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A Day in the Life of a Ecologist

Ecologists examine the relationship between the environment and actions that affect it, including rainfall, pollution, temperature shifts, and industrialization. The vision of an ecologist as a bearded, outdoorsy, mountain-man standing on a pile of litter is based on about 1 out of 100 of all ecologists. “We’re not all Grizzly Adams!” wrote one ecological scientist, and she is right; the most accurate picture of an ecologist would be in a lab coat or poring through volumes of collected data. Some ecologists work for not-for-profit environmental groups; others work for large corporations or the government. Ecologists work with scientific and mathematical models to analyze and interpret correlations between actions and effects on the environment, which translates into significant time looking at data. “You’ve got be able to find the assumptions which underlie every study or you’re history,” mentioned one ecologist. Over 40 percent of those we surveyed used the phrase “keen analytic mind” to describe a trait of the most successful members of their profession. Some fieldwork is required-at the most, three to six months per year, but more often two to four weeks per year. Those who enter the profession with strong academic training in the issues presented have no difficulty; over 80 percent of environmental science majors who enter the field stay ecologists for at least five years. For those who come to the career through other routes, the path is less certain: Only 55 percent remain in the profession after five years. People with strong essay-writing and report-writing skills last longer than those without them. “I had to learn to think all over again, and once I had done that, I had to learn how to write all over again,” said one professional. A solid majority of respondents ranked writing the second or third most important skill in this profession. An ecologist can make a difference in how the general population treats the environment with rigorous scientific research and presentation of their ideas in well-written reports and articles which educate others. One ecologist described her colleagues as “smart people who love looking at big systems and, if possible, saving them.” Many researchers review others’ articles and papers before they are sent out to publishers. The sense of community often sustains ecologists in their careers when little, if anything, is done with their recommendations. Aspiring ecologists should be aware of the institutional difficulties in making any headway against environmental degradation: This sense of frustration can be significant for those entering this profession.

Paying Your Dues

Most ecologists are scientists with backgrounds in chemistry, environmental science, geology, biology, climatology, statistics and, in many cases, economics. The depth of knowledge in each field determines the specialty area each candidate works in; a master’s degree in a science or ecology itself is becoming more and more common as the minimum requirement. Nearly all aspiring ecologists are expected to have some field experience.

Present and Future

Ecological issues came to the forefront during the industrialization of Europe. Coal, the main fuel, had blackened the sky of many heretofore pristine countries, contributing to public health problems. Unsafe mining practices led to the contamination of otherwise arable land. In the U.S., ecology became a public issue in the early 1970s. In the early 1990s, recycling bins appeared in almost every home and office. Ecology is one of the fastest growing professions surveyed in this book. Ecological concerns across the globe are becoming more widespread, giving rise to the need for more experts. The number of impact studies made by private employers, governments, and developers who need global ecological information is expected to double over the next twenty years. Opportunities are emerging which will make the profession more visible, significant, and rewarding.

Quality of Life


Ecologists have done field research, collected and assembled data, and produced reports. All of their work is supervised, and many are assigned to specific tasks by senior ecologists. Nonscience majors spend these early years learning about ecological science topics, while science majors brush up on their writing skills. Hours are average but satisfaction (particularly among science-friendly personnel) is high. Wages are low.


Ecologists are promoted from assistants to associate ecologists, a position which has greater responsibility for data collection, report presentation, and supervising junior ecologists in their daily tasks. Many pursue advanced degrees in materials science, chemistry, ecology, and economics. Satisfaction is average; those unsuited to the lifestyle leave between years four and nine.


Ten-year ecologists direct research, allocate funds, and manage personnel. They are involved in independent research and publishing and lecturing. Those who teach classes begin to do so during these years. Fieldwork drops significantly after year six in the profession. Many professionals become involved in high-profile debates on the effect of certain behaviors on the environment.