How Do I Become an Ecologist?

David Bishop

Ecologists are scientists who study the natural environment and humanity's effects on it. Most ecologists are employed by governments or public interest groups and perform tasks such as taking water samples, measuring wildlife populations and preparing reports on the health of various ecosystems. Ecologists fill a vital role in assessing the health of the surrounding environment. A student seeking to become an ecologist will most likely pursue a degree in chemistry, biology or environmental science while working to gain field experience during summer breaks. Students often go on to join master's and even Ph.D. programs so they can do independent research and advance within the field of ecology.

Ecologists learn to take water samples and report on ecosystems.
Ecologists learn to take water samples and report on ecosystems.

It is important for a student to gain a wide range of knowledge to become an ecologist. In addition to the core science curriculum, a student may wish to take coursework in statistics and economics to facilitate a greater understanding of the issues and methods involved in ecological science. Strong writing ability is also an important asset for anyone entering this field. Finally, a person interested in an ecology career should have an appreciation for the natural world to inspire his work.

Ecology is sometimes known as environmental biology.
Ecology is sometimes known as environmental biology.

Many students choose to specialize in a field such as zoology, botany or microbiology when they decide to become an ecologist. It is important for ecology students to pursue internships and job opportunities during summer breaks from school to gain experience in the field before graduation. Many careers in ecology require both education and field experience to be successful.

Professional ecologists can be certified by the Ecology Society of America (ESA). Three level of certification are available depending on the applicant's education and experience. An applicant must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited program and at least one year of work experience to be certified as an associate ecologist. Members of the ESA must agree to follow a professional code of ethics and pay a membership fee.

While the popular image of ecology usually involves a scientist out in the wilds doing fieldwork, the reality is that most careers in ecology focus on lab work and data analysis. Many ecologists spend most of their time in front of a computer looking at test results or writing reports. Ecologists in the academic world may teach classes along with research and publishing. Others work with companies in the private sector to help manage forests and fisheries for industry.

A high school or college student who wants to become an ecologist should talk with his or her professors and advisers about education and work opportunities. The student should also verify that the programs he or she is looking at or enrolled in is an accredited program. Ecology requires tough coursework and training but can be a rewarding career for the right person.

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