I'm an early PhD student and one of my research foci is conservation biology. Of the various focal topics of my research, this is the one that I feel most passionate about. (And within conservation biology, habitat loss/disruption is the issue that holds the highest degree of intrinsic interest for me.) However, like many in conservation bio I am somewhat dismayed by what I see as a lack of actual impact stemming from conservation research — that is to say, a lot of research gets done but not a lot actually changes because of it.

I realize that environmental policy is a huge issue that extends way beyond the bounds of academic research, and that the challenges of enacting science-based policy are many and are often seen as being best left to policymakers and policy advocates rather than researchers. However, I am finding that I am increasingly interested in charting a career path that puts me in a place where I can work to bridge the divide between research and policy, where I have a chance of making conservation bio a more effective field in terms of real-world results (even if my part in such an effort is a small one) and where I can ideally be involved both with doing impactful, effective research and also with seeing the results of that research be put into action.

My question is this: what would that career path look like? My goal up to now has been to try for a professorship in academia (as insane as that job market is these days) or else in the statistically likely event that I don't make it there to look for a similar research-oriented job, perhaps with a museum or with the government. I'm still in the first year of my PhD, so this plan is still pretty hazy but that's the general outline of it at the moment. I realize I have a long way to go (at least another four years of PhD work and a postdoc or two) before I'm in a position to take a shot at becoming a PI, but I think it's important to have at least a rough idea of what the ultimate end is. Looking realistically at the PhD program I'm in, I think I have as good a shot as anyone at "making it".

I'm becoming less sure though that that path (what I think of as the "traditional" career path for PhD students in the sciences) is one that will necessarily put me in a position where I can have a hand in conservation policy and in shaping the direction of my field, which are goals that are becoming increasingly important to me. I know that there are ways to do research that is more impactful (I found this article very edifying: Cook et al 2013, Achieving Conservation Science that Bridges the Knowledge-Action Boundary [PDF]) but I don't feel that impactful research is really incentivized by the systems of reward and prestige that prevail in academic research, such that putting too much of a focus on actionable research can actually be detrimental to one's career.

I'm trying to think outside the box a little bit now, to get a sense of what trajectory I should be putting myself on if I want to do more "meaningful" conservation work while still using the research background that I am developing in my PhD program. I love research. I love doing science, and I even love working in academia as crazy as it sometimes can be. I'm not committed to the idea of a high salary (not that professors normally make a particularly high salary) though I would like to do something that gives me a modicum of financial security at a modest standard of living. I'm not averse to working in academia, or in government, or for an NGO or a private corporation or anywhere else as long as I can be connected to research and have the opportunity to turn conservation research into conservation action. I just want to do research (or at least be involved with research in a way that lets me put my skills to good use) that actually makes a difference out in the world.

Do any of you have any suggestions for career tracks that I should look into? Perhaps you yourself are already in a job that you feel has the characteristics that I am looking for? Maybe you are able to offer me a new perspective on academia that will allay my reservations about a lack of impactfulness in my hypothetical future work there? Or perhaps you see opportunities for researchers of any stripe to make important contributions to the work of conservation management and policymaking from whatever role they may end up in, by being advocates or advisors or activists outside of the lab?

All kinds of advice would be appreciated. Reading material, personal anecdotes, and any resources or tips or insights you have will all be welcome.

2 Answers 2


I don't know anything about your specific area of interest. But to have impact in your field, it might help to seek out examples of people whose career you'd like to model. What trajectory did they follow, and as far as you can tell how did their choices help with the impact they had ?

One of the advantages of a Ph.D (not necessarily an academic career) is that it acts as a signifier to open doors. For example, in my line of work, there are many people with Ph.Ds who have immense impact on technology from jobs at research labs, or companies. Their Ph.D gave them access to jobs in these venues, and the rest was up to them.

It might be that in your area, a Ph.D is almost a necessity to even be part of the conversation (whether in doing research, or affecting policy). It might also be that the people impacting policy do so from an academic perch (hence the point about searching for role models).


I went through a similar question and considered getting an education in law after my biology education. From the little research I did I noticed that lobby groups and legislative type careers seem to have the most impact in bringing about real change. However, I don't know where that leaves you having already completed a PhD by that point in the future.

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