The most exciting part of research to me is going out in the field and working with animals and in the environment, but I'm concerned that in my career I'll get stuck analyzing data and not doing field work. Any advice?
I'm going into Ecology & Environmental Biology and I love working with animals on the field and studying animal cognition in the wild or at a sanctuary. However, it seems to me that professionals in biology often spend their time analyzing data in the lab or writing grants, which I would fine with doing some of, but I really want my focal point to be working with my actual subjects. I want to know if this is possible or if I'm being too idealistic. #biology #research #higher-education #ecology #researcher #animal-work #ecologist #field-work
Seth Daniel Bernstein
Seth Daniel’s Answer
When possible, I recommend emphasizing "applied" (i.e., hands-on) biology in the courses you take. Don't neglect the research and statistical side of undergraduate biology because those skills will be necessary to provide a strong theoretical foundation for your work with subjects. It is important that you enter your field with a balance of both applied and research skills to ensure you are marketable and competitive with graduates from other programs. Majors in "applied biology" with lots of field study will work best for you, so be sure to read carefully the course descriptions in the majors you want to pursue at the undergraduate or graduate programs you consider. A good balance of field study and classroom work will work best for you. Polytechnic universities may have advantages in those areas.
Let's assume that you graduate with lots of field study (i.e., work with subjects) under your belt and procure a position that aligns with your interests. As your career progresses, you will make decisions about which professional opportunities to pursue. Keep in mind that jobs which entail project oversight or other management responsibilities will skew toward more analytical work than applied work. So be discriminating about exactly what jobs or promotions you pursue, because what may seem like a logical way to advance your career or earn more money may entail greater administrative or analytical work. You will need to be disciplined and true to yourself with respect to your decision making in order to keep on course with your desire to emphasize applied research with subjects.
It is so encouraging that you're thinking about being true to your interests once you are working in the field. It is easy to lose sight of the work you value once you're preoccupied with the day to day challenges of your work, so be sure to re-visit your likes and dislikes about your work frequently. Apply only for those positions that enable you to be true to yourself even if it means passing up on opportunities that others tell you are "best for you." Only you know yourself well enough to pursue the opportunities that resonate with your true interests.
Your specific career path will partially determine how much time you spend in the field versus how much time you spend in an office. If you end up at a large research Institution or laboratory, it is more likely that you will be pushed to write lots of grants and publish papers and you probably won't be in the field as much as you want. However, if you work for something like a consulting company, a smaller nonprofit, or a local park district, chances are that you will be able to spend plenty of time working directly with your study subjects. Most people in wildlife ecology start off as field technicians and spend the majority of their hours in the field. However, it is inevitable that as you advance in your career, you will take on more responsibilities and sometimes that means you won't have as much time to be out recording data personally.
Although the data analysis work may not seem that interesting to you now, when you gain more experience in the field, I bet you will be excited to analyze data! It is very rewarding to see the payoff from all the data you have collected and to use it to start piecing together the answer to your research question.