I get frequent befuddled looks when I explain to family and friends what my PhD topic is. “How are you studying sharks and dolphins when you do psychology?” they all ask. I am also sure that during these conversations their minds begin to imagine a shark laying down on a couch being psychoanalysed. The first answer to this question is I am not studying sharks and dolphins per se, rather I am researching people’s conservation actions towards these animals (although with psychology I could be studying the animals themselves; more on that in a second).
To understand conservation psychology (which is a relatively new field, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it) people must understand that psychology is more than mental health (which is what most people think of when they hear the word psychology). Psychology is a field that studies people- studies their minds, brains, emotions, behaviours, personality, social constructs… the list is almost endless. This is why psychology has an important role in various fields such as business, education, health and conservation.
I am sure many people are aware that there are numerous sustainability issues facing our beautiful planet and in recent times there has been a huge push towards conservation. Currently most conservation research is conducted in biological or environmental sciences and these fields have had numerous scientific successes, of particular importance they determine how our planet is changing and ways to inhibit such changes. There is, however a piece of the puzzle missing- it is for the most part people (and specifically people’s behaviours) that are contributing to the Earth’s destruction. It is therefore essential that we find ways to encourage people to act sustainably if we are going to save Earth. What field of research has the tools to do this? Psychology of course! Hence the birth of conservation psychology.
Conservation psychology research is broad and includes researching people’s connection to nature, pro-environmental behaviours, how best to educate people about sustainability and peoples relationship with animals. As psychology is partly the study of behaviour, conservation psychology research also encompasses the study of non-human animal behaviours.
Conservation psychology is completely fascinating and rewarding and I am so glad I choose to complete my PhD in this field. To provide an example of conservation psychology research I will attempt to explain my own research in one sentence (obviously not an easy feat considering the thesis will be 80,000 words long) but here goes. I am identifying if ecotourism experiences involving white sharks, whale sharks and bottlenose dolphins can promote conservation actions in tourists.
I wanted to provide a basic insight into the world of conservation psychology to outline the context of my PhD for future blog posts, but more importantly to highlight that there are so many different career paths out there. I never thought it would be possible to say that my job is to research tourism and its effects on conservation, particularly with my psychology degree. So my take home message is to have an open mind when choosing potential career paths as there are so many occupations out there that you probably have never heard of. If you are enjoying your ride down your career voyage, always keep going- you never know what occupation could be end up being listed on your business card.