How to become an ecologist

Are you intrigued by how living things interact with each other and their environment? Would you like to study these interactions at the level of individual beings, groups or ecosystems? Find out how to become an ecologist and start your wild career!

As an ecologist, you could help advance conservation biology; manage natural resources through sustainable agriculture, forestry or fisheries; plan sustainable, healthy cities; help others appreciate nature; and much more.

Whether you’re an emerging ecologist, career switcher or simply exploring potential career paths, this guide will help you understand what ecologists do, and how you could become one.

What does an ecologist do?

A single mushroom on the forest floor in a forest ecosystem

Ecologists study the relationships between living things (including humans!) and the environment around them. 

Ecologists can study these relationships anywhere from the level of an individual organism, to a population, community, ecosystem or biosphere – i.e. from a single mushroom, up to the Great Bear Rainforest and beyond.

Here are few quick definitions before we go further…

Population: A group of individuals of the same species that live and interbreed within the same geographical area. For example, a group of a particular species of fungi occupying the same area of forest, and reproducing sexually or asexually.

Community: A group of interacting populations of two or more different species living in the same geographical area at the same time. For example a group of fungi and other plant species occupying a fallen nurse log at the same time.

Ecosystem: All the organisms and the physical environment with which they interact. For example, a coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest.

Biosphere: All the parts of Earth where life exists. 

Ecology is a diverse field that encompasses all forms of life and their environments across the globe. Here are just a few examples of what ecologists can study:
  • Interactions and adaptations of organisms
  • How energy and materials move through living systems (e.g. primary productivity, nutrient cycling, etc.)
  • Patterns in plant and animal behaviour, life history, population size, habitat use, etc. over time
  • Changes in habitat connectivity, patterns of natural and human disturbance and species composition over time
  • Processes such as succession (how the structure of a biological community changes over time)
  • Interactions within and between species, such as predation, competition and cooperation
  • The abundance and distribution of species 
  • Patterns of biodiversity
  • How ecosystems function (and what happens when ecosystem health and function is affected by human activities such as pollution, invasive species, climate change, diseases, etc.)

Ecologists can apply science to areas such as:

  • Informing environmentally sustainable development (ecological consultancy).
  • Controlling non-native and invasive species.
  • Cleaning up contaminated sites (remediation).
  • Using science to inform sustainable forestry practices.
  • Feeding human populations in an ecologically-sustainable way – such as nature-friendly farming (agriculture and agro-ecology) and sustainable fisheries.
  • Predicting future ecological changes due to future climate scenarios, invasive species, etc. (e.g. using modelling techniques).
  • Informing policymakers and other groups about threats to ecosystems and how to mitigate them.
  • Applying environmental laws and regulations.
  • Managing the use and development of land resources for diverse purposes – from agriculture and water to nature and tourism (land management).
  • Putting a value on the benefits that nature provides us (Environmental economics).
  • Understanding past environments and climates.
  • Carrying out ex-situ (off-site) conservation in botanical gardens, aquariums, etc.
  • Educating individuals, schools and other groups about interactions in nature, and how these relate to humans.
  • Informing conservation biology.
  • Planning healthy, sustainable cities.
  • Ensuring that ecosystems can continue to sustain human life through ‘ecosystem services‘ such as providing food, fuel, fibre and medicines; regulating climate; controlling erosion; protecting from storms; cultural values, and more.

Ecologists might also choose to specialise on specific areas, such as:

  • Community ecology: Studying how communities (groups of interacting populations sharing the same area) are organised and function.
  • Population ecology: Studying the processes that affect the dynamics of populations, like distribution and abundance.
  • Microbial ecology: Studying how microorganisms interact with each other, their environment and other species.
  • Molecular ecology: Using molecular genetic tools, such as DNA markers, to answer ecological questions related to biogeography, conservation genetics, behavioural ecology and more.
  • Behavioural ecology: Studying how an animal’s behaviour relates to its ecological environment, from an evolutionary perspective.
  • Ecosystem ecology: Studying how living and non-living components of ecosystems interact, within an ecosystem.
  • Landscape ecology: Studying the pattern and interaction between ecosystems within a relatively large region, and how they affect ecological processes (e.g. how spatial variation in the landscape affects interactions and processes).
  • Agroecology: Applying ecological principles to agricultural systems, e.g. to inform new management approaches.
  • Global ecology: Studying how the Earth’s ecosystems, land, atmosphere and oceans interact. 
  • Deep ecology: An environmental philosophy that promotes all living beings as having equal value, and advocating for new relationships between humans and nature.
  • Tropical ecology: Studying how living things interact with their environment in the tropics.

If you’re considering a career as an ecologist, don’t limit yourself! 

Once trained, you might choose to focus on creating new habitats for biodiversity to thrive, compensating for biodiversity loss within the planning and development sector, helping train future ecologists, or even use environmental education to challenge and change our societal norms of acceptance.

Ultimately, ecologists have a huge role to play in understanding the world around us, and shaping the future of our living planet.

Where do ecologists work?

Bull elk. Credit: NPS Photo.
Whether you enjoy working in the field, in an office, in a lab, or even traveling to more remote field sites, you can find an environment you thrive in with an ecology career.
 
Understanding the main employer types can help you navigate a career in ecology. They are:
  • Academia – Help create the research base that practitioners need to effectively conserve nature. Employers are typically universities and colleges, such as Oxford University, Miami University, Oxford Brookes University, Cardiff University and Stockholm University.
  • Charity – Contribute to not-for-profit and non-governmental conservation activities with the Charity, NGO or ‘Third Sector.’ Examples include WWF, Ducks Unlimited, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Ecology Project International, South African National Biodiversity Institute and American Conservation Experience.
  • Business – Work with for-profit private companies, ecological consulting firms, or other businesses that need ecologists, such as Thomson Environmental Consultants, AGB Environmental, Network Rail, Ramboll, The Ecology Practice and Ocean Ecology. Other businesses also offer jobs related to ecology, such as NHBS (a provider of ecology books and more).
  • Government – Help set regional, national or international policies, and enforce best practice with the public sector or civil service. Examples of government institutions and agencies include the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, the U.S. Forest Service, North Somerset Council (UK), Falkland Islands Government and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • Enterprise – Join the start-up, social enterprise or innovation movement, applying commercial strategies to maximise improvements in environmental and human well-being. An example is Ecology Training UK.

Want to discover more great ecologist employers? As a Conservation Careers Academy member, check out our Career Explorer database with over 30,000 jobs from around the world

What is a typical ecologist job description?

From fieldwork to land management and policy, ecologist careers are diverse! Robbie Hawkins is a senior ecological consultant who helps create new habitats for biodiversity.

Ecologist careers are diverse, so we’ve summarised common job duties for typical careers.

Ecological consultancy
 
As an ecologist working in ecological consultancy, you could find yourself:
  • Conducting fieldwork (see below!)
  • Preparing reports such as botanical/ecological assessments, monitoring and management reports, restoration plans, habitat assessments, as well as bids and tenders.
  • Managing ecological survey work, projects, teams and/or budgets.
  • Undertaking surveys for protracted species of plants and habitats.
  • Liaising with clients.


Field research and monitoring

As an ecologist conducting field research you’ll focus on collecting data on living and nonliving aspects of the environment. Some typical field ecologist job duties include:

  • Identifying species in the field or collected from the field.
  • Conducting species or vegetation surveys, habitat assessments and/or monitoring.
  • Carrying out inventories for threatened, rare and special-status species.
  • Mapping in the field (e.g. wetland delineations).
  • Recording, inputting, analysing and/or summarising field data.
  • Coordinating with landowners.

Job duties for more experienced ecologists might also include:

  • Planning field research and logistics
  • Leading field teams

Restoration and remediation

As an ecologist working in practical land management, you could find yourself:

  • Removing or controlling non-native and invasive species.
  • Reintroducing threatened species in their natural habitat.
  • Managing teams of interns, volunteers and/or students.
  • Working on rewilding or habitat creation projects.
  • Managing properties, carrying out stewardship of lands.

Planning & Policy

As a planning ecologist, you could use your expertise to:

  • Provide professional, technical advice to ensure that ecological matters are given due weight in the planning process. 
  • Review planning, permit and environmental assessment applications and proposals to ensure they meet policies, regulations and best practice ecological management. 
  • Review reports such as Environmental Impact Assessments.
  • Collect, analyse, and interpret data/information and prepare monitoring reports.
  • Conduct site/habitat evaluations, delineations of natural features (e.g. watercourses, wetlands) and monitoring.
  • Coordinate management of habitats and threatened/endangered species. 
  • Prepare plans for restoration and mitigation projects; apply for grants and secure permits; and plan, develop, implement monitoring of mitigation and/or habitat enhancements projects; and write monitoring, progress and other reports.
  • Conduct site inspections to ensure compliance.
  • Investigate reports of unpermited or illicit activities.
  • Work with internal and external clients to maintain, enhance, protect and conserve natural resources.
  • Work collaboratively with other experts (e.g. planners, hydrogeologists, engineers, etc.) to ensure coordination of technical comments.
  • Lead on, or contribute to, developing guidelines, policy and tools related to regulations.
  • Develop educational materials associated with protecting natural resources.
  • Train junior staff.
Research

As a research ecologist, your job duties could include:

  • Undertaking research focused on developing ecologically-based approaches to wildlife management issues. This could include field research, remote sensing, modelling and more.
  • Applying ecological and statistical skills to support projects such as threatened species monitoring, managing vertebrates, developing land management tools for invasive species, decision science, etc.
  • Working with stakeholders to co-develop research products that support ecologically-based wildlife management strategies.
  • Providing original quantitative analyses to understand ecological dynamics, the effectiveness of management actions and to help guide interactions among species and humans.
  • Leading or contributing to scientific research to enhance environmental management outcomes.
  • Translating complex data into resources for non-scientific stakeholders.


Projects & Programmes

As an ecologist focused on ecological projects or programmes, you could find yourself:

  • Identifying, planning and managing projects such as habitat restoration, wildlife management or species reintroductions.
  • Applying for funding.
  • Planning and implementing field surveys, such as ecological assessments and monitoring.
  • Data management, analysis and reporting.
  • Coordinating community support (public and/or private), such as citizen science.
  • Building relationships with and capacity of partners (e.g. academic, government and non-governmental organisations, landholders, etc.).
  • Communicating science and other information to diverse groups.
  • Marketing and communications.
  • Supervising staff/volunteers.
 

Common early to mid-career ecologist job titles include: Assistant Ecologist, Graduate Ecologist, Ecologist, Consultant Ecologist, Environmental Consultant, Research Assistant, Research Technician, Field Technician, Restoration Technician, Restoration Specialist, Invasive Plant Technician, Project Officer.

Mid to senior level and specialised ecologist job titles include: Riparian Ecologist, Wetland Ecologist, Range Ecologist, Principal Ecologist, Vegetation Ecologist, Senior Ecologist, Research Leader, Monitoring Crew Leader, Planning Ecologist, Research Ecologist, Natural Resource Manager, Environmental Planner, Programme Manager.

Want to understand what a day in the life of a botanist is really like? Read the latest Ecologist Career Stories & Advice, or check out these interviews and podcast episodes:

How much money does an ecologist make?

Within the context of conservation, ecologists – particularly ecological consultants – are relatively well paid.

Salaries can vary depending on the employer type, with business and government usually offering the highest salaries, followed by the academic and charity sectors.

According to the National Careers Service, the average salary for an ecologist in the UK ranges from £22,000 for someone just starting out, to £45,000+ for an experienced ecologist. A Director of Ecology can make much more. 

According to Glassdoor, the average salary for ecologist in the United States is USD $60,855 per year, based on 130 salaries submitted anonymously to Glassdoor.

According to the Government of Canada, ecologists in Canada make between CAD $23 and $56.41 per hour, and the median wage for an ecologist in Canada is CAD $38.04 per hour.

Here are some examples of ecologist salaries, from jobs posted on Conservation Careers:

United Kingdom

United States
Australia

Canada

For more examples of ecologist salaries worldwide, why not search our Career Explorer database by country, region or level.

If you’re just starting out as an ecologist, you’ll be glad to know that many businesses offer salaried roles for early career ecologists. Other organisations may also sponsor accommodation, meals and/or flights/transport in exchange for temporary, early career contracts for recent graduates. Examples include: 

What is the job demand for ecologists?

An increasing focus on environmental sustainability is likely to drive job growth and create more opportunities for ecologists.

When searching for jobs, remember that these jobs my have many different titles – such as Natural Resource Manager, Environmental Consultant, Environmental Planner, Programme Manager, and many more.

To get an idea of the abundance and frequency of ecologist jobs available, check out our Job Board and Career Explorer database (members only).

What are ecologist education requirements?

Most ecologist jobs require an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree in ecology, biology, botany (plant science) or marine biology. Many also accept degrees in a related field such as conservation biology, environmental science, environmental planning, zoology, microbiology, geology or earth science. Chemistry is also highly relevant for ecologist jobs.
 
Some jobs – such as environmental consultants and planners, programme managers, natural resource managers and biologists/ecologists in the government, business or charity sectors – prefer or require a master’s. A PhD is often required for academic research, teaching and other research jobs. Some ecologists may also choose (or be required) to become professionally certified in their region or country.

When starting a career as an ecologist, real-life experience can greatly increase your chances of landing a job. We recommend gaining practical experience to complement your study through internships, volunteering and other work experience schemes.
 
Check out these resources:

How do I get an ecology degree?

Search our Conservation Training board for degrees and courses related to ecology, such as:

Short courses

Postgraduate Certificates

Master’s – UK

Master’s – USA

Master’s – Europe

Master’s – Other regions

Explore our Conservation Training board for more courses, postgraduate certificates, master’s and more training opportunities related to ecology.

What are the top ecologist skills? [TO UPDATE]

Wildlife overpass in the USA. Credit_NDOT.

Pick a botanist job type of interest to explore skills and experience employers are looking for.

A young botanist records data while suspended in a harness in a tree.

Field research & monitoring

Specialist skills

  • Plant identification
  • GPS
  • GIS (ArcGIS, QGIS)

Transferable skills

  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Working independently with limited supervision
  • Teamwork
  • Organisational skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Self-motivation
  • Positivity
  • Flexibility, adaptability
  • Walking or hiking in remote environments and arduous conditions, such as rough terrain, adverse weather conditions and bugs
  • Working long days (e.g. 8-10 hours+) in the field, possibly with travel and irregular hours
  • Physical fitness and able to carry 40-50 pounds
  • Driver’s license and clean driving record
  • Driving a 4×4 vehicle on unpaved roads
  • CPR / First Aid
  • Navigating in remote, wilderness situations using maps, compass, aerial photos, etc.

Experience

  • Fieldwork experience and data collection
  • Experience with field survey methods (e.g. floristic surveys, vegetation monitoring)
  • Experience working in field crews
  • Knowledge of local native and invasive plants
  • Familiarity with local areas

Ecological consultancy 

Specialist skills

  • Plant identification (e.g. using a dichotomous key)
  • Preparing technical biological reports
  • Planning, coordinating and undertaking ecological fieldwork
  • Analytical skills
  • GIS
  • GPS

Transferable skills

  • Written and verbal communication skills
  • Project, budget and client management
  • Driver’s license
  • IT literate
  • Microsoft Office software
  • Communication skills
  • Navigation in remote areas using maps and GPS
  • Organisational skills
  • Working under pressure
  • Adaptability to changing work requirements
  • Attention to detail
  • Working independently
  • Teamwork
  • Data management
  • Technical writing skills
  • Client relationships

Experience

  • Ecological consulting experience
  • Experience with field data collection methods and equipment
  • Knowledge of environmental legislation / regulations
  • Knowledge of native and non-native species
  • Local experience
  • Membership (e.g. CIEEM in the UK)

Restoration & remediation

Specialist skills

  • Habitat restoration
  • Invasive plant management

A botanist waters an indoor collection of tropical plants.Botanical gardens & aquariums

Specialist skills

  • Plant ID (using a dichotomous key)
  • Data analysis (e.g. R, SPSS)
  • GIS

Transferable skills

  • Data management
  • Independent, self motivated
  • Driver’s license and good record
  • Using power tools e.g. for construction, repairs
  • Working outdoors in extreme conditions
  • Fundraising

Tropical Senior Botanical Horticulturist, Carlos Magdalena, is interviewed about plants.Experience

  • Experience in botanical garden plant collections management
  • Plant health knowledge
  • Ecology knowledge

Other jobs

Other specialist and transferable skills include:

  • Publication record, published species discovery
  • Molecular/phylogenomics and bioinformatics
  • Taxonomic identification
  • Giving presentations

What societies and professional organisations of ecologists exist?

Joining an ecological society can be a great way to contribute to the science and practice of ecology; network with a community of ecologists; access resources like publications, news and grants; and much more. Credit: Ecological Society of America (ESA).

There are many societies and professional organisations for ecologists worldwide. Here are a few to get you started:

    • Ecological Society of America (ESA). Founded in 1915, ESA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists, whose mission is to advance the science and practice of ecology and support ecologists throughout their careers. They have over 9,000 members and publish a suite of publications, from peer-reviewed journals to newsletters, fact sheets and teaching resources.
    • British Ecological Society (BES). Established in 1913, BES is the oldest ecological society in the world. Dedicated to advancing ecological science, they have 6,000 members around the world and membership is open to anyone, anywhere. They produce eight world-renowned journals, provide grants, organise events, provide careers support and more.
    • Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM). Formed in 1991, CIEEM is the leading professional membership body representing and supporting ecologists and environmental managers in the UK, Ireland and abroad. They establish and uphold standards of professional competence; promote the sharing of best practice through publications, networking and awards; provide training and conferences; and much more.
    • International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA). IAIA provides the international forum to advance best practice and innovation in impact assessment and advocates for its expanded use for the betterment of society and the environment. IAIA’s members are professionals from a diverse array of interests and organizations.
    • Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). SER is a dynamic global network of nearly 4,000 members who foster the exchange of knowledge and expertise among ecological restoration practitioners and scientists from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. SER communicates leading-edge tools, technologies and scientific findings, and actively promotes best practices and effective restoration policy around the world.
    • European Ecological Federation (EEF). EEF promotes the science of ecology in Europe and worldwide by enabling cooperation between 18 ecological societies in 20 countries. It grants membership to members of a national society already represented in the EEF.
    • Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE). CSEE is a group of practicing ecologists and evolutionary biologists throughout Canada with a broad membership and a range of resources, including an annual conference, meetings, grants and awards, support for outreach projects and more.
    • The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA). ESA is a group of over 1,000 ecologists across Australia, which has supported ecologists and promoted ecology and ecological research for over 60 years. Membership benefits include conferences, publications, prizes and grants, a member directory, ‘hot topics’ and more.
    • The New Zealand Ecological Society. Formed in 1951, this not-for-profit society publishes ecological research, promotes sound ecological planning and management and fosters collaboration and communication among ecologists. It is open to anyone with an interest in ecology, and its 550+ members benefit from an annual conference, scientific journal; awards, grants and prizes; publications and more.

If you’re specifically interested in plants, check out these societies and professional organisations of botanists from our ultimate guide How to become a botanist.

Meet ecologist role models

Biologist Rachel Carson by GPA Photo Archive on Flickr.

Just a few famous ecologists include:

  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch self-taught scientist  scientist and “father of microbiology” who developed the concept of food chains.
  • Alexander von Humboldt, a German geographer, naturalist and explorer who helped inform natural history and biogeography, and was the first to describe the ecological gradient in which biodiversity increases towards the tropics.
  • Sir Arthur George Tansley, an English botanist who introduced the concept of the ecosystem and was a founding member of the first professional society of ecologists, which later organised the British Ecological Society,
  • Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy”.
  • Eugene Odum, an American biologist recognised for his pioneering work on ecosystem ecology, who co-authored Fundamentals of Ecology (1953).
  • Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, conservationist and author, whose book Silent Spring (1962) convinced thousands of Americans to take action for the environment.

Read interviews with professional ecologists from around the world, such as:

Image 1: Rachel Carson by Ron Mader on Flickr.

Imge 2: Ecological consultant, Robbie Hawkins with a horseshoe crab on a project that involved creating a new wetland area in New York. 

Search all the latest ecologist jobs

Search all the latest ecologist jobs on our Conservation Job Board

FAQs [TO UPDATE]

A botanist is a scientist who studies plants. Botanists can also be called plant scientists, plant biologists or ‘phytologists’.

Botany is a broad scientific field that encompasses all plants. Horticulture is a branch of botany and an applied science that focuses on edible and ornamental plants.

The average salary for a botanist in the UK ranges from £22,000 for someone just starting out, to £45,000 for an experienced botanist. The average annual botanist salary is £56,972 and £27 per hour in London, UK, with an average range of £40,678 to £70,362.

The average salary for a botanist in the United States is $78,523 a year and $38 an hour, with an average salary range of $56,078 to $96,979. The average salary of soil and plant scientists in the US is $69,170.

Most botanist jobs require an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree. Some more senior, specialised and/or research-focussed roles may require a master’s or PhD.

Approximately 3-4 years (the duration of an undergraduate degree). You may need additional experience to become employable and competitive.

If you want to work as a botanist, yes! Most botany-related jobs require an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree in botany, plant science, (plant) ecology or biology or conservation biology. Many also accept degrees in a related field such as environmental science, natural resources management, forestry or horticulture.

Some jobs prefer or require a master’s, while a PhD is often required for academic research and teaching jobs.

We always recommend identifying your target conservation job first, before determining if you need a degree.


Useful links & free stuff

The cover of The Step-by-Step System to Get Hired as a Wildlife ConservationistTo help you navigate your options, please select which best describes you:
  • You want to work in conservation but you’re feeling lost, disillusioned or confused?!? Check out our Kick-Starter training designed to help you understand the job market, to navigate your career options, and to get hired more quickly. It’s designed for students, graduates, job-seekers and career-switchers. We’re proud to say it also has 100% satisfaction and recommendation ratings. We know you’ll love it. Find out more about our Kick-Starter – Online Course.
  • You need answers to top questions about working in conservation? Check out our free Ultimate Guides covering topics like the 15 Key Conservation Job Types, Top Conservation Internships | Paid or Free and Marine Conservation Jobs, and answering questions like How to Switch Careers into Conservation, Do I need a Master’s Degree? and much more! Or download our free guides to keep and read later!
  • You feel ready to be applying for jobs in conservation? Check out our membership packages for job seekers which provide access to the world’s biggest conservation job board – with over 10,000 conservation jobs shared each year – plus a range of other benefits. Check out our monthly memberships here.
  • You’re submitting applications, but failing to get many interviews? Check out our FREE eBook Conservation Jobs: The Step-by-Step System to Get Hired as a Wildlife Conservationist – available on Kindle, EPUB and PDF. We can also review your applications, and provide 1:1 advice on how to improve them. Check out our application support here.
  • You’ve got an interview (well done!) and would like our help to prepare for it? We know what employers want, and have helped many people prepare for and deliver successful interviews. Check out our interview preparation here.
  • You’re feeling stuck, struggling with a career decision or something’s holding you back from pursuing the career of your dreams? Our 1:1 career coaching can help you gain clarity about your next steps and form a plan of action. Check out our career coaching here