So I want to be a tree hugging scientist...
October 27, 2011 7:20 AM   Subscribe

What skills should I be developing while in university as to work as an ecologist, environmental scientist, something similar in the future?

I'm currently an undergraduate in university studying environmental science and arctic studies, and will hopefully be heading to graduate school in a couple years for a MSc. After that, I would like to work in environmental science, either in research, management or consulting. I've always thought of the value of university as the skill sets and opportunities it brings to develop yourself both personally and for a future career, rather than just a degree. I have been fortunate to be able to a decent amount of work and research experience through working as a research assistant on a number of Arctic research projects.

With that in mind, I want to keep building skills I will need when I am finished school and starting to work. Currently, I'm doing GIS courses on the side, working on general soft skills (public speaking, organizing events, teamwork, etc) and trying to get as much field experience as I can. I also would like to improve my writing skills as well.

Any suggestions on other things I should be thinking of working on? Do you have any recommendations on skills you wished you had developed earlier? Or useful skills to have as an ecologist?
posted by snowysoul to Education (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not an ecologist, but I'm in an EEB program and many of my friends and colleagues are ecologists.

It sounds like you're doing great.

The one quality you don't mention (which doesn't mean you don't have it) is a tolerance for failure; donkey-butted stubbornness and the ability and willingness to get up again when an experiment fails. The way you present yourself, you're already pretty successful at an early point in your career. Ecology is a field where no matter how great you are, sometimes, the damn things don't grow, your collaborators screw up, record floods destroy your field site and a season's work is wasted.

While people joke about "perfectionism" being a "good bad trait", it can be hell on an ecologist. So if you have tendencies that way now might be a good time to examine it.
posted by endless_forms at 7:41 AM on October 27, 2011


There are a couple things that I think are available to you as an undergrad (you may already have some of these things under "research assistant/projects"):

* Get your name on an article that will be published in a (insert name of environmental science) journal; this should help for grad school and if you go into consulting or research. If you don't have this opportunity now, get involved in a lab that does (talk to the PIs before you get into the lab - what have their past and current undergrads done in the lab/look for ones that have their students listed on papers and offer the opportunity to present at conferences).

* Present some of these research findings on a poster at a conference (same as above).

* See if there is a journal club for your niche area (it may be for grad students or the deparatment, but go). Listen to what is hot in your field and perhaps present a paper.

*Tell your PI that you really, really want to write -- so can you write a section of a paper (methods?), or part of a grant?

*Are there grants that you are eligible for as an undergrad? Apply for them (fingers crossed/get some). There are consulting areas to write grants and if you can land your own funding, learn the system.

*Do an internship with an environmental consulting company.

*I would start doing info interviews now (not retyping this, but here is one way you can approach pple here), mainly with consultants and people at consulting companies. You want to find out is "hot"in your field, now and in the future. Take those courses, get those experiences. Ask those people what else you can do and in the next few years to become a great consultant.

*Or if it is research you are mainly interested in, then pick up some of the recently published articles by your profs and go during an office hour and talk with them about it (unanswered questions).

*Are you planning to be a consultant on your own? Look around into small business classes, learn about marketing, how to read contracts...see if your school has small business incubators and talk to people doing this..definitely get a job working for someone else as a consultant, too)
posted by Wolfster at 7:42 AM on October 27, 2011


When I was in a similar boat, I spent a summer doing a Student Conservation Association internship in the wildlife management department of one of our national forests. I learned a ton (including that conservation biology was not the right career for me), just from being around people who were in the field.

Little stuff like how to pick a good pair of hiking boots for field work, how to set up a fur-catching trap to check for the presence of various wildlife, how to use a radio-collar tracking device.

Big stuff like the Forest Service's attitude about conservation vs. management.

Career stuff like the fact that the only full-time, year-round conservation employee mostly stayed in the office doing computer work, while the people who got to go outside and DO stuff were only employed for part of each year.

So my recommendation would be to keep up with the field work, and aim for a setting (government vs. nonprofit vs. corporate, region of the planet, etc.) as close as possible to what you actually want to be doing so you can learn what it's really like.

Also, keep up your physical fitness, don't quit the GIS courses, and consider trying to get some experience with grant writing.
posted by vytae at 7:44 AM on October 27, 2011


Any undergrad doing something vaguely science-ey or even social-science-ey just can't go wrong with more stats and more programming skills.

hopefully be heading to graduate school in a couple years for a MSc

Maybe things are different in Norway, but if you were in the US I'd suggest going into a PhD program because of the differences in funding. Give it an honest shot; you can always back out after your MSc if needs be.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:14 AM on October 27, 2011


I'm an ecology grad student. Working on GIS skills is great (and something I need to do!). Statistics and programming are the other things I wish I'd had more experience with before coming to grad school. Especially statistics. Statistics statistics statistics.
posted by pemberkins at 8:49 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Statistics.

Contacts and knowing where to look for a good school are certainly important. Living in Norway, you are blessed with several excellent choices. If you specifically want to do environmental Arctic work in Norway (or anywhere in Europe), you almost certainly have to look at UNIS. They're world-renowned for Arctic ecological research. Looking for an association (summer job, work term etc...) with SINTEF would not hurt either---they do a lot of work, perhaps the majority of the work in Norway on Arctic ecology and risk assessment.

Don't forget your stats.

For field work, don't neglect you lab courses. Whether biology, biochem, chem or geoology, a strong background in lab work will pay-off in the long run. Getting field work terms is good, but knowing your basic lab techniques is something some students often skim on, to their later regret. The best researchers/consultants are those who know their basics well.

Also, it would be a good idea to learn as much about statistics and statistical tools as you can.

I'd echo the sentiment to look at a Ph.D. rather than a terminal Masters if you intention is public or private secor research. There's no real point to doing a Masters, if your eventual intention is a doctorate. There are programs now that allow enrolling in grad school for an inital year, then deciding which terminal degree you want at the end. I did my doctorate that way and have never regretted it. Indeed, I saved two years or so that way.

Finally, be sure not to neglect your stats education.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'll second GIS skills, only its not just "great", it's imperative. (Full disclosure, I do GIS for a living at an environmental firm.)

Here's why. At its core. GIS is a spatial database, but its also all about data collection. Or processing said data. I submit that you really really need to know the process from field data collection to GIS and final product to fully understand how to manage that. GIGO is the key here.
posted by elendil71 at 9:12 AM on October 27, 2011


Thanks for all the great answers so far. Opps! I should mention that I'm actually Canadian attending school in Ontario and studying abroad in Norway for the next year (hence my location in my profile). I intend to return to Canada for a graduate degree once I am finished here.
posted by snowysoul at 9:18 AM on October 27, 2011


Ecology and environmental science are wildly different fields, at least in the US. I'm an applied ecologist with a research background and an environmental scientist would not be qualified to do my job nor I theirs. I do the interactions of habitat and critters, basically. I'm part hydrologist/ geomorphologist, I restore habitats, I have a passable knowledge of civil and hydraulic engineering. I model & use things like non-parametric statistics. I have a strong math background (critical for ecology). I also run a small research program, write grants, do lots of field work, have technicians that work for me & I write papers. I work by myself a lot.

The environmental scientists I know are involved primarily in permitting, water and air quality, land use or policy. They typically do not have a research background and are a lot more involved in infrastructure and the interactions of people and things. They don't publish. They have a really broad background with more chemistry and policy than I do, a lot of them could probably cross qualify as biochemists. Those people tend to do things like pesticide regulation or brownfield remediation. Some of them that are in water quality or quantity fields also know hydrology and modeling, although they tend not to use it at work. They don't do much fieldwork (experiments in the field) but they may do a lot of data collection and lab work.

Then there are a huge chunk that are involved primarily in land use policy, regulations, permitting etc. that tend to have a broad shallow knowledge base, rather than specializing. Most of those folks do very little fieldwork and quite a few that I know have no field experience at all. There are a lot of people like this in the marine policy field fro example, that have never worked on a research vessel. A lot of them have BAs and MScs, whereas most ecologists have BS, MS or PhDs. These folks work with people a lot.

Ecology: math and science based field where people typically choose a specialty area and work in it most of their career. Lots of academics & government jobs both in research and applied fields. Consulting is mostly doing required research studies for large corporations. Some non profit work at large organizations but it's not really a great environment for a working scientist.

Environment science: very broad field, most people don't specialize much and less of a science/ math background. More people with BAs and more people who intend to go into policy and want a "science background". Those who work in the field tend to work on human/ nature interactions very specifically: pollution, agricultural impacts, wastewater treatments, sediment control. Not much academia, some government jobs in regulatory and permitting, a lot of private sector doing things like overseeing construction, acquiring permits for construction/ development, soil and water testing. A lot of non profit jobs doing a bit of everything.

Hope that helps.
posted by fshgrl at 9:18 AM on October 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


As a sustainability consultant (with an MBA) surrounded by lots of environmental MSc's, here a few observations...

Where MSc's excel:
– Research capabilities
– Accuracy of results/thoroughness
– Defining specific problems
– Adventurousness/passion for work

Where MSc's generally fall down:
– Budgeting/financial management
– Sales/Grant-writing
– Defining specific problems in a larger context
– Respecting and understanding experts from business/social backgrounds

As mentioned, these skills will help you to process raw data quickly and come up with novel insights:
– Programming
– Statistics
– Systems theory

These skills will help you put your conclusions in context and communicate them
– Political science/public policy
– Journalistic writing
– Economics/finance
– Multimedia (photography, for instance)

We see a huge need for practical scientists, that can both understand the data at a fundamental and qualified level, and then carry that into actionable plans in public policy and business. At this point, the basic research is being carried out, however, there needs to be a bridge into 'what now?' It's a difficult thing to get the latter right without corrupting the former.

This programme puts them together pretty well and their graduates go on to do great things: http://erb.umich.edu/education-programs/mbams/

Finally, it is really nice when ecologist take serious viewpoints and focus on deepening and enriching that subject. For instance, what is the air quality effect of green roofs in densely populated urban environments? Or how do disruptions in migratory sea bird populations affect dynamics of local fisheries.

If you want to chat further, happy to do so. Holler at me dog.
posted by nickrussell at 9:22 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


My local professional organizations try to reach out to undergrads by offering free memberships and poster opportunities. See if you can get involved, as it helps to a) practice poster / presentation skills, and b) see what people are doing out there in the wide world of environmental science.

Also, nthing statistics. And skill that make excel jump through hoops and roll over when you press a button.
posted by ldthomps at 10:15 AM on October 27, 2011


Ecology and environmental science are wildly different fields, at least in the US. ... I do the interactions of habitat and critters, basically.

True! But, with respect, I think this is changing somewhat as the field of environmental science matures. My experience (as an environmental sciences major with an emphasis in ecology and a minor in soil science) is that many "old-school" ecologists are lacking a deep, coherent background in the "habitat" part. I have seen many ecologists entirely black-box abiotic stuff that is outside of their training, especially whenever soils are involved (many still think soil science is the sole province of agriculture). This is unfortunate, and I am thankful that both fields are becoming more multidisciplinary and collaborative so that these fields of knowledge will no longer be so isolated from one another.

If you (like many environmental scientists) enjoy investigating the complex feedbacks between biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, you might like the scale of ecosystem or landscape ecology (sometimes AKA biogeography), in which case GIS and statistics and modeling are all very, very important, and your background in natural physical sciences will be extremely welcome. If you like the GIS coursework, teach yourself python scripting in ArcGIS. Take a few soil science courses too, if you can swing it (soil classification & geomorphology are especially useful, especially with respect to landscape ecology and the ways that the vegetative community affects pedogenesis). Even if most ecologists are coming from a botany, zoology, or biology perspective, your strong physical science background will still be super handy in larger-scale ecology - possibly even more so since your skill set will be relatively less common within the field. Environmental science is no longer just for those who want to do private consulting, I promise! It's an important multidisciplinary field that has a lot to offer to previously-segregated areas of natural science.
posted by dialetheia at 10:54 AM on October 27, 2011


If you want to be in conservation, you're going to have to take some economics courses.
posted by one_bean at 1:02 PM on October 27, 2011


I intend to return to Canada for a graduate degree once I am finished here.

You should talk to people in the field at your Canadian school when you get back. My immediate sense is that for most fields, there's not any good reason why you should not apply to US schools as well, or possibly even more broadly than that. Especially not if you end up shopping for PhD programs instead of master's programs, as I think you ought.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:23 PM on October 27, 2011


These are all great answers!

I am working as an environmental geophysicist in the Arctic and I would agree most with Wolfster about trying to work with a PI on an project that interests you. My best career move was when I approached a professor whose work interested me and told him I would love to help on any field work or anything to gain experience.
posted by JayNolan at 1:54 PM on October 27, 2011


Howdy, I am an ecologist. If I were advising you for skills to acquire that would be helpful both within and outside academia, here is what I would suggest:

Learn statistics. Take a series of classes that will build up your skill set from basic to advanced. Also learn statistical programming in R. These two alone will make you infinitely marketable in the ecological world. I find it sad and sometimes appalling that incoming grad students (many with masters degrees) have a very poor grasp of basic statistical concepts.

Leaning GIS will go a long way in environmental consulting. It is also useful for basic ecological work but unless it is integral to your research, it is not all that important to learn right away. For some projects, a limited intro would be sufficient and in academia it is also possible to get one or more collaborators to take care of the GIS part.

Finally, learn scientific writing. Take a class if possible. Someone who can write, manage data, and do statistics would make for a great hire.
posted by babbyʼ); Drop table users; -- at 3:16 PM on October 27, 2011


Btw to get that all important first job the skills you need are more like: be able to run a boat, a chainsaw, a snow machine and a 4 wheeler and how to fix them. Take Wilderness first aid, scuba etc through school if you can (super expensive otherwise). Physical fitness is important. Do things to show you can live and work with others in a small space under primitive conditions for extended periods- trail building crews are one way to do this. Know what a dichotomous key is and how to use one. Be able to ID something well: fish, trees, rocks, whatever. That's the entry level stuff thru don't teach you in school.

I'd hold off on a serious investment in GIS until you need it because it is evolving so fast. I learned how to program as an undergrad which was a complete waste of time, its all windows based now. I also know MapInfo really well, which has give the way of WordPerfect.
posted by fshgrl at 5:53 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd hold off on a serious investment in GIS until you need it because it is evolving so fast.

This is my feeling too. GIS is changing so fast right now that it's hard to even tell you what to study: "normal" db-backed? Web-based? etc... Get a good grounding in the theory and structure of GIS, but don't sweat specifics. Every employer will have their own customized system. Sweat learning that when you're hired.
posted by bonehead at 5:59 AM on October 28, 2011


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