How to Become a Wildlife Biologist

How to Become a Wildlife Biologist

For the longest time, I wanted to be a medical doctor. The plan was pretty simple—bust ass through years of school and sleepless nights, score a high-paying job fixing up elite athletes, and retire early. At that point, I could hunt and fish when I wanted, where I wanted. It seemed like a pretty good plan, but most do when you’re still too young to get a hangover, uh, I mean, drink.

Enter college. I made it through the “weed-out” classes that send many a pre-med and their GPAs to seek alternative career paths. Looking at you, Organic Chemistry II. Even on the path to medical school, I still had to fill out my program of study with some elective courses.

Zoology 511: Ecology of Fishes—that seemed like a good fit for a “pre-med” student who kept dozens of shiners in his dorm room fridge and watched tip-ups on Lake Mendota from the study lounge window. However, Zoology 316: Limnology, was a prerequisite. Limnology? Naïve as I was at the time, that’s the study of inland waters. I took Zoology 316 fall semester of my junior year and Zoology 511 the following spring.

Long story short—about seven years of schooling and sleepless nights later, I was a doctor—a doctor of fisheries and aquatic ecology. In those elective classes I learned what it was, and what it could be, to be a field biologist. It wasn’t the weed-out classes that sent me down a different career path, it was limnology, the study of inland waters.

I tell you that story to tell you this story—generally speaking, without direct exposure, there are limited opportunities for students to find the path to being a fisheries or wildlife biologist. More recently, with virtual coursework and virtual everything, the point of entry is further obscured. So, do you think you (or someone you know) would want to be a wildlife or fisheries biologist? Ask any current biologist and their blueprint is surely different, but let’s start with some basics.

Another Brick in the Wall Perhaps you’re reading this as a high school or college student who just survived the holiday season barrage of “what are you doing with your life?” questions from every aunt, uncle, grandparent, and/or Uber driver you encountered during winter break. Perhaps you’re reading this as one of those guilty aunts, uncles, grandparents, or Uber drivers who knows a student passionate about fish and wildlife.

Whenever I visit family or friends, I get requests to chat about my career path with somebody’s neighbor’s grandson, or their hairdresser’s niece, etc.—youngsters in school who supremely enjoy hunting and fishing but haven’t yet stumbled upon a potential career that suits their passions and drive. I’m always happy to oblige. However, it’s always useful to view the whole journey as well as the destination.

Final Destination Basic ideas of what it means to be a fisheries or wildlife biologist often start at a young age. Elementary school field trips to a zoo or aquarium create dreams of future zookeepers and marine biologists. Don’t get me wrong, these entities employ biologists that play critical roles in conservation and expanding our understanding of various species. However, between those professions and the visible roles of game wardens in hunting and fishing, some people might not notice the critical careers that drive the management and conservation of fisheries and wildlife.

You’ve likely heard the voices from many of these critical careers on various episodes of the MeatEater Podcast, and check out Cal in the Field series for some more insight, but generally speaking, there are four sectors to fisheries and wildlife professionals. Each sector has their own advantages and disadvantages based on your own perspective and goals: state and federal agencies; non-profits and NGOs; private industry and consulting; and academic research.

Most permanent jobs in these fields will require at least a four-year college education. Some can be available with an associate degree, but those are limited. Increasingly, as competition in the job market increases, a master’s degree is useful or needed to level-up. For the majority of fisheries and wildlife careers, however, a Ph.D. is not necessary. In fact, I’d go so far to discourage that time commitment for most aspiring biologists, but that’s a debate for later in one’s career development.

Clearly, the opportunities and responsibilities of a professional biologist range widely. Yes, there are folks who get to scuba dive with sharks and net-gun caribou from helicopters. There are just as many biologists who work their entire careers in basement laboratories. Many jobs provide opportunities for both data collection and analysis—the field and the lab. It’s usually the fieldwork that attracts young people toward this profession, so it’s worth noting that you can develop important skills and experience for these jobs on your own time—in fact, you may have already started. Want to scuba dive with sharks for work? Get your PADI certification and start logging hours underwater. Want to manage elk for a state game agency? Spend a lot of time hunting and observing elk. Biologists are a passionate bunch, and you can get a step ahead of the game by developing and growing your own knowledge of and passion for animals long before it comes time to apply for advanced degrees.

Finding the Path Gaining exposure and experience is of the utmost importance for those who might want to be a biologist. The time to discover and apply for those opportunities is now! Technician jobs and internships are most plentiful and accommodating for current students during the summer—but now is the time of year when those opportunities are advertised and filled.

If you just scour the Google machine for postings, it can be a bit overwhelming. Professional societies such as the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society provide excellent career advice as well as robust job boards. The Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board is an excellent resource and amalgamation of opportunities across all levels. USAJobs shouldn’t be overlooked but can be cumbersome and often times those opportunities are also listed on the previously mentioned sites.

In High School For high school students, various internship programs can provide hands-on experience through state and federal agencies, including the National Parks Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as NGOs and professional societies. For example, the American Fisheries Society connects high school students with agencies and institutions via the Hutton Junior Fisheries Biologist Program (the application deadline is February 15).

Perhaps the most important consideration at the high school level is selecting a college or university that provides access to an appropriate program of study and/or department in the fisheries and wildlife realm. These might explicitly be “fisheries and wildlife” or “natural resources” departments, but they might also be hidden within larger “biology” or “ecology” programs. Major state universities are generally a good place to start. Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Research Unitprogram, located across 40 universities in 38 states, has a specific mission to develop the future workforce of fisheries and wildlife professionals. That said, smaller liberal arts schools can also provide hands-on experiences not as easily available at large universities, and many have established “pipelines” with researchers at other universities and agencies, especially for summer research and job connections.

In College For those already in college, perhaps “undeclared” or unsure of their specific career path, gaining exposure and experience with the possibilities in fisheries and wildlife remains important, as I can personally attest. This can come through coursework and developing relationships with your professors and teaching assistants. Professors manage labs of graduate and/or undergraduate students to carry out research alongside their own studies and interests. In many cases, TAs are graduate students working towards their degree and they hire undergraduate technicians to help with their own field research. Send a simple email, or better yet, hang after class a few minutes to express your interest and inquire about possibilities.

Fieldwork can be a glamorous and enthralling job that captures many future biologists. But, the life of a biologist also includes the analysis and interpretation of data collected in the field to meaningfully guide management and conservation goals. It’s great fun to catch and measure fish, but what you do with that data is where the rubber meets the road. That is, if you want a leg up, don’t skimp on courses that develop skills in statistics and coding.

Further, during the school year, professors and grad students often have work available in the lab or the field for motivated students. These gigs can (and should) be paid, whether hourly or through work-study programs. A foot in the door can spur opportunities for more fieldwork, independent research projects, course credits, etc.

Professional networking should also not be undersold—many colleges and universities have student chapters of The American Fisheries Society or The Wildlife Society or similar natural resources “clubs.” These avenues can provide opportunities to attend conferences with professionals in all four sectors of fisheries and wildlife careers. Many job and graduate school opportunities are founded at these functions.

Navigating the Path Clearly there is no one specific path to becoming a fisheries or wildlife biologist. Hopefully the basics outlined here provide a jumping-off point—various nuances and alternative philosophies can be found each step of the way.

Ultimately, will you get rich and retire early? No, unlikely. Can you build a rewarding career that allows you to get outside, gain a deep understanding of animals, and have a positive impact on the hunting and fishing resources we are passionate about? Yes, hopefully.

Will a chance meeting with a future colleague over $1 PBRs and free bacon on a Wednesday night cause you to ditch idea of medical school in order to study fishes in far reaches of the world? Who knows, but it worked for me.

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