Research: ringing paraphernalia. Tree sparrow project.

Principal Conservation Scientist

Find out more information about life as a Principal Conservation Scientist.

Q&A with Mark Eaton

Job title: Principal Conservation Scientist 
Company: RSPB 
Location: UK Headquarters, The Lodge, Bedfordshire 
Typical hours: 9am until 5.15pm, five days a week (I often choose to put in extra hours though)

What are your main duties and responsibilities?

I'm responsible for overseeing the RSPB's monitoring of birds. We do a lot of monitoring of birds in the UK and also abroad, surveying particular species and getting involved in things like the Breeding Birds survey. This involves volunteers monitoring lots of birds - our breeding birds and our wintering birds. 

I also run or help to run things like the Big Garden Birdwatch, which helps to monitor populations of birds in gardens, and reporting of the results of that in things like wild-bird indicators. These give us an indication of the state of our wildlife in our countryside, and then I report that in things like the State of the UK's Birds reports, which tell people this sort of information.

Can you describe a typical day in (or out) of the office?

A typical day in the office for me is not particularly exciting. I spend most of my time on the computer, in meetings and dealing with e-mails, so a lot of communication with people, a lot of meeting with people and talking to people, which is interesting. It's good fun to meet new people all the time and talk about the work I do. 

So a lot of time at the desk, in front of the computer, and then a little bit of time outside to train people how to survey birds. Occasionally I get involved in our work overseas, so I get to go to meetings and workshops in different countries, and I sometimes get outside there and see some birds.

Which qualifications are useful or necessary for this field of work?

To be a scientist at the RSPB you really do need university qualifications. If you want to do fieldwork, maybe short-term contracts in the breeding season (there are a lot of people who work for three or four months in the year), you need experience.

But to go beyond that, to establish a career in the RSPB in research, you really need to have gone and done at least a first Degree, but more often, most of my colleagues will have stayed beyond that and have Masters Degrees. Most of them, like me, will have done a PhD in ornithology or a related subject. So an awful lot of time at university if you want to do this sort of stuff! 

Which route did you take to enter this field of work?

I did my science A-Levels, then I went to university, did a Biology Degree and I took some time out after that, working abroad. I went to work for a conservation organisation in Canada, and did some research in Mexico. Then I went back to university where I did a Masters Degree and then followed that up with a PhD. So in total about eight years studying at university. I then worked at a university for a little while before coming to work for the RSPB.

When you first became interested in science did you ever think that it would lead you to a career in conservation?

I think when I became interested in science I already wanted to be in conservation. I always knew I wanted to work with birds and conservation, and then the science came later. I wanted to do something with birds, I didn't know what, but then maybe realised that I could be a scientist and that would be the best way to work on birds.

When did you first become interested in conservation?

From quite a young age I was crazy about birds. I just wanted to do something with birds when I grew up and I didn't think you could make a career out of that. Then I found out about conservation and realised you could and I actually came here to the Lodge when I was about 12 to a young ornithologists club and they had a day about careers in conservation. 

I learnt about all the things that the RSPB did and how you could work on a reserve, and thought on that day that I would quite like to be a scientist, and the perfect place for me to be a scientist would be here.

I told an interviewer from Radio 4 at the end of that day that when I was grown up I wanted to come back and be a scientist at the RSPB. It took me about 20 years but my dream came true. I got back to work here doing conservation, science and something with birds, so it was perfect for me. 

For you, what makes it worth coming into work each day?

It's rewarding. I know what I'm doing helps birds and our environment, so it's doing good. I enjoy the people I work with, they are like-minded people. There's a great feeling at the RSPB – nice people, who enjoy working here and enjoy working with each other. 

And I find the work itself rewarding. So even though sometimes it's a bit boring sitting in front of the computer all day, looking at e-mails or figures and maths, I actually find it rewarding. To produce a piece of work or do some research, to find out some results and then publish them, to make that result available -it's all rewarding. 

Are there any downsides?

If there are any downsides I guess that like many other people who work for the RSPB and other conservation organisations, you really are devoted to the work. You enjoy the work, but because it means so much to you I think a lot of us work too much. So I find that I work my evenings and I work my weekends, as much as my family will allow. 

You do find yourself being sucked into the work, and maybe that's not a downside. It's great to have a job that you're so devoted to but sometimes I think it can be a bit too much.  

Mark Eaton - Principal Conservation Scientist

An interview with Mark Eaton, the Principal Conservation Scientist at The Lodge

Mark Eaton discusses his responsibilities as a Principal Conservation Scientist, what inspired him and all about his education.

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