Mentoring the next generation of conservationists

In February 2020, Murray Borthwick was staring down a telescope at Morton Lochs, undertaking fieldwork for his honours thesis and simultaneously realising that studying birds was what he wanted to do for a living.

Fast forward to the summer and we find Murray with a first class honours degree in Animal Biology from Edinburgh Napier University, graduating in what might be one of the hardest years to find an entry-level job in the environmental sector. Never an easy task even at the best of times!

For many years, NatureScot staff have taken part in Napier’s long-established mentoring programme to help support youth employment and the green jobs sector. Sue Haysom, one of our ornithologists, has mentored undergraduates and was delighted to take part in the new summer long micro-mentoring initiative for 2020 graduates.

A mute swan, one of the species Murray studied in his honours project, at Morton Lochs. Copyright Murray Borthwick

“Having been a mentor for Edinburgh Napier University before,” Sue said, “I knew how rewarding it would be. I’m so aware of how lucky I am to do a job I love, but also how difficult it is to get that first foothold within the environmental sector. We’ve all received advice and support during our careers and it’s great to be able to pass that on. I used my coaching and mentoring skills to listen carefully to what Murray wanted from the mentoring partnership, and we used that to build an action plan together.”

Murray signed up to the programme to gain a better idea of what a career in ornithology might look like and where and how to start. As Sue and Murray talked, it became clear that two things were important: developing specific technical skills, as well as more widely transferable skills, such as writing reports and presenting work to different audiences.

Murray explained, “Sue has shown me a huge range of places to look for jobs and volunteering positions, as well as giving me advice on CVs and cover letters. She also helped me carry out a skills gap analysis and identify how I can proactively fill any gaps to improve my employability.”

A tufted duck – another species which Murray studied. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Sue said that one of the unexpected downsides of mentoring is that it can make you feel very old! After her first meeting with Murray, she realised it had been several decades since she’d been in his shoes so she reached out to NatureScot’s Young Employees’ Network to ensure she didn’t miss out on any new aspects of job-hunting. They had some great ideas and were delighted to help; some of the network are now looking out for opportunities to become mentors themselves.

One of the most powerful and enjoyable parts of the mentoring partnership was revealing how environmental career paths are usually rather wiggly. Sue set up video conference meetings with other ornithologists in NatureScot, RSPB and private consultancies, which Murray found very useful. “A particularly valuable experience was meeting other ornithologists and hearing about their jobs and the paths they took to get there,” he explained. “This helped me understand for the first time exactly how I could work towards a career doing what I love.”

Morton Lochs at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. Copyright Murray Borthwick

Sue added, “It’s easy to assume that people in roles you aspire to get there by following a strategically planned progression of jobs – but I’ve yet to meet that person! We’ve all been tenacious, worked hard on our skills and building networks but beyond that there’s not much commonality. It’s a cliché but there really is no wrong path.”

How would Sue and Murray sum up what they’ve gained from their mentoring partnership thus far?

 “Most importantly,” Murray said, “Sue has given me the confidence to approach people and apply for jobs which I would have been unsure about before. I’ve been kept on my toes and encouraged to continue pursuing opportunities. This has been vital when graduating in a time that it would have been easy to take my foot off the gas, but with Sue’s encouragement I have already found my way into several exciting projects.” Murray has become a mentee with the Scottish Raptor Study Group, a WeBS surveyor and a data entry volunteer for the Garden Bird Feeding Survey.

Sue found she gained a lot from mentoring as well. “Working with young people is energising,” she commented. “It helps you to pause and reflect on your own path and think about what your next steps might be. Working with Murray has reminded me how bright a future we have in the green sector.”

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