“A thick skin and patience come in handy. But the moment you know you’ve earned someone’s respect for your work is a great payoff.” It’s this type of drive and ambition that got Sarah Joseph to where she is today—a coordinating video producer at National Geographic. No stranger to hard work and diligence, Sarah is proof that you can combine what you’re passionate about and find a job that suits you. By the age of 33 she’s already a seasoned traveler— her job has taken her to places as far as Kenya and Mongolia, and she’s worked her way from intern to associate producer where this wildlife-loving girl proves she has what it takes to make it in this male-dominated field.
Sarah is constantly working to improve her skills and shares her secrets to landing that one job you’ve always wanted (here’s a hint: networking). Her belief in the power of determination and being able to overcome any obstacles show you can achieve anything.
Name: Sarah Joseph
Current Title/Company: Coordinating Video Producer at National Geographic Magazine
Educational Background: BSC in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology from UC Davis; PhD in Animal Behavior from the University of Queensland, Australia
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it? How did you transition from that position to where you are today? Take us on a brief career bio.
I went almost directly from college to graduate school in Australia, with a brief stint studying semi-feral ponies at the University of Pennsylvania in between. Once I returned to the US in 2007, I began actively pursuing jobs in the documentary filmmaking world in Southern California, where I’m originally from. I took a few part-time jobs as a production assistant there and also started working part-time in an anatomy and physiology lab in order to support myself, before realizing that if I wanted to work for National Geographic, I needed to get myself to Washington, DC, the headquarters.
In the summer of 2008, I set up a bunch of informational interviews at National Geographic Television and a few other DC-based production companies, and managed to snag an internship in the Natural History Unit at NGT. I moved to DC two weeks later, and have been there working for NG ever since. Really it’s just been a slow but steady climb up the production ladder since then; first as a post-production coordinator, then a production coordinator, and then an associate producer.
Most of my travel experience came from the natural history series I worked on for nearly two years, where I gradually learned how to field produce, ultimately going on six international shoots. As production wrapped on that series, I was offered a position working on video for the digital editions of National Geographic Magazine (our app is currently available on the iPad, iPhone, and Kindle Fire, and we also provide content for the NG website).
My job now, as coordinating producer, is to manage the production workflow, oversee other producers, and deliver our content on a monthly basis. I also create some content, including audio and video. Working on short-form content for a monthly publication is definitely a big change from working in television, but I think it’s a huge part of the future of the industry and I wanted to be a part of that shift early on.
What factors influenced your decision to pursue a PhD in Animal Behavior from the University of Queensland in Australia rather than in the US?
I’ve had an interest in Australian wildlife from a young age and was determined to study in Australia at some point. I also wanted to study animal behavior in the context of conservation and wanted to pick a study animal I wouldn’t get tired of.
I knew that the management of feral horses in Australia was a complex and controversial topic, but because I have been a horse-lover my whole life, had a passion for native Australian wildlife, and had a background in conservation biology, I felt I was in a unique position to take on this topic. Before graduate school, I also had a fairly solid idea that I ultimately wanted to be a filmmaker and not to go into academia. So for me, the most important factor in choosing a school was finding a supervisor who would let me study what I wanted to study, and I found that at the University of Queensland.
When did you first become interested in video production? What formal education and training have you had?
I decided I wanted to be a natural history filmmaker in an abstract way—without really thinking about what it would take—around the beginning of college. At that point, I was already on the path of becoming a wildlife biologist/animal behaviorist and figured I would really concentrate on filmmaking once I’d pursued those areas. When I moved home from Australia in early 2007, I remember naively thinking that because I had a PhD in animal behavior and was willing to work for free, it should be easy to get my foot in the door. Though I had some production assistant jobs prior to coming to National Geographic, all of my real training has been on the job since I started there as an intern in 2008.
Have you always had a love for animals? How and when did you realize you could turn your passion into a career?
I think it’s safe to say that I have not only been fascinated with but also deeply passionate about animals from a very early age. I grew up in a house filled with animals: dogs, cats, snakes, fish, turtles, frogs, birds, rodents–you name it–and started horseback riding when I was 5 years old. My 6th grade teacher predicted that 20 years later I would be raising horses and writing books about the environment.
I’ve also always loved writing and drawing, but after ruling out careers as a veterinarian and children’s author/illustrator (I still hope to do that one day) at about the age of 13 or 14, I announced to my parents that I wanted to be an animal behaviorist. A few years later, I realized that I also needed a creative outlet; hence my plan to become a natural history filmmaker was born.
How has your education, volunteer experiences, and internships helped you in your career at National Geographic?
During undergrad, my focus was on learning about understanding and protecting animals and ecosystems, rather than filmmaking. Though I wish I’d spent time starting to learn those skills then, what I did learn about researching and observing animals certainly comes into practice when pitching ideas, speaking with experts, and working in the field.
Networking is a huge part of this business, and volunteering at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2007 was a life-changing experience. Meeting accomplished filmmakers and seeing their work was truly inspirational when I was struggling to break into the industry, and I’m still friends with–and work with–many of the people I met there. I’m very excited to return this year and represent the digital editions of National Geographic Magazine for the first time.
My internship with the Natural History Unit at National Geographic Television in 2008 was really my entry into this career path. I landed the internship through a referral by a friend of a relative (definitely 6 degrees of separation), and it was really the time to prove how badly I wanted to be there, which I guess I did!
What are the most important things you’ve learned, outside of your education, that have been instrumental to your success?
From a practical standpoint, learning about post-production, especially how to work with different types of media, gave me a big leg up on the production side. I also worked post-production at a critical point in the transition from tape-based to digital media, which has dramatically changed the industry in the last few years.
From a more philosophical view, I think accepting that though the path you’re on may not look the way you want at that moment, things have a way of working out in the long run. I personally was not excited about starting in post-production (at the time, I thought I wanted to work in development–the complete opposite end of the production process), and I wasn’t immediately able to get a job on a natural history show when I moved over to production.
I ended up working on a great series about National Geographic photographers for a year and a half–a job I got largely because of my post-production experience–before getting the opportunity to work on a big-budget international wildlife series. While that job was truly a dream come true, it eventually had to come to an end, and I have my current job at the Magazine because of my work on the photographer show. So there you go 😉
You’ve mentioned that there are some choices you could have made to make your path to National Geographic smoother. Is there anything you would have done differently?
I definitely would have actively pursued filmmaking earlier on, even just on the biology track. I probably would have tried to intern at National Geographic during undergrad (I had to enroll in community college post-PhD in order to be eligible for an academic internship), and I would have started volunteering and networking sooner. I also would have grabbed a camera and started putting little videos together while I was in Australia–I saw some amazing stuff there!
What advice can you offer women seeking to break into the highly competitive film industry, as well as a world-renowned institution like National Geographic? What skills or personality attributes are necessary to succeed in this industry?
Networking is absolutely crucial in this business. Getting your foot in the door is highly dependent on who you know (of course once you’re in the door, what you know–or how quickly you’re able to learn it–becomes more important). You may not feel like you know anyone now, but I found that when I actively shared my goals with other people, I started to find the connections. Nurturing those relationships and paying it forward is also vital–your intern might be your boss one day!
There are definitely roles to suit all kinds of personality types within the industry, but I think the best producers are people who are extremely organized, can give direction but still be collaborative, are good problem-solvers, and genuinely care about both the crew and the subject matter.
I do think women have to try a bit harder to prove themselves in the field, especially when you look young and appreciate stereotypically “girly” things–such as the color pink and baby animals like I do. A thick skin and patience come in handy. But the moment you know you’ve earned someone’s respect for your work is a great payoff. Ultimately though, as cliché as it may sound, the most important thing is to believe in yourself and your dream. There will inevitably be obstacles on your path to success but never underestimate the power of determination and hard work.
What is a typical day or week like for you (if there is one)?
In my current job, a typical day is filled with lots of meetings (something I didn’t experience as much in TV), emailing, and answering questions. We’re still a very small and relatively new team, and our workflow is intimately connected with both the print and e-publishing departments of the Magazine. It’s our job to create multimedia that respects our outstanding content on a tight monthly delivery schedule, and we’re constantly refining and improving our methods. It’s not as glamorous as field production, but every day is filled with new challenges and learning opportunities. I feel like I’m part of developing things from the ground up, which is particularly important to me because I hope to start my own production company one day.
You’ve traveled to place including Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, and Mongolia. What are some of the challenges you face when shooting out on location and filming wildlife?
There are always logistical things that go wrong no matter how much planning you do–luggage gets lost, vehicles break down, etc. The most important thing is to stay calm and remember there’s always a solution–it usually just requires some ingenuity to find it.
Of course when it comes to wildlife, you can only predict so much. I try to get to know a species through research as well as I can before going into the field so I’ll recognize behaviors when I see them in action and can use them to tell a story. It’s crucial to have good local knowledge–we hire on-the-ground experts called fixers to help us in the field. They assist with everything from locating animals to obtaining permits to translating.
Tell us about the process of putting a documentary together from concept to finished product? What is your level of involvement throughout the process?
In longer-format video production, there are usually many people and departments involved, each specializing in a part of the process. This includes, among others, a development team that pitches and molds ideas and does initial research; a production management team that handles the budget and scheduling; a production team that researches, handles logistics, acquires footage, and develops the storyline; and a post-production team that helps with editing, organization of media, and final finishing such as sound design and color correction.
For our short-form videos, we tend to follow the increasingly common “preditor” (producer + editor) model, where one person is handling many roles. We rely heavily on the in-depth research and knowledge from the story team that works on each article for the print magazine (this includes the photographer, writer, photo and text editors, etc.), and our footage often comes directly from the photographers themselves.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your job? What keeps you going to work each day?
I think most people who aspire to work for National Geographic dream of being in the field—it is certainly my favorite part of the job – but opportunities to do a lot of international travel as a young producer are pretty rare. Most of the time, the job is more “behind the scenes,” researching, working on budgets, organizing gear and crew, oftentimes sending out camera-people on their own while you stay back at the office. There’s also a lot of paperwork that goes into production, such as contracts, stock licensing, and releases. In my current role at the magazine, I’m responsible for the workflow and delivery of our videos. Fortunately I enjoy the organizational side of things as well.
It is also extremely rewarding to know you work at a place that really means something to people all over the world. I was recently presenting about my work to students and filmmakers in Russia on a grant from the State Department, and it was very touching to see how excited people were to have “National Geographic” visiting. I still feel an enormous sense of pride walking into the building every day.
Another awesome perk of being at the Magazine is sitting in on the final shows that the photographers and photo editors present to the editor-in-chief when they finish an assignment. Hearing the details behind a particular shot is captivating.
How do you balance your personal and professional life? Have you had to make any sacrifices for your career?
Funny you should ask this. Creating balance between the two is actually my resolution for 2013. I have an iPhone, 2 iPads, and 2 laptops; disconnecting is not my strong suit. In my current role at the magazine, I work long hours at the office and usually come home and work more. There are a lot of strong personalities and politics in this business, and expectations and demands on time are high. Fortunately I have a patient boyfriend and a long-suffering dog (who also has a dog-walker).
Besides time, the other sacrifice is financial stability. Washington DC is an expensive city, and I pay a lot to live in a small studio on a fairly modest salary (on the plus side, I am only a 10-minute walk from work). I’m also a contract employee, which means I always have to keep my eyes open for the next job. Though I don’t expect to get rich doing what I do, I’d love to be at a place where I can start saving more for personal travel and eventually start a production company of my own.
Best moment of your career thus far?
Completing a successful shoot is always a great feeling, but the last night of filming banded mongooses in Uganda was particularly fun. It was my first shoot as a field producer, and we had a little dance party in the research house we were staying in with some of the local staff to celebrate. Someone even brought a portable karaoke machine–we danced to then recent hits like “Who Let the Dogs Out.” That was also the first shoot I went on with my now boyfriend, Jon, who is a cameraman.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
The same advice I wish my 43-year-old-self would give me sometimes: to not worry so much, that everything is going to turn out pretty darn well, and to enjoy the journey as much as possible!