Learning what types of research professors and graduate students do can give you a sense of what opportunities may be available. For example, do most of the professors’ research focus on biochemical questions? If so, expect that most research positions through them would be in biochemistry. Some colleges have their own field station where students and faculty conduct field research. Not only do these stations provide a great venue for summer internships, but they allow students to get research experience in the field, rather than only in the lab.
The stereotypical college visits involves a campus tour, attending admissions information sessions, and perhaps touring a dormitory. While these activities are useful, they often lack significant relevance to your decision. Rather, there are several additional things to consider doing during campus visits. First, try to meet with a faculty member involved in your field. If this person works with birds, all the better! Discuss with them opportunities for undergraduates, course offerings, requirements for the major, and any interesting student organizations. Additionally, try to attend a class or two: professors are generally happy to host visiting students in their classrooms. If you can, also try to speak with current students about their involvements, suggestions, and comments about the school. And lastly, of course, go birding!
There are numerous ways to incorporate birds into a career. For students with a passion for birds and strong skills in another area, the doors open to a slough of careers that utilize bird expertise. One key in thinking about how to incorporate birds into a career is recognizing your natural talents and other interests. Do you like to teach others, program computers or answer research questions?
Think about these natural talents, in addition to your bird knowledge, then look into ways in which they can be paired with a job. There are many ways to do this! Taking on a role as a professor or wildlife biologist are just two of the many options to have birds be part of your career. This list below, roughly categorizes the main branches of bird-related careers, but this certainly is not the full extent of possibilities.
Non-profit organizations (aka NGO’s): These are organizations not funded by the government who have set out with a mission. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited are all examples. NGO’s vary greatly in size and their mission. Many non-profit organizations have a full team including: research scientists, web developers, science writers, multimedia specialists, education and outreach program coordinators, as well as, fundraising and marketing specialists. These organizations offer employment to many people of various skill sets, many of whom were once young birders.
Academics: University professors teach classes, advise students and typically pursue their own research. This combination best suits people who are driven to answer research questions and enjoy guiding students in a classroom setting and in the field. Earning a Ph.D. is a requirement for obtaining a professor’s position. For an example of Ph.D. work, check out this video.
Specimen preparation lab, photo by Hope Batcheller.
Education: Whether its K-12 or reaching life-long learners, if teaching is your area of interest, this is excellent opportunity to share a passion of birds with others. This could be accomplished, for example, by starting an after school bird club or heading into a role as an environmental educator working for a non-profit.
Government: There are a number of government organizations that employ people with bird expertise, from national to state and local levels. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service, US Geological Survey are a few examples at the national level. The New York State Department of Conservation or Ohio Department of Natural Resources are examples of state-level agencies. These organizations are primarily focused on natural resource management and conservation. Many field biologists with a masters or Ph.D. find their way into one of these slots.
Policy: Everyday discussions and decisions are being made that have huge impacts on birds and the environment. Working in the public policy arena as a lobbyist is one way to make your voice heard and speak on behalf of the birds. Bird expertise, strong knowledge of law, environmental resource management and economics opens a range of positions in government agencies and non-profits. A master’s degree along the lines of environmental policy is helpful. Experience working on political campaigns and for government agencies also offers a gateway to a career incorporating policy.
Environmental Consulting: This growing field incorporates a range of activities, from delivering environmental impact statements and advising on how to minimize habitat destruction in areas with new development. Conducting bird surveys for these firms, leading your own firm or becoming an environmental engineer are options in this path.
Evaristo Hernández-Fernández with Mourning Dove paintings. Photo by Shailee Shah, courtesy of The Cornell Daily Sun.
Birding Industry: With the number of birdwatchers growing in the US and worldwide, there are also a growing number of opportunities to create or sell birding-related products. Binoculars,
books, apps, bird feeders and seed are a few of the essential products for birders. From optics reps to authors and store managers there is a range of jobs supporting the birding industry.
Tour Leading: A knack for keeping track of the logistical details, basic needs of your participants (food and bathrooms first, birding second) is key to leading successful tours, in addition to an ability to find birds. Tour leading offers an exciting mix of travel, birding and meeting interesting people, but full-time it means ~160 days a year away from home. Being fluent in Spanish or other languages is often an imperative skill for a international tour leader.
Computer Programming: Many bird organizations are looking for a programmer to develop online tools. There are opportunities for building applications, data analysis and more.
Art and Illustration: Scientific illustration and graphic design are a couple areas in this category. Jobs for web designers are growing particularly quickly. Working for a non-profit organization to expand their online reach and strengthen their web presence through slick user-interfaces and eye-catching graphics is just one possibility.
Photo by Hope Batcheller.
Multimedia: Consider a combination of skills in photography, audio recording and filmography. There is an increasing amount of content delivered online, often with an underlying goal of getting more people interested in and excited about birds.
General factors to consider…
Where can you picture yourself working? In the field? Behind a teacher’s desk? A genetics lab? Office building? Do you enjoy social interaction or do you prefer to be independent? Are you
comfortable in the public eye? Take time to think about your personal preferences and which situations you are most comfortable. Remember, no matter what you do, you will have to work with people. Above all, practice your people skills! Being able to interact comfortably with adults, treating people respectfully, listening skills…..you know, all those things parents typically teach, will be key for a successful career!