I get a lot of e-mails and questions from high school and college students assigned to interview someone in a field they’re interested in. Often, the questions are very similar, if not identical. So, I decided to run a post containing the answers to common questions and now I can just refer students here.
If you have questions that are not covered here, include them in the comments. I need to add a disclaimer: wildlife biologist, wildlife ecologist, biologist, etc., are all very vague terms that include lots of different jobs. I do not claim to speak for any field in general, only what I do. Editorial Note (11/24/18): I wrote this post in 2014 and my career and job have changed over the years.
What is it like in a day of a wildlife biologist?
This depends a lot on the time of year. During the field season most of the day could be spent entirely outside, checking traps, monitoring animals, walking to sites, etc. Usually there is also a lab component where datasheets get organized or entered in the computer, animals get measured, weighed, processed. When the field season is over, my job generally becomes a desk job, where I organize data, conduct statistical analyses, and write manuscripts.
Are you away from home often?
To get to my current job has required a lot of traveling and switching jobs and locations to the point that I often did not really know where home is anymore. Since 1997 I haven’t lived anywhere for more than three years. I own a home in Auburn, Alabama and I have a relatively permanent job there now (as of February 2014). This job requires relatively frequent travel for meetings or field work, but these typically last for just a few days.
Do you have to do a lot of paper work?
If datasheets and writing scientific papers is considered paper work, yes. I also have to work on budgets and file receipts. There is not a lot of the standard ‘office stuff’ like memos, etc.
Have you had any dangerous encounters?
Working on boats, outside in remote areas, with wild animals is inherently dangerous, but it is important to always use appropriate safety precautions. For example, I have lots of experience working with venomous snakes, but I do so in a way that minimizes risk.
Have you ever been bitten or in any way harmed by an animal?
Yes, this is a common experience. I am often bitten by snakes (non-venomous species) and I wear gloves when handling mammals so that bites aren’t dangerous.
Have you had to get certain immunizations?
Tetanus shots are a good idea when working outside with animals and research equipment. I have also had rabies shots in advance of doing some bat work in Costa Rica. Traveling to other countries may also require some immunizations, like for yellow fever.
Are you allowed to bring weapons either for self-defense or to hunt for food if you are away for long periods of time?
I have never considered bringing a weapon for self-defense in the field. Whether you can hunt for food depends on where you are, what you are doing there and local rules/regulations.
What kinds of animals do you work with?
Mostly reptiles but also birds and amphibians.
Do you have varied assignments or are you focused on one thing?
Typically, the job is to focus on one or two major things, and as long as those are moving along you can spend your time working on other things. I always have half a dozen or so side-projects going on at any given time.
Would it be useful to have skills as a pilot or photographer in this field?
Being a pilot would be useful, I think, if you were radio-tracking animals that move long distances, like caribou or bears. Good photographs are always great to have for communicating science and for keeping records of study site conditions or weird events.
Do you get told what to study or can you come up with your own questions to answer?
The research that I work on is largely based on what grant proposals get funded by external funding sources and what kind of work was outlined in those proposals. So, what I work on is a mix of what I write about in grant proposals and what funding agencies are interested in supporting.
Why did you follow this career?
I love biodiversity and have a passion for understanding the wildlife around us and conducting research to identify ways we can continue to use landscapes while accommodating for the needs of wildlife populations and assemblages.
What is your favorite part about your job? Least favorite?
My favorite part of my job is knowing that my work could help the conservation of wildlife populations. The least favorite part of my job is doing paperwork and the fact that it is often necessary to always be looking for funding for salaries and research expenses.
What tips do you have for someone who wants to be a wildlife biologist?
Spend time learning about what a wildlife biologist does (there are a diversity of types). Try out some internships and part-time jobs to get hands-on experience and obtain a good solid background in the relevant sciences in school.
Was it easy to find a job? How did you find your job?
The job market is not great. I found my current job because I knew my current supervisor and he knew I was a good fit for the project. I am currently looking for a permanent faculty position.
What is your most memorable moment during your job?
Hiking around Conecuh National Forest looking for Indigo Snakes was very memorable.
Do you do a lot of field work or is it mostly doing research in a laboratory?
The projects I’m currently working on do not involve any laboratory work, just field work and computer time.
What kind of courses do you suggest for college students? How high of a degree do you have?
I have a Ph.D. If you’re interested in becoming a wildlife biologist, I would suggest getting a Wildlife Management, Zoology, or Ecology degree (with all the relevant required courses) on top of the requirements, take all the electives you can!
Do you travel a lot? If so where? Where is the main place you work?
Every few weeks I have to travel throughout the state as part of some project or another. Every month or so there is also some conference that requires some travel as well.
Which skills do you believe are the most useful out in the field?
When conducting field work, it is important to be able to gauge potentially dangerous situations (for example, unsafe driving conditions, heat, lightning) and respond accordingly so that accidents do not happen. On top of that, it is important to be able to write notes and collect data so that no important information is lost.
Is there anything your position requires that you dread to do?
Long stretches of work inside in front of a computer can be draining.
What did you want to do when you first entered college?
I knew I wanted to study wildlife when I started college, I didn’t necessarily have a specific idea regarding what that meant.
Is there anything you would have done different when first starting off to have made it easier to get to where you are now?
Not really. When I was an undergraduate I tried to take every opportunity to get experience in the field. I was fortunate in that I was in a position to take advantage of volunteer opportunities for which I did not make money but I also took part-time jobs working on other people’s research and lab projects.
Which of your research projects do you feel has made the most impact on your life?
The research project that has made the most impact on my life, for several reasons, has been the research I did at SUNY-ESF with James Gibbs on the effects of roads on turtle populations. This was my first full-fledged and (relatively) independent research project. It was very useful experience for me and allowed me to learn about science, both how to answer questions and how to communicate the answers. This research also got a lot of attention in the press and from other researchers, so it opened professional opportunities for me. I also appreciate my experience with this project because it developed into a long-term collaboration with my former advisor that didn’t just identify problems but also offered solutions.