A mid-career change from social science to conservation

A mid-career change from social science to conservation
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Cristina Chaminade, professor in innovation and sustainability at Lund University, has been making a career change. After more than 15 years in academia, she is moving from researching and teaching innovation in a global context to working on nature conservation. She shares some lessons learned from this still ongoing mid-career change

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The long road of career change

About 8 years ago, Cristina realized that even though nature conservation was a passion, it was never the focus of her work, and she wanted to change that. The process of making that change taught her the values of patience, volunteer work, reaching out, and networking.

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Patience

Early 2016, Cristina started by taking leave one-day per week, to learn the “conservation” language, the hot topics and preoccupations of the community. Over about three years, she took one course after another: ecological economics, management of protected areas, and valuation of ecosystem services. For her, this was just about trying things out and learning as much as possible, including about the process of making a career change. Then she spent 2019 preparing for a one-year sabbatical, which took place the year after. Her first hands-on experience with doing nature conservation finally came during the sabbatical with volunteer work.

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Volunteer work

The volunteer work also taught her which skills and knowledge that she had developed during her academic work, could be useful for conservation and how. For someone who is changing careers, that is not a small matter, even when one has many years of experience in another field.

Cristina adds that this question about skills and knowledge comes from both sides. She discovered that the community is quite open and people realize that they need all the help they can get. But just like her, they do not know what a career-switcher can contribute to conservation. Volunteer work provides that space for experimentation by both sides, the “conservation host” and the “newcomer”, with a low risk for both.

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Reaching out

So then, how does one solve the dilemma of meeting needs of both the host and newcomer? After all, if both the newcomer and the NGO do not know how the newcomer may fit it, it at least requires some interest and willingness in the first place. Cristina agrees that it is a hurdle, but it all starts with the newcomer reaching out, introducing themselves and offering pro-bono work. In her experience, she did get interest, then an interview, then a lot of nothing, but finally serious discussion on how she could contribute. And then one thing lead to the next. It is still a work in progress, but it is moving in the right direction, Cristina summarizes.

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Networking

The key ingredient in a successful mid-career change into conservation is networking. Networking started already during the courses that Cristina took, because many of her fellow students were already working in nature conservation. However, the real push came during the volunteer work. This led to paid work that she found through the people she had volunteered for. For other jobs, references from her volunteer work were indispensable, and so on.

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Building a bridge with accomplished skills

A recent lesson that Cristina learned, is that her initial idea of a ‘clean break’ from academic research to hands-on conservation work, turned out not to be the wisest goal. Research is what she was good at and loved to do. She just needed to apply it to conservation. So, she ended up doing a socio-economic impact analysis of marine protected areas in Southern Costa Rica. This comprised collecting data with tourism organizations and fishermen through interviews and a survey, and then analyzing it. Just what she was trained for and skilled at.

Further, Christina adds, what one wants to do may not be the same as what one is good at. “I am good at fundraising or economic evaluation, but it is not what I want to do.” However, there is demand for what she is good at, but not necessarily for where she wants to go. So, for Cristina, it was sometimes difficult to say no to work that she was good at in order to get a foot into conservation. “I have come somewhere in between. Happy to work in conservation and happy to do research-based reports, for example.”

I have come somewhere in between. Happy to work in conservation and happy to do research-based reports, for example.

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More information

This article is based on an interview with Cristina Chaminade, by Frank van der Most, on 13 June 2023. The article is part of the WildHub community’s Conservation Catalyst program.

With many thanks to Cristina Chaminade for her enthusiastic participation and to Ross Rowe for coaching support.

More information about Cristina Chaminade can be found here:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/cristina-chaminade/

https://cristinachaminade.com/

Photo : Photo by Screeny 42 from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-bridge-under-construction-during-winter-11471980/Photo by Screeny 42 from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-bridge-under-construction-during-winter-11471980/Screeny 42 from Pexels

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Go to the profile of Ross Rowe
11 months ago

An engaging article Frank. Thanks Cristina for sharing your insights. I find for many people learning to reframe or translate existing skills and expertise to new content to be one of the biggest challenges with career transition.  

Go to the profile of Lara Reden
11 months ago

Thanks for sharing!

Go to the profile of Thirza Loffeld
11 months ago

Hi Frank, many thanks for this contribution. It sounds like it was not a straight road for Cristina but she managed to find a balance between where her passion and her talents lie.

Would it be possible to invite her as a contributor to this post so we can ask her some follow up questions? Thanks! 

Go to the profile of Frank van der Most
8 months ago

Hi Thirza, thanks for your comment. I offered Cristina to be a contributor, but she graciously declined. If you want to ask her questions, you can find her on LinkedIn and her personal website ( although I don't know if that has the possibility of commenting )

Sorry for the late reply. I have been on long holidays.

Go to the profile of Christine Tansey
11 months ago

Thanks for sharing Cristina's experiences @Frank van der Most, arriving at a point where you get some satisfaction from turning existing skills to a new area is a key milestone.