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Transitioning to a career she loves

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Joanne Aley took a big leap away from the world of corporate management to become a Social and Behavioural Researcher for the Department of Conservation - a journey that began with an applied science degree at Unitec.

Joanne had been living in the UK and working in hotel and office management for nearly 20 years - most recently as one of four PAs to the CEO of a large international bank. While it paid the bills and funded her travels, she says it certainly wasn’t where her heart lay.

“I’d been thinking of restudying for some time. I knew I wanted to go back to my love of science, of working with conservation and animals, and I knew I’d have to retrain to get there. I’d actually wanted to be a vet at school but didn’t think I could get in to the programme, so went down the tourism route instead. I finally decided it was time to follow my heart, so I returned home to New Zealand and began the Applied Science degree at Unitec. It wasn’t an easy decision - I was going from a well-paid job to no income for a period of time - but it’s been well worth it.”

Joanne says she chose Unitec’s Bachelor of Applied Science, as it appeared practical and offered a broad base of knowledge at a foundation level. 

“Unitec’s Applied Science degree seemed more applicable to what I might actually be doing in the real world. My time there was foundational. I was coming back after 20 years in the workforce and putting everything on the line when, to be honest, I wasn’t even 100% sure what I would do, career-wise! I started my degree majoring in Animal Management and Welfare but quickly decided to add Biodiversity Management and move to a double major, as I could see it would open up more job opportunities and scope for my future.

“That was something I appreciated about Unitec: the breadth of papers and flexibility they offered. It meant I could explore and have the ability to shape my degree in the direction I wanted - which I realised was the social and conservation side of things. I also loved the feeling of inclusion at Unitec. It’s a really diverse and hands-on learning environment. The lecturers are friendly, approachable and always available - which is something you often don’t find in bigger institutions.”

A lightbulb moment

After Unitec, Joanne continued her studies at the University of Auckland, completing a Postgraduate Diploma of Biosecurity and Conservation and Masters of Science. While there, she really solidified the direction she wanted her career to take.

“I guess you could say I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ during a guest lecture in my Postgraduate studies. I understood the significant part humans play in our environment, and saw that the greatest benefit I could offer was to bring together my previous experience with people and my passion for the environment. Once I’d made that decision, my Masters degree gave me the scientific rigour I needed to become a researcher in the field.”

Today, Joanne is a Social and Behavioural Researcher for the Department of Conservation, focusing on predator management on the Hauraki Gulf’s inhabited islands and the social complexities this entails. She also looks at human-wildlife conflict research with a behaviour change focus. It’s certainly a far cry from her days in the corporate world, and she couldn’t be happier about the change.

“What do I love about my role? So much! It really has made all those years of study worth it. The variety is incredible. For example, at the moment I’m working on Keas in the South Island, a freshwater catchment landscape project, the Kauri dieback programme, predator-free projects and island biodiversity. The scope of what’s available for our team to work on is amazing. 

“I also love the fact I get to work with inspirational people and stakeholders, including having the privilege of working with iwi and hapū. Getting out in the field as much as possible is also important to me, so luckily a lot of my work lends itself to this.”

The road to a career you love

Joanne’s advice to anyone wanting to get into a similar field is to realise that the journey to get there might not be a straight line. 

“My first role, while studying, was with Guide Dogs New Zealand - which without a doubt was as a result of my Unitec degree. Part of the interview was completing a health check on a dog, which was something we’d done in our animal welfare papers. I worked in the breeding centre with the mum and dad dogs - helping them to get pregnant and care for their puppies. It was such a cool role, but not necessarily where I wanted my career to head.”

After completing her Masters, Joanne’s first role was with DOC, for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) - an international agreement that ensures trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. 

“I was quite strategic in taking that role really! While I certainly enjoyed it, it was more about getting a foot in the door at DOC. It was customer service-related and drew on the species identification and taxonomy knowledge I’d gained at Unitec - so it gave me the chance to combine my past and future skills. I took it in the hope that I’d gain the knowledge and experience needed to move into a more sociology based role with DOC, and that’s what eventually happened.”

Joanne says the key to a successful career is to be open-minded, flexible and take any opportunities that come your way.

“If I hadn’t taken my first role with DOC, I wouldn’t be here now. The conservation area has so much scope these days, especially with the focus it’s currently receiving at a government level. So, put your hand up when opportunities arise and grab them with both hands - you never know where they will lead. And always follow your heart - even when it feels difficult. It’s important to love what you do.”


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