How to work for the National Parks
July 7, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm sick of my cubicle - I need advice on how to go about obtaining a career in a National Park. What degree is most useful? Where do I start?

After 12 years working for The Man, I'm over it & want out. Outside, that is. I'd like to start taking evening classes toward a degree that will help me work for the U.S. National Parks. What should my concentration be? And what's the best way to get a job in the parks?
posted by Alpenglow to Work & Money (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My university offered a bachelor's degree in Outdoor Recreation. Most of the students in that program wanted to work at state or national parks. It was basically a degree in camping, if you ask me. LOL.

This is the webpage for the degree. Maybe this will give you a place to start in thinking about what kind of degree you want.
posted by at 7:03 AM on July 7, 2008

Other than the outdoor rec path, there is also natural resource management.
posted by k8t at 7:05 AM on July 7, 2008

It is now 20 years since I spent a summer as an intern at the Everglades courtesy of The Student Conservation Association. A reasonably large number of regular national park employees I spoke to had started via that route. For my part of got a chance to work with people running visitor centres as well as scientists and even law enforcement rangers.
posted by rongorongo at 7:17 AM on July 7, 2008

Working in a National Park is one of the jobs that I dream about from my cube (along with wildlife photographer). I'm hoping that some National Park workers chime in and tell us that it isn't all that great. Sorry Alpenglow ;) Mmmm... Sour grapes....
posted by diogenes at 7:20 AM on July 7, 2008

If you're trying to get in from the wildlife management angle, (macro)biology/zoology will be useful.

Forestry is another good one, but there aren't many schools (especially in the US) that have forestry programs.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:25 AM on July 7, 2008

Seconding the forestry degree - and if your profile is correct, there's a degree program in your state.
posted by dilettante at 7:35 AM on July 7, 2008

USA Jobs website is your best friend for Federal employment.

Don't limit your search to the Park Service. There are several Department of Interior bureaus that need people out in the field. Land Management, Reclamation (my employer), Indian Affairs, etc. all hire field guides, interpreters, caretakers, etc.

My personal advice for any Federal job: do not be intimidated by the list of requirements. If a job sounds interesting, and you think you can do it, apply for it. The worst that can happen is you don't get it. But I've had too many friends and relatives not apply for positions they wanted because, for example, they didn't think their computer skills met the requirements. Every job in my bureau requires proficiency with MS Office. So, how come the IT department offers basic MS Office training for employees on a regular basis?

Go for it, and do your best in the application process to get to the interview. And don't forget to include everything you have ever done, even volunteer or hobby work, in your list of experience.

Good luck!
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:36 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine with qualifications (environmental science degree) pursued this back in the 1990s, and quickly found it didn't at all live up to his expectations. Instead of being a public representative of SCIENCE! or natural stewardship, the job of park ranger in a park was basically law enforcement and they passed over him on a major national park for people with criminal science backgrounds.

My takeaway from his experience was that the job that we think of when we think of "park ranger" existed only up until the 1980s or so, then it shifted into basically being a cop at a park and busting people for breaking rules.
posted by mathowie at 7:52 AM on July 7, 2008

I'm told (by someone with a forestry degree) that positions at the National Park Service (the ones which involve running around in the great outdoors) are very very very competitive and do not pay that well, because the people who are applying basically like being outdoors all the time. Not to be a downer, but maybe something to keep in mind as you consider this.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:13 AM on July 7, 2008

mathowie is right in my experience. I worked at a state park (in Michigan) last summer, and our rangers pretty much only did law enforcement, with some random construction and maintenance duties thrown in here and there.
posted by at 8:15 AM on July 7, 2008

This is a while back, but I worked with a woman who was a seasonal park ranger. She had a degree in biology (I think - maybe it was botany?) and spent a few seasons as a back-country ranger at Yellowstone. She didn't expect to be hired as a full-time ranger for at least five years, and expected that her first few assignments would be at parks that were not as desirable, since she'd be at the bottom of the totem pole.
posted by rtha at 8:37 AM on July 7, 2008

An old professor of mine worked at Yellowstone as a bilingual tour guide, so learning a foreign language could be an option.
posted by nitsuj at 9:36 AM on July 7, 2008

I was never a park ranger, but I did work in a national park for about 6 months.

There are "law enforcement" rangers, which are, like mathowie said, basically cops, but there are also "interpretive" rangers. The interpretives are the people who lead nature walks and give presentation about the 30 kinds of native plants found in $parkname.

Fuzzy Skinner is right on about the USA Jobs website. I would add that one's resume & application needs to be extensive. Don't just say "Worked as laborer" or whatever, but explain every possible thing about that laborer job that might pertain to the job you're applying for. "Worked in small unsupervised groups to repair structures," "Used hand-tools to repair wooden structures," etc. Actually, most of the people I know that got jobs with the NPS paid professionals as much as a couple hundred bucks to create their resume and fill out their applications.

There also are jobs in parks that aren't "ranger" jobs, like maintenance workers & office workers, and finally, just remember that there is a great deal of diversity when it comes to the parks themselves. It's not all back-county woods, but there are National Seashores, Monuments, and lots of others.
posted by BeerFilter at 9:38 AM on July 7, 2008

Yes, NPS jobs are competitive, but there are ways to get them - don't give up. Volunteering/interning at the National Parks seems like one of the best. Many Park Service employees (including one superintendent I know) used to be volunteers. Not only is volunteering a good way to get your foot in the door, but it's a good way to see if you like the work. I was a natural resource science volunteer, but there were volunteers in lots of other divisions as well - the interpretation division (living history especially) seemed to have a lot of fun at the park I volunteered at. Yes, there are few "unspecialized" rangers anymore (I think they used to call them "ranger naturalists"?), but there's plenty of good stuff to do in the park service.
posted by paselkin at 9:44 AM on July 7, 2008

Yup, above posters are correct. NPS jobs tend to be hard to get, and the pay for rangers is not spectacular (never been crazy about the uniforms either, just as an aside). That said, why not go to some of your local National parks and talk to rangers and other park employees about their jobs and how they got them?

Note that there are a number of careers out there that are not desk jobs; the NPS is not your only option. Explore a University in your area with specialities along the lines of the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, for example, to see some of the options.

If you have any time, do some volunteer work at a park or other similar facility, to see if you like it. Most places always need volunteers, especially if you are willing to pitch in where needed.
posted by gudrun at 9:54 AM on July 7, 2008

Also don't forget about state parks and forests. In my state (Tennessee) we have an extensive state park system that not only does the typical "park" stuff but also has historic interpretations. If you want to combine outdoors, interpretation and academics, a public history program might suit your needs. If you're planning on staying in Georgia and do not absolutely detest the Civil War, I'm sure there's some good programs that can get you started or at least would have a volunteer program to get your feet wet. A number of my friends and fellow graduates have positions at state and national historic parks as a result of their public history degrees from here. If you want more information on the program, please memail me. It's a fairly inexpensive program and, in my opinion as a PhD candidate, is quite good.

As for actually getting a job, it's the same for any profession, get an internship while you are still in classes. Make those connections, volunteer, do anything you can to get experience in the field while still in school.
posted by teleri025 at 9:58 AM on July 7, 2008

I have a friend with a PhD in Ecology who runs a research program at a National Park. I am somewhat jealous, but in general, most of us ecologists, whether in academia, government, or consulting, get to spend a lot of time outside, and the rest of it in a lab, both of which are better than a cubicle.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2008

I'm currently working on my AAS degree in Natural Resource Technology; the AAS will get me hired, even without going on to get a Bachelors, although obviously a Bachelors+ extends my opportunities.

'Park Ranger' is only one of many parks jobs available, and the NPS is a small segment of the different park systems available. Additionally, there are several levels of Park Ranger, one of which is LE (law enforcement) - and some parks call all of their people 'rangers' just to confuse the issue. I am not sure about your location, but I know in Colorado the LE component shifts the type of education requirements you'll need (obviously to a heavy law enforcement one); you'll have to check the requirements of your state, or the requirements of the National Park you're hankering for.

If you want to work for Parks, you are not going to get rich. Often, entry level Parks jobs are seasonal/temporary, offer no benefits, and it is possible to not be offered full-time, permanent position for years, if ever. The competition for permanent State and National Park positions is stiff.

If you are simply wanting a outdoor/recreational/educational setting, your horizons expand considerably. The NPS is one route; state, county and city parks are also available to you. If you'd like to broaden the outdoor possibilities, consider nature centers, the eco-tourism industry, outdoor adventure industry, interpretive guide certification, and more.

This link gives a quick list of enviro education programs in your state. You should also look at NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School) as an industry standard, and explore other national certification options such as NAI (National Association for Interpretation) to develop an idea of the scope of the outdoor industry, and for ideas of ways to get your foot in the door.

A step that can do absolutely no wrong is volunteering with the park of your choice, both for relevant experience and resume fodder.

Good luck in your search.
posted by faineant at 2:39 PM on July 7, 2008

And hey... keep this in mind: any job has the good stuff and the crappy stuff. I love the part of my job where I get to do my job (graphic design). But then there's a lot of time in meetings, and doing paperwork, and doing other projects that our office takes on that are boring.

The same will be true in a park job. But is it better to have, say, 30% of your time outside, and the rest pushing paper, or 0% outside and 100% pushing paper?
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:04 PM on July 7, 2008

A state park may be a good alternative to a national park. In case you didn't see it, this family visited 30 Georgia State Parks in 30 Days.

The M.L. King Center, Kennesaw Mountain and Chattahoochee Recreational Area are part of the NPS. Why not stop by and ask a ranger how he/she got the job?

If you're into the wildlife aspect of NPS work, there are places like Zoo Atlanta, Chattahoochee Nature Center, Yellow River Game Ranch, the Dawsonville Kangaroo Conservation Center, Wildlife Wonders in Cleveland (recently featured on "Dirty Jobs"), Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain.
posted by Frank Grimes at 5:05 PM on July 7, 2008

Oh, I didn't see you were in Georgia. The Odum School of Ecology at UGA happens to be one of the best ecology programs in the world (in my rather biased opinion). The Master's in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development is a good program for what you're interested in (and they would pay you to go there). They don't really have a night program, though.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:57 PM on July 7, 2008

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