By Jon Day

Editor’s note: This piece started as a response to the question in this month’s feature article (What do you know now that you wish you had known when you got started in the MPA field?) and grew from there. From 1986 to 2014, Jon Day worked for various agencies in the Great Barrier Reef, including 21 years with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Jon served as one of the GBRMPA directors for 16 years (1998-2014). Initially he was responsible for conservation, biodiversity and world heritage; in that position he commenced the Representative Areas Program, a multi-year rezoning process for the 344,400-km2 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Jon is now at James Cook University. Email:

When I started my undergraduate university course in the early 1970s, my interests were the natural sciences. I didn’t really know what career I wanted, other than I was keen to work outdoors, so a degree around conservation sounded interesting. 

The course in which I enrolled at the University of New England in Australia (Bachelor of Natural Resources) was multi-disciplinary and very progressive for its time. Our first two years gave us a broad grounding in the basic science subjects, but in our third and fourth years we were required to undertake a range of compulsory subjects that were far outside my areas of interest. We were given no alternative and so I reluctantly had to turn my mind to address such diverse subjects as:

  • Resource Economics (including evaluating intangible environmental aspects such as air quality);
  • Resource Policy and Administration (including the role of politics in conservation);
  • Resource Technology (surveying, remote sensing, and air-photo interpretation); and
  • Resource Management (an integrating unit for the entire degree).

Not only were these subjects outside my (narrow) areas of interest but they required completely different ways of thinking and assessment. I can remember my first pitiful attempt to write an essay about politics. Not only did I have little aptitude for, nor interest in, this subject but I also had no understanding that such social and non-natural science subjects would prove to be some of the most useful later in my career. 

Taking calculated risks

I often tell my younger colleagues that, while it may seem easy to stay in your comfort zone, going outside that zone – and even taking a ‘calculated’ risk – is often well worth it.    

I believe taking such risks has paid off at least three times during my career: 

  1. For 11 years at the start of my career, I was involved in terrestrial park planning and management. My first risk was when I moved from being a park planner to being a park ranger.  This involved a pay cut, and many of my peers and colleagues saw this as a step backward. However, this practical field experience paid off down the road by helping me to become a far better park planner and undoubtedly helped in other job applications. (I made a similar move later in my career when I left GBRMPA in 1990 after four years to take on a very different role in field management with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service [QPWS] – initially as an Area Manager and subsequently promoted to Regional Manager. Again, this was field management experience but, combined with greater staff management experience, it helped me considerably in my subsequent position as a Director in GBRMPA.)
  2. My second calculated risk was moving from terrestrial parks into marine parks. I was keen to work with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority because in the 1980s they were widely regarded as world leaders in marine park planning and management. But it took me three applications in 1985-86 before I was offered a job as a park management officer and planner with GBRMPA. Luckily I was able to adapt a lot of what I’d learned from my terrestrial park planning experience and apply the relevant bits to the Great Barrier Reef.
  3. In 1997-98 I took a year off as leave-without-pay (an unpaid sabbatical) from my job with QPWS and headed to Canada. I actually had no idea what I was going to do, but ended up at WWF Canada (in Toronto) where I met Professor John Roff from the University of Guelph. I helped John complete his report for WWF called Planning for Representative MPAs – A Framework for Canada’s Oceans, but John also helped me develop my thinking about systematically protecting representative areas instead of just protecting important or significant places. This approach got me thinking of mapping the bioregions of the entire Great Barrier Reef and how a representative areas approach might be conducted. So when I applied to GBRMPA in 1998 for the Director’s position responsible for conservation and biodiversity, this thinking held me in good stead. I subsequently applied much of that experience when GBRMPA did undertake the Representative Areas Program rezoning. 

Caveats on taking risks

I do add some caveats to the above advice about taking risks:

  • Make sure you accomplish something before you move on from any job. Preferably this should be tangible, like a report with you as the primary author.
  • Don’t ‘burn your bridges’ when you leave. You never know when you might want to return to a previous employer, or find that someone with whom you worked previously is now in a position of influence for your career. This also leaves open the possibility of returning to your old employer if your calculated risk does not work out.
  • Have confidence in your own abilities. But if the risk you take does not work out, having given it your best shot, then retire gracefully.