8 Honest Questions & Answers With A Former Wildlife Major
When it comes to competitive industries where there are limited spaces for a lot of eager candidates, our mind often leaps to things like creative fields and academia, where we know that a huge part of choosing it as our career path is the risk it implies. But there are many industries which, though not something we might think of in the same way we might Hollywood or Madison Avenue, present a huge challenge to finding steady, well-paid employment for its graduates. Wildlife and nature jobs definitely fall into that category. Who among us hasn’t wondered, at some point in our lives, if it wouldn’t be so cool to work in a national park, a zoo, a reserve, or a field of natural research? Well, some people are doing just that, and have learned the hard way that working with animals or plants isn’t something you just walk into.
My best friend Amanda, as it happens, is a former wildlife major who has been through many seasonal positions in her industry, and has now landed a more permanent job in the fishing sector. She’s spent her life in nature — caring for animals, measuring blades of grass for research, sustainably hunting and fishing — and knows more than most about what it really takes to make it in this field. If you have ever thought about working with animals, or in nature, she’s here to help you figure out how to navigate it.
1. What did you major in in school? Can you explain a little bit how you picked your school and major?
I majored in Wildlife & Fisheries Management with a minor in Forestry. I found my major by accident, really. Or was it fate? I was interested in the pre-veterinary program (at the University of Tennessee) and we visited one spring. I fell in love with the southern charm of the school and knew I would be happy there. Fast forward a semester and a half later and I was one depressed freshman. You need a 4.0 to get in to veterinary school, and I was struggling with my first two semesters of chemistry and math. I had technically already ruined my chances. I knew I wanted to stay at UT, but I didn’t know what else I could possibly do for a living that included animals. My academic advisor recommended Wildlife & Fisheries to me and I switched over. The curriculum amazed me. Classes dedicated wholly to learning mammals? Birds? Trees? Even Rain? Cool!
2. Did you have any preconceived notions about the kind of job you would get after college, and how quickly you would get it?
Well, when I was a wee sophomore in my major, the seniors were mostly graduating with jobs already secured before they walked the stage. I really had no worries at the time that I’d find something when I graduated (or before). That all changed with the economic collapse. By the time I graduated, everyone was either going to grad school to increase their odds of finding a job or simply to pass the time. (Ok, a few of them actually wanted to go to grad school).
3. What was your wildlife/nature “dream job?”
Dream job… I get this question a lot when people ask me what my major is. This one’s hard for me. The beauty of natural resource conservation is that the variety of jobs is endless. You can work in a private lab researching the genetic variation amongst a species of endangered salamanders, or you can be out hiking around Yellowstone measuring annual tree growth. I’ve held a nice variety of jobs (the upside of seasonal work) so I’ve tried different things. I still haven’t found my ‘dream’ job, but I love something about everything I do.
4. Tell us something about the different jobs you’ve held in the field over the past few years, since graduation.
Let’s see. My first gig was a month-and-a-half stint down in the Mississippi Delta tracking ducks. Every day I drove a huge truck with a homemade radio-telemetry unit and followed around these birds that we’d attached little radio collars to. Think of swiveling a giant antenna around looking for the loudest beep–that’s the direction the bird was in. People thought we were government spies or alien hunters. Good times.
I also worked in North Dakota for a summer driving an ATV around the prairie finding duck nests. We aged the eggs and monitored the nests until they either hatched or were eaten by predators. Baby ducks are the cutest. Ever.
Following a year-long hiatus of au pairing in Paris, I returned to the States and got another season research job in the Shenandoah Mountains. We did every possible kind of research. Plants. Soil. Water. Mosquitos. Ticks (egh). You name it. It was really hard, sweaty work and we had no personal lives. Your coworkers become your best friends and therapists. I think we all went a little crazy that summer.
5. Did you ever consider grad school? Why/why not?
A few times. When I graduated from undergrad, it was the beginning of the era of if-you-want-a-measly-entry-level-job-you-need-a-graduate-degree. I felt a humongous pressure from myself, my parents and my peers to go. I didn’t want to. My heart wasn’t set on it. Grad school for my field requires a 2-3 year full-blown research project as well as a full course load. I knew I wanted to go out and experience some actual field work before I settled on a topic of research. Even with seasonal jobs, there was still some pressure to go. I had a lot of coworkers who were headed to grad school after one seasonal position. I kept trying new jobs and never had an, “Aha, THIS is what I want to learn more about!” kind of moment. Then graduate degrees eventually lost their value. It took my friends with graduate degrees a solid year or so to land full-time positions. Meanwhile I’d been out be-bopping around the country gaining hands-on experience. If they were happy, good for them. I will never knock grad school. I just know it’s not for me.
6. How did you find your current job?
Long story short? Networking. The real way to get a job in this field is to network, and not just at environmental conferences. Ask anyone and everyone. Do they know someone in the environmental field? Could you pass along your resume?I got this job because my boyfriend’s best friend’s fiancée works in environmental finance and my career plight piqued her interest. Her aunt works for an environmental monitoring company. They just so happened to be in need of someone short-notice. I interviewed and got the call a day later. It’s a small company so word of mouth goes VERY far. Her aunt is now my coworker. Don’t get me wrong. Word of mouth gets you in the door, but your work experiences do the talking.
7. What are some of the obstacles you faced when trying to find your ‘career’ job, and how did you do it differently this time (in a way that worked)?
The biggest obstacle in this field is nobody has the funding to risk hiring a practical stranger full-time. They need to know you. Back to my point about networking — if someone within can vouch for you, then you just need to prove yourself as competent and friendly at the interview.
8. What would you say to people aspiring to do what you do now? What advice would you give, and what would you have done differently yourself?
Get. Experience. Volunteer while you’re an undergrad. Apply for internships. If you want a government position, your best bet is to fight for a government internship. They pretty much only do internal hiring. If you have an internship on your resume by graduation, your odds are MUCH better at getting your first field job. You have a reference who can vouch for your work ethic. Our line of work (in the beginning, at least) is not easy at all. You cannot be a slacker. The data you are harvesting goes on to be used in countless studies and statistics.Take jobs that don’t sound great on paper. They’ll always be more interesting than you expect. Nature is wild, beautiful, and unpredictable. Yeah, the pay probably sucks. It’ll slowly get better. PSA: If you want to make a lot of money, run far, far away from this field.
You are going to apply to a lot of jobs and hear back from very few. You will feel discouraged. That is normal. This field is very selective because it is under-funded. Always work jobs in the meantime. I have done dog walking, serving, cocktail waitressing, and even au pairing. There will be lulls depending on funding. Keep yourself busy and keep applying.
Don’t forget to take advantage of seasonal work. You get time off to travel with no obligations. You get to see a lot of different places with no obligation to stay. You get to meet people that will spread out all over the world.
I can’t really say I would have done anything differently. What I’ve thought I’ve wanted from every job has never turned out to be so. I’m still looking for that elusive “dream” job, but for now some stability and working towards a good cause (sustainability of fisheries) has me set. Did I expect to be managing a satellite tracking database and talking to fishermen everyday? Nope. I still think of all the baby ducks, the blazing red Mississippi sunsets, and all the little, indescribable takeaways from each job I’ve had.