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I get a lot of emails from people asking me for advice on becoming a wildlife biologist, which is awesome! And a big reason why I am writing this blog post ????.
However, I don’t feel like many people have a good sense of what being a wildlife biologist means. Quite honestly, I didn’t before I was in the early midst of graduate school. My perceptions greatly changed even from when I was doing temporary tech work within this field.
When you Google about becoming a wildlife biologist, a lot of the information is outdated and it seems to be written by people outside of the field. Many people throw out the word wildlife biologist and apply it to anyone who works with exotic animals, but that is definitely not correct.
This post is all about clarifying some of those misconceptions as well as answering the main questions you collectively ask in Google about becoming a wildlife biologist. I’ve been in this field for the last 17 years and so let’s get into it!
What is a Wildlife Biologist?
A wildlife biologist studies wild animals and often in the context of ecology (their interactions with the environment).
- Biology = the study of life
- Wildlife = Non-domesticated animals living in the wild (i.e. not captive wild animals) and in their native range (species outside their native range or natural range expansion are considered invasive)
More recently the term wildlife has been extended to plants and other organisms, but for wildlife biology as a career, the original definition is applied to wild animals and almost always refers to vertebrates.
Wildlife biologist includes a range of topics: animal abundance, range, behavior, diet, habitat selection, reproduction, species interactions, community dynamics, and human-wildlife interactions (this is not an exhaustive list!).
Wildlife biologists study wildlife using the scientific method. When people hear “study wildlife” they usually visualize images of scientists watching animals in the wild or collecting some kind of sample. While this is part of it, they don’t think of all of the hours spent afterwards analyzing data, writing up results, or writing the next grant to get funding.
If people do visualize us writing, I get the impression that people think that wildlife biologists write descriptive reports about a single species summarizing their behavior, diet, and ecology. But scientific research is not like that at all!
Scientific research is very vigorous, heavy on data analysis, and driven by questions that have never been answered before. The studies wildlife biologists conduct for peer-reviewed publications almost always have to be set in theory and written in a way that applies across taxa. They may still do taxa specific research, especially at the applied level (government, nonprofit, and consultancy work), but it still has to be scientifically vigorous.
When you are study wildlife, the animals ultimately end up being data points. For your graduate school work, people often go to the field and collect data on their species, but a lot of their time is spent analyzing these data with often complex statistical models.
When you graduate, you will then be in charge of sending people to the field and typically go there fewer and fewer times. Nowadays some students don’t even go to the field because there is so much data out there that has been previously collected.
This is really different from what people think wildlife biologists do. If you do a Google image search of “wildlife biologist,” the top search results are always photos of people holding cute, large mammals especially charismatic species. If you want to go into wildlife biology because you want to hold or be close to mammals like these, then this is the wrong career for you.
Holding mammals is a very small part, IF ANY part of the job. I study mammals and have never held a wild non-captive mammal myself. My advisor even studied forest elephants and never saw one in the park she worked in! Here’s a blog post by another wildlife biologist to reiterate this point.
Wildlife biology has a lot of different subfields and the one where you are typically touching larger animals (temporarily) is when you are studying their movements through GPS trackers.
To GPS-track a mammal, you need to capture them, anesthetize them, and put the tracker on. This is part where a lot of people take the photo of them with the mammal. While this makes for a great photo, it is a very small part of the actual work you will do as a wildlife biologist.
Trackers are expensive and last a long time now (years). This field work may only make up days of your job throughout the whole year. The rest of your time will be spent analyzing the data in the lab that comes from the trackers.
Does your need to be close to animals outweigh the hours you will spend analyzing data and writing scientific papers? If you don’t love science, trust me, you won’t be happy. Nowadays the technology is so advanced you don’t even have to go to the field to get location points.
If you want a job where you are handle wildlife consider specializing in small mammals, where you do have to trap them to study them, or herps (reptiles and amphibians), although handling them will still be a small part of your job.
If working close to charismatic megafauna is your thing, a career in zoos or sanctuaries might be a better fit. HOWEVER, it’s important to know that in ALL of these careers, the emphasis is for people to minimize contact between humans and wildlife.
If a zoo is more ethical, they enforce protected contact where zookeepers and animals do not directly interact, only through barriers. Ethical zoos want to encourage the natural behaviors of wild animals, which means minimizing interactions with humans.
The same is true for wildlife rehabilitation ESPECIALLY if the animal is being re-released into the wild. They absolutely do not want the animal to get used to people as that will increase its chances of getting killed.
Real sanctuaries also want to separate contact between the animals and caretakers. For example at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, there is no or almost no direct interactions between caretakers and elephants because they want the elephants to live out lives that closest resemble theirs in the wild.
The exception to interacting with wildlife is when using educational animals or ambassador animals that cannot be released to the wild. These now captive animals are used to send conservation/educational messages to the public and you are often allowed to hold them for display. Typically these animals are birds (especially raptors), reptiles, or smaller mammals (e.g. ferrets, rabbits).
How Many Years of College Do You Need to Become a Wildlife Biologist?
At least four, but here are several options:
- 4 years for a bachelor’s degree
- 2-3 additional years for a master’s (plus a bachelor’s degree)
- 5-7 for a Ph.D. (plus a bachelor’s degree, some programs require a master’s)
You can get a permanent job with a bachelor’s degree, but it’s rare, and you don’t get paid well. It also takes a lot of luck. Check out these Twitter responses (click on the tweet):
Frequently these are temporary positions. You will have to move around a lot, be comfortable with risk in the fact that jobs will likely not line up perfectly, and be willing to work almost anywhere and for little money.
I’ve been talking a lot about this on my Instagram stories and it is not uncommon for people to have another or even several jobs to support their wildlife biology tech position.
It’s more likely you will secure a permanent job with a masters or Ph.D. However, jobs are still competitive. One of my friends worked temporary field jobs for 3 years after she got her master’s degree. I know people at both levels of education who have left the field because they couldn’t get a job.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did though, make sure you know what is required for the job that you ideally want. Search the job boards now, no matter where you are in your career, and use my job tracker to help you figure this out:
For more on becoming a wildlife biologist with a Bachelor’s degree, check out Kristina Lynn’s page and videos.
How Do You Become a Wildlife Biologist?
Becoming a wildlife biologist is not straight forward and I have a lot of advice to give, which is why I am writing a book about it! But overall I recommend doing the following:
- Getting a degree in wildlife biology or something similar (biology, zoology)
- Getting experience as early as you can (volunteering in a lab)
- Getting experience in paid, temporary positions
- Getting an advanced degree (master’s or Ph.D.)
For more on volunteering in a lab and how to develop a scientist’s mindset, check out my How to Raise a Future Scientist post.
You can also start taking courses for FREE on your own.
Step(h) into Nature created a blog post summarizing 11 different websites that offer free educational courses in conservation and wildlife biology.
Who Do Wildlife Biologists Work For?
There are lots of different employers for wildlife biologists. They include:
- Federal government: US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Park Service (NPS), US Geological Survey (USGS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service (USFS), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), US Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and US Bureau of Indian Affairs. These are likely just some. There may be more in other departments/divisions. Check out this link for advice on getting a job in the government.
- State wildlife agencies (e.g. for North Carolina it is the NC Wildlife Resources Commission)
- Nonprofits and NGOs (e.g. World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society)
- Zoos and Aquariums (look for AZA accredited ones)
- Museums (although most jobs are as curators of collections)
- Private Companies (Consulting agencies)
I’ve listed the best job boards for these different employers here.
What Do Wildlife Biologists Do on a Daily Basis?
This really depends on where you work, but most of being a wildlife biologist is about doing some part of the scientific method: coming up with research questions, collecting data to answer questions, analyzing data, writing up results, and communicating results (e.g. giving professional talks, writing up peer-reviewed manuscripts).
If you have an advanced degree (especially a Ph.D.), you will be spending more of your time analyzing data, reading and writing scientific papers, and managing people/projects. You will have some degree of bureaucratic work too (meetings, report writing).
These are EXTREMELY broad descriptions and what you do will depend on who you work for and at what education level.
I talk about this in more detail my book, Getting a Job in Wildlife Biology: What It’s Like and What You Need to Know.
How Many Hours Do Wildlife Biologists Work?
Again, it depends on who you work for and what level you are at (bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D.), but I would say most wildlife biologists work more than 40 hours even if they have a 9-5 job.
It’s very hard not to take your work home with you! For example, if you have a grant due, you will likely spend weekends or nights working on it.
Even if you are a tech or most of your job is in data collection, you may still be working more than 40 hours. Many graduate students have very long days collecting data during their field seasons (10-16 hrs!) and a lot of tech positions are in helping them with their research.
Do Wildlife Biologists Travel?
Yes, but not all wildlife biologists travel and it may not be much more than any other career quite honestly.
Google likes to show you images of wildlife biologists with charismatic megafauna like jaguars and lions. The vast majority of people I went to graduate school with did all of their research in Missouri where our school was.
It really depends on who you work for and what you study. If you work in academia, you have more freedom over what you choose to study (and therefore destinations to travel to do field work). If you work for your state government, your travel may be restricted to your state or national conferences.
Keep in mind that the more advanced your degree is, the less time you spend in the field too. Lots of times I travel just for conferences and take side vacations for fun that look like work, but in reality they are tourist trips that anyone can take (like my trip to Deramakot in Borneo).
Do Wildlife Biologists Make Good Money?
Definitely not for most of us. Yes, there are some jobs that pay well, but they are few and tend to be more executive level positions. You have to have years of experience in addition to a PhD. These positions as well as some positions in academia can pay $100K or more a year.
Compared to other careers though, this is still often less. My husband’s salary as an electrical engineer is the same or higher than the scientists I know of who have the highest salaries and he is 15 years younger than them.
You are also losing money for the years you spend in school. Scientists are lucky and usually don’t have to pay for graduate school; they are paid a stipend and have a waived tuition fees, but the stipend is low (anywhere between $15,000 – low $20,000s). You will therefore have 2-7 years of your life where you are making around $20K or less while others in careers you will be making a normal salary.
If you have a master’s or Ph.D., I would expect your first job to pay in the $40-60K range. I have a Ph.D. and years of experience in postdocs and the jobs that I was most competitive for were all advertised at ~$50-$55K and almost all were in Raleigh, NC (so you can compare cost of living).
Getting a permanent job is hard, even if you have a higher degree. If you are thinking about becoming a wildlife biologist, you should read about the financial realities of being a wildlife biologist before you decide.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Become a Wildlife Biologist:
There are more and more people with advanced degrees (check out this post on Ph.D.s) and therefore wildlife biologist jobs have become very competitive at every level. Therefore, you really want to make sure this is the right career for you. Ask yourself, would you like…
- Reading and writing scientific papers? Give it a try at Google Scholar. There are a lot of free PDFs.
- Figuring out why things are the way they are? Are you always asking questions about the natural world?
- Working with data? Statistics?
- When someone gives you a job with little direction? When you have no one specifically telling you what to do, step by step?
- Learning things completely on your own? For example, if you were given a new computer program to learn about all on your own, would this be something you would enjoy doing?
- Solving statistical problems where there is no one “right” answer? Coding computer programs?
- Are you okay with things taking a LONG time? It takes years to publish studies!
- Difficult field situations? Mosquitos, ticks, monkeys dropping poo on you (I’ve literally seen this in tech positions), long days.
If you answered yes to those questions, than that is a good sign you really do want to become a wildlife biologist!
What about these?
- Do you need to see or handle animals?
- Be outside all of the time?
If you answered yes to these, you may want a job in captive animal management instead (for the first one).
If you need to be outside, you should strongly consider stopping at a master’s degree as a wildlife biologist or even considering a job where you are outside more often (e.g. law enforcement within a protected area).
I do not want to deter you from becoming a wildlife biologist, I just want your expectations to match reality, to understand how competitive the field is, and for you to success at your dream. You might also realize that you do not want to be a wildlife biologist, but still want a career within the realm of wildlife biology such as education or policy.
If you like what I’ve written here, you’ll love my book. Make sure to get on my email newsletter so you’ll know when it’s out (fall 2020).
For more help in careers in wildlife biology, check out these podcast episodes:
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.