HOW DO YOU BECOME AN ECOLOGIST?

by Whit Gibbons


March 12, 2006


One thing that never seems to change about the field of ecology is that young people have questions, usually because of a classroom assignment, about the profession. Students are often instructed to write someone in a profession and ask a series of questions. This is an excellent exercise for young people who are interested in a particular career. The answers are often easy-to-provide facts, but some questions are more thought provoking. Most of the answers should be of value to anyone wanting to pursue ecology as a career.

Q. What training do I need to become an ecologist and what types of organizations would be most likely to hire me?

A. Based on the origin of the word "ecology," a strict definition of "ecologist" is someone who studies the household, which we now interpret as studying the relationship between organisms and their environments. For some situations, a college degree at the bachelor's or master's level is sufficient whereas for others a Ph.D. is necessary. Not all ecologists conduct research; some teach or are communicators of another kind. Today's ecologists include college teachers, research scientists, conservation ecologists in environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, museum staff involved in environmental programs, government environmental biologists such as those in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife departments, and students involved in environmental research.

Q. What are the incentives for becoming a professional ecologist?

A. Ecology as a career is one most people enter because they enjoy nature; it is not a career to pursue for money or social status. The best qualities to have are an intense interest in and curiosity about what makes the living components of the world work, singly and collectively.

Q. What courses in high school are important for someone who wants to become an ecologist?

A. Courses that would be important include biology, chemistry, physics, English, math, computer science, and geography. Taking outdoor field trips would be an added bonus.

Q. How much money do ecologists make?

A. According to a poll of the Ecological Society of America, about a third of professional ecologists earn between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. About 20% make between $50,000 and $70,000. The amount varies with an individual's age (time in the profession), field of interest, and type of position. Whether someone works for a university, environmental consulting firm, government agency, or corporation can make a big difference.

Q. What are the opportunities for personal advancement?

A. Your chances for advancement in the field of ecology are similar to those in other careers. Perseverance, intelligence, and productivity of the individual play key roles, as do luck, politics, and personalities.

Q. What most appeals to you about being an ecologist?

A. My major interest in ecology is herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. By being an ecologist, I get to spend most of my time studying and working with these animals.

Q. What are your most and least favorite times as an ecologist?

A. My favorite times are outdoor adventures with reptiles and amphibians such as exploring a new area, looking for (and finding) a rare species, and developing new techniques to study the animals. My least favorite times are when I must deal with paperwork and meetings.

Q. How much do you have to work?

A. I spend about 10 to 12 hours a day as an ecologist if you count field trips, but I do not consider most of the time spent to be "work." Also, the environment does not recognize weekends.

My overall advice to anyone thinking about a career in ecology is to read books on nature and the environment, spend endless hours outdoors observing nature and asking questions about why different plants and animals are the way they are, and excel while getting a broad-based education. Once you have gone as far as you care to academically, find out who will hire you to be an ecologist based on your level of training and area of expertise. If you can't find a paying job as an ecologist, make a living some other way and be an ecologist in your spare time.



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