The year 1962 was a landmark year in many ways. The Beatles released their first single “Love Me Do,” while Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an overdose. The first-ever Walmart store opened in July of that year – and two months later, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” would inspire a movement where the ecologist gained renewed importance as the savior of the planet.
The concept of ecology isn't a new one. In fact, Ernst Haeckel coined the term "ecology" as the study of the environment way back in 1869. It's only in the 20th century, however, that people have been paying attention to the environmental impact of human activities -- impact that ecologists measure, analyze and provide solutions to.
What does being an ecologist entail, though? And how do you become one? We’re here to help you out.
What Is an Ecologist?
Ecologists are people who study the interrelationships between the environment and the organisms living in it. They analyze the nature and extent of damage to the environment and develop solutions for it. Essentially, they're champions of the environment -- they work every day to protect, preserve, and improve it.
We live in a world where humans are causing dramatic changes to the environment. Forests are cleared every day to make room for buildings or agriculture, and factories belch out tons of pollution every hour. All of that has serious, often lasting effects on the environment – and it’s an ecologist who tells us just what those effects are.
As an ecologist, you could be working with the government, with corporates, at an academic institution or as an independent consultant. Awareness about the environment and the need to protect it is growing with each passing day. Career opportunities for ecologists are thus expected to grow over the next few years.
What Does an Ecologist Do?
It's hard to put together a job description for an ecologist -- they work in such diverse areas! One thing they all have in common, though, is fieldwork. Whether you're compiling research for a scientific paper, studying natural habitats that need to be restored or creating impact studies for a government organization, you'll need to actually immerse yourself in the habitat and collect data firsthand on how it has altered.
Many ecologists, however, prefer to limit their field activities and work in an office environment. Some act as consultants for companies developing green technology. Some actively campaign for conservation efforts and testify in cases where individuals or organizations caused environmental damage. And some go into the teaching line – to inspire young nature lovers, in their turn, towards ecology.
What Does a Workday Look like for an Ecologist?
As an ecologist, you’ll have a lot of fieldwork in different locations, but you’ll also need to clock in some hours at the office. This could involve preparing presentations, analyzing research data, preparing computer models, and compiling reports. You might also need to work as a consultant with firms that are building green technology or extracting natural resources.
You’ll typically need to perform fieldwork in different natural habitats depending on the kinds of projects you take up. This might involve a good amount of travel during your workweek. Also, be prepared to face natural hazards while on the field, like getting caught in a storm or coming into contact with poisonous plants -- ouch! Bring bug spray. You're gonna need it.
Your fieldwork won't have any fixed deadlines -- you'll need to finish the job on time, no matter how many hours it takes. Back at the office, though, you'll have a relatively normal 9-to-5 workday. And unless there's a critical report to be completed, you'll have the weekends off, too.
What Qualifications Do I Need to Become an Ecologist?
The first thing you’ll need is a bachelor’s degree in ecology or a subject related to ecology. There are several options you can choose from, like biology, zoology, botany, or environmental science. It’s also essential to have a strong understanding of mathematics, computer science, and statistics, as you’ll need to crunch numbers quite often for your reports.
If you plan to assist companies as a consultant, you’ll need a master’s degree in environmental science, biology, or whichever area you specialize in. Most research positions at universities and government roles also require a master's degree. And if you're planning to teach at a university, you'll need a Ph.D. in your chosen field.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Ecologist?
In most ecology career options, you can start some sort of fieldwork right after your bachelor’s degree. However, you’ll need some extra work experience or training before you can truly call yourself an ecologist. For instance, most research and company positions require a master's degree. In addition, many conservationist roles require credentialing from the state government you'll be working in.
You'll also need a good amount of amateur field experience for many career paths, including consulting and research roles. Try to work as a research assistant in a lab or volunteer at a nature center. Several organizations, like the Student Conservation Association, offer internships and part-time jobs for ecology students. You can also opt to work at a biological field station for an extended amount of time to bulk up your experience.
All in all, expect to study and work for around four to eight years before you become a practicing ecologist.
What Can I Do with an Ecology Degree?
As an ecologist, there are several ways you can contribute to studying and improving the environment. Whether you like hands-on activities or prefer crunching numbers, there's something for everyone in ecology.
If you enjoy being out on the field, you might want to be a forest conservationist. You'll be visiting forests, studying the impact of incidents like forest fires and preparing solutions to conserve flora and fauna. If you want to do this at a broader scale, you can become an environmental consultant and help companies and governments shape environmental policy.
If you prefer a more academic role, consider becoming a research scientist. You'll be converting the data that field workers collect into viable models for making predictions about the environment. If you have a way with numbers and the patience to test and re-test different hypotheses, this could be the job for you.
And if you consider yourself a born leader, natural resource management is an excellent option. Natural resource managers work with chemists, zoologists, biologists, and other scientists to develop ways of using natural resources while conserving their supplies. You'll need to make sure everyone's coordinated, come up with action plans, and ensure everything is going according to said plans.
Should I Become an Ecologist?
Regardless of what degree you take, the first thing you'll need to succeed as an ecologist is a love of nature. You'll be spending much of your time amidst wildlife and natural terrain. That's something you can't sustain unless you're genuinely passionate about the environment. One thing is sure, though -- you'll truly feel like you're helping to save the planet every day.
So if you’re looking for a career path that lets you explore the great outdoors, allows you to make the world a better place and pays you a comfortable salary, you should definitely think about becoming an ecologist!
Have you ever thought about building a career as an ecologist? Let us know in the comments below.
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