The Real Poop
Some people, bless their hearts, hold the firm conviction that trees are made for hugging, sunlight and fresh air are made for basking in, and that all the flora and fauna on this good Earth should not only survive but resonate in perfect environmental harmony with its surroundings. If you're one of those people, your career choice is clear: you were born to be an ecologist.
Ecologists focus on the ways that environmental factors—be they man-made or biological—affect living organisms and their happy homes.
They examine the complex and (hopefully) balanced ecosystems that allow creatures and plants to grow and thrive, figure out how that balance is struck, then work to keep that balance, teeter-totter-style.
A gig as an entry-level ecologist can be stressful, sorry to say. There'll likely be long and odd hours, and probably a sizeable portion of weekend work. And if you're out in the field, that work can be pretty grueling. Expect to spend plenty of time outdoors on your hands and knees, reaching into dark muddy holes on the hottest of hot days.
The pay is not that great either, coming in at a lowly, did-I-really-spend-six-years-of-college-tuition-for-this $36,000 per year. Fortunately, things do get a bit better moving forward, as experienced ecologists can expect that figure to rise to about $53,000 over time (source).
Ecologists working in the field may find themselves doing things like tracking plant and animal populations at a state park following recent preservation efforts, or doing lab analysis on seed samples taken from a biotechnology plant. They may even end up poring over animal excrement to learn more about a creature's dietary habits. It's a dirty (and sometimes stinky) job, but someone has to do it.
But the path of the marsh-dwelling ecologist isn't the only way to go. If the notion of investigating animal droppings doesn't get your motor running, don't necessarily write off the career.
Many ecologists focus on the educational aspects of ecology and environmental maintenance. They can work in museums that focus on the historical aspects of environmental change or act as guides and area experts to curious park visitors.
As you might expect, there's a lot of education and experience that goes into becoming a successful ecologist. You'll definitely need an undergraduate degree in something scientific—biology, chemistry, and the like. If you want a bigger bang for your buck, a graduate degree on top wouldn't hurt either.
Nature isn't always going to be kind and accommodating; ecologists must think logically and develop their ability to remain objective.
What if you've spent the last three months studying the effects of drought on cactus needles, and it just so happens to pour as you're about to collect the last of your samples? It takes a certain mindset to refrain from tearing out your hair while finding a way to work through these sorts of inevitable problems.
Writing and oral communication are also important aspects of the job. Whether you're presenting your findings on bald eagle nesting patterns in Washington State or testifying as an expert in a lawsuit over an oil spill, communicating your ideas clearly is essential in getting your message heard, understood, and put into practice.
Being fluent in squirrel might come in handy in the field, but you still need to talk to humans every once in a while.
Ecology projects are often long-term and results may be collected slowly—over months or even years. For example, the effects of pollution from a new manufacturing plant can only be understood once data has been collected over a long period of time. Ecologists play the long game, so don't expect the same rush of immediate satisfaction you might get from finding a quarter under the couch cushion.
Perhaps most importantly, ecologists are defined by their curiosity. The entire foundation of the work is built around the search for answers to a slew of apparent and hidden questions all around us. Not everyone will notice that odd strain of moss growing on the side of a tree, but a great ecologist might. And not just notice it, but actually get excited that it's there.
Are you super excited about moss? Awesome, own that excitement. The ecologist's life is full of moss. You'll love it.