Hi, I’m Toby! Last year I completed my year in professional practice at Chester Zoo as part of my BSc Wildlife Conservation course. I had an amazing experience, learning not just skills for the job, but also more about myself. I was assigned as an intern for the Zoo’s elephant section, which involved observing their training, learning about their ecology, and undertaking manual zoo keeping tasks. I also got the chance to work with the Zoo’s Applied Science team on a behavioural elephant-based project, broadening my skillset, and providing a dissertation opportunity.
Finding my placement was relatively easy. I’d always wanted to become a zookeeper but wasn’t sure where to start. However, after booking a meeting with Bruce Woodcock from the university’s Careers and Employability Service the process was made much easier. Bruce helped me create a roadmap of where I wanted to be and how to get there. The University has a vast range of initial resources which I made sure I made the most of (having not really done anything like this before). Example first contact emails available, as well as CV building workshops. Once Bruce had helped clear up and appropriate my CV, we drafted a cover letter and a generic initial contact email I could easily adapt for each institution I applied for. We stressed my previous experience, what I could offer the institution, and put across a prominent desire to learn. Searching for zoos to apply for was my job. I applied everywhere I could think of and was able to get several replies, as well as a couple of offers! In the end I opted for Chester Zoo and the University worked in partnership with Chester to write up a contract.
My placement was able to enhance my degree learning. I was able to apply the vast majority of things I had learned from my modules to everyday keeping life. The Zoo has a vast conservation network I was easily able to understand and connect with. It also helped me give purpose to the job. For example, there were some instances I asked myself ‘why am I stood here in the freezing rain shovelling elephant poo’, which always ended in thinking about the small steps you need to take to paint the bigger picture. I’m here because I want to conserve elephants.
The placement scheme has also helped boost my job prospects after I graduate. Not only have I gained the comprehensive zoo keeping skills I set out to achieve, but also developed my personality to fit. The field of conservation is highly competitive, and any practical experience you can gain before graduating 100% helps your prospects of finding a job. The course also went hand in hand with the placement, as without the option to take a full year out, I would have had to complete a MSc to qualify for the zoo’s selection process. It was also a good chance to impress at a high level and receive a reflecting reference from a globally renowned institution.
The placement has fully changed my perspective on university study. At Chester I had a chance to take the foundational knowledge from my degree and apply it to the field in practicality. As a hands-on type of guy, the fact the year in professional placement also accounted for 10% of my degree helped me boost my overall grade after some lackluster 2nd year exam results.
If I could give any advice to students considering taking the year in industry option, I would 100% advocate for it! You can still apply for your student loan, and some institutions offer you pay for your efforts. My placement was also a great place to network at one of the best zoos in the country. I made invaluable contacts, and lifelong friends in this tightknit community. I can’t stress enough how important it is to personally develop and reflect while on your placement. However, nothing is set in stone. The placement was a really good way to see if my dream job lived up to the expectation, what parts of the industry I enjoyed, and which parts I didn’t. Overall, the scheme is a great way to ‘try before you buy’, develop yourself, and boost your job prospects.
The university support you get while on placement will generally differ dependent on a case by case basis. For myself, I was given a large workload by Chester which meant I was too busy most of the time to worry about university. The isolation can be slightly scary at the beginning, but the University is only a call/email away. The Careers and Employability service got me here, my tutor called midway through my placement to check everything was okay at my end, and the SAC support team were on hand to help me with assignments when I got back.