by Whit Gibbons

September 25, 2016

The following question, which I received from a high school student in Toronto, Canada, could be asked by any student anywhere, from grade school to college.

Q: I love the whole concept of animals, bugs, plants all having connections, once we look deeper into things, and that they do certain things for a reason. It's just such a beautiful thing. I was set on going to university for marketing, but I feel as though my heart is in biology and nature. I want to become an ecologist but would like to teach it not as a "teacher" but just to educate people on why plants do this, and birds do that and so on. Do you think an environmental science degree would be appreciated in this day and age?

A: Yes, I think formal training in ecology can serve you to advantage in several different ways, including enhancing your enthusiasm for nature for its own sake. An aspiration to teach others to enjoy and appreciate nature the way you do is admirable, even though you may not want to do so in a formal school setting. However, consider some of the many ways you could turn an environmental science degree into a productive profession.

Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments, something you are already intrigued with. Any public or private enterprise that affects the environment must interact in some way with ecologists. For some situations, a college degree is necessary, but a person does not have to become a school teacher at the primary, secondary or college level. Nonetheless, many people with environmental science degrees become teachers in the general sense that they impart information about various components of the environment.

Conservation biologists with nonprofit environmental organizations, staff at natural history museums, personnel at nature centers and environmental biologists in government agencies such as those in the USFWS and state wildlife departments all have some level of training in ecology. The practical aspects surrounding agricultural pest control, urban water quality issues and management of the nation's forests ensure that a degree in environmental science will always be critical for certain professions. A major launching pad for the ecological workforce is at universities in the form of student interns or technicians who can learn from experience what they would be most interested in pursuing as a career.

Most people pursue a career in ecology because they enjoy nature the way you do, certainly not to make money or achieve social status. Among the best qualities to have is an intense interest in what makes the living world work. Having a powerful curiosity about particular plants and animals is often what keeps research ecologists interested in exploring the mysteries of nature. As you noted, the interactions and complex relationships among plants and animals are fascinating. Asking questions about why different plants and animals are the way they are and spending countless hours outdoors observing nature will always be worthwhile pursuits.

The fact that so many people are intrigued with the intricacy and complexity of nature is reason enough to study ecology. Of course, learning about a subject can proceed along many avenues without culminating in an academic degree. Environmental experiences can be greatly enhanced by reading, visiting nature centers or joining local organizations that focus on a particular group of plants or animals. However, getting a degree in environmental science can open many doors for pursuing a variety of careers that can lead to a lifetime of hands-on experiences with the natural world.

If pursuing another profession, even marketing, is more practical for your situation, you can still maintain your interest in the environment as an avocation for your own edification. Opportunities to do so are all around you, and a knowledge of the environment, whether through a formal degree or by acquiring ecological knowledge and experience on your own will always be appreciated - at the very least by you.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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