by Whit Gibbons

May 2, 2004

Among the environmentally related questions high school and college students ask at this time of year are ones pertaining to career choices. Kimberly Andrews, a doctoral student in ecology at the University of Georgia, provided cogent answers to some recently received ones.

Q. - How would you characterize ecology as a career field?

A. - You have as many job possibilities as your creativity will allow, but you are not likely to find a job in the Sunday paper. Make contacts by communicating with people at universities and nature centers, or with members of conservation groups. Being an ecologist allows you to explore different avenues and develop a variety of ideas. There is no "settling in"; ecology is a challenging and ever-changing field. Ecology can be your own paradise or your own nightmare. Be sure that ecology is your true passion before you pursue it. One way to do this is to volunteer at a university or nature center, or join a conservation group.

Q. - Any comments about the overall potential of a career in ecology?

A. - I love going to work every day. These days, many areas other than traditional academic routes are available for jobs, such as government agencies, nonprofit conservation organizations, and environmental consulting firms. As the field grows, so do the opportunities. However, funding from government sources--local, state, and national--is becoming increasingly hard to get. This does not mean no research money is available, but more effort is required to obtain it. People do not pursue a career in ecology to become wealthy, but if ecology is right for you, you'll be recompensed in other ways.

Q. - What are one or two advantages to choosing a career path in this area?

A. - The field of ecology is inspirational, dynamic, and exciting. You never learn all there is to know about the natural world, and finding the answers to questions often means you uncover more questions. I enjoy getting to work outside, even when I get wet and muddy.

Q. - What are the most important qualities, skills, or talents needed to succeed in ecology or related areas?

A. - As with many professional fields, dedication, persistence, and a quest for knowledge are essential. A strong academic record can be a plus in pursuing graduate work.

Q. - What is the biggest misconception about working in ecology and the life sciences?

A. - A surprise for many is the discovery that to be a productive and successful field ecologist you spend half your time in front of a computer, analyzing and publishing the data you had so much fun collecting outdoors. Fortunately, field season returns year after year; then you're back outside collecting more data.

Q. - Can you identify any "hot," new, or especially interesting specialties in this area?

A. Every environmental expert has a different opinion on what is "hot," as exciting political issues and technological developments emerge. Conservation and renewable resources are dominant topics as more people (even nonbiologists) become increasingly aware that we need to understand the impacts of human expansion across the landscape. But if you want to study something that isn't "hot," you might develop a new approach to or different viewpoint about an old topic. Then you become the one who has made it "hot."

Q. - What is a good first step for getting involved in this career area?

A. - First, talk to someone who works in the area you're interested in. Ask questions, lots of questions. The ones in this column are good ones to start with; as you learn more you'll think of other questions to ask. (If you don't, you probably need to investigate another career.) Start by getting your foot in the door. Volunteering is an excellent way to get hands-on experience in different areas and can help you discover particular topics that interest you. Becoming an ecologist requires a substantial investment of time and wholehearted commitment. Before you embark on a career, you want to be sure you are really doing what you want to do. And as with almost any career, be prepared to start at the bottom.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)