How does finding a biology job work?
June 8, 2013 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I really love biology, especially ecology and conservation. I don't want to go straight into grad school, and I don't daydream about being a professor or teacher. What can I do between now and May 2014 to make myself a competitive job applicant? What jobs are available and realistic? Where can I find them? No one in my family is a scientist, so I have no idea what I'm doing.

I will be graduating from college with a BA in biology in May 2014. I have a 3.6ish GPA. I've had lecture-based coursework in animal behavior, plant physiology, genetics, and developmental bio. I've also taken a couple of intro computer science classes, if that's relevant. In terms of lab work, I took an experiments in ecology course (we worked with honeybees, Capitella teleta, and plants) and I'm in a recombinant DNA tech course right now (pouring plates, doing restriction reactions and ligations, running gels, doing PCR, etc.). I also got to go to my college's research station in the Bahamas and follow around a grad student one day while she did a research project on birds there. I was also an intro bio lab TA for a semester, if that's relevant. I don't have any experience other than that, but I've really enjoyed what I've had the opportunity to do.

I haven't been able to do any internships, because I've had to catch up on credits during the summer (I had a medical issue starting mid-freshman year that is now resolved, but interfered with classes and actually doing stuff). Lab jobs mostly go to undergraduates on work-study, but I'm not on work-study. I emailed a few of the professors I've taken classes with to see if they take volunteers in their labs, but they don't. My advisor wasn't really helpful when I asked her how I could find research opportunities during school or job/internship opportunities for after graduation. She's also leaving on sabbatical starting in the fall, so I have to start over with a new adviser.

I really like working with DNA and E. coli in the lab, but I like working with animals and doing fieldwork way more. I'm also really interested in conservation. Collecting data on birds' behavior or migratory patterns! On honeybees! On marine wildlife! On the impact of pollution on breeding sites! I want to do stuff like that some day.

What can I do between now and May 2014 to make myself a competitive job applicant? How do I find jobs/internships in ecological research or conservation? What jobs are available and realistic for someone with my nonexistent qualifications? I am in Massachusetts in the Boston area, and I don't have a car, if that's relevant. I grew up in (and my folks live in) the mid-Atlantic.

I am okay with living anywhere and being paid anything after graduation, as long as I'm working at a biology-related job. I will go and talk to Career Services as well; I was just hoping AskMe could give me a head start. Thank you in advance.
posted by topoisomerase to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You want the ecolog-g listserv. Lots of openings for fieldwork jobs, and a great way to get a feel for what else is out there.
posted by momus_window at 1:28 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

My first job after getting my BS in Biology was with the sewage treatment plants conglomerate of a large city. After treatment and before discharge a lot of tests are performed on the water to determine purity, from checking the suspended solids to salinity, BOD and DOD, chlorophyll to name a few.
The health of the settling tanks is checked by microscope analysis of the number and types of unicellular organisms present, perfect job for a biologist. I could have spent hours looking at the Vorticellae and Paramecia.
My favorite parts were the detective work needed to catch various business dumping bad stuff in the sewer system and the monitoring of the area around the discharge plumes. My totally nerd self found that looking at the Foraminifera was the life!
posted by francesca too at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2013

GIS and GPS skills are nearly a must for many ecology/conservation jobs nowadays. It's definitely something we look for in positions in my own org.
posted by buttercup at 2:06 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Conservation and field ecology jobs are under supplied, significantly, relative to the size of the applicant pool. There's a skills shortage, sure, but not an applicant shortage. There are also very limited funds available. The interaction between these two things means a) they're both really risk averse fields, and won't hire on the off chance, and b) they're both really nepotistic, despite being full of egalitarian beliefs usually. So - sadly - you need to get those skills and volunteer to use them, so you can build up the network to get you into the paid and contracted jobs. Biology skills aren't limited in supply; GIS, legal, soft skills and effective grassroots organisation skills are, and are improved in conjunction with understanding the biology. So - get a bar job whilst you take the Coursera or Kahn Academy route to GIS, app development or whatever, then start finding env/conserv non-profits that will take free interns. Youth , Internet savvy and being near big coastal cities are both on your side for this.
posted by cromagnon at 3:59 PM on June 8, 2013

Eco-log was my first suggestion. Woods Hole was my second (it seems like several Woods Hole jobs were posted on Eco-log in the past couple weeks).

My third suggestion is to apply to Peace Corps and/or a state conservation corps program after graduation. I know several people who got into conservation work by spending two years doing agroforestry in Africa through Peace Corps. It's a big commitment and hard to get into, but is a great route to doing what you want to be doing and ultimately sets you up well for the career your interested in.

For Americorps, you don't want NCCC or another sort of generic "service" program. You want an on the ground, hands dirty conservation program which will give you boatloads of experience and training in the field. I am an alum of the Maryland Conservation Corps and recommend that program highly, but many states have similar programs. The Student Conservation Association is an especially good one with more chances to work on research in national parks rather than planting trees in state parks.

For me, other than the skills and experience gained, the biggest outcome of my service year was realizing that I couldn't spend the rest of my life doing that kind of work and that my passion really lay in doing ecological research, which led me to a master's program and then to a PhD.

Oh, and then there's NOAA Corps, which I've always secretly wished I had given a shot.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:36 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The federal government at will have tons of jobs you can apply for. Look early and often. Read up on resumes for federal government jobs, it's very different than private sector.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 PM on June 8, 2013

Get your CLinical Lab Science (or Medical Technology) degree (usually 1 or 2 years) and then you can be a clinical lab scientist or medical technologist at a hospital or other labs (such as government or research). Look it up on (and the forums). They are in demand and pay decently.
posted by eq21 at 6:50 PM on June 8, 2013

I've been you! Places to look for jobs while you're relatively unskilled: nature centers and land trusts. Many offer short-term positions or paid internships that will give you really good skills and connections (and, if nothing else, will help you learn what direction you want to go in). Those sorts of places are always looking for volunteers, if you have time now. GIS skills are great, if you can get a class on that before you graduate. A lot of my bio major friends ended up doing field jobs for state conservation programs after college (Missouri Department of Conservation, for example). You can string together field jobs for a while and see some great parts of the country. PhD students in conservation programs sometimes hire research assistants; if you're at a university, look into that. For what it's worth, I ended up getting a masters (in GIS) because there aren't a lot of great paying jobs out there. I took 3 years between college and grad school working at nature centers to figure out what I was really interested in. Good luck!
posted by Empidonax at 5:54 PM on June 9, 2013

When you say "Boston area" does that mean you can get in to Boston on a regular basis? You could apply to volunteer at the Aquarium or the Museum of Science. The hands-on, fun jobs are pretty competitive but it doesn't hurt to send in an application and get your foot in the door.

Is there any kind of "independent research project" class available to you? That would be a great way for you to get some credits and some lab experience. If there's any professor you've really connected with, talk to him/her about what you want to do, even if you don't have a formal advisor/advisee relationship. Also find out whether it's possible to do research at another institution, if no one at your school wants another undergrad in the lab. SOMEONE in the Boston area is doing research you're interested in.

When you say you emailed professors to ask if they took volunteers in their labs, did you just say, "Do you take volunteers in your lab?" Or did you say, "I'm really interested in your work with W. blablabla and environmental neurotoxins. Are there any openings for undergraduate research in your lab? I've taken [lab courses] and can do [skills]."

If you really can't get in the lab, take as many small, discussion-based classes as you can, and really get to know at least a couple of professors. If you can click with these people they will give you leads on jobs and provide you with references.

At the end of the day, though, if you're smart and have some lab skills you have a decent chance of finding *some kind* of research assistant/lab technician job (so long as you are willing to work for a really, really shockingly small amount of money - but it's still cheaper than paying for classes).
posted by mskyle at 7:52 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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