In focus: Sam Williams

On African wildlife, academic stability, and remote work

Continuing our series of written interviews with researchers at IGDORE: Dr. Sam Williams, conservation ecologist in South Africa with a PhD from Durham University, United Kingdom. Sam tells us about challenges and benefits of working in South African academia compared with British academia, and how remote work makes it easier to thrive academically while also having a rich family life.

Sam’s academic workdesk in South Africa.

Tell us a bit about your professional background.

I loved science at school, but I didn’t really know what I could do with it. I remember finding out while studying undergrad biology that some people make a living studying animals in the wild. That sounded like a dream job to me, so I joined an expedition to study primate conservation ecology in the Indonesian rainforest for my Masters. Coming from a city in the UK, this was completely outside my comfort zone, so I really didn’t know how this was going to play out. But on that first expedition I discovered how much I loved working in the outdoors, travelling, and challenging myself physically & mentally. But it also opened my eyes to just how endangered so many species have become, so I wanted to use science to help conserve them. I kept doing this sort of thing more and more, and I looked for ways to live in ‘the field’ rather than just visit. I ended up doing a PhD on carnivore conservation in Zimbabwe starting in 2006, and I sort of never really left Africa, finding ways to keep on doing what I loved. As I was finishing my PhD my wife and I landed a job running a research project on primates and predators with my wife in neighbouring South Africa. We spent the next 5 years living in a tent on a wildlife reserve in the Soutpansberg Mountains. We and spent our time studying leopards, hyaenas, and monkeys, which was amazing. After that we both moved on to our current positions, doing remote postdocs in South Africa on carnivore conservation for different universities. My work focuses on trying and find ways which wildlife can help people and how people can help wildlife. It’s really rewarding work, and I still can’t quite believe that someone pays me to do this.

Why did you join IGDORE?

Most of my work has been done remotely, hundreds or thousands of kilometres from my supervisor or boss. Remote work really makes sense in this line of work, and I have found that it can be very conducive to a healthy work-life balance, providing the flexibility to spend time with family while also having a fulfilling career. So it was the “globally distributed” aspect that first attracted me to IGDORE. Secondly, I often found myself trying to convince my boss or colleagues to allow me to make our data and code publicly available, to adopt reproducible research practices, to post preprints, and generally to adopt the principles of open science, so the “open research” aspect also sounded pretty good to me. Finally, I liked the idea of having the stability of an affiliation that didn’t change every year or two, like it does for many early career researchers.

You and your wife are in the same area of research, which has had some consequences for your professional and private lives. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

I think one of the biggest challenges as a couple working in conservation & academia is finding two appropriate jobs that are in close proximity to one another. Even more so when fieldwork in remote areas is involved. So my wife and I have had to get creative and be willing to make sacrifices to make it work. For the job in the Soutpansberg Mountains we decided to take one job offer and split the work and the salary between us. We were also very lucky to find understanding employers during our postdocs that let us both work remotely. But a huge benefit of working in the same field is that we can work together and help each other out. We often collaborate on papers, and we are able to draw on each other’s strengths — for example my wife might helps me out with social science, and I might help her with data analysis. And even if not co-authoring a particular paper we will still brainstorm ideas together, proofread each other’s manuscripts, and strategise journal submission options. Since we don’t work with our lab groups in person, it’s great to be able to bounce these kinds of ideas off each other. Plus we get to spend a lot of time together, and have lunch together every day.

Dr. Sam Williams

Are there any particular challenges or benefits working in South African academia compared with British academia?

The salaries in South African academia seem to be less than half the equivalent UK salary, and private healthcare in South Africa is quite expensive, which would not be an issue in the UK with the NHS. But the main challenge in my experience has been getting my university to actually pay my salary. I often go 6 months or more between pay checks due to inefficiencies in the university administration. But the benefits are worth the frustrations. I get to live and work in a beautiful country studying and helping to conserve fascinating species like leopards, hyaenas, and serval. The people, the incredible biodiversity, and the landscapes are all amazing. It’s a great place to work.

How would your ideal work life look like? Where would you live; where would you work; how many hours would you work per week?

I love my work, so my ideal work life would probably look fairly similar to my current job. I feel extremely privileged that I get paid to do what I love, and am also able to work remotely and spend so much time with my family. But if I could tweak it further, it would be ideal to have more long-term stability (we often don’t know if we will have an income in a few months), have a bit more control over the research projects I take on, and to have more opportunity to take breaks and travel. Right now I would be interested in trying out working part time so that I could focus even more on family for a little while, so probably around 20 hours per week would be ideal if I could make that work.

What are your professional plans for the next few years?

My current postdoc is about to come to an end, so at the moment I’m looking for the next opportunity. Next year I’ve got some work in the pipeline helping to lead expeditions to Africa and South America, but other than that I’m also applying for longer-term jobs. I like the idea of the freedom that could come with going independent, so I’m considering giving that a go too.

What would you like to see more or less of by (or within) IGDORE?

IGDORE seems to be growing, and that’s a great thing. The more people that embrace the values of IGDORE the better it will be for science and the quality of life of scientists too.

IGDORE is an independent cross-disciplinary research institute. Check out our website for more!