I work as an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and I get a lot of phone calls, emails, and office visits from folks wanting to know what it takes to land a career in conservation. And it’s not just high schoolers wanting to know how to break into the field—it’s also mid-career professionals looking to make a switch. Given the satisfaction and sense of purpose that I get from working in a field where personal passion and professional opportunities overlap, I appreciate and understand why they ask.
So, I’d like to give a little help. The following advice is for those who share a similar sense of purpose and are looking for a starting point on their journey into a conservation career. This guidance comes not just from my own experiences but also through interviews and discussions with seven colleagues, ranging from current students to experienced graybeards who have diverse conservation jobs across the country.
Want it More Than the Competition
If you are wishy-washy about whether this is the right line of work for you, then you should probably steer clear. You will be beaten out by someone who is more dedicated. If you’re all in, then read on.
According to Nate Wiese, northern geographical fisheries supervisor for the Northern Mountain Prairie Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “People make the mistake of not realizing how competitive this field can be. Thinking that just because you went through the right degree program you will be successful, that mindset will fail you. You need to do everything you can to build your reputation and make a name for yourself.”
A big part of making yourself stand out from the competition boils down to building a professional network and getting your foot in the door with potential employers—the earlier the better. The best way to do this is through volunteering in the field or working in internships, which can begin during high school or even before. Some opportunities, like the Federal Government’s Internship Program, Recent Graduates Program, and Presidential Management Fellows Program, are available only during limited windows of time while enrolled in college or shortly after graduation.
Lizzy Berkley, who now works as a biologist for the Umatilla National Forest, built a strong resume and a broader professional network by volunteering, serving as an intern, and working in multiple short-term positions before earning a master’s degree and landing a permanent position. At times that meant tackling jobs that were less than glamorous to help build her reputation as a perpetually positive, can-do professional.
“Sometimes you have to be willing to do the dirty jobs to gain early career experience as a wildlife biologist,” Berkley said. “I worked as a technician at CWD check stations cutting off deer heads for sample collections and spent shifts shoveling waste from pheasant pens at a state-run bird farm. At one point I was working on a camera trapping project where we were baiting carnivores with gut piles I removed from deer carcasses that were months old. Experiences like that give you the chance to prove your work ethic and attitude, even when the work is tough.”
The attitude piece is huge. Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said that he’s on the lookout for students and employees, “who are best described as ‘fireballs.’”
“I want people with the ability to get things done no matter what,” Heffelfinger said. “I want people who are able to figure things out on their own. Especially when it comes to field work, you need people who are able to succeed without coming to the boss every time there is some little problem.”
Scott Peckham, big game ecologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, also stresses independence. “The best employees need minimal instruction and they go out and overachieve. You don’t have to ask them to do things step-by-step or overexplain but give them a general idea of what needs to get done and they go do it.”
Be Flexible and Opportunistic
You must have a willingness to pursue opportunities wherever they exist, especially early on in your career. My first natural resources job after college required a move from Wisconsin to New Mexico—a state totally new to my wife and me and far from our families and friends. Since then I’ve worked in four different locations in New Mexico and taken assignments in Colorado and Washington, D.C.
Mike Ruhl, assistant chief of fisheries for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, agrees that an important commonality among those who succeed in this field is that kind of geographic flexibility. As Ruhl pointed out, “So few of us are working in our home state, let alone our hometown, because you have to be willing to move around and take opportunities when and where they open up.” Ruhl himself is another case in point; he is a Pennsylvania native but has spent his career west of the Mississippi.
It’s a Small World—Make the Most of It
When you start working in conservation, you quickly realize it’s one of those professions where everybody seems to know everybody else. This can be a huge help as you build your professional network and reputation, because a phone call and strong recommendation from one trusted colleague to another opens doors faster than anything else. On the flipside, if you start building yourself a negative reputation, that will quickly come back to haunt you.
“There are only about 70 fish hatcheries in the nation,” Wiese said. “If you’re applying for a job in fisheries, chances are that I already know you or know somebody who knows you, so you are always under a job interview. Your performance every day is your interview for future positions.”
Heffelfinger has also come to appreciate the importance of building and maintaining personal networks. “You don’t realize early on that some of the people who are sitting in the next cubicle over when you start your career will rise through the ranks to be agency program managers and directors. You never know who will someday become your boss, so you have to maintain good working relationships with your peers to the best extent possible. You don’t have to like everyone, but you should avoid burning bridges whenever you can.”
You Must Love to Learn
Key traits of successful conservation professionals at every career stage are a solid dose of humility and a desire to keep learning. This applies both in terms of seeking education and in how people carry themselves in their jobs.
Given the stiff competition for a limited number of jobs, a bachelor’s degree in a related field of study should be considered a minimum qualification for most openings, particularly with state, federal, or tribal natural resources agencies. Having an advanced degree will help a candidate stand out and allow them to compete for higher-level positions.
Emily Iehl, hunting and shooting sports coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, was able to use her master’s degree thesis project as an ideal gateway to her first job after graduation.
“When the Wisconsin DNR formed their Hunter Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation Team, I knew I was the right person for the job because of the experience and professional network I gained as a graduate student,” Iehl said. “I started in a limited-term position after finishing my master’s degree, and just eight months later had an opportunity to apply for a permanent job on the team. It would have been really hard to land a full-time position with the DNR without already having my foot in the door, and that all stemmed from my graduate school experience and master’s thesis project.”
Wiese pointed to college degree requirements as a critical consideration. “For right or wrong, there are still some hoops you have to jump through to qualify for these jobs. I see too many potential employees spending too much time trying to figure out how to get around the hoops rather than just jumping through them,” he said. “Study the minimum qualifications for the jobs that interest you and get the college credits knocked out.”
As a federal employee himself, when Wiese mentions minimum qualifications he is referring to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s General Schedule Qualification Standards, which spell out the qualifications candidates must have in order to be eligible for various types of federal jobs. If you are thinking about a federal career, take some time to search the USAJOBS website and see what job series best fit your aspirations (as examples, the fish biology job series is 0482, while wildlife biology is 0486), then cross-reference any series of interest against the qualifications standards to help guide your search for college degree programs and specific courses to take. Studying job postings for state agency positions will give you a similar feel for what you need to achieve academically in order to qualify for those jobs.
In some cases, a more general natural resources degree program might be preferable. Gabby Zaldumbide, a second-year master’s degree student in Environmental Management at Western Colorado University, specifically sought a more general curriculum for her graduate school experience.
“The Environmental Management graduate program made sense for me because it gave me a lot of flexibility in developing a master’s project that will prepare me for the kind of community-building work I want to do professionally. Some students choose to focus on something specific, like the science of chronic wasting disease, or you can have something more general like what I’m working on. Don’t be afraid to go broad if that’s what you want.”
To stay on top of your game, you should expect to continue your learning and studies even after you complete your degree. As Heffelfinger puts it, “That old line about it not mattering what you know, but it matters who you know—that is a bunch of bull. To be a good biologist you need to know your stuff. You need to read like a madman. If you don’t like reading scientific papers, you are never going to keep up with relevant advancements or be one of the top experts in the room.”
Like People as Much as Wildlife
This might come as a shocker, but working in conservation doesn’t generally mean a life of solitary explorations and wanderings in the woods, mountains, or streams. On the contrary, many of the biggest challenges, most impactful opportunities, and most valuable professional skillsets in conservation have more to do with interactions among people than they have to do with fish, wildlife, or habitat. As Heffelfinger puts it, “The number one thing in this work is dealing with people. You might want to get into this field because you want to deal with wildlife or spend time in the woods, but that tends to be an uncommon part of the job. My phone rings all day at my desk, and never once has it been an animal calling.”
Ruhl also highlighted the social demands of conservation work. “One of the real challenges is to effectively communicate with the public, especially in addressing differing viewpoints and competing interests. With virtually any decision we make there will be people who don’t get their way, and a big part of the job is hearing different viewpoints and trying to make people feel like they are being heard even if a particular decision doesn’t go their way.”
Berkley stressed that as a professional wildlife biologist, interpersonal skills are extremely important because much of the job is supporting other wildlife biologists. “When I was in college envisioning the life of a wildlife biologist, I thought a lot about the cool, hands-on work with animals,” she said. “There are certainly moments of the fun stuff, like banding ducks when I was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or marking endangered turtles, but I spend most of my time in this role supporting colleagues and providing technical guidance to district biologists. We have a footprint of 1.4 million acres on the Umatilla National Forest, so there are great opportunities to do important things for wildlife, but a lot of that work happens from the office.”
It’s Never Too Late
If you are already early or mid-career and considering shifting gears to pursue conservation work, you are not alone. I have some standout colleagues who came to this work after time spent in other professions.
Ruhl filled me in on his former boss at Yellowstone National Park. “Todd Koel had worked previously as a certified marine mechanic fixing boats in his mid-20s and decided he wanted a career in fisheries instead,” Ruhl said. He went on to get his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD by the time he was 35. By the age of 40 he was the chief of fisheries in Yellowstone. So, it can be done, but you need to decide that you are going to take the steps and make the sacrifices to make it happen.”
Peckham shared his own personal experience on this front. “I have four different phases of my career already, including working as a project engineer for a private engineering firm straight out of my undergrad. Despite a good salary I didn’t like the work and knew I couldn’t do that for my whole life, so I saved up to make the change and get into the right kind of natural resources degree program. You can’t be afraid to take the next step. Just because you made one decision previously doesn’t mean you can’t make a change later on.”
Zaldumbide pointed to the value that older, more experienced students bring to her program at Western Colorado University. “In this program there are a lot of non-traditional students, and the value they bring to our classes is huge. Don’t be afraid to go back to school after gaining some real-world experience. You’ll be benefitting everyone around you as well as yourself.”
If You Have What it Takes, We Need You
The conservation challenges we face will continue to grow in complexity and urgency, and this field will continue to demand top-notch people contributing their talents, passion, dedication, vision, and creativity to finding solutions. If you think you have what it takes to succeed and make an impact as a conservation professional, then expect there to be a spot for you to invest yourself. You can be one of the standouts at the top of the applicant lists if you commit to making it happen. It won’t hurt to keep the advice shared here in mind as you pursue that goal.
Theodore Roosevelt put it well when he said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Based on my experiences so far, a career in conservation offers a great shot at that best prize, which goes way beyond simply having a job and earning a paycheck. Best of luck. I look forward to seeing you on the job.
Karl Malcolm is the assistant regional director for Renewable Resources in the Eastern Region of the United States Forest Service, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at email@example.com.