Ecologists have acquired an image as tree-hugging crusaders who chain themselves to redwoods, lest they be felled by money-grubbing capitalists to be made into picnic tables. In fact, ecologists are serious scientists who spend most of their time collecting and interpreting data to assess the effects of environmental change. Most ecologists approach their work with an ardent interest in their specific environments, but this love for nature is tempered by keen analytical thinking. An ecologist studies the way organisms are affected by their environment and vice versa, which includes looking at everything from population size to pollution and how they impact a biological system. In order to study these systems, ecologists conduct extensive lab work and can spend months doing field research.
Public or private
Ecologists can work for a variety of employers. Some research for federal, state and local government agencies. For example, one of the most compelling current ecology issues is the conservation of wetlands, which are valued for their filtration capabilities in treating all sorts of water pollutants. Wetland plant species are being studied for the various ways in which they purify commercial runoff, from heavy metal uptake to neutralizing acidity.
Ecologists can also work in the private sector as eco-consultants with major corporations, such as refineries and pharmaceutical companies. In this (more lucrative) capacity, ecologists advise companies on their waste and disposal policies to ensure accordance with EPA regulations. Employment in a university teaching or corporate position is an attractive option as competition for research grant money is intense. Many ecologists (and other scientists) must spend inordinate amounts of time completing grant applications. The federal government has slowed its grant programs for scientific research, so competition is expected to increase in the coming years.
A bachelor's degree in a scientific discipline is adequate for some non-research jobs and laboratory positions in ecology. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research and for jobs in management and consulting. A PhD in chemistry, environmental science, geology or biology is generally required for college teaching, independent research, and for advancement to many managerial positions.
In academia, ecologists are usually expected to spend several years in a post-graduate position before they are offered permanent jobs. Post-doctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques that are transferable to other research projects.
Ecology is "a great field to work in, but very competitive," our contacts report. The pay is "not great," but the work is "incredibly rewarding and fun." One ecologist says that she is in the field because she believes in "the importance of the work and preservation of wildlife and nature--not to get rich!" Although consulting jobs pay more, they are not necessarily the most rewarding. According to one respondent, the job requires that ecological consultants "bust their asses to help employers do as much damage to the environment as possible without getting into trouble." A 20-year veteran of the ecological profession concurs by stating his motto: "Even a bad day in the field is better than a good day at the office."
Travel; Flexible schedules
Long hours; Low starting pay; Intense competition for grant money
Patient; Detail-oriented; Open-minded
Average about 45 per week
Average salary (federal government): $58,250
MS or PhD