Navigating a career in conservation

Jackie Caine

Jackie Caine has used the Zoology degree she gained at the University of Manchester to work within many aspects of wildlife conservation, combining lab and field experience within the UK and Africa, Jackie is now helping tackle wildlife conservation on a global scale.

I graduated from Manchester way back in 2006 with my Zoology degree and a vague plan of what I was going to do with it. I chose the course because I wanted to work in wildlife conservation – not the easiest field to make a career in, but Manchester gave me the confidence to give it a go, and the skills I needed to set myself apart from the competition.

Manchester was a life-changer for me. My flat mates became my best mates, and I was confronted with a load of new opportunities. I decided to take a ‘year in industry’ after my second year – I worked as a researcher at Paignton Zoo in Devon and it was there that I started to understand what research really was, and how to apply experimental methods outside of those confusing 6 hour lab practicals. While I was there I worked with Colobus monkeys and then developed a project on the nutrition of captive black rhinoceros which later became my final year dissertation. This meant a good combination of zoo & lab time; monitoring captive rhino at Chester Zoo, and working on the biochemistry of their diet in the lab.

Colobus monkeys

The Zoo set me up with some contacts and a decent amount of experience on my CV for future jobs. That year also helped enormously with my studies when I returned for final year – I’d had a year to refresh and grow up a bit, and lectures made more sense to me now that I had some practical experience. After uni I worked as a temp for a while to save up for a trip to Kenya, and there I volunteered with a primate conservation organisation. That completed the holy trinity of experience a Zoologists needs – academic knowledge, some lab experience and field experience.

From then on I took whatever opportunity I could, moving to London to work for a bunch of animal charities, and eventually finding myself work at the science-policy interface; that means making sure science is represented in government policy, and also that the science community has enough support to survive and succeed. I worked on a huge range of topics – forestry, badgers, GM, antimicrobial resistance, funding and diversity in the science workforce and more. Traipsing the halls of power in Westminster was equal parts incredible and frustrating – and also completely alien to me.


I am from a working class family, and the first one to go to university. We’re a politically minded family, but we don’t exactly sit around the dinner table debating the intricacies of fiscal policy. We actually rarely sit around the dinner table.

I heard it said that private schools like Eton have the same kind of decor as the Houses of Parliament, and certainly some people are more comfortable there than others. I am also quite introverted, and ‘spirited debate’ makes me want to hide. Not a great attribute for policy work. Manchester helped me succeed in this environment partly because of the people I met – not Eton graduates, but supportive, intelligent, and hilarious women who basically pumped me up with confidence. I also had lecturers who saw my potential and helped me out, so I stole some of their belief in me and gave it my best shot.


At this point I think it’s important to be honest about the financial limitations of getting an education and entering careers that aren’t necessarily going to be well paid. If your parents are not able to give you a lot of financial support, it will be hard, no matter how clever or hardworking you are. There isn’t parity of opportunity, and that is something I struggled with, but it shouldn’t deter you from trying. I’ve managed to make a decent career in conservation by taking chances, relying on the generosity of friends (sofa surfing – I became adept at), and naïve ambition. But if you’ve got this far, you likely have a passion for your chosen subject and you’ll have new perspectives to bring to your field that are really valuable. You deserve to get a seat the table, even if, or maybe especially because you can’t afford to do a free internship.


Right now, I have set myself up as a consultant and I am working with sustainable seafood NGOs in the UK and the US – helping them work together and achieve their goals to essentially stop fisheries and aquaculture from devastating the ocean, while providing us with the food we’ll need for an increasing population. This work is also largely ‘political’ – managing conflicting personalities and business models to get the job done. More and more conservation careers are like this – its less tree hugging and more about finding ways that we can all work better together to achieve change at a global scale. And that’s where different perspectives, backgrounds, and new ways of thinking are really going to count.

2 thoughts on “Navigating a career in conservation

  1. Your university path sounds incredible. I really wanted to go into conservation – but to immediately do what you finally achieved, however I’m limited now as I am a mature student with a mortgage and 3 children. I’m a big dreamer though and wish I could take them all with me on crazy conservation projects abroad however I feel that’s all pipe dreams and movies so I’m sticking with something else (not sure what yet!)
    Congratulations on achieving success and if you have an insta page with your work on I would love to follow it!

    Liked by 1 person

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