Young Biologists are Struggling to Find Paying Work. Here’s What Might Help.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like this — 

Screenshot courtesy of

I am pretty sure most everybody who’s ever trying to get a job in wildlife has both their hands up. The feels. #pleasepayus is right.


I hear from so many young biologists struggling to find consistent, fair-paying work. I have been there many times myself. It is extremely unfair to be a highly-qualified professional, but not be able to find a job in conservation that pays at least minimum wage. 


Yes, you heard that correctly: There are many of us with graduate degrees and years of experience who are still getting paid $5/hour (or less) for our efforts.


The unfortunate reality of NGOs and other Conservation Insitutitions 


Now, think about it from the employer’s perspective…


Consider a grassroots non-profit doing amazing sea turtle conservation work in Costa Rica. They can’t get funds due to fierce competition for grants and government aid. They need help from volunteers. Since they can’t offer much money, but they can offer a place to stay, food, and a cool experience you can add to a resume.

I’m a biologist, so I know how frustrating it is to get paid next-to-nothing. I’m also completely sympathetic to the NGOs who are already spread thin and have to rely on volunteers. And since there are individuals willing to come work for free, why wouldn’t they say yes to free labor?


Remember, many of the organizations we are trying to work for are either research institutions (funding comes from government grants or private donations) or non-profits, who by definition are not out to make money. Unless they are funded by an outside revenue stream, such as zoo or aquarium admission, they too rely on grants and private donations.

Most of these employers are not evil, seeking to just exploit young biologists. Actually, many of these organizations *would* pay more if they could. 


But here’s the unfortunate truth: The funding is nonexistent. And because of this, everyone suffers.


  • The job seekers suffer as they work for next-to-nothing.
  • The NGOs and non-profits suffer since funds barely cover pay for the help they need.
  • BIPOC and those in low socioeconomic levels suffer, and then the conservation industry suffers from lack of diversity.
  • And worst of all, wildlife conservation efforts suffer the most.

It’s a broken system, and it’s freaking time we fixed it. 

Yes, fieldwork is amazing and takes you to incredible places. But it’s also consistently underpaid. I have a Master’s degree and I have worked “jobs” that paid $4/hour.

What’s the solution? Does one even exist?


Let’s think critically — Who is not suffering in this system? Who has the money? And how can we redirect more of it to conservation?


As usual, large corporations and a few individuals hold the wealth — and therefore, the majority of the power.


But there are individuals with a strong commitment to our planet. Perhaps they are baby boomers who spend their time as backyard bird watchers, but want to do more to help nature. Maybe they donate to the World Wildlife Fund or The Nature Conservancy but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Instead of just taking photos, Nova Conservation offers trips where you can actually give back to protecting these creatures.


Or consider a young couple: They both have desk (aka Zoom) jobs, but are eager and passionate about protecting the outdoors. They are adventurous, yet want to put their funds toward ethical companies, not tourist-y shenanigans.

Vacations are all well and good until you realize climate change is destroying our planet. But Nova Conservation has ways to give back while you travel.


They both want to pay for the biological experiences that give back. They want to give their funds for the right trip.


And this is where Nova Conservation steps in to help. Our database offers a way for non-profits and NGOs to capitalize on their environmental work by marketing it as an ethical, conservation-focused ecotour. We are establishing a convenient portal for our partners to post their opportunities, making it easy for potential volunteers and donors to help. Furthermore, we will also offer consulting to help create these experiences if organizations need additional assistance. 


My solution, while not perfect, is to offer “experiences for sale” for people who CAN pay. If done ethically and appropriately, this will bring more money to conservation and educate non-biologists on why they should care about our planet. I am actively working through the ethics portion with a number of partnerships, including EarthWise Aware and Terra Incognita.


In all sincerity, Nova Conservation’s goal is not to make money but to provide more funds to conservation. Young professionals are not being paid to work and it’s not fair. Non-profits don’t have the funds and it’s not fair.

I, Laura Marsh, founder of Nova Conservation, am committed that 100% of the proceeds we get through will go back to on-the-ground conservation work. I just know my heart and my passion for getting this up and running, and it is NOT to make an income, but truly to dedicate my career and this organization to save the planet. 


This concept of a comprehensive database for verified organizations to post their experiences hasn’t been done before, yet is necessary for us to bring funds to wildlife conservation. I’m putting these ideas out here on the internet hoping we can work together to create better systems to help wildlife. 

By allowing paid participants to help or observe with hands-on biological research, we can generate funds that conservation desperately needs. Left: Eliot Berz examining a worm-eating warbler for the Tennessee River Gorge Trust Bird Observatory. Right: Juan Sandoval recording data.

To the haters — I know you’re out there, so I’m just going to address you upfront. 


Some may say this idea creates a high chance for exploitation of animals. For example, charging a fee to swim with manatee researchers can indirectly harm the animals because of the additional human interaction.


This is true, and it is something we need to be on extreme alert for.

But the reality is that unethical businesses are already doing this.


I have a friend who went to Florida with her family and they wanted to swim with manatees. The cheapest option they found was to go to a private residence (a. sketch) that actually allowed them to pet and hug manatees (b. not cool). 


As an endangered species, this is completely illegal. Of course, her and her family didn’t know it’s illegal, but the private company definitely should have known better. 


But, hey, it’s how they make money.


The main point is, so many unethical tourist traps like this are already out there, benefiting from the funds they get from uninformed consumers. This will continue to grow unless we can encourage people to only support trips from vetted, ethical companies.


If we have a place on the internet that contains verified opportunities, educating how certain animal encounters actually give back (vs. the ones that don’t), then the customer can make more informed decisions. 


A few other concerns


I posted this article earlier and got some negative feedback, and I’ll address those concerns here.


As the founder of Nova Conservation, I don’t want our articles to sound too much like click-bait, so I will work to make the blogs more authentic and accessible. We changed the title from “Why you can’t find a job in wildlife” to “Young Biologists are Struggling to Find Paying Work. Here’s What Might Help” for transparency.  


I also heard comments about this system leading to MORE pay-to-volunteer projects since these experiences need to be staffed. Rather, we hope by generating more income overall in conservation, those positions will be able to be paid a fairer wage. But only time will truly tell. 

A goal of Nova Conservation is to have a place for biologists to advocate for themselves. We don’t want anyone to get taken advantage of, nor do we seek to propagate that system.


There are crappy organizations out there that take advantage of this system, and make a killing off of it. We are not that. We flag every organization like this and they are not able to post. Here’s a link to a previous blog post we did, and we have more coming out in the future.


Additionally, we will have a page where individuals can anonymously review their experiences. It’s a safe space to share their concerns over ethics — you get honest feedback from others without fear of retribution by calling out unethical experiences.


Our Kickstarter


Last week, Nova Conservation launched our Kickstarter campaign. I sat down with 6 global conservationists and heard the struggles in the industry: from protecting wildlife, to lack of jobs, lack of funding, and the impacts of COVID. I invite you to watch this interview and hear the heart and passion behind this project.


Nova Conservation is working to put this system in place, but we need your support. Building a database like this costs (surprise surprise) money. But our goal is to truly raise up conservation-focused individuals and NGOs by giving them more exposure, marketing, and awareness. Please, view our Kickstarter and GIVE if you can.


Ethical ecotourism, voluntourist give-back trips, and research tourism are the way forward. This is the way we can generate income to our industry — by offering unique, ethical eco-adventures that help our planet, and putting them on an easy-to-find, global database.


It’s time to get off the vicious lack-of-funding ferris wheel and try a new approach. 

“Learn more about sustainable tourism over at Eco Gaia Warrior Blog”


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