Career advice from Sir David Attenborough

In 2001 I was a fresh faced teenager, totally convinced that by the time I was in my 30s (i.e. now) I would have a successful career working on wildlife documentaries. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get there. So, I took pen to paper and asked a man who arguably has the best job in the world, Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David wrote back to me and fast forward to today, his words are as relevant as ever. I actually followed a lot of his advice, getting a degree and a masters and building up some zoological expertise, like describing two new species of cobra. But did I get the wildlife filmmaking career that my 17 year-old self was certain I would have? Well, no, but I have had lots of great wildlife experiences. Am I still working towards that job? Hell yes (and if any documentary film makers are reading this, I am totally available! In fact, I’m so available I can start yesterday).

Sir David does point out that the likelihood of getting such a job is near impossible, but the truth is that people do get these jobs. I think the take home message is that if you are passionate about a career in wildlife conservation then you just can’t give up. At more times than I care to admit I’ve felt like throwing in the towel and following another career path, but I can’t – my life would lack purpose. When I feel like that I just dig deep and find my 17 year-old self’s unwavering conviction that the dream job is out there, somewhere.

Here is what Sir David had to say:

“Dear Richard Storey,

Thank you for your letter. I can tell you quite simply and briefly how I came to get my job. I took a degree in natural sciences in Cambridge and then, after national service in the Navy and a short time as an editorial assistant in a publishing house, I applied for a training course to join BBC Television as a producer. At the time, BBC Television was tiny and there was little competition. If there were half a dozen applicants for the place I got I should be surprised. After I had learned my trade as a producer and film director, I was instructed by BBC management to take the place of as naturalist who fell sick during the run of a (live) series I was producing.

But that was over fifty years ago. The situation is totally changed today. The BBC no longer runs training courses. The standard way to get into the BBC’s natural history unit is as a researcher. In selecting applicants for such a post the BBC looks for zoological expertise and also some experience of turning that knowledge into interesting narratives – either in pictures or words. Sadly however, such jobs only come up rarely and when they do, the competition for them is intense. The last to do so was for a series I am currently working on about mammals. There was one researcher post needed and there were over five thousand applicants of whom nearly half had doctorates.

I am sorry to have to write in such a dismal way.

Yours Sincerely,

David Attenborough”

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