by Whit Gibbons

February 11, 2007

As an ecologist, I am asked certain questions again and again. The following or ones very like them are often asked by high school students who need to complete a report. Such reports are almost always due immediately.

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

A. Simply put, ecology is the study of the relationship between organisms and their environments. So any organization dealing with factors that affect the environment, and consequently affect us and other living things, must interact in some way with ecologists. For some situations, a college degree at the bachelor's or master's level is sufficient whereas for others a Ph.D. is necessary. A person does not necessarily have to conduct research to be an ecologist but might instead be a teacher or a communicator of other sorts. Today's ecologists include research scientists, conservation biologists in nonprofit environmental organizations, museum staff, and government environmental biologists such as those in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife departments. A major component of the ecological workforce is at universities, in the form of students involved in environmental research and the college faculty who train them.

Q. What are the incentives for people to become professional ecologists and what attributes should they have?

A. Most people pursue a career in ecology because they enjoy nature, certainly not to make money or achieve social status. The best qualities to have are an intense interest in what makes the living world work. Having a powerful curiosity about particular plants and animals is often what keeps an ecologist interested in exploring the mysteries of nature.

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

A. Important courses 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 the most recent a poll I am aware of by the Ecological Society of America, about a third of professional ecologists earn between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. About one-fifth 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 activities are outdoor adventures with reptiles and amphibians, such as exploring a new area or looking for (and finding) a rare species, and giving nature talks to interested groups. Going to meetings and dealing with paperwork are my least favorite tasks.

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 what I do "work." Incidentally, the environment does not take weekends off.

My 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 academically while getting a broad-based education. Once you have gone as far in school as you care to, 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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