7 Beginner’s Tips for a Wildlife Biology Career

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Wildlife biology has changed immensely in the past few decades. Some of the professors that I worked with for my Ph.D. calculated statistical results for analysis by hand.

The rise of computing power and sophisticated analytics have transformed this field; scientific knowledge and expertise alone is no longer enough for most jobs, and modeling skills and quantitative analyses are what is desired for a wildlife biology career.

I believe I went to graduate school during a time of such great transition (2006). No, we weren’t calculating anything by hand, but back then, a lot of people didn’t know about R. Most everyone enters the a wildlife biology career because they love being outdoors and/or their study  system/species, but you need to be careful, because if you want to be outside, the more advanced your career becomes, the more likely you are going to be sitting at your desk staring at the computer screen.

Perspectives from a fellow wildlife biologist.

When I was deciding on a career in wildlife biology and whether to get a master’s degree or a Ph.D., I sought advice from many scientists across many fields. When choosing a Ph.D. program and project, I was so worried about making the right choice as I felt this would influence the rest of my career.

Despite these worries, I was told over and over again that I would not be pigeon-holed into a position based on my graduate experience. But I believe the times have changed, and fast. I have seen a shift in the market since when I started, and I now advise my students differently.

I was taught that job advertisements were “wish lists” and that if you meet 75% of the requirements you should still apply. Competition has increased so much though that employers now have the luxury to choose candidate with the credentials that perfectly match match the job posting (and in many cases, even exceed them).

“In this case it simply came down to finding a candidate that matched our needs almost exactly, and we were fortunate in that regard.”

-Email response from a job I interviewed for that I did not get

I believe current and prospective students need to be concerned about being pigeon-holed in today’s market and plan their experiences carefully to garner the skills necessary to get the job the want.

Here’s my advice:

1. Choose the Wildlife Biology Job You Want Right Now 

Look at job postings and the jobs you ideally want – not the entry-level positions, but your ultimate career goal jobs. Do this now before you start your career in wildlife biology.

Use my wildlife biology job board list to find jobs. Use my job tracker (download below) to help you organize those jobs.  Do this over the course of at least several months.

After you collect a large number of postings, look for common themes and make sure you get those qualifications before leaving graduate school. I think this step also applies for those interested in academia; look at how the job is advertised (e.g. urban ecologist, evolutionary biologist, etc.) and think about all the different ways you can sell yourself.

You may also be surprised by how infrequently the type of job you ideally want is posted. A couple of weeks ago, someone posted in the Wildlife Science Careers Network Facebook group that they wanted a job studying primates or with carnivores. Those jobs are rare and very competitive!

2. Truly Understand the Job and What Wildlife Biology is

A lot of people do not understand what wildlife biology is or what a wildlife biologist does.

If you visit other sites on getting a job in conservation or wildlife, you will see lots of photos of people feeding animals, them out in the field, or amazing animal photos in general. However, there are many jobs, and I would even say the majority of the permanent jobs are office-based.

99% of the time I am at my desk behind a computer screen!

A lot of people think of being outdoors when they think of careers in wildlife biology, but I spend by far and large, most of my time in the office.
A lot of people think of being outdoors when they think of careers in wildlife biology, but I spend by far and large, most of my time in the office.

I post beautiful photos of animals to my Instagram, but I have only been to most of those countries once for days/weeks at a time. Almost all of the professors I worked with in graduate school never or rarely went to the field, and if they did, a lot was more of a managerial position (i.e. managing students in the field rather than doing the works yourself).

I have seen the same pattern in federal and state positions, and even abroad. Many scientists I met during my field work in Gabon lived and spent most of their days in the capital, Libreville. If you really love doing field work, think hard about getting a Ph.D.

Also, take the time to understand what you will be doing in the job. If you are going into research, you have to really love the practice of research (asking questions, testing hypotheses) – that should be your driving factor.

3. Know What You Love to Do

If you like just being around animals or nature, research may not be for you, and you might find more happiness in a zookeeper position or working in a wildlife sanctuary. In the recent past, publishing papers on the natural history of species was enough, but now that is difficult to do due to lack of funding sources dedicated to this type of research, and scientific journals’ reluctancy to publish results.

Now research is driven by testing theories and concepts that can apply to a wide range of taxa. In other words, you have to really love science, which means analyzing data and writing. 

Finally, a lot of conservation work has nothing to do with animals, but everything to do with people. Again, if the parts that fascinates you about a job in wildlife biology or conservation is the idea of seeing animals or being around animals, then stick to the master’s level position.

4. Carefully Choose Between a Ph.D. or a Master’s Degree

Review the the job descriptions and requirements that you’ve collected to see what kind of experience you will need. I went from several internships after college into a Ph.D. program, so I didn’t have the opportunity to search for jobs at the bachelor’s degree level, but based on my experiences and perceptions from being in the field, it seems difficult to get a permanent job with a bachelor’s. Check out Kristina Lynn’s website for advice on this.

Deciding between a Ph.D. and a master’s is a tougher decision. If you end up getting a Ph.D., but are more interested in jobs that require only a master’s, you can be overlooked if you apply to those jobs despite meeting (and exceeding) the requirements. This happens frequently (both in my experience on hiring committees and as a job-seeker) and if you are certain you want masters-level jobs, then do not get a Ph.D.

The employer might make a lot of assumptions about you, for instance that you might be unhappy in that type of job or that you are only using this job until you can find another better job. It can be very difficult to convince the hiring manager that you really do want this job. 

Once you get a Ph.D. you are expected to be the one managing research, so your top interests should be conceptualizing projects and writing up the big picture – not so much about data collection.

5. Carefully Choose Your Advisor and Lab

Once you decide what level of education you want to get, you have to decide where to do this, but more importantly, with whom. I personally believe your advisor/lab is more important than the degree/department, but opinions may vary on this.

Why is your advisor more important? Because your advisor is your gateway to your next job. They are your major source of networking for future jobs and if they have a rock solid reputation and a lot of connections, this will get you places. In my upcoming book on careers in wildlife biology, I go over step-by-step how to choose an advisor and research topic.

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You should also consider your labmates and the department. This will be your major source of future colleagues and collaborators, so if you find out that your advisor is not exactly a perfect fit (or frequently not there, yes this is actually pretty common), it may be worth it still to pursue working with them if they have a solid lab. 

In regard to the school/department you belong to, my degrees are in biological sciences, but they could have easily been in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department (and I would have been paid less for doing the same type of work, but that is another topic), and I even applied to work under a professor who was in the Geography department.

6. Pick the Right Courses

That said, make sure you get the courses you need for the job you want despite the department. When I was in undergrad, I went to a large state school, but there were not the specialized classes like there are today, and I also  didn’t realize the value of taking some classes. For example, in some government jobs you can meet and exceed every criteria, but if you haven’t taken a botany class, then you will not be qualified. 

To succeed in wildlife, you need to know statistics well. These are my favorite books for people who don't love statistics.
To succeed in wildlife, you need to know statistics well. These are my favorite books for people who don’t love statistics.

Courses seem to be less important than your actual research experience. That said, you CANNOT take enough statistics courses nowadays. Really, many in-demand positions are quantitative.

7. Consider Courses in Other Fields

Also, if you know what you want to do, you should get courses in that field because everything is so specialized. For instance, if you want to work for a nonprofit, you might want to take policy, economics, or courses about fundraising/marketing.

There are so many options nowadays, so I think it is better to over prepare than under. Some fields are very specific about their course work.

My book offering more in-depth advice as well as a recap of my career in wildlife biology will be out fall 2020. I go over all of my experiences, the jobs I didn’t get, and what I wish I had done differently.

In the meantime, check out Becoming a Wildlife Professional. This is an excellent resource and offers detailed information about different career types, especially government careers.

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44 thoughts on “7 Beginner’s Tips for a Wildlife Biology Career

  1. Stephanie, I’m so glad I found your blog. It’s fabulous in so many ways! I stumbled upon it while looking for career advice on the internet. I’m an aspiring wildlife biologist, so this in particular is really helpful.
    I wonder if you have any advice for someone who was a little late to the game in deciding to be a wildlife biologist? My undergrad degree is in environmental science, and I have quite a bit of field experience from seasonal tech jobs and volunteering. I am hoping to go to grad school, but I never did an undergrad thesis or worked in a lab or formed relationships with professors. I didn’t really know what I was doing or where I was going in college. Now, I’m 5 years out of college. What can I do to be competitive for grad school? Should I find a way to do an independent research project? Should I take more statistic/data classes (had a few in college)? I think my ultimate goal is to work for a government agency or non-profit as a biologist. Any advice?

    1. Thank you so much! I am glad you found it helpful. It is not too late! I started grad school when I was 26 and I was one of the youngest in the program. What do you want to go to grad school for? Not doing a thesis or working in a lab is no big deal, especially if you have field experience. I never did an undergrad thesis either. Do you have relationships with your bosses from these positions? You really just need letters of recommendation and people who can describe your work ethic. It is better if they have a Ph.D. though, but they don’t have to be professors. If you have field experience, that will make you competitive for wildlife biology. Getting into graduate school is honestly a lot about timing. Seek out professors you are interested in working with and approach them. Write them a professional email and ask if they would be willing to take you on as a student. It’s all about finding the right fit and at the right time. Lots of professors have to say no just because they don’t have enough room in their lab. This is something I really want to write about in the future!

      1. It is heartening to know it’s possible to find an indirect route into the field. I do think I could get recommendations from my previous bosses. I just need figure out exactly what I’m interested in doing (or rather, what I’m not, because right now I feel like I could go a million different directions). Thank you for your reply and the inspiration!

    2. Sometimes there are opportunities to stand out as a seasonal tech: a little side project, summarize the data or find something interesting in the data, help with a report, fine tune methods. Take advantage of any opportunities like this, maybe even as a volunteer. Not only will you make connections, it will show that you are more than a body in the field. Best of luck to you! I did not start grad school until age 37

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  3. Greetings, my name is Osuman G. Kiazolu. I am a Liberian currently studying for my master in Biodiversity and natural resources management here at the University of Nairobi. I have completed coursework and now developing my master project proposal on mangroves ecosystems conservation. However, here in Kenya, we have not been given fieldwork opportunities or an internship to practice what is most important and interesting to our careers.
    Even though I have had some Tropical Conservation field course experience with The Tropical Biology Association (TBA), but I still feel that there is a need for more field experiences for me.
    Thanks so much for your post, it really touches my heart at the point that I would like to explore more than current.
    I would therefore like to ask if there can be any voluntary fieldwork opportunity from you which I can get myself involve into so that it shall help me gain experiences?
    I will appreciate if you afford me such an amazing opportunity.

    1. Hi Osuman! Thank you for your comment. I am very sure you can find volunteer work in Kenya. There is a lot of research going on there, but most of it might not be in a formal internship, but rather helping out with a research projects. I recommend doing a search on what professors are conducting wildlife research in Kenya and then contacting them or their graduate students about opportunities to volunteer. Make sure it is a professionally written email. You will probably have better luck with graduate students than professors. Look into Mpala research station too (although this one might be very competitive). Good luck! I love Kenya.

  4. Very inspiring. I really hope it pushes me forward as I just begun my journey into this field and also pray to be able to make wise decisions in the future

    1. Thank you! Always feel free to contact me if you need advice for specific questions. I am in the process of writing an eBook and would love to know what people want to know to make sure all of their questions get answered.

  5. Thanks for this inspirational article Stephanie. I will be sharing this with the bachelors/masters students who approach me about fieldwork choices & further studies.
    From a retired teacher who works for a species conservation-based NGO (in south & southeast Asia), & doesn’t even have a bachelors-level education. If I can, many can…

  6. i am interested in finding new species and discovering new thngs like medicinel value of an animals,i also like to do jobs in labs,i just finished my 12th i too like research
    can u telll me what exactly i should choose my dgree in biology

    1. Hi Chinthana! Thank you for your comment. If you are interested in discovering new species, then you should definitely go into evolutionary biology.

  7. Hello, , am an undergraduate student in university of embu taking BSc Biology can i also have an equal chance of pursuing Wildlife biology at my postgraduate level . pls advice , , thank you very much for the good advices you keep feeding us with

  8. First, I would like to say I loved reading your article, and appreciate you sharing your journey!

    I came across your website while I was looking for advice about whether or not I should go for a PhD in Ecology, or if a MSc will be enough. I noticed your advice on whether or not to get a PhD centers mainly on those looking to pursue the academic route (you mentioned these folks should be interested in managing research etc.).

    I would be interested in your thoughts about pursuing a PhD if I already know I don’t want to go into academia or research (I was thinking ecological consulting, Science Communication, Biologist, work at a museum. . . these kinds of things).

    Do you have any advice in this situation? Looking forward to your thoughts!

    1. Hi Allison! Thank you for our comment. Yes, I definitely have advice on that and there are many careers outside of academia where you will need a Ph.D. I am writing an eBook that will cover this topic. I hope to have it out sometime this fall-winter. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll be kept up to date on when it comes out. But again, I would suggest looking at the jobs you want now and see if they require a MS or PhD. Some fields it will vary even within organizations.

    2. Wow! This is exactly the information I’ve been looking for for so, so long. I’m a month and a half into my senior year of undergrad for a degree in biology, and I’ve just recently started looking at grad schools. I had no idea where to start and was so overwhelmed. This article had more helpful information than all the other places I’ve previously searched combined! I feel so much relief in knowing I have these steps to refer to. Thank you so, so much for sharing this! All of the information is so relevant and important!!!

      1. Thank you so much and I am happy to know that it helped you! I highly recommend you sign up for my newsletter. It will keep you up to date on the book I am writing, which will go into a lot more detail about some of the things touched on here.

  9. Hello, I have a bachelor degree in Education majored in biology, can I be allowed to pursue master degree in wildlife biology?

    1. Yes, absolutely! You may need to take some extra classes to qualify, but in my Ph.D. program, there were many people who had degrees in fields other than biology.

  10. Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you so much for your blog! It’s really great! I have one more year and I will be graduating with a Masters in Biology. I would love to be a zookeeper, but my family are not happy with this decision as they are saying that I have spent so much money at Uni for ending up doing something that doesn’t require a degree. Do you have any advice on that?

    Also, do you have any other suggestions apart from zoo keeping for someone who loves to work with animals but research is not really for them?

    Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Zoe, thank you so much! Sometimes in life you have “sunk costs.” These are things that you pay for or invest time in, then you decide it isn’t worth it anymore because of some reason. For example, changing your career path. If it will make you happy, follow this to become a zookeeper. Ultimately, it’s your decision, not theirs.

    2. Hey Zoe, to add to this, there are non-zoo career options if you enjoy hands-on work with animals. Many agencies have imperiled species monitoring programs where numbers of individuals are marked and tracked across time. This c
      Sort of work can encompass fish, herps, birds, insects, mammals, etc. I actually have two coworkers who are former zookeepers from different zoos and both consider their experiences there to be transitional to their ultimate careers working to monitor wildlife and habitats. Many zoos offer conservation biology programs and learning opportunities for their keepers who are interested in more than just cleaning exhibits and preparing diets, so if you want to go into the zoo world, involve yourself with those. It does boil down to doing what makes >you< happy. Your degree may not be what you focus your career on, but those years of learning critical thinking and other important skills will not go to waste, no matter your ultimate job title.

  11. I would caution against undervaluing good old-fashioned networking within an agency or NGO as a means to a successful career in wildlife biology. Entry level positions in wildlife biology rarely require more than a bachelor’s, and building relationships is key to advancement. I have seen it first hand as a hiring manager where I know the experience and worth ethic of one candidate, and chose them over another who may be a little better looking on paper. That being said, I do agree that a Master’s level education will make you more competitive overall, and that if your goal is to work for a state, federal, or NGO, a PhD may overqualify you for the bulk of jobs. The best advice I recieved when choosing between a MS and PhD was this: if you want to work in a lab, do research, and teach, you need a PhD. If you want to be in the field managing for species and habitats, stick with a MS.

  12. Hello Stephanie,
    I loved the post, it’s very informative.
    I have just graduated from college and I have my BSc in field Biology.
    I have started an online course on herpetology and was wondering if you have any advice on what programmes and/or internships are popular with herpetology enthusiasts?

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