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Monday, 27 June 2016

It´s a long way to the top (if you want to be a conservation biologist) - book review

Saving the Earth as a Career: Advice on Becoming a Conservation Professional (2nd edition). Hunter Jr M. L., D.B. Lindenmayer and A.J. K. Calhoun, 2016. John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Chichester, UK.  224 pp. £29.50 (paperback). ISBN 978-1119184799.

Rather than a book, Saving the Earth as a career resembles a good talk with old friends who want to share their experience. The authors wrote about the struggles and joys of a conservation biologist, from the beginning of a passion to the realization of a job. Of course, they faced the challenge of generalizing their suggestions to an array of people, universities and job systems, which may be as diverse as the world is.

After the preface, a guide map indicates which chapters to skip based on your own career stage. As a PhD student I could have started reading from chapter 5, leaving out almost half of the chapters and about one third of the book; so this book is possibly more useful for undergraduate students. I wondered, though, if another way of communication like a blog or an interactive mind map would have been equally or more efficient. Using Italics or bold instead of boxes where text is almost always literally repeated would have not caused a big loss, allowing also the reader to continue the paragraph without interruptions. The conversations between Pat and Terry (the imaginary student and advisor of the book) swing from hypothetical real cases to childish entr'actes between paragraphs.

The further reading section is both a nice idea and a need, as the book is not a stand-alone manual, especially for the most technical parts like writing a proposal, writing scientific papers, preparing posters and giving oral presentations. Still, there are good suggestions sprinkled here and there, and the chapters are easy to read. Chapter 1 sounds a bit too promotional, trying to convince you that conservation biology is the best job ever (even though it may actually be). Nevertheless, it sounds a bit "preaching to the converted":  people who think the same would not benefit too much from reading this chapter, while people who do not would not have bought the book anyway.

Chapters 2-3 give some good suggestions about the educational program, however I do not always agree with them. For example, I found the recommendation to devote work days, spare time, weekends, and holidays (basically all your lifetime) to scientific activities too extreme. I do believe that non-scientific activities can also help to develop skills that may be pivotal for a scientist. I know a professor of biology that also has a passion for baking (she is especially good at preparing cakes). She told me once how learning to follow meticulously the receipt was helpful for being good at lab work. I myself am an amateur chess player since my youth, and this helped me to develop various skills ranging from getting a solid preparation before a tournament, to learn from my mistakes, to create a training plan to improve, and to handle stressful situations. I believe that chess was also important for my "forma mentis".

However, I agree with the list of desirable traits for an aspiring young researcher: hard worker, enthusiastic, open minded, socially interactive (especially with other scientists), precise, and cautious. Chapters 3-4 may give some useful suggestions about selecting an educational program and applying for admission, but you definitely have to be an undergraduate to appreciate this advice. Chapter 5 is a nice starting point for students enrolled in higher educational programs where most of the tasks are probably similar to the ones covered (i.e. project, courses, teaching, internship, qualifying exam). Chapter 6 focuses on executing a project, but only three pages are dedicated to writing a proposal that is probably the most difficult part. Chapters 7-8 introduce briefly to the principles of scientific writing and communication; these are no more than a starting point for further studies. Chapter 9, about the non-easy task of finding a job is something I would probably need to read again soon. I particularly appreciated the last chapter, where the authors discuss how a conservation biologist could and should make the difference in her life, the risk of the Savior Syndrome (with symptoms and cure), and especially remembering that the work of someone who wants to save the Earth is more like a vocation, and it´s not over with the end of the working day. Overall, how much of these things can be learned from a book rather than personal experience is likely to vary from person to person, in the same way different readers will benefit differently from reading this book. The authors decided to donate all book royalties to support student activities of the Society for Conservation Biology, a gesture that alone makes buying the book worthwhile.

Marco Ferrante
Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University, Flakkebjerg Research Centre, 4200 Slagelse, Denmark. email:

1 comment:

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