Wildlife Biology

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Wildlife Biology

Postby Natalia » Mon Mar 07, 2005 10:53 am


It looks like I will be changing my career pretty soon, and pretty drastically. Although I am very sure of what I am doing, nobody that I know is very supportive of my idea.

I want to switch from a well-paid marketing research manager position in a major company to being a wildlife biologist. This means I will give-up excellent career prospects for several years of studying, some amount of loans, and very uncertain prospects for any employment... Maybe that is too sad of a picture, but that is what I was able to gather so far. But I really, really want to be a wildlife biologist. I've been always fascinated by animals, nature, and learning about wildlife, but never thought that it is possible to do...

I would really appreciate if someone could share his/her personal experience working/studying in this field.
Did you ever regret doing this? Why?
Do you love what you are doing?
Is it really that tough to get a job?
Does it really not pay anything?
Is it most likely that I will need to relocate? If I am interested in research, is it only academia, that provides this kind of employement?

Thanks in advance!

Wildlife Biology

Postby Doug » Mon Mar 07, 2005 12:13 pm

It's not a bad thing to switch career tracks, but be realistic about why you\'re doing it. There's a worthwhile essay that you might find interesting at It concerns misconceptions about getting into marine biology, but many of the themes that you touch on are addressed there.
My impression is that job opportunities for wildlife biologists are pretty numerous, but you shouldn't expect to get rich or anything. Check out career sections on the web sites of ESA, SCB, and other professional organizations. Government (both federal and state) and nonprofit sites (especially conservation orgs) will also give you a feel for the job market. Also realize that there are other issues to think about, such as whether you enjoy being in the field, which carries with it numerous features, including physical, logistical, and experimental inconveniences not found in the lab. Of course, these inconveniences are part of the opportunity to work outside, which a tremendous benefit if you're a field biologist.
As far as relocation, that hinges greatly on what area of wildlife biology you end up getting involved in. You seem to be at the very early stages of your planning, so I'd suggest you do some thinking about what specifically is motivating you to change directions.
Finally, you may also want to take a look at the consbio listserv and the ecolog listserv, the latter which is available as an archive. They should be good informational resources for you.

Wildlife Biology

Postby David (H) » Mon Mar 07, 2005 12:18 pm

Hi Natalia
By wildlife biology I assume you mean some component of large mammal research? Many people who enjoy wildlife and want to pursue it often work on the principal that they ultimately will study elephants, chimps, great apes etc. This is unfortunately naive and they are sometimes dissapointed with zoology courses that often invove less exciting (to them) aspects such as morphology, physiology and genetics. If you want to be a researcher and don't have a relevant first degree I assume you are looking at a biology/zoology undergraduate degree and then 5 years PhD (in the States, but 3 years in the UK) before finally being able to do your own research. Personally, I think all that education is wonderful but if you want to get in their as quickly as possible you may be unhappy at this prospect.
Since you are a professional in your field you may consider using your skills for organisations which exist to protect wildlife. You potentially could do this with some component of fieldwork which would be your 'reward' for your skills. I have had a number of field assistants in tropical and temperate field sites and I have also seen non-biologist professionals working on Earthwatch projects in Costa Rica so I think it is not unrealistic for you to do field work without the necessary education. Perhaps this could be a way for you to decide if you really like it.
I study wildlife (ants) and have done so in European and Central American forests and so to answer your questions:
Did you ever regret doing this? Why?
never, becuase it is amazing!
Do you love what you are doing?
Yes, and am extremly fortunate to be able to do it.
Is it really that tough to get a job?
Very. It is even tougher to choose your own job where your pursue your own questions. That said it is like all human activity and it depends entirely on how much you want it and how hard you fight to achieve it.
Does it really not pay anything?
I have done field work for free and knew that it was necessary to do so for the experience and knowledge. That said, I didnt starve and was happy. If money is your prime motivation (and I think not based on your post) then zoology/wildlife biology should be avoided. But one can live very comfortably as I do now (as a second year post-doc). Incidentally, I have attended conferences in far flung places like Japan and Brazil and worked in Mexico and Costa Rica....and this was funded work so hotels/field sites/tickets were paid for. I didnt stay in the Hilton of course...but it is a good way to see the world.
Is it most likely that I will need to relocate?
Not obligatory. Wildlife, interesting animals and threatened habitats are everywhere. You may need to relocate if you choose a field/topic which is partiuclarly interesting to you though.
If I am interested in research, is it only academia, that provides this kind of employement?
see my points above

The best of luck to you

David (H)

Wildlife Biology

Postby Teresa » Mon Mar 07, 2005 12:36 pm


In my opinion if you love to do something then you can make it work. It is not likely to be easy however... A distant relative of mine followed a similar path to the one you wish to take. He spent his graduate years and some of a postdoc in the Midwest/Rocky Mts researching mountain lions, etc... He had some real passion, and appeared in part of a NOVA special. After the postdoc however he really couldn't find a job in his field and I believe needed to make concessions for his family (i.e. the out of the way locations he needed to work in were not good areas for his wife to find a job). Basically he ended up in the same type of employment he had before his studies (environmental and development consultant) although I believe his degree did add some to his salary. I have not had contact with him in some years, but family members say he has bounced between his old and new careers mostly because money is too tight when he gets a job related to his research (the last job had something to do with working for a park service out West...kind of a researching park ranger I think).

I wish the story was more inspiring but it is better to know the risks ahead of time I feel. Hopefully you will get some advice from people here more directly and currently linked to this field. Perhaps adding some photography or video expereience to your future degree might be another way to make you marketable and still be able to enjoy the wildlife aspect? Best of luck.
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Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

Wildlife Biology

Postby Natalia » Mon Mar 07, 2005 1:29 pm

Doug, I really enjoyed the essay. Thanks for the link! The essay made me really try and spell-out why I want to be a wildlife biologist. The major reason is I am really curious about the animals? life. Primarily but not limited to life of mammals. I must admit that some insects do not inspire my curiosity, but I think it can be forgiven. My curiosity does not end at recreational interest and admiration of all these furry and cute animals. Since my teenage years I would read different not-so-fun-to-read publications and books about life of animals. Just straightforward description of life of different animal species, their interaction with other living creatures, their ways of adapting to their environment. All these things always fascinated me. I can spend hours observing them in the wild. Yes, and in proof of that I actually took Ecology class as an elective, and I kept raving about it the whole semester. It was a true highlight of that semester. We went on a field trip, and I thought it was the most fascinating thing.
Why did I not study it before? It did not even occur to me that I could really do it as my primary occupation. These kinds of fields have ?no money? engraved on them. And of course, my parents did not want to see their single child suffering in poverty. And here I am having all the chances of succeeding in a business field and watching my paycheck grow from year to year, and really not caring about it. I can roughly map out my career advancement a few years ahead, and what I see there is absolutely not how I want my life to be.
Once I realized that I don?t care about having all that great of a paycheck, and that I can live reasonably well without a big buck, I directed my attention to the area that actually always fascinated me. I also considered cognitive psychology research path, but after taking a class and doing some research I?d rather have it as a plan B option.

How can I get my hand on the listservs that you mentioned?

Thank you so much for the response!

Wildlife Biology Re David

Postby Natalia » Mon Mar 07, 2005 1:31 pm

David, thank you so much for the inspiring answers. I am very much up to taking all the biology and chemistry classes that have little reference to the actual wildlife biology field. I realize that they provide the important background and will help me with making right conclusions.

In my case I?m looking at going into Post-Bac program in Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology (1 ? 1.5 years) in Columbia University (NY). After that I would need to apply for MA/PHD program in Wildlife Biology (5 years).

I was looking into Earthwatch programs and they seem really interesting.
Have you been on any of these projects? They are a little pricy. But if the experience that a person can get there is a real thing, I would be willing to spend my time and money on this. Do you know any other ways I can volunteer and be able to try myself at the fieldwork?

Wildlife Biology Re Teresa

Postby Natalia » Mon Mar 07, 2005 1:36 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I will be keeping that in mind. And by the way, even though I personally have only casual interest in photography, my boyfriend is an enthusiast photographer. Maybe we can make it work for both of us. Actually, I don?t know if the field expeditions take photographers on the trip. I?ve seen all this amazing wildlife photography, and am wondering if these people just seek out these places themselves, or if they join a scientific expedition. Thanks so much for you response!

Wildlife Biology

Postby Lora » Mon Mar 07, 2005 1:46 pm


Don't know how useful you will find this, but I did a small project on semi-feral squirrel behavior for an undergrad publication. I did this under a highly-respected researcher who had a HUGE grant to pay for all sorts of fancy equipment. He "pitched" the project to me as, past students have gotten into Princeton and all sorts of Ivy League universities on the strength of this line of inquiry, I'll give you first authorship, it's lots of fun.

I hated it. When I say "hate", I don't mean I disliked it or it was stressful or I was under pressure to get results, I mean I *hated* it. A big factor in choosing to get into microbiology/immunology was because I hated field work so much. Quite apart from the physical discomforts and the everyday things that go wrong (feral dog packs licking all the peanut butter out of your traps, unexpected blizzards, animals ripping off their ear tags and then shedding off their coat markers), the most awful thing to me was the amount of time field work takes. You can be completely on the wrong track for years on end, and never know it. Science is mostly about being wrong, and if you're using a system where you get results in a couple of weeks, it's not a big deal to be wrong. If you won't find out how wrong you are for several years, you've just wasted a lot of time.

-Is it really that tough to get a job?
To the best of my understanding (I consulted with my upstairs neighbor, who worked for a wetlands fauna diversity project), yes.

-Does it really not pay anything?
The jobs you get tend not to pay very well. My neighbor is moving out because he can't afford the rent, and he works on an EPA-funded project. If you can apply your research to some other field (pharmaceutical R&D for neurotransmitters or some such thing), it pays considerably better, but then you're not out in the field as much. Everyone likes to work with cute furry things.

-Is it most likely that I will need to relocate?
Depends on where you live and what animals you study. Obviously, if you want to study bison, then living in NYC is not going to be feasible.

-If I am interested in research, is it only academia, that provides this kind of employement?
Heavens no. The EPA, National Parks Service, and the Army Corp of Engineers all use field biologists for various projects. Often industry uses field biologists as consultants for various projects. This was another thing that bothered me, though: most of the jobs outside of academia and park husbandry are contracts that only last a few years. Not good if you want things like a mortgage, or if you're the main breadwinner for a family, where stable employment is a must.

Wildlife Biology Re David

Postby David (H) » Mon Mar 07, 2005 2:09 pm

Dear Natalia
You have a refreshingly honest and endearing writing style...quite an antidote to us disgruntled scientists.
Anyway, there are a lot of ways to get field experience and it usually means working on a project as an assistant to a PhD student or post-doc who is carrying out research. Applying now for these from your background is going to be hard becuase many will interpret your requests as a naive one. They would prefer to take on undergrad biology students. Since you are leaving a well paid field for student life I would concentrate on making you bank balance as healthy as possible before starting school next fall. Once you are there you can find post-docs/PhD with interesting fieldwork and get yourself hired. Also, field work usually involves living in very close quaters with the person your helping (e.g. 6 weeks is normal). Conseqeuntly they would like to determine if you OK before they hire you and that usually means chatting with you within biology departments, seeing you in the labs/classes/field courses they are supervising etc. Field assistants are extremely valuable and important to me so I have to make sure that I \'click\' with them (and I believe others are the same)
I would suggest (as I always do) that biology undergrads interested in field ecology get a lot of summer field work experience. Pay is non-existent but the benefits for your trasnition to a PhD are huge. It gives you experience in working independtly, assuming responsibility, logistics, coping with boredom etc. It also allows you to better pick the topic for your PhD (my PhD, Oxford, arose out of unpaid field work in Italy).

As for Earthwatch. I have closely seen one group of 25 people working on a project in Costa Rica (butterflies). I dont think it is ideal for you since you would ideally want a closer working relationship than the one Earthwatch voulunteers get. Ideally, you should try to get experience with a clever PhD student/Post-doc that can impart his/her passion for the topic to you; discuss ideas with you; act as a mentor and future referee for your PhD applications. Don\'t worry about securing that experience now...just get on a program and once there you can get your self on projects.
In the meantime read! I recommend EO Wilson\'s the Naturalist for anybody with any with any passion for the natural world; as well as his book Diversity of Life to truly open your eyes about what is actually out there.
Think about my previous idea regarding your current skill set. If you did want to get on an Earthwatch project I dont see why they wouldnt let you exchange your very valuable skills for a placement.

I have just re-read your message and one thought struck me which is that your undergrad course will be short. Consequently, you may have less of a chance to get the experience I described . Perhaps you could befriend a prof at Columbia and tell them you are starting in the Fall and do they know of any fieldwork experience you could get beforehand. If you convincingly demonstrate your passion and willingness then this is not impossible.

again, Good Luck

David (H)

Wildlife Biology Re David

Postby Carlysle Tancha » Mon Mar 07, 2005 2:19 pm

The healthy bank balance is going to be incredibly important for you. If you have a family, I wish you the best of luck. It is interesting how not thinking money is important changes when you really don't have money, you don't have health care, have to pay expensive dental bills when you realize that getting good dental care should have been your top priority to prevent nightmares of losing teeth, and you are expected to be doing "life-saving research." All the best for dealing with these "challenges." Don't burn your bridges with your other job...
Carlysle Tancha
Posts: 532
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm


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