Thursday, February 24, 2011

Good Qualities of a Wildlife Biologist

I know I complained about how hard it is to find a full-time job in this field.  But, I don't have any intention of changing careers.  I'd just like to talk about the good, bad, and the ugly so people can make better decsions about joining me and my other sometimes frustrated collegues in our quest for the perfect wildlife career.

So what does it take to be a good wildlife biologist? I have some suggestions. These are qualities I tend to look for when hiring people for field tech positions—and the qualities I strive to personally improve upon all the time. This is certainly not a complete list but a good start. 

1. Hard worker. Someone who’s willing to put in that little bit of extra work to get the job done. Especially if it’s the dirty work no one wants to do. Doing it without complaints is even better (I didn't list a positive attitude, but thats always good to have too).

2. Flexibility. Wildlife is unpredictable. So collecting data on wildlife is unpredictable. A lot of what we do as biologists is trial and error. Changes in plans, protocols, and scheduling is common—so if you are not ok with that, you are in the wrong field.

3. Good thinker. Although some jobs are very straight forward—go check these traps—many require some extra thought. If you can’t think on your feet to solve a problem or make a decision in the field you might run into problems in this field. Plus, if you plan to go on to higher degrees, a creative researcher mind is very important—but something that can develop with experience.

4. Passion. You won’t make a ton of money doing this work. So you’d better love the work. And I’m not just talking about how cute and cuddly animals are (even though they are!)—we do this to make a difference in wildlife conservation and management. We do get perks though—we travel to amazing places, get to be outside, meet wonderful people, and get to work up close and personal with wildlife. But the perks shouldn’t be the sole reason for getting into this field.

5. Patience. It could take 10 years for you to find a full-time permanent job. So be prepared for that. Not to mention patience in the field—I’ve sat for 4 hours watching the same bird or nest for a band resight. Some people never even see their study species the entire season. (See also: for more on the life of a seasonal wildlife biologist.)

6. Maturity and responsibility. Most people expect that if they ask you to complete three tasks that day that you will be capable of doing that without being reminded. And we also assume that if you don’t understand something you will take it upon yourself to ask questions. You can’t expect a supervisor to do everything for you or tell you when and how to do it each day. Don’t let the fact that you get to play outside all day take away from the fact that it’s still a job and that you have a very important task to do that day (and are being paid to do it!).

7. Communication and social skills. If you don’t understand how to do something—ask. If you don’t know why you are doing something—ask. If you are having trouble with a crew leader or co-worker, talk to them or someone else who can help. Ask how you are doing and how you can improve. You also have to be able to live and work in close quarters with others—peacefully. Not to mention how important it is in our field to be able to explain what we do and why (verbally and written)—to anyone in the scientific community or someone who doesn’t know what a robin looks like.  And who you know and the impression you make on them is also important--networking can lead to the perfect job. Oftentimes people in this field prefer wildlife over people--but people are just not avoidable because they are part of the problem, and a huge part of the solution!

8. Physical fitness. The work can be long and demanding and in bad weather conditions. Think about doing 3 mile owl transect surveys in 3ft of snow. You might have to hike over a mountain every day just to get to your field site. Or kayak to work each day. Or lift 50lb deer carcasses. Backpack into the backcountry with a heavy pack. Sounds like fun? Good.

9. No fear (although a sense of caution is important). Venomous snakes, alligators, lions, tigers, and bears—oh my! We work with wild animals—and some can cause some serious damage. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Hypothermia. Heat exhaustion. Spiders, mosquitoes, and biting flies. Poison oak, poison ivy, and thorny plants. Bot flies. Intestinal parasites. West Nile disease. Lyme disease. Graduate school advisers. Wildlife biologists often take risks.

10. Finally—a good biologist is ok with NOT KNOWING but has enthusiasm for learning and a desire to contribute to scientific knowledge. If you go to graduate school you will probably feel stupid 80% of the time. We conduct research to find answers—but its not that straight forward. We find support for theories, but its usually not proof. And although most people will never argue with a doctor or architect about how they do their job—many people will argue with a scientist, especially wildlife biologists. Take climate change for example... ::rolls eyes::


Swamp Thing said...

Those are good ones. Since I've hired quite a few over the years, here's my quick list (which intersects with yours quite nicely):

1. Trustworthy - can I turn over a task to her and be reasonably certain it will get done correctly and more or less on time & on budget?

2. Basic intellectual capacity to do the work. Sorry - no duds allowed.

3. Good people skills. If you "don't want to talk to the public," go work in another field, honestly. Or get your PhD and get in the lab.

4. Passion for the resource. If I hire a passionate person, I can draw from that well surprisingly often (i.e. extended travel, challenging tasks).

5. Does she have the right amount of confidence to carry the job on her shoulders and not be terribly set back by her own mistakes (or mistakes made by others)? I have had employees quit in the field because it was hot/cold/raining, cry when the work truck breaks down, and vomit during a disciplinary meeting. I do not have time for those things. I want a strong person who can take a (mental) beating from the world of biology.

6. I will steer as clear as possible from a "trendsetting rulebreaker." If you are coming to work for me, I invite the opportunity for you to show me how my methods are out of date. But turning in your timesheet on time, attending staff meetings, and not having your underwear hanging out in the office, are all things that are non-negotiable. You gotta know when to fall in line.

Just my 2 cents.

Lisa said...

Good additions! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful. Thank you.