Become a Forest Ecologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a forest ecologist. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in the field of forest ecology.

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Should I Become a Forest Ecologist?

Forest ecologists study and analyze the relationship among plants, animals and land, as well as the effects of humans on forest environments. These ecologists work to conserve or manage the use of forest resources. Work can be physically demanding and often takes place in remote locations. Precautions such as hard hats may be necessary in some instances.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; graduate degree for some positions
Degree Field Forestry, agricultural science
Licensure/Certification Licensing required in many states; certification is voluntary and can enhance career prospects
Experience Some experience required for licensure; 5 years experience required for certification
Key Skills Critical thinking and analytical abilities, communication skills, ability to work with others, decision-making, physical stamina for working outdoors, knowledge of geographic information system (GIS) technology and computer modeling
Salary $61,860 annually (2014 median salary for all conservation scientists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, Job postings from October 2012

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that many employers prefer candidates who have graduated from an accredited bachelor's degree program. Aspiring forest ecologists can find undergraduate degree programs accredited by industry organizations such as the Society of American Foresters (SAF). Applicable undergraduate programs include forestry, rangeland management, environmental science and agricultural science. In these programs, students learn about forest management, ecosystem processes, remote sensing, biology and ecology.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in an internship. Prospective forest ecologists might choose to participate in internships through their school, conservation groups or federal natural resource agencies. For example, the Student Conservation Association coordinates internship postings where students can learn about various subfields of forest ecology and gain valuable experience.
  • Engage in volunteer work. To get experience in the field, students can pursue volunteer activities through government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service Job Corps is one example of volunteer work that prospective candidates might consider pursuing.

Step 2: Acquire Work Experience

Forest ecologists can work in scientific research, product development or teaching. Other positions involve working for the federal government or conservation organizations. Job duties might include conducting environmental impact studies, monitoring ranges used for livestock foraging and developing sustainable methods for use of natural resources.

Step 3: Obtain a License

According to the BLS, 16 states required these professionals to obtain a license as of 2012. Additional states required registration, and some states encouraged voluntary registration. You'll generally need a bachelor's degree and work experience to be eligible for state licensing exams.

Step 4: Get Certified

The SAF offers voluntary certification to prospective candidates with a minimum of a bachelor's degree from an SAF-accredited college or university program. Professionals applying for this certification must also meet proficiency levels within a minimum of two forestry work experience areas. Other requirements are based upon the level of acquired professional experience and education of the applicant. Those with an advanced degree can receive credit toward the proficiency requirements in lieu of meeting the guidelines for work experience.

The Society of Range Management (SRM) also offers aspiring candidates the option of pursuing the Certified Professional in Rangeland Management credential. Application requirements include a bachelor's degree and 5 years of experience; applicants must also pass an examination and provide references.

Step 5: Earn a Graduate Degree

Although a master's degree or Ph.D. is not necessary for entry into most jobs in this field, some employers do prefer applicants with advanced degrees. Relevant master's and Ph.D. programs include forest ecology, plant physiology and biology. These programs often include research opportunities, field experiences and a thesis or dissertation. Possible research topics include conservation and management, fire science, environmental policy, historical studies and watershed ecology.

Step 6: Consider Leadership Positions

After acquiring advanced experience and education, forest ecologists may wish to shift the majority of their focus from fieldwork to management. Since these roles require making decisions and implementing plans, more time is spent working with others in office environments. Specialists, such as soil conservationists, may also choose to branch out to related careers that utilize their specific skill set.

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