WOULD ANYONE BECOME AN ECOLOGIST?
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?
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
Q. How much
money do ecologists make?
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.
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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email