An interview with WiseOceans… Alan Kavanagh from Zoox
Here it is! The second instalment in our ‘Interviews with WiseOceans’ feature. Have your notepad at the ready, you’ll need to jot down these great tips for planning your next career move!
Name: Alan Kavanagh
Job Title: Programmes Officer
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I was interested in biology while I was at school and had a tropical fish tank. I enjoyed learning about the different fish and where they were from and how to keep them alive. It stemmed from there really. In actual fact it was my religious studies teacher at school who first taught me about sustainability, ethical choice and conservation.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I always wanted to go to University and study marine biology and while doing my undergraduate I decided to follow with my MSc in Conservation Management of Protected Areas . Though it was not smooth sailing. I failed my first year of college and had to beg my head teacher to let me re-sit. I have always enjoyed being in the field which usually only needs an undergraduate degree but I knew that being more qualified would set me above other candidates. Following Zoox’s professional development ethic I still focus on my own development, most recently taking some advanced statistics tuition.
- How did you land your current job/position?
Totally by accident. I came to Philippines to do the Zoox Experience Programme and then to work as the Science Officer for another NGO in Philippines. I had a return ticket for six months after my arrival but never used it! I had proved my worth and Zoox wanted me back. Since then I’ve also been employed by our sister charity The Reef-World Foundation, who coordinate Green Fins activities internationally on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Being in the field and working with communities and stakeholders. Anyone from government to grassroots level. Never been one to enjoy sitting in an office, I always want to be out in the field having impact and the Zoox Experience Programmes allow me to do that while teaching new conservationists all the lessons we’ve learnt as a team. I love it when our volunteers have that moment of awe when they realise they are working with powerful people in government and inspiring conservation at all levels.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
My work with Zoox is mainly in Philippines and whether it is with governments or seeing our volunteers grow, change always happens and in many ways. Some volunteers start with us and are very shy and have no self-confidence, then I see them dealing with a difficult stakeholder and standing up for their beliefs and I know I have made a lasting difference. They may be straight out of University, or an experienced professional switching over to the marine conservation field, but I know that the lessons they learn with me and Zoox will make them more effective at their conservation jobs in the future. It’s great when we hear about the work our alumni go on to do, whether it’s starting their own NGOs or working at higher levels, like at the IUCN.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I wish I had known just how inexperienced I was. If you recognise you have no experience, then you can act and get it. If like me, you graduate from an MSc thinking that’s all you need to get you a job you just sink into despair as you apply for every job possible and get no responses. Experience is everything and I now recommend people away from academia, at least until the focus and direction for their studies is establish through experiencing “real life” work systems and the challenges conservation can bring. There are a lot of gaps in the data we need to protect the marine environment, but it’s becoming more important than ever to have skilled professionals who can influence change using that data.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
In each of the countries I work, I deal a lot with governments at varying levels. Every system is different and I never thought I would be reading and reviewing national policy regarding environment law and making recommendations based on my experience. Learning about it is exceptionally interesting and makes you realise the hoops that everyone has to jump through in order to secure funding or simply do the work they are contracted to do.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
GET EXPERIENCE any way you can to be successful in a highly competitive job market. You need to show HOW you are passionate about your dreams. Writing that you are passionate in a cover letter or CV will no longer cut it. Experience not only shows that you have that passion, but that you are skilled enough to bring conservation impact into reality, and that’s the sweet spot for your prospective employer.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Juvenile Black spot sea cucumber. Looks like a nudibranch but it’s tiny tentacles are the cutest thing. The first one I saw is still the only one I’ve seen.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Recently while training government staff in the Maldives we were on a training dive and I am filming the divers doing their skills when my buddy shouts and points out four Manta Rays cruising past us. That was pretty special; it’s not every day your training is interrupted by Manta Rays! Like every ‘dream job’ it has its ups and downs, but the ups make it all worth it.
Thanks Alan, lots of great hints and tips in there! Best of luck in continuing your professional development.
Zoox are geared up for helping you in achieving your professional goals and getting that dream job. Why not follow in Alan’s footsteps and sign up for the Zoox Experience programme? Or have a look at their other fantastic options in our Marine Research Expedition section.