking my job and work environment matters much more to me than the money I am paid – and back then, that realization felt like a huge personal achievement somehow. It was one of those “I just know that I don’t want this” moments. I just wanted to work with – and for – inspiring people, and feeling this disconnect with that director was a deciding factor that changed my mindset altogether. In a weird way, I even feel a little thankful that I met him back then.
Declining this job was scary. Being an early career conservationist is scary. I know work opportunities are extremely scarce. But declining that job was also really easy in a way. Within science, and even much more so within industry, money often seems to be what it is all about. Sometimes, it feels like some seniors have forgotten about the reasons they started doing what they are doing when they were younger (unless the sole reason was: making money…). I wish to believe that others can learn from our young dreams, aspirations and, frankly, our slight naivety. Money is important, but so is integrity and morality.
Not the only time I said no
The natterjack incident happened to me about three years ago (at the time of writing this, I am 27 years old). I do not regret my decision at all. I was in the midst of a job-hunt and the competition was fierce: I must’ve applied to dozens of vacancies and often received no response whatsoever.Still, during that time there were two more occasions where I chose to decline a job offer.
One time – and this was again for an environmental agency – the director kept changing the contract to his advantage, even after we negotiated and came to decent terms together. So, this was in a way the other extreme when it came down to my salary: he kept on offering me less money than the both of us agreed to, for weirder hours, and tried to trick in the fine print and hoped that I would sign the contract anyway. After discussing more, we appeared to have reached an impasse. Like I said, I do not care that much about the money, but I did know my worth, even though I did not have a lot of work experience. So, I respectfully declined.
Another time, I got offered a position at a research institute that would require me to go abroad for years. As I just settled down with my partner, taking this job would certainly cause harm to our relationship and the whole situation just did not add up. Thus, I decided not to take it, even though it seemed like my dream opportunity. Still, I had a lovely conversation with the Professor that offered me the position, and he understood my reasons. He said I would have been the absolute perfect match for them and that is a compliment that I will never forget. I cried for hours on the couch after that phone-call. Even though I felt really torn apart during that period, I knew I made the right choice when I made it. Remember: when one door closes, another one always opens. Maybe, doors are never really closed at all! What I’m trying to say is that even in a situation like this, there is a gain: network building. By making this new, professional connection, I may have created opportunities for myself in the future, when the time is right. Never underestimate the power of networking.
Overcome “FOMO” and become more “PRO DOMO”
As I am writing this, I realize that it may appear to you like the job offers fell from the sky for me back then, but nothing is less true: I (net)worked my ass off to even get my foot into those doors! Anyhow, at the end of that dynamic job hunt – I ended up working as an ecological consultant and as a population genetics researcher and communications officer at companies where I felt comfortable and appreciated. Currently, I work as a PhD Candidate for the University of Leiden and Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the field of evolutionary biology.
My advice to lonely conservationists is simple: trust yourself and stay true to your values. Even if that makes you look naïve or silly. Don’t grab every opportunity because of FOMO (a Fear Of Missing Out). It’s OK to sometimes be a little more PRO DOMO (Latin for: “for one’s own house”). In other words, simply choose to do what feels right to you. Make sure you and your employer are a good and healthy match – and know what you are worth! Caring about yourself is just as important as caring about understanding and preserving the beauty of nature and our planet.
For more of Manon, check out on @manondorff Instagram