by Whit Gibbons

September 29, 2013

With schools across the country well into their first term, many youngsters are pondering what career to pursue as an adult. "How do you become an ecologist?" is a question I get often. A recent inquiry indicates that the question is of global interest.

Q: I am 15 years old and studying in grade 11 in the British curriculum in Malaysia. I have been thinking about what career path to pursue. I want to choose a profession that I can also enjoy as a lifestyle. I have three questions for you.

1. As an ecologist/conservation biologist, do you consider it to be a good-paying, secure job with regard to having a family of my own and being able to provide for them a good education?

A: Yes. I have known hundreds of ecologists and conservation biologists, and most of them think they have secure and successful careers. The pay range varies considerably (as with all professions), but of course no universal correlation exists between one's happiness and one's income. Despondent millionaires and happy paupers can be found worldwide. I don't know any ecologist millionaires but most of the ecologists I do know are quite content with their lives.

2. You once said in an article that anyone planning to be an ecologist should have a strong academic background in science, including biology, physics, chemistry, geography, and computer science. Were you talking about high school or at university? Do you think the courses one takes in high school would have a significant effect on becoming an ecologist?

A: High school is a step toward college, and getting as thorough a background in science as possible can give you an advantage in college. Unfortunately, not every high school offers all of the science courses I mentioned. Nonetheless, you can prepare for college by taking as many science classes as possible in high school, learning good study habits, and keeping a high grade point average. All those measures will serve you well when you enter college. If you want to become a professional ecologist, one thing that will matter is how well you do in general science and mathematics courses in college. Computer skills will of course give you an advantage in almost any career you choose.

3. I am a passionate photographer who loves nature and animals. Would this help in an environmental career?

A: Having an interest in and knowledge of a specialty area could broaden and strengthen a person's job opportunities in the fields of ecology and conservation. Some individuals focus on particular groups of plants or animals so that they become experts with certain taxonomic groups. Others get training in meteorology, mathematical modeling, or soil science. Since you already have some expertise taking pictures, I would recommend you take photography courses in college. You might also learn Adobe Photoshop and similar programs. Being a first-class photographer and having a strong academic background in ecology could greatly enhance your job prospects in some environmental areas.

As with most professions, one's level of success is determined at the crossroads of perseverance, education, and luck. My overall advice to anyone thinking about a career in ecology is to read books on nature and the environment, and spend endless hours outdoors observing nature and asking questions about why different plants, animals, and habitats are the way they are (instead of some other way). It's also helpful to get some experience as a volunteer or intern at a nature center, zoo, or public aquarium, or with someone at a university who is doing ecological research.

As with many careers, it is critical to excel academically while getting a broad-based education. Once you have gone as far as you care to go in school, find out who will hire you in an environmental role based on your level of training and area of expertise. And if you can't find a suitable job as an ecologist, make a living some other way and be an ecologist in your spare time.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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