My Struggle to Find a Wildlife Biologist Job: ‘Is Anyone Hiring?’
After graduating with a master's degree in wildlife biology, I encountered a problem that many graduates face: it was nearly impossible to find employment.
Maybe I had read too many Jack London and Gary Paulsen novels as a kid. Or maybe it was that I didn’t think my hometown in northern Michigan was cold enough for me. Either way, within two weeks of graduating from high school, I found myself in the middle of Alaska and ready to start my adult life.
I’ve always loved animals, the outdoors, and learning. Naturally, I landed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
After a rough start in my first year, I finally found my groove — and the two great loves of my life: my husband and wildlife biology.
How I Fell in Love With Wildlife Biology
I loved everything about the field. I loved it so much that after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I immediately entered grad school the following semester. In the wildlife field, a bachelor’s degree will qualify you for a biological technician job, which has less responsibility and less pay and is often only seasonal during the summer. I didn’t want to be just a technician — I wanted to be a full-blown wildlife biologist. And so I went to get my master’s degree.
For the first time in my life, I had a huge amount of responsibility. I led a small field crew out onto the North Slope of Alaska every two weeks to collect plant samples. We would bring them back to the lab, analyze them, and see whether or not arctic caribou would be able to live off of them.
I developed my own lab method to test how much protein was digestible in each sample, because protein is one of the hardest nutrients for caribou to get. I even published an article in a scientific journal detailing my new lab method.
By the time I graduated with my master’s degree, I was on top of the world. I was ready to take on new and exciting challenges and to contribute even more to whatever agency or business had wildlife biologist jobs to offer.
On the Hunt
All of the wildlife biologists and professors whom I worked with assured me that as long as I worked hard, got good grades, and networked with other biologists at different agencies, I would be good to go, despite the relatively small number of open positions.
And besides, most of the current wildlife biologists were approaching retirement age, and plenty of new positions would be opening up right as I was entering the job market. Right after I graduated, I made the decision to move with my husband from Alaska to Fort Collins, Colorado, so that he could attend school for his chosen profession as well.
On the surface, it seemed like a great decision. I’d been in Alaska for nearly 10 years, and I knew all about Alaska-specific problems, so it’d be great to get out and see what wildlife problems needed solving in another part of the country. And besides, Fort Collins has one of the highest concentrations of careers in wildlife biology outside of Alaska.
Lack of Wildlife Biologist Jobs
My first big shock was when I logged onto the federal government recruiting site, USA Jobs, and saw only one or two positions opening each month for any type of wildlife job in Fort Collins. I applied for any and all open wildlife biologist jobs, sure that I’d hear back soon. Over time, though, all I ever heard was crickets.
I began to panic. I knew I needed to find employment — any employment.
Luckily, a job had just opened up at a local animal facility. I was excited when I showed up for the interview, thinking that I would be able to use some of my skills to help out in a research program, but my heart sank when I found out it was mainly a janitorial position. I took it.
My job consists primarily of cleaning the animal facilities and working with giant cage-washing machines and autoclaves. I often find myself looking back on the 10 years and $55,000 in student loans as the autoclave steams hot nearby. It’s been more than a year, and I’m still in the same spot.
Almost all of the positions that I was told would be vacated by retiring biologists are being left empty due to federal budget cuts. A huge number of competing graduates, a limited number of wildlife biologist jobs, and my unfamiliarity with the local area have created a perfect storm that is wrecking my career dream.
In the meantime, I am trying to look at the bright side. I’ve learned how to live on the meager amount of money that I do have; I’ve developed new skills; and I’m working to help teach other people about the things I’ve learned through my writing.
Still, I haven’t given up hope. One day, sooner or later, the call from the wild will come.
Author’s update: Since writing this I have found seasonal work and I am out in the field doing vegetation surveys in Wyoming.