How To Become a Field Biologist
It wasn't until my junior year of college that I discovered that field biology jobs existed. I didn't know that I could get paid to live in incredible places and, essentially, bird watch. It was difficult to figure out what steps to take to be chosen for these jobs and I really had no idea how to go from college graduate to field biologist. For that reason, I have compiled a list of steps I took, and ones I wish I had taken, to become an employed recent college graduate. I hope that this list will make the lives of aspiring field biologists slightly easier.
STEP 1: Go To College
Most field biology jobs require a college degree. Depending on the type of field job, the posting may require a BS, a BA, or even a Masters in ecology, zoology, wildlife biology, conservation, or another related degree. College is also a great place to make connections, learn what types of jobs you like and don't like, and gain experience by volunteering in labs on campus or assisting graduate students.
STEP 2: Acquire Skills and Gain Experience
As well as a degree, most jobs require experience related to the job. You can acquire some of these skills from the classes you take, but many of the classes will only provide you with knowledge, but will not provide the hands on experience. This means you must, as stated above, join a lab on campus or ask to assist a graduate student. You can find out what opportunities may be available to you by talking to an adviser. The other way to gain experience is to take a field class. These may be offered through your school or you may be able to get credit for a class you take through an external organization. I spent a month in Costa Rica taking a field primate behavior class through the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy and not only was it an amazing experience, I also learned a great deal. You can also build your resume by volunteering at one of the many opportunities that will be available to you in your local community (see Step 3 for more details).
You can get a good idea of what skills are required for field jobs by reading job postings. From my experience searching for jobs, I have compiled a list of required skills that appear most often.
Bird Banding/Mist Netting Binoculars/Spotting Scope Use Remote Living
Data Collection Data Entry/Analysis Report Writing
Behavior Observations Telemetry GIS/GPS
Off-road Driving Flora/Fauna Identification Map Reading
Compass Use Working in Harsh Conditions Safety Training
Hiking/Backpacking/Camping Working in Small Groups/Independently
Animal Husbandry/Handling Ability to Stay Focused for Long Periods of Time
Basic Tool Use Chainsaw/Weed Wacker Use Ability to Lift 50lbs
Ability to Keep Self Occupied in Off Time While Living Remotely/With Limited Phone/Internet
These are just some skills you will come across when searching for jobs. Some of these skills can be learned in classes (data analysis) while others won't be learned until you're on a specific job (off-road driving). Some of these skills will not be relevant to you based on the type of jobs you're interested in (animal husbandry/handling). I recommend volunteering during college to gain many of these skills. Doing this prior to graduating will really help when it comes to finding a field job.
STEP 3: Apply to Jobs
The first step in applying to jobs is creating a resume and cover letter. Your college will have resources that can help you write a resume and cover letter. Correct spelling, grammar, and making your resume and cover letter easy to read are essential. I like to write a specific cover letter for each job. I keep the same format (short intro paragraph, a paragraph or two about my experience, and a memorable closing paragraph) but what I choose to include is always different. The second step is to apply to every job, internship, and volunteer opportunity that you may be interested in. I have compiled a list of organizations and job boards that have many field based and zoology jobs, internships, field classes, and volunteer opportunities. Many of these are bird or San Francisco Bay Area specific, but you can look for similar organizations in your area. Local zoos, parks and recreation departments, and environmental nonprofits are great places to contact to see if they have any volunteer or internship positions available. Remember to also see what opportunities are available on your campus such as volunteering in labs or with graduate students.
Job Boards Bay Area Volunteer/Internship Opportunities
Society for Conservation Biology Field Classes
California Society for Ecological Restoration Environmental Defense Fund New Zealand Conservation Jobs Association of Zoos & Aquariums UK Environmental Job Board The Western Section of the Wildlife Society
STEP 4: Reality Check
Field jobs are hard. They're really cool, but also just plain difficult. They're hard to get, pay very little, and can be strenuous for the body and mind.
There are so many field jobs available, but, like any field, it is surprising hard to land a job. I have written over 40 cover letters in the last year, had four interviews, and landed two jobs. I was unemployed for three and a half months after graduating before getting my first job and unemployed for another three and a half months before landing my second job. And that was with already having a fair amount of volunteer experience prior to graduating.
The biggest reality check concerns money. Field biology does not pay well. You have to spend rather a lot of money before you can get a paying job. All of my relevant experience prior to graduating comes from volunteering for various organizations. The field class in Costa Rica cost rather a lot for tuition and airfare. I would not have been able to do this if I had to work more hours during college or if my parents did not support me or pay for my field class. My first job out of college paid $25/day. My second job pays $35/day. These are volunteer or internship stipends. These jobs provide free housing, but not food or gas for personal vehicles. Many jobs that I have applied to do not pay, pay a stipend, or pay an hourly minimum wage. These jobs may require you to travel with no reimbursement and may require you to buy your own expensive gear. Field jobs are usually seasonal, meaning they may only last for several weeks to several months before you must start the process of applying to jobs all over again. This is something to keep in mind when pursuing field biology.
Field jobs can be hard on your body and mind. Many are located in places with harsh conditions -- humidity to freezing temperatures, mosquitoes to grizzly bears, slipping down muddy hills to hiking up steep terrain. You could be covered in mosquito bites, get a bad sunburn, come down with an upset stomach from some questionable food, be peed on by a monkey, or simply twist an ankle. These jobs can also be incredibly lonely. You may be a two hour drive from the nearest city or you may not be able to leave the field site at all. You may be without phone or internet access for the majority of the day or not have it for the duration of your field job. This means limited contact to family, friends, and significant others. It also means missing birthdays, events, and maybe missing that great concert you really wanted to go to. Some jobs may place you in a team of several people, while others will be just you and one other person. Some jobs will keep you so busy that you're occupied from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment you fall asleep at night. Others will provide you with a lot of downtime. I've found that this downtime is hard to deal with when placed a few hours drive from a city, especially coming from San Francisco where there is always something to see or do. I use reading to pass the time and to keep from feeling lonely. Field jobs may wake you up before the crack of dawn or keep you up late into the night. I'm a morning person and don't mind rising before the birds, but an owl banding job would not be a good fit for me. Think about all of these things when applying to jobs.
Above all, field work is awesome. You'll travel to amazing places, see beautiful landscapes and animals, and make great new friends. You'll also contribute to conservation efforts, learn more about our world and the animals and plants that inhabit it, and have some really cool stories to tell your loved ones when you come back home.
I hope these steps help you to secure the perfect field job for you!