Colleges & Careers

Choosing a College

There are many higher education options for those wishing to pursue birds as a career. Countless schools offer excellent programs, and most schools have a faculty member who studies birds. Indeed, the options can be overwhelming as you begin college searching. Below are a few considerations to help narrow your search and answer some frequently asked questions.

What are you interested in as a career?

Obviously, you don’t need to decide your life’s trajectory in high school, but there are things to keep in mind when college searching. If you wish to enter wildlife management at the governmental level, look for schools with strong wildlife biology programs. If you want to pursue research, a biology program may be best. If you enjoy art and photography, look for schools with both art programs and course offerings in natural history topics.

Different careers require different levels of education. If you are interested in academia-centered research, grad school is likely in your future. In contrast, an undergraduate degree can be sufficient for tour guiding, field work, and other careers centered away from the pure sciences.

Large schools versus small schools

Many students worry about finding a school of the right size. Different sized colleges each have their advantages and disadvantages. Small schools without graduate students have only professors teaching courses, and may have more sense of a unified student body. However, they often have fewer research opportunities and specialized student organizations. In contrast, large schools with graduate students have ample research opportunities through both professors and grad students. Although the student body is larger, it is easy to find a specialized niche where you get to know a group of like-minded peers.

Research Opportunities

A student does lab work with DNA samples. Photo by Shailee Shah, courtesy of The Cornell Daily Sun.

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.

College Visits

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!

Learn more about applying to Cornell University here


Choosing a Major

There are a variety of college majors that cater to people interested in birds. There are no programs in the United States offering Ornithology as a major, but it is possible to angle your studies towards birds through coursework and research choices. Furthermore, each of these different programs gives a different perspective on conservation, ecology, and bird biology.


Offered as a major almost ubiquitously, biology strives to answer why and how animals (and plants, etc.) do what they do. Many larger schools offer field specializations within the biology major. Examples include “Cell and Molecular Biology,” “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology,” and “Neurobiology and Behavior.” Depending on your specific interests within the field of biology, you can choose coursework that best complements your interests. Many biology programs have a strong emphasis on research, both in the lab and field.


However, biology programs are often catered toward preparation for medical school. People are often concerned that this increases the program’s competitiveness, as well as ignores biology students who aren’t pre-med. Although this is occasionally true in large introductory classes, it becomes irrelevant in smaller, upper-level courses. Provided that the school offers smaller courses focused on ecology and natural history, the prevalence of the pre-med focus is largely a non-issue.

Example programs: Cornell UniversityBowdoin CollegeUC Davis

Wildlife Biology, Wildlife Ecology, and Natural Resources

Similarly to biology, these programs discuss how animals fit into their environment. However, they generally have a strong emphasis on management and policy, in both the governmental and non-profit worlds. They are usually smaller than biology programs, having less overlap with pre-med and pre-vet programs. Research in these programs is frequently field-based, focusing on how animals use their habitats and implications for conservation and management.

Example programs: Cornell UniversityOregon State UniversityU. Wisconson: Stevens Point

Environmental Science

Environmental science programs focus even less on biology, and more on policy and peoples’ interactions with nature. Coursework often covers humanitarian and development issues, as well as discussing physical- and chemical-based environmental problems such erosion and pollution.

Example programs: Arizona State UniversityNorthland CollegeMiddlebury College

Zoology and Animal Science

Zoology is the study of animals, and specifically investigates their phylogenetics, function, behavior, and other aspects of their natural history. Some of these programs emphasize the veterinary aspect of the field, whereas others are closer to wildlife biology.

Art and Film Studies

There are many opportunities for aesthetic, educational, and scientific illustration, photography, and videography of birds. If you are artistically inclined, these programs allow a non-science-oriented approach to the world of ornithology.

Example programs: University of Montana


Careers with Birds

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.

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.

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 Science: Software engineers are essential to develop technologies and online tools – like eBird and Merlin! 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.

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… know, all those things parents typically teach, will be key for a successful career!