Saturday, February 19, 2011

So you want to be a wildlife biologist?

I wish I could provide some advice on how to become a wildlife biologist. But after almost 10 years of trying to figure it out for myself--I still don't really have an answer. This is more of a rant than useful information--but I know I'm not alone and feel like it couldn't hurt to put these thoughts out there. Maybe someone will tell me about the magic key that unlocks the answers to this frustrating field.

Truckee, CA, 2008
I recently finished my masters in Wildlife Science after working seasonal field work for 2.5 years. I spent 5 seasons working on one project—the willow flycatcher project, which has now ended. I gained avian field skills, leadership experience, and a chance to do my own research—but so far it seems to have opened no obvious doors for me. Sure, my current job may be an open door but it didn’t REQUIRE a masters—a masters was a plus. And while applying for jobs last fall—I applied for at least 15 positions, all of which were within my qualifications and capabilities—I got two interviews. And with my current job, it seems like I will soon come to a fork in the road—take a PhD position, or lose the job.

I chose this field because I wanted to contribute to the field of wildlife conservation. But the ugly truth of it is—someone needs to collect the data and someone needs to analyze the data. And its really hard to find a job that lets you do both. I know a few people who have the in-between jobs—and am jealous! For the rest of us, we have a masters degree and are floating around trying to figure out what to do. More seasonal work? Or move up the ladder again? Go back to school to teach high school biology? Become a pet-sitter? Maybe a trash collector would give me more stability...

Most people say that if you want to be in an upper management position, run your own research group, or teach at a university level, you pretty much need a PhD. But they caution that you might end up doing more administrative and writing than actual data collection/field work, so if you like being in the field, you might want to stop with the B.S. or M.S. I think I knew this as an undergrad—and probably assumed I wanted to do field work, but didn’t realize how extremely hard and unrealistic it is to find consistent work. Its usually low pay. Its always short term. It usually requires moving from state to state. And you feel like a slave—you are the cheap labor that collects the data, NOT the person actually contributing to the field. Other people take the data you collected, put their name on it, and publish it for the world to see. And you MIGHT get into the acknowledgement section if you are lucky. So I got bored of being someone’s slave and did a masters—only to find out I was still someone’s slave.

Santee Coastal, SC, 2007
A BS simply gives you a background in a whole slew of science related topics—depending on the program and how focused it is. A little bit of everything that might be useful in the field but nothing specific. And you usually can’t be a wildlife biologist without an advanced degree. But it seems like a masters prepares you for doing a PhD—its extremely focused on one project and usually one kind of analysis and teaches you the basics of research. And a PhD prepares you to do research but still very narrowly focused. But nothing really prepares you to be a wildlife biologist—someone who needs to incorporate all of their knowledge and skills in order to conserve and manage species and the habitats that they live in.

So now I have my masters and could probably be that wildlife biologist—even though I don’t feel very prepared for it. But most of these jobs are government jobs—National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, Forest Service, USGS, etc. Oh the joys of applying for a government job! First, it’s the job announcement that is so vague you aren’t sure what they are talking about or what you might be getting yourself into. Then it’s the ridiculously specific and difficult to understand questions they want you to answer with multiple choice answers—as if multiple choice tells them anything about your knowledge, abilities, and skills. Then it’s the waiting—did I pass the public relations machine? Did the machine like my multiple choice answers that are the same as everyone else’s? And then it’s the rejection letter that may come immediately for some jobs that you are OVERQUALIFIED for or maybe it comes 6 months later when you’ve already taken another job or given up all hope of ever finding one. No explanation as to why you weren’t even CONSIDERED for a job you were perfectly qualified for—and it could be because they ALREADY HAD SOMEONE IN MIND for the position 6 months ago and just had to advertise anyway.

Truckee, CA, 2008
 Ok—so I’ve talked to people in the field. And mostly they say its who you know and working your way up the ladder. Maybe it is—but it’s also gotta be pure luck or perfect timing. I’ve worked many field jobs and have never made a connection that helped me get a job as a wildlife biologist.  And I have heard friends say the same thing. Yet I know others who have done basically no field work and have walked right into a perfect job because of someone they knew.

As I said earlier, someone needs to collect the data and someone needs to analyze and publish the data. Well, I’m tired of just collecting the data. And summarizing the data is not the same as analyzing the data. I want to DO SOMETHING--to make that contribution that I got into this field for. But most people don’t let someone with only a masters touch the data—they let them run the field crews or hire the techs or collect and enter the data. Or someone with a masters might work for organizations that collect and summarize data but don’t really do much with it afterwards. So right now I’m thinking the PhD route may be something to seriously consider. Will it make me overqualified for the things I want to do? Maybe—but right now I can’t even get interviews for the jobs I’m UNDERQUALIFIED to do. Slaving away for 4-5 more years in school for little pay doesn't sound all that appealing--but getting to do more research for a stable 4-5 more years does.  Will it lead me to a good job?  I have no idea. 

Santa Cruz Island, CA, 2007
 So with so many people in this field -- how does one gain a completive edge without moving up the ladder? More nomadic seasonal work? Don’t think so—I’ve seen that plan fail. Finding the right person or organization connection to push you ahead? Maybe—but I won’t hold my breath. Self teach myself how to analyze data in various programs? Someone give me your data!

What’s the best path to take in order to obtain that perfect middle-of-the-road fulltime permanent wildlife biologist position where you can still enjoy some time being outside in the field with your study species but also making a contribution that will help the species? I truly wish I had the answer.


Anonymous said...

You are making me afraid of my imminent graduation! but...I totally see your point and sympathize.

Lisa said...

Don't worry too much--I don't think a masters can hurt--not at all. And you are younger than me! :-) And maybe many doors will open for you when you finish.

anw said...

Hate to say it, but I think being a boy helps : (

Lisa said...

Really? I've wondered about that. I have heard about one female biologist with a great job and "only" a masters degree say that even though she does the same job as a male with a PhD a she often doesn't get the same respect. Its a good point--maybe if a woman wants repect in the field she needs the higher degree--even if she doesn't necessarily want to be highest on the food chain??

Jessica said...

Hm! This made me think a lot about my own career path. Straight out of undergrad I did seasonal work for 2 years, building a resume. Then I landed at a small non-profit, where I got a serious break: after I'd worked there as a lowly intern for almost a year, one of the staff left and I was hired on full time to replace him. I ended up working there for 6 years as a wildlife biologist, getting promoted within the organization, and it was fantastic. Except for all the ways in which it sucked, of course. I eventually quit, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was the many, many professional connections I made, thanks to living in one place for 6 years. I think you're really on to something when you say it's who you know. I'm back in grad school now getting my masters, working with an adviser who was not taking grad students, but took me because I knew him professionally. And when I graduate, I think that (if the economy has improved and there are actually jobs available) my 10 years of professional experience and MS and web of connections will go a long way towards letting me get whatever job I want. I also think that going back to school right as the economy was tanking was a smart move. Woah, this answer got way too long, sorry!

Jessica said...

PS- Re: sexism: there are Good Ol' Boys everywhere, but I personally have noticed way more of them in federal govt jobs where they can do whatever they damn well please and are literally impossible to fire. I have had a great career working in the not-for-profit conservation world and I have never felt my advancement/level of respect was affected by my gender. Maybe I'm just lucky.

Lisa said...

Jessica: your comments are helpful. I'd love to be somewhere for 6 years! I can't even say that I have "professional experience" because its all been seasonal work--mostly for graduate students. Most people don't even count that--doesn't count for the TWS Wildlife Biologist Certification. Its kinda rough. I think the one thing I could have done differently was working for more organizations than graduate students. Or done gov tech jobs.

Jill said...

Well it did take me a total of 7 years of seasonal work and 10 years of getting through school to finally get my "dream job". So, you only have about 10 more years to go to get yours! Just kidding! I do feel very blessed to have the job I have now..perfect balance of field vs. analyzing data and the opportunity to have a lot of freedome in what I study. I do plan to spend the rest of my career at this job long as this non-profit exists, I plan to be there! It did get very frustrating when I was job hunting for full time work as I was usually either under or overqualified but never had JUST the right qualifications. It sucks..but since you have gone this far I think you should keep going for it and are probably closer to a full time job than you think. At least you have age on your can afford to do some more seasonal work before you settle down to full time work if you have to. I will still keep you in mind for when we ever convince our boss to hire another biologist..we seriously NEED one and you would be the perfect candidate!

Lisa said...

Thanks Jill. When I interviewed with MSHCP I felt like I was not quite qualified because I havn't analyzed point count data. Otherwise that woulda been a sweet gig--although probably not much field work. And I def think it helped that I knew you! Knowing people has certainly helped me in some ways, just not big ones. I feel like I'm getting old!

Angela M said...

I know how you feel. Here I am in my 12th seasonal field job and still have nothing to show for it. After this one ends, where will I go, what will I do? The not knowing is what gets me...

There are definitely many times when I wonder what I am doing with myself? I cant even get into graduate school so I have pretty much given up. So here I am with a lowly B.S. and 12 years of field experience and cant even find a permanent job. Heck, I cant even find a job that will keep me for one year. Definitely depressing...

Jill said...

Wanted to comment on the "being a boy" comment. Actually I think this was the case a few years ago..but it seems most of the biologists I know are women. Where I work we have 5 women biologists and 2 guys..and one of the guys is new. Even most of the MSHCP biologists are women too. I also do think being in the right place at the right time also helps and knowing other biologists. I actually got my current job through someone I worked with seasonally.

Lisa said...

"Being a boy" probably helps if you are in areas with a lot of game species--aka the south or mid-west, etc. So many wildlife jobs (with the exception of Cali) involve managing game species--and I don't think women are in these positions as much. And I could see where they would be hard to get--and hard to get respect in. Location is important. Little bird research tends to be female dominated.

Anonymous said...

What seasons do you usually work in? Or is it just applying for a job in a certain season, and hoping you get it?

AC said...

I'd have to disagree about being a boy, in government jobs anyway. I am a "boy" and it seems all the government wants to do is hire women in wildlife jobs. I live in California so maybe it is different in other states but that is just what I have seen personally. Anyway, good luck in getting a more permanent job! AC

Swamp Thing said...

My question to you would be - do you really need to be in research to make an impact?

I worked my way up through the guts of wetland restoration fieldwork, then design, then management and funding. I started between my BS and MA in 1996.

You're right to question if it's luck and timing. Assuming that pedigree and experience are equal among candidates (they often are). But those things (opportunities from luck and timing)don't happen by chance. They happen because you put yourself in the room with the right people. Talking about the right things. With other people telling "the right people" that you are a good bio.

Stay involved in the larger community of professionals. NOT just researchers. State and federal wildlife officials you have contact with.....folks like that. If people know who you are and what your skills are, you'd be AMAZED at how often your name comes up in conversation.

Swamp Thing said...

And being a boy doesn't help much at all, especially since many env. managers are now women, and many of them "not very tolerant" of traditional male nonsense. I have worked for several women managers and directors, and at least half of the biologists I've hired over the last decade were women.

Being a male probably helps when you are going for a fellowship, a chairmanship, or an executive director position. Glass ceilings are more often at that level in our field these days. And that's unfortunate for all of us, really - if the best PERSON isn't selected for the job, everyone else suffers.

Lisa said...

Do you really need to be in research to make an impact?
Good question--sorry for not following up until now, I didn't know this convo was still going.
No, I think you make an impact in other ways other than research. But take for example restoration ecology--I really wanted to get into meadow restoration because the birds I worked with needed restored wetlands to recover. You can do all the restoration you want but if you don't precede and follow up restoration with some kind of research--what's the point? Whats the point if you work on a wildlife refuge and the land just sits there. Even if you collect some data (monitoring) it doesn't do much unless you do some more leg work and eventually-- publish it, which I'd call research. Yes, there is policy which is important. But if you don't know anything about any of the species you are creating laws for--whats the point? I think it all falls back to some kind of research. So, no its not the only way to make an impact, but to me its the one I enjoy the most, and is the foundation of all things ecology.

Lisa said...

"But those things (opportunities from luck and timing)don't happen by chance. They happen because you put yourself in the room with the right people. Talking about the right things. With other people telling "the right people" that you are a good bio."

I agree, and hate when people call me lucky for getting to do what I do. I chose it. I made it happen. It wasn't luck.

But I also chose to work for several well known bird organizations. If you were to ask someone to name some, I've likely worked for them. My resume is covered in good organizations and "big name" people in ornithology. But with 100s of people waiting in line for the one full time staff position to open up--it doesn't really matter. So, I think luck and timing comes into play fairly often. Sometimes having a masters doesn't even give you an edge over someone who stuck with one organization for several years. All I know is that my current full time and as-close-to-permanent as you can get in this field job has ZERO to do with WHO I've worked for in the past. In fact, they never even checked references. I applied, was best qualified even though I had unrelated experience, and got it.

Anonymous said...

You make excellent points and I experienced them all. However, the biggest frustration I had was working as a term employee for the US Forest Service which is the purgatory version of the job world. Not temporary but not permanent either. I was not eligible to apply for "status" federal positions. Then I lost the available to public positions because by law the federal government is required to hire veterans if they apply even if they barely meet the minimum qualifications for the job. In the end, I had to re-apply for my position that I had for nearly 4 years but lost it because a veteran applied. It was devastating, and I lost my passion for wildlife conservation. Now, I work for a private development company because I could no longer live the nomadic life with no steady income, no health or retirement benefits, and little opportunity to raise a family. I commend those who still have the passion.

Ras said...

Hello people!
I was trying to find an answer to the very same question and landed in this blog. I study amphibian ecology and love being in the field. But like you pointed out, I want to be there contribution something REAL that will make that difference, or something like that. DO I do a PhD? I love amphibians. But I've always wanted to work with birds. But yet again, do I want to gain skills that will let me indirectly help the species I care about? Maybe I need to learn how to simulate models .... Seasonal tech jobs are not the best bet since I am international. This is super difficult!! Whats your take?

Carolyn said...

Hello everyone,
After reading all these post I sympathize and identify with how difficult it can be to find a good position as a wildlife biologist. But don't give it.

I am a senior wildlife biologist working in Canada with large and small mammals. I have a PhD in animal behavior and wildlife ecology and I worked in one post-doctoral position until realizing that academia was not the direction that I wanted to pursue.

I am not sure if I can help - but I am happy to answer questions and make suggestions.

I can say that the best kind of field work experience is not going to be working with graduate students. Unfortunately graduate students generally have few to no connections or pull to help you find permanent positions. Look for job opportunities working with in government positions or with environmental consulting firms. I realize that consulting is often viewed as going to the darkside - but when you think about making actual, tangible impacts this is the area where you can have the most positive effects. Sometimes those effects may be tempered by balancing environmental needs against economic and social needs - but this is part of the work today. And change does happen when good people who are dedicated to good outcomes get involved in the harder questions.

Regardless, these types of positions lead to connections with individuals and organizations that can appreciate your skill, knowledge and understanding.

And one last thing - to the person who said is research necessary - yes ... it is the most important part of any wildlife position. Without analysis and communication of the data that is collected nothing happens, nothing changes and nothing improves. But, does that research need to be in an academic or government forum, no... definitely not.

Take care everyone, I really hope that you find your place - and don't look to another profession.

Lisa said...


I'm not sure where you are from or if the field is different there than in the US--but I'll try to answer your question. From my experience if you do not pursue a degree other than a BS in a wildlife related field, you will have a hard time moving up from a field tech. I do know some people who managed to get a decent job right out of college (usually consulting) but most of them have gone back to get at least a Masters.

I have a Masters and have just recently started getting more responsibility. A Phd takes more time and research skill--if you want to teach or do your own research that would be the way to go. If you are not sure about research I'd suggest a MS first. Think about the questions that interest you rather than just the species that interest you. So that you don't limit yourself.

Research is about asking a question, designing methods to answer the question, and then sharing the findings both to fellow scientists and the public in most cases. I really enjoy it, but am still learning how to do it well. Its not right for everyone. Hope that helps a little!

Lisa said...


Thanks so much for your post--you've made several great points and its good to hear from someone who's made it to the top.

I can't break into a federal position because very few places are hiring. I'm a contractor for the government but am underpaid and my contract could end almost at any time. Its frustrating.

But I haven't given up yet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,
Don't give up. Sometimes it just takes a little bouncing around before you land in the right spot.

I also completely understand your frustration.

When you look for positions what kinds of positions to submit applications to - and where do you look for those positions?

Maybe I can help open the scope of positions available to you.


Lisa said...

Hi Carolyn,

My experience is in bird research but am willing to branch out. I'm currently doing a lot of animal movement work using GIS and really enjoy it. Want to learn more data analysis. I haven't applied to much recently but in the past have tried gov Wildlife Biologist positions in with US Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, and USGS. But never get interviews. I've had better luck with non-gov applications but don't see that many positions that suit me (MS degree, bird experience, not a ton of quantitative experience, etc.)

I check the usual US job boards...will list in case others will find it useful:

I also try to check state department websites--like Maryland DNR, Cal Fish & Game, etc.


Anonymous said...

Hi again,
Sorry I've been flat-out. Do you have email address where I can send you some job links? You can choose which, if any you want to add to your blog - but there are a few other job sites that you might find useful.

You can email me at
Kind regards,

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think you just reached into my head and pulled that article out. I kept saying 'I know!!' I am just as frustrated with the job market as a Master's paper owner. I am looking at temporarily looking at an admin job at a Drs office...ugh...but I am finally getting a few calls after almost exactly a year of looking. Maybe they'll turn into something, maybe it's just another teaser email. Good luck, and thank you for the cover letter tips, they make sense.