DO YOU BECOME AN ECOLOGIST?
by Whit Gibbons
May 2, 2004
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
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
Q. - Can
you identify any "hot," new, or especially interesting specialties
in this area?
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
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.
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