So you want to be a field technician (or how to get a field job)

If your college is anything like mine, the career center could give you all sorts of advice on how to land an office job or apply to a pre-professional program. But what if you’re an aspiring ecologist looking for a field research job*? What if you want your office to be a forest, savannah, river, or pond? If you’re looking to get your foot in the door for field related ecological research, this post is for you.

Why you should be a field technician/assistant?

  1. You get great hands on experience collecting data and the opportunity to see how people design and implement research projects.
  2. You get to live in new places. Many, if not most, field technician jobs are seasonal, meaning you get the opportunity to move around and live in lots of new places.
  3. You can get paid to work outside. I think that one speaks for itself.
  4. You get to work with and see really cool things. Aside from learning a lot about whatever system you’re working in, by virtue of spending a lot of time observing things, you’re very likely to happen upon some unexpected sights.
  5. Most jobs are seasonal, so you can travel in the off season.
PointReyes
Field housing at Point Reyes National Seashore. Disclaimer: it’s not generally this scenic.

While there are a lot of really great things about field work, it is often very physically demanding and the data collection needs to happen regardless of how many biting insects are assaulting you, the density of the poison ivy, or how hot/cold/wet/windy it is.

Some questions to ask yourself and consider seriously before applying for a field technician job:

  1. Can I do high quality work in conditions that are occasionally really crummy? Most days, I loved being a field technician. But as is the case with any job, some days can be really rough. Some examples of generally great jobs with occasionally not so great working conditions:
  • While sampling in cold Ozark streams is great in the summer, in March it is wicked cold.
  • Counting amphibians in the remote back country of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks is great. But you know who else loves bodies of water in the summer – mosquitoes. So many mosquitoes.
  • Chasing frogs and salamanders around forests? Awesome! All the ticks you pick up along the way? Not so awesome.

Suffice to say, the physical working conditions can be really trying at times. But the data needs to be collected with the same attention to detail and rigor as any other day. Can you push through and have the mental strength to do that?

     2. Do I enjoy physical labor? This varies from job to job, but field work is often taxing. You could be on your feet all day, or hunched over taking measurements. You might be carrying really heavy objects. Or paddling a canoe upstream. Regardless of what exactly the job is, there is a good chance you’ll be physically exhausted at the end of the day. Is that a feeling you enjoy?

    3. Can I enjoy repetitive, menial labor? Science is redundant. As a professional data collector, the role of a field technician is to gather and record data in a consistent manner. This means doing the same task over and over again. At times you will ask yourself “Could a well trained monkey do this?” And the answer will generally be “Yes. Yes it could.”

4. Can I live and work in an isolated setting with a few other people for an extended period of time? While some jobs involve teams of ten or so techs, most are small crews of one to four people. Additionally, field work can often occur in isolated settings. This can be hard for people that need a lot of social interaction or don’t like working with other people.

Dip netting ponds in 70 degree weather? Great! When it's below freezing and everything is covered in ice? Less fun.
Dip netting ponds in 70 degree weather? Great! When it’s below freezing and everything is covered in ice? Less fun.

If at this point you’re still thinking “Yes! This. Sounds. Awesome.”, you should start looking at job advertisements. Most field work occurs over the summer months, so folks start advertising positions as early as January. I strongly recommend starting your search early and applying to a lot of jobs.

Here are websites and listservs to start your search:

Some things to keep in mind as you’re reading posts and deciding whether or not to apply:

  1. Does the advertisement sound interesting?
  2. How much money do I need to make? How well does the position pay?
  3. Is housing provided? A field vehicle? It can often be hard to find temporary housing for a few months, especially in places off of the beaten track. Additionally, are you comfortable driving your car for what can often be really dirty work? Will you be compensated for gas or mileage?
  4. Will I be working with other people?
  5. Do I need a regular schedule? While some field jobs have regular hours, many have long days. Others involve data working nights. In most cases, days off are irregular and taking vacation time is frowned upon or impossible. There are only so many days to collect all of the data for the year, making field season not the time for vacations.

As with any job application, make sure when you go to apply that you have a strong cover letter and resume/CV that are adapted to that specific position (here is some great advice). If you score an interview, be prepared to talk about your experience and skills specific to the job. Also, there will likely be questions about how you handle working under adverse conditions. Be prepared with anecdotes. The interview is also your time to ask questions and get a better idea of what the job would be like if it is offered to you. This is a great opportunity to clarify the job description and expectations. What will a normal day be like?

For more in ecology job interviews, check out these tips.

Hopefully this post will help some of your just starting out on your ecology careers. For the more seasoned folks out there, anything else you wish you had known before applying to field jobs? Suggestions?

*With a two- or four-year degree there are a lot of other ecology oriented jobs out there, aside from field technician. For more options and information check out the Ecological Society of America’s student section: http://www.esa.org/esa/education-and-diversity/info-for-undergraduate-students/

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