In the life sciences and especially in ecology, conservation, wildlife management, etc., your success in this field is dictated by the same things that apply in just about any other field. You need to be intelligent, nimble, a good critical thinker, an excellent communicator, a team player, etc. You need to be the kind of person who other people will enjoy seeing every day at work. You need to be honest and trustworthy and capable with a passion for the work you do and a work ethic to see that it gets done. These might be qualities rooted in your family upbringing, your early education, and/or the general education courses you might take as an undergraduate.
You also need competency. Mostly this will come from courses within your major that you will take as an undergraduate. You absolutely need to demonstrate how proficient you are at finding new information, but it remains valuable to know things you don’t have to look up. Instant recall of information and working knowledge of method in our field might not be as rigorous as that demanded for something like the MCAT, but there is still an expectation that you know something about your intended career. You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to be successful in this field, but As and Bs in the most relevant courses in your major will serve you well.
You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to be successful in this field, but As and Bs in the most relevant courses in your major will serve you well.
Lastly, there’s experience. The thing that is likely to separate you from the pack of recent graduates with similar soft skills and technical education is what you really know how to do. That’s not just what you’ve been taught in class, it’s what you’ve practiced and proven you know how to do through repetition. There should be at least one thing, one skill, that you have honed to a professional degree before you complete your undergraduate education. It could be data analysis, GIS, electrofishing, prescribed fire, landowner incentive program implementation, small mammal trapping, plant/bird/insect/etc. identification and inventory… something.
Students who develop and cultivate at least one special skill might do so as part of an undergraduate research scholarship, a capstone project, involvement in relevant student clubs, or formal internships with wildlife agencies, NGOs, or consulting firms. Most, however, will gain that vital experience by working as a field technician on someone else’s (usually) seasonal research project. Graduate students will hire you to help them collect the data they need for their research projects. These positions will provide money, working experience to help you develop one or more crucial skills, networking, and the chance to decide over 2–3 months if field work is something you want to be doing for the rest of your career.
How do you land one of these important opportunities to work as a field technician, field assistant, or whatever a suitable position might be called? The first step is luck. But luck is little more than being prepared to take advantage of opportunity. So the real first step is to identify and cultivate some relevant skill that appeals to you before you ever apply for that technician position. Although there are plenty of opportunities for people to learn on the job, developing some basic skills you can claim before you apply would be even better.
Luck is… being prepared to take advantage of opportunity.
The next thing to recognize is that opportunities at your own university or within striking distance of your apartment will be a fraction of those available. Careers in wildlife ecology simply don’t occur in every community. This is not banking or health care or primary education where maybe you can have some say in where you might end up. If you’re serious about working in this field, then your chances of success increase dramatically if you’re able to relocate then if you’re not.
So, how does one find such positions? I recommend that as early as possible in your undergraduate career, you consult relevant job boards and make a habit of checking them perhaps monthly. Even a year or two before you might be ready to apply, it’s a great idea to have been reading job announcements to gain a sense for specific skills that seem to be in demand, the compensation offered, and important ancillary details such as how expenses for food and lodging in the field will be covered. There are multiple sites where such positions might be posted (including the following) and at time of writing (November) many people are already advertising positions for field work to begin next May.
For students considering graduate school, these same job boards also post opportunities usually under some separate heading like graduate assistantships. The best time to read through such announcements to gain a sense of what folks are looking for in new graduate students is about two years before graduation. The second best time is right now. Good luck!