OK, you’ve decided that you want to save the world. Or at least you’re thinking about it! Wahoo! The planet needs you.
But where do you begin?
Some of you may already know exactly what you want to do, and that’s awesome! If you don’t know where you’re headed yet, its okay! One step at a time. We’ll get you there.
I’ve been in this field for nearly twelve years (does that make me old?), so I’ve been through the ringer. Save yourself some time (and a headache or seven) and work through these five steps before making any school commitments. You can thank me later. ; )
Step 1: Find your direction.
This may seem like a no brainer, but the best thing you can do for yourself is first figure out exactly which direction you want to go. This is really important and will help you in the long run. Jobs are quite competitive, so the more specialized your training, the more likely you are to get hired.
You probably already know which subjects interest you the most. For instance, my favorite subjects are marine science and endangered species conservation. Those may seem like pretty specific topics, but there are actually a lot of different directions I could go with either of those.
That brings me to the four “categories” of work you could pursue with your particular interest.
The majority of careers in the environmental/conservation field fall into four broad categories: Education, Animal Care, Research/Monitoring, and Business/Admin. We’ll go through each to figure out which one you’re most drawn to.
Education isn’t just limited to a classroom. Educators often work with organizations giving daily group presentations or tours of facilities.
“Environmental education increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues or problems. In doing so, it provides the public with the necessary skills to make informed decisions and take responsible action.” –EPA
Outreach is also a huge part of the education category.
“Community outreach coordinators implement programs that educate the public about a particular organization, issue, or cause. They often serve as liaisons between a community and academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies.” –BCO
In general, you should:
- Love working with people of all ages, especially kids.
- Be comfortable speaking to audiences of all sizes.
- Be really excited about the subject to keep everyone engaged.
- Love teaching, of course!
This includes work in veterinary settings (especially in rescue, rehab and release organizations), and animal husbandry in (reputable!) zoos and aquariums.
In general, you should:
- Love working with animals (even if they don’t like working with you). 😉
- Be physically fit and love being on your feet for the majority of the day.
- Not mind scooping poop and cleaning for a large part of the day.
- Accept that you will have to sometimes have to make hard decisions.
This includes collecting data in the field or in a lab (if you pursue a BS or MS), and conducting your own research (if you pursue a PhD). You may also be responsible for tasks including environmental monitoring, report writing, and permitting, among other things.
In general, you should:
- Be detail-oriented, observant, and organized.
- Not mind repetition. Lots and lots of repetition.
- Be physically fit and love being outside for long hours in uncomfortable conditions (if you work in the field).
- Love being inside in a lab all day (if you work in a lab).
This includes working for environmental/animal welfare organizations in a marketing, fundraising, media, or leadership role. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, developing a business that can contribute resources or donations to an organization close to your heart.
In general, you should:
- Be detail-oriented and organized.
- Be self-motivated.
- Love working with people.
- Be willing to think outside the box for the organization.
This is not an exhaustive list, but a broad overview.
Do any of those sound like something you’d like, or at least something you might want to look into further?
If yes, awesome! You now have an idea of the direction you want to go. This leads us to:
Step 2: Browse jobs in that category.
Spend a fair amount of time on this. Every organization is different, so no two jobs (even with the same title) will be the same. Start looking around online to get a general idea of what the requirements are and what would be expected of you on a day-to-day basis.
Some of the best websites to look at for job placements are:
Here are some job titles and keywords you can search for under each category.
- Environmental Educator
- Environmental Education
- Science Educator
- Outreach Coordinator
- Director of Education
- Veterinary Assistant
- Veterinary Technician
- Wildlife Rehabilitation
- Wildlife Veterinary
- Animal Caretaker
- Animal Husbandry
- Wildlife Veterinarian
- Biology Research Assistant
- GPS Technician
- Biology Field Technician
- Wildlife Field Technician
- Research Scientist
- Environmental Scientist or Technician
- Wildlife Management
- Wildlife Volunteer Coordinator
- Wildlife Marketing
- Wildlife Executive Director
- Wildlife Fundraising
- Wildlife Communications
- Wildlife Media
It may take some digging, so put those patience pants on.
If you find that the jobs you’re searching for sound like something you would love to commit to, you can then move on to Step 3, wahoo!
Step 3: Job shadow and/or volunteer.
This is where you’re really going to figure out if you what you want want to pursue is a good fit for you. You’ve got to try it on for size first! (You can read my post about why you absolutely must volunteer here.)
Are there any local organizations that you could reach out to? Usually you can find something through google. The organizations don’t have to be focused exactly on what you want career-wise, but it should be in the same general area. For instance, you may want to work in a rehab/rescue organization for marine mammals, but if you live in the midwest, you’re lacking an ocean. Instead, you could reach out to a zoo or aquarium Vet or a local rescue/rehab center for wildlife. Think outside the box!
Simply reach out and tell them that you’re interested in pursuing their type of work and would love to shadow for a day or two. If they have a volunteer program, ask how to get started.
Doing the work (or seeing it firsthand) is the only way to really know if it’s right for you. You want to figure this out before investing in school!
Once you’ve put in the work and decided that, “Yes! This is my calling, hallelujah!” you can move on to Step 4. 😉
Step 4: Start looking at schools.
Start looking at schools. For the sake of your current and future bank account, I highly suggest looking in-state. Even better, spend the first one or two years at a community college getting through your general education requirements, then transfer. This will save you so much money.
Once you’ve found a handful of schools, visit the campus if you can to talk to students and professors within the department you want to apply to. This will also give you a chance to see if the campus feels right for you.
Step 5: Apply!
It’s time to apply, wahoo! It’s recommended that you apply to a handful of schools, because most of us won’t get accepted to every single one we apply to. Once you’re in, it’s really important that you continue to volunteer and network. Every job in this field requires experience, and volunteer or intern positions generally count towards that.