Park naturalists provide visitor services, conduct field trips to scientific and natural destinations, prepare and present lectures, create brochures and media articles and construct visitor center displays. Individuals interested in becoming park naturalists may earn an associate's degree in wildlife management and/or a bachelor's degree in environmental science. Science and laboratory classes are common in these 2- and 4-year degree programs, as are internships and practica. Applicants will need a high school diploma or GED and previous coursework in math, English and the sciences.
Certificate programs are not usually available to aspiring park naturalists, but they may be of interest to serious amateurs. There are also certificate programs available to those who already hold bachelor's degrees.
Associate of Science in Wildlife Management
These programs can be the first step towards becoming a park naturalist. Candidates gain a conceptual understanding of wildlife management, conservation and ecology. They collect, analyze, identify and interpret wildlife, fish and habitat data. Graduates of these programs are eligible for some entry-level park jobs and can often transfer their credits toward a related bachelor's degree program. In addition to general education courses, students take classes in botany, plant ecology and natural resources. The wildlife, fish, forestry and recreational core may include classes such as:
- Basic and advanced ecology
- Regional plants and wildlife
- Wildlife management
- Trees and shrubs
- Streams and aquatic insects
- Fisheries and hatcheries
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science
These programs prepare students to work in environmental law, policy and planning as well as in careers as park naturalists or other conservation specialists. Classes cover natural sciences and relevant public policy along with communications skills. Because park naturalists need to communicate with those who have little formal scientific training in environmental issues, a program that includes environmental sciences and liberal arts may be helpful to an aspiring naturalist. Some of the intensive coursework covers:
- Biodiversity assessment and monitoring
- Biodiversity and geography
- Culture, ethics and jurisprudence
- Developing written and oral presentations
- Intro to environmental microbiology
- Social and behavioral sciences
Master Naturalist Certificate Programs
Not-for-credit programs are available at some colleges and universities with the goal of developing citizen stewards of local natural resources. Students learn skills they can use as volunteers with local and regional nature centers, where they assist in maintenance and management tasks. These programs do not generally provide training adequate for aspiring park naturalist professionals.
Popular Career Options
Employees at state and national parks are often required to have several years of work-related experience and on-the-job training. Physical endurance is important because park naturalists exert themselves by walking, climbing, lifting, balancing, bending and stooping. Most advanced positions require a bachelor's degree, but some opportunities may be available for people who possess an associate's degree. Examples include:
- Park aide
- Wildlife aide
- Environmental education specialist
Park naturalists generally must have at least a bachelor's degree in a field such as environmental science. Those who wish to move into research or teaching positions in colleges and universities will need master's and Ph.D. degrees. Advanced degrees and work experience may also improve chances of promotion.
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Park naturalists may work as conservation scientists and foresters. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected that the number of jobs for these workers would grow 7% from the years 2014 through 2024. The BLS also reported in 2015 that conservation scientists and foresters earned mean annual salaries of $63,800 and $60,650, respectively.
Students interested in working as park naturalists can pursue a bachelor's degree in environmental science. Wildlife management associate's degrees are also available to students seeking entry-level park jobs, while non-credit certificate programs might be of interest to hobbyists interested in learning about environmental and conservation issues.