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Ecology Career Options and Requirements

Dec 09, 2019

Ecologists study the relationships between living organisms and their habitat. They examine the environment and provide information on how to use the planet's resources in a healthy and effective manner. There are many types of ecologists, such as environmental scientists, environmental engineers, zoologists, conservation scientists and foresters, environmental chemists, and more. The table below offers a summary of some of the career options of an ecologist, including their education requirements, salary and projected growth.

Career Environmental Scientist Environmental Engineer Conservation Scientist and Forester Zoologist and Wildlife Biologist
Required Education Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree
Other Requirements Doctorate degree for researchers and postsecondary teachers Graduate degree for postsecondary educators License required in some states Master's degree for high-level scientific work and doctorate degree for independent researchers
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 8% 5% 3% 5%
Median Salary (2018)* $71,130 $87,620 $61,310 $63,420

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Careers in Ecology

Environmental Scientists

Environmental scientists collect samples from land, air and water, and analyze the samples to identify environmental threats and develop solutions for them. The threats can be related to the natural environment, such as contaminated water or land, or building projects that pose a danger to the environment. In the case of the latter, environmental scientists work with their state governments to ensure that proper regulations are followed during construction projects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary of an environmental scientist is $71,130 in 2018, with the profession expected to grow at eight percent in the period 2018-2028.

Environmental Engineers

Environmental engineers conduct studies on environmental hazards and offer advice on how to contain or eradicate them. They design systems for water supplies and wastewater treatment and examine the viability of construction projects. Environmental engineers also look at wider areas of research such as climate change and ozone depletion. Additionally, they work closely with other professionals such as hazardous-waste technicians, environmental scientists, lawyers and businessmen, to find solutions for environmental issues. As per the BLS in 2018, the median annual salary of an environmental engineer is $87,620 and the profession is expected to grow at five percent in the period 2018-2028.

Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Conservation scientists work with landowners and local, state and federal governments to safeguard and improve the land while conserving the environment. They advise farmers on the best practices to improve the soil for agriculture and provide methods to control erosion. Further, they closely monitor forest-cleared land to make sure that they are suitable for future use. Foresters supervise the activities of conservation and forest workers. They oversee the harvesting of trees, develop plans to restore forested lands and monitor their progress. Further, they protect the forests by keeping them free of diseases and wildfires. According to the BLS, conservation scientists and foresters earned a median annual salary of $61,340 in 2018 and their profession is projected to grow at three percent between 2018 and 2028.

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists conduct scientific investigations on animals in the wild or in a controlled environment to gather information on their behavior, origin, nutritional levels and diseases. While the terms zoologist and wildlife biologist are often used interchangeably (the two do have a lot in common), there are subtle differences. Typically, zoologists research specific types of animals, such as land mammals or aquatic creatures. Wildlife biologists, on the other hand, study wildlife ecosystems and work to conserve animal populations, especially endangered species. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for zoologists and wildlife biologists is $63,420 in 2018 and the careers are projected to grow at five percent in the period 2018-2028.

Ecologist Educational Requirements

To become an ecologist, you typically need to complete a four-year bachelor's degree in the field of your choice or something related. For example, those aspiring to become environmental scientists may earn a major in environmental science or a closely related subject like biology. Similarly, zoologists and wildlife biologists can either opt for an undergraduate degree in zoology or try for an ecology degree. While most of the coursework is unique to each field, you will find some common topics across the board, such as natural sciences like biology, chemistry, statistics and calculus.

Many environmental science programs offer students the chance to gain valuable experience through an internship. Programs for prospective conservationists, foresters, zoologists and wildlife biologists will familiarize the students with the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and other modeling software, which they will have to use frequently once they embark on their careers. As for prospective environmental engineers, it is advisable to seek out a program approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), as you would typically need such a degree to be licensed.

A bachelor's degree in any one of the several fields of ecology is mandatory for those seeking a career as an ecologist. For individuals interested in high-level scientific work or a career as an independent researcher or postsecondary educator, a master's or Ph.D. degree may be required.

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