Becoming a Conservationist: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a conservation career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a conservationist is right for you.
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Becoming a Conservationist: The Pros and Cons

While working to make a difference in society as a conservationist can be fulfilling, the financial rewards and job prospects can differ substantially depending on the industry in which you're working. Evaluating the pros and cons of a career as a conservation scientist or forester is a great step to deciding whether one might be right for you.

Conservationist Careers: Pros
High growth projected from 2012-2022 in certain fields, like Earth science (16% increase for geoscientists)*
Bachelor's degree, in a field like environmental science or natural resource management, is sufficient for many jobs*
Forestry ranked among the best low-stress careers**
Forestry degree programs accredited by the Society of American Foresters available in every state*

Conservationist Careers: Cons
Tough market for conservation scientists (1% increase projected from 2012-2022)*
Graduate degrees often necessary to research or teach*
Long hours can be expected, especially in disaster-response situations*
Field conservationists and forest workers are at higher risk of injury and illness*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Society of American Foresters.

Career Info

Popular Specializations and Job Descriptions

Conservationists - foresters and conservation scientists - help manage the usage of natural resources and the environments from which they're derived. They can specialize in a number of areas, like pest management, forest economics or soil conservation. Some conservationists, especially those in fields related to chemistry, may spend a majority of time in a laboratory, but many achieve a rough balance between office and fieldwork. As a newer employee or independent consultant you may end up spending a significant amount of time in the field, in diverse (and sometimes adverse) weather, areas and conditions.

Foresters help regulate the use of forests in greatly differing ways. Some devise plans to reforest areas, selecting and preparing sites for planting new trees, which can include controlled use of fire and herbicides to clear unwanted brush and weeds. Many other foresters work in production or lumber supply as timber purchasers, participating in all elements of the sale of timber. You could be responsible for inventory, appraisal and subcontracting for access road construction and tree removal, all the while ensuring the work and practices meet the owner's requirements as well as all applicable environmental regulations.

If the idea of applying these commercial aspects to conservation does not appeal to you, there are other options. Conservation scientists work with agencies at all levels of government and private interests to preserve, improve and manage natural resources. As a range manager, you would study and manage the use of the grass, shrub and watershed habitats used for energy and mineral resources, recreation and livestock grazing to allow best use of the land without harming it. Soil conservationists advise agricultural organizations and state and local agencies in the management and solution of problems of erosion and nutrient depletion. Water conservationists, similarly, consult with government and private interests on preserving the quality and sustainable supply of water.

Prospects and Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, (www.bls.gov) reported in May 2014 that the middle 50% of conservation scientists earned an annual salary between about $47,000 and $76,000, with the median wage being about $61,000. The BLS also projected a slower than average growth in the field of 1% from 2012-2022. However, individual industries within the field showed different projections during this same period: jobs for workers supporting agricultural industries were projected to have a larger increase (by 9%). Foresters were reported to earn a median annual salary of $57,980 in 2014; this field was also projected to show overall slower than average growth (6%) from 2012-2022.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Skills

Generally, a bachelor's degree is required for forestry and conservation science careers, with natural resource management and environmental science being applicable majors to both careers. Some who study biology also go on to work as foresters, and many schools offer programs specifically in forestry. Rangeland management or agricultural science programs are also potentially good fits for conservation scientists. Most of these programs emphasize measurement and management of resources, ecology and public policy. Teaching and research positions in these fields require advanced degrees.

Across the board, spoken and written communication skills are essential. Other attributes listed by the BLS and O*Net (www.onetonline.org) as useful for these professions or desired by employers include:

  • Complex problem solving skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Ability to perform monitoring and assessment (of yourself and others)
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) background
  • Physical stamina and endurance

Credentialing

In several states, it is either suggested or required that foresters be credentialed. Licensing is required of professionals in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Alabama and California. To be eligible for the licensing exam, which may also require payment of application or other fees, the completion of a bachelor's program with an approved forestry curriculum and experience supervised by a licensed forester are generally required, though most states accept an associate's degree with additional experience as well. Continuing education is required to maintain licensure.

Also, many state licensing boards have reciprocity agreements with neighboring states. Registration is required in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas; it is voluntary in New Jersey, West Virginia, Michigan and Oklahoma.

What Do Employers Look for?

Since fieldwork is such a major component of these professions, many employers require a valid driver license or ATV operation ability. Good written and oral communication skills are in demand as well. Many positions also require knowledge of local flora and fauna, so applicants may sometimes have to be willing to relocate to find work as well as to quickly become familiar with local species and practices. The following are actual job openings posted in February and March 2012:

  • An educational center in Wyoming had an entry-level opening for a land management technician certified in Wilderness First Aid. The job involves managing flood control and irrigation, weed control and livestock movements on land owned by the center.
  • The city of Austin was looking to hire an environmental conservation program manager for a system of wildlife preserves that provide habitats for native plants and animals as well as 35 species of interest. Experience with public relations, agency regulations and budgetary concerns was required.
  • A land use and stewardship company in Alabama was looking for a procurement forester with a forestry bachelor's degree and five years' experience. The forester would contract and purchase land to furnish a wood pellet manufacturing company.
  • A position working as a soil conservationist with a federal agency in upstate New York was available. The employee would assist in developing comprehensive programs with the watershed division.

How Can You Stand out?

Since the employment outlooks of some professions are slow-growing right now, it is in your best interest to look for ways to distinguish yourself. Choosing your academic program is very important: the SAF (Society of American Foresters, www.safnet.org) maintains a list of accredited professional forestry programs, the graduates of which are sought after by employers. In addition, the SAF suggests a few other ways to choose a program:

  • If there's a geographic location in which you'd like to work, you might consider looking at schools in that region, since practical academic experience often draws from conditions and issues of the area.
  • Programs offering both bachelor's and upper-level degrees may place greater emphasis on research. While this decreases the emphasis on applications of forestry, it increases student insight into the cutting edge research areas of the profession.
  • Many schools have professional relationships with local industries, so it's a good idea to ask about graduate placement data and options.
  • Don't be afraid to ask each program to detail the specific benefits provided by that program. You should be able to obtain information about topics that might be given more attention and the proficiencies of a typical graduate.

The BLS also reports that many conservation scientists advance into management and policy-making positions in the private sector, so graduates with coursework in human resources, policy or natural resource management naturally stand out. Also, professionals with experience in wildfire prevention and post-fire restoration can capitalize on the increased focus paid to these areas by governmental agencies.

Join a Professional Organization

Student membership in the Forest Guild (www.forestguild.org) is free; the organization touts membership as a way to network with other student members and licensed foresters and to stay current in the field through meetings and other opportunities for professional development. Also, according to the SAF, becoming a student member allows you to create connections with established professionals, increase your knowledge of specialized industry fields and obtain an advantage in the job market.

Get Certified

The SAF also offers a Candidate Certified Forester credential, which is also ideal for students since it does not require professional experience. Other certifications that conservationists can pursue as they develop their professional experience exist through the Society of American Foresters, the Association of Consulting Foresters of America, Inc. (www.acf-foresters.org) and the Society for Range Management (www.rangelands.org). These organizations distribute material to landowners and employers emphasizing that a certified forester is the best choice because of the experience requirements, rigorous examination and dedication to ethical and professional practice.

Alternative Fields

Geoscientist

If the idea of brokering timber sales or studying pesky insects doesn't appeal to you, as long as you have the physical stamina for long, irregular hours traversing remote sites accessible by ATV or helicopter in all sorts of weather, you could consider a career in geoscience. Many specializations exist; for example, you could survey for oil and gas reserves using computers and instrumentation as a petroleum geologist, or you could merge geology and environmental engineering to work on major construction or reclamation projects as an engineering geologist. A bachelor's degree is necessary to enter this career.

Employers value field and laboratory experience as well as expertise in computer-based computation and analysis. The median annual wage of geoscientists in 2011 was approximately $84,000, and the BLS projected faster than average growth of 21% from 2010-2020, making opportunities good, especially for those with advanced degrees.

Hydrologist

If you're interested in conservation and fieldwork, but you're particularly interested in water issues, you might become a hydrologist. Daily activities may involve utilizing remote sensors and working with numerical modeling techniques to track regional trends in water flow rates and quality. Computer simulations to forecast and predict conditions are a substantial component of this career. You would take courses in water management and resource conservation, and you would need a master's degree for most entry-level positions.

Per the BLS, the median wage for this profession was near $76,000 in 2011, and the top 10% earned more than $110,000. The BLS predicted modest growth (18%, an average rate) from 2010-2020. Opportunities should be good, especially for those with computer modeling expertise.

Agricultural Scientist

If you're interested in working with plants but you'd like to work more regular hours in the lab or office, you could consider becoming an agricultural scientist. Visits to farms or production facilities are sometimes required, but fieldwork is typically less than a conservationist. Although projected by the BLS to grow less than geoscience professions, agricultural and food scientist jobs were still predicted to about as fast as average (10%) from 2010-2020. The median annual salary of these scientists was about $52,000 in 2011.

Coursework fairly naturally overlaps that of soil conservationists. Entry-level private industry jobs in agricultural science require a bachelor's degree, although research university placements generally require more advanced degrees. Agricultural scientists work to find methods of improving performance and yields of farm crops and animals, while food scientists draw from biotechnology and chemistry to design better food production, storage and preservation methods.

Popular Schools

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Seton Hall University

  • Certificate: Post Conflict State Reconstruction and Sustainability

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Colorado Technical University

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Penn Foster High School

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Penn Foster Career School

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Kaplan University

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Indiana Wesleyan University

  • Graduate Biology Certificate

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