Inside: I always knew I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. What I wasn’t prepared for were the struggles. But at the end of the day, I’d still do it all over again.
Follow your passion.
Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
These and other tidbits of wisdom are slapped on cards, posters, and Pinterest images around the world. They’re poured out by inspirational speakers everywhere.
I swallowed the bait hook, like, and sinker when I was younger. I loved to hunt, fish, read, count things, and investigate. Hanging out in the woods was a favorite pastime.
So, you can understand how I ended up studying wildlife biology in college when I was older.
Unfortunately, this career path isn’t what I hoped it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be a wildlife biologist someday. Literally everything I do now is in service of that goal. But along the way I’ve changed. There are a lot of things I didn’t realize when I started going down this path.
Warning: this is going to be a long read. Buckle up, folks.
- 1 Biology Compared To “Normal” Careers
- 1.1 Stable Jobs Can Be Harder To Find Than Unicorns
- 1.2 You Might Not Be Able To Pay Your Student Loans And Save
- 1.3 You’ll Probably Need To Go To Grad School
- 1.4 You’ll Probably Have To Get Another Job
- 1.5 You Have To Be OK With Moving Frequently
- 1.6 This Job Is Not Easy On Families
- 1.7 You Need To Have Flexible Career Goals
- 1.8 It’s OK To Change Your Goals
- 1.9 You Might Have An Awesome Career
- 1.10 Final Words
- 1.11 Be A Part Of My Nonscientific Research About Scientists!
Biology Compared To “Normal” Careers
Let’s not pussy-foot around this. Being a biologist isn’t a “normal” career. That’s kind of the point; I’m an abnormal person, and I need an abnormal career to match.
In the short time I have been employed in biology, I’ve jumped out of helicopters, dodged bears in the woods, played with explosive rocket fuel in the lab, and actually been injured by a reindeer before Christmas.
My biologist homies will know exactly what I’m talking about with this article. But for the non-biologists among us, let’s set up a baseline financial comparison with other, more common “normal” careers. We’ll look at data from the US BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook.
First, let’s look at your job prospects as a wildlife biologist:
Shucky darn. Your chances aren’t very good, my friends. Maybe there will be more wildlife biologist jobs in the future, though?
Bah! Foiled again. According to the BLS, the average career growth rate is 7%. That means you’ll be seeing even less of us in the future compared to other jobs. What about a wildlife biologist’s salary compared to others?
Well, not so bad here. As a wildlife biologist you can expect to make about as much as a high school teacher. Just try not to compare yourself to doctors too much.
Related: Tents, Tortoises, And Tailgates: My Life As A Wildlife Biologist (affiliate link)
Stable Jobs Can Be Harder To Find Than Unicorns
I was taught as a kid that I’d grow up, find a good job, and work there for the rest of my life. That’s what my dad did. He is still employed as a natural resources officer for a state Department of Natural Resources.
Unfortunately, for biologists, it doesn’t work this way very often.
Most jobs are seasonal in nature, especially for biological science technicians. That works out great if you’re a college student. But, I know people in their 40s who are still doing the annual summer job search.
Full-time permanent positions do exist (perhaps you have one yourself, dear reader?), but they are not easy to come by, especially if you’re not able to move anywhere at the drop of a hat. That’s especially true for recent college grads like myself.
You Might Not Be Able To Pay Your Student Loans And Save
I took out $55,000 of private student loans to pay for my undergrad education. In the wildlife biology world, starting out with a BS will likely get you a job as an entry-level Biological Science Technician position—not even a full-on Wildlife Biologist job.
Here’s a sample of what my monthly budget looks like. Let’s assume I’m single and not also supporting my husband as well, because that makes things simpler. I’ll split rent/utilities with my “roommate.”
- Rent: $497
- Food/toiletries: $300
- Car payment: $200
- Car insurance/registration/fuel/maintenance: $258
- Cell phone bill: $98
- Internet: $29
- Electricity: $45
- Renter’s insurance: $20
- Medical/dental/vision insurance: $204
- Health savings account: $200
- Clothing: $50
- Laundromat: $20
- Emergency fund savings: $200
So far we’re up to $2,121 in expenses. I haven’t even included anything for fun like Netflix or entertainment money. I also haven’t even gotten to my student loan payments yet.
Let’s break this down Lil Dicky-style.
My first post-graduation wildlife biology job was as a GS-06 with the federal government. My monthly gross take-home pay was $3,305. If I set aside 10% into a 401k for retirement, I’d then have a final paycheck of $2,272 per month after taxes were taken out.
Now let’s look at adding in my student loan payments. Drumroll please….$369.
That means I have $2,272 per month to cover $2,490 worth of expenses.
Obviously something’s got to go. I’m already not paying for any “fun” expenses like dining out, entertainment, or Netflix on this budget.
I could try to find a cheaper place. Moving in with parents to save on rent would be a great idea. Except for the fact that you don’t always get to choose where you live with this career.
I could find a cheaper cell phone plan, but even if I cut it in half I’d still have to shave off another $169 in my budget. The only other option is to stop saving as much, either for health expenses, emergencies, or retirement.
That, or find the actual end of the rainbow.
You’ll Probably Need To Go To Grad School
Let’s say you want something a little more permanent than never-ending summer jobs. Maybe you want a high enough income so you can afford to pay off your debt and save at the same time.
Luckily, going to grad school has a lot of advantages. I got a brief reprieve from having to start repaying my student loans while in grad school (of course, the interest kept ticking ever upward).
Studying biology in grad school isn’t like getting a grad degree in other fields. It works more like an apprenticeship system: you find an advisor, do a research project, publish it, and Bob’s your uncle.
Because of this unique system, most people are actually paid to get their degree. By the time I graduated, I’d come out ahead by over $75k, published two scientific articles (soon to be three!), and had an MS degree to boot.
Of course, life isn’t always so simple. Having an advanced degree puts you in another class entirely. You’re overqualified for many jobs, and paradoxically, this may even harm your employment prospects.
After I graduated I applied for as many local biology-ey jobs as I could. No dice. I started to panic as my bank account started to dwindle. Finally, I started applying anywhere and everywhere—even as a cashier in big-box stores. No one ever called me back from those jobs.
Eventually, I landed a position as a janitor/animal caretaker in a lab animal facility cleaning rooms for other grad students’ animals. I made a measly $31k per year.
When I crunched the numbers on a per-hour basis, I’d actually made more money as a graduate student myself.
You’ll Probably Have To Get Another Job
As a wildlife biologist or a biological science technician, you’ll be battling four ever-present foes:
- A general shortage of jobs
- Most jobs are only seasonal
- Low wages relative to expenses
- Inability to move willy-nilly wherever jobs actually are
Sometimes you’ll get lucky with a seasonal job and they’ll extend the offer for you to work longer. That’s what happened to me last year: my summer seasonal job was extended right up until it unexpectedly petered out two weeks before Christmas.
Luckily, I had started freelance writing a year prior in a desperate attempt to bring in some more cash. Unlike my budget I showed you above, it was even worse: I was supporting my husband while he was in school, meaning I was the sole breadwinner. And frankly, that bread would have been a big stale turd of a loaf if all I had to live on was my income from my GS-06 job. Half of my entire salary was going to our old home that tried to kill our bank account.
Related post: How I Got Started As A Freelance Writer
Instead, when my position ended, I was able to step into freelance writing almost full-time. That was six months ago, and I’ve been here ever since waiting for the next biology opportunity to crop up. Even after I get a job I’m going to keep freelance writing. At this point it’s my job insurance.
I’m not the only one either. Most people rely on temporary jobs to hold them over in between the temporary-wildlife jobs. I have friends who’ve worked as receptionists, substitute teachers, grocery store deli clerks, tour guides, and yes—lab animal caretakers.
To my fellow biologists, let me say: don’t just rely on a job to tide you over if possible. Start something of your own. Choose something flexible so you can dial it back a notch while working in the field or part-time on nights and weekends. Then you can crank that sucker right back up when you’re unemployed again.
You’ll also be able to build it up over time, rather than start from square one at a new job every time you get an in-between-jobs-job. Don’t get caught with your pants down, guys!
Need some inspiration? Check out Side Hustle Nation’s epic post of 99 Side Hustle Ideas.
You Have To Be OK With Moving Frequently
Here’s the honest truth: the most successful wildlife biologists in this profession are willing to move around. A lot. Sometimes it seems like some of my friends move across the country more times than an epileptic ping-pong ball.
That’s hard if you’re someone who doesn’t want to live anywhere except a place you’re attached to.
It’s especially difficult for families. Right now my husband is in school. He can’t just pack up his bags and leave on a whim to the middle of nowhere. So, I have two options: either have a long-distance relationship with my husband (I know many people who do this), or wait and hope a job opens up where I’m already at. If no local jobs hire me, then I’m shit outta luck and have to do something else in the meantime—freelance writing, in my case.
It’s also hard to move around frequently if you have pets. Let’s be honest; wildlife biologists went into the wildlife biology field because they like animals. For a wildlife biologist to be pet-free would be like a librarian without books.
One of my friends is currently moving across the country from Michigan to Arizona for a summer job doing bird surveys. They won’t allow her to keep her dog in the government-provided housing (the one she has to pay to live in), so she is leaving her dog behind with her family in Michigan.
If she didn’t have that fail-safe, she’d either have to decline the job offer or get rid of her dog whom she’s raised since he was a pup.
This Job Is Not Easy On Families
Moving around so much is not easy on families. Dealing with a low income is also doubly hard for families. Both of these factors only get worse if you bring kids into the equation.
Hopefully by the time you’ve decided on having some wee ones you’ve been lucky enough to find a permanent job, but that’s no guarantee. Even if you go to grad school it can take many years before you nail down this elusive type of position.
I’m almost 30 years old and I’ve still only worked one “official” seasonal biology job since graduating. I’m not saying I’m old, but my baby-makin’ clock is ticking.
If I wanted to have kids, the next few years of my life are among the last prime childbearing years I’ll have. But will I have a permanent job where I can support such a family? Will I still be chasing temporary seasonal jobs? I don’t know.
It can be tough to manage a family even after you’ve found a job. Biology jobs often require you to get out into the field every so often to collect data, and this can take anywhere from a few hours to several months.
I heard a story once about a female wildlife biologist who headed out into the field after giving birth. She put up her husband and new baby in a hotel nearby, and every day she’d go back to the hotel to feed her new infant. There wasn’t any other option; she was the lead researcher, and they didn’t have an option to delay captures.
A lot of wildlife research is time-dependent. There’s only a four-day window after baby caribou are born where you can still catch them on foot, for example. If you had the misfortune to be laid up on bedrest during that time, well then you’re just shit outta luck.
For this reason, it’s pretty common for people to plan babymaking around field seasons. I can’t imagine that kind of pressure especially as I’ve heard from friends how difficult it really can be to conceive on a planned schedule. Come on, Frank, I got a deadline in two days otherwise I’ll be giving birth with the caribou! Let’s do this!
You Need To Have Flexible Career Goals
You may have started out with the full intention of being a wolf biologist. But, there’s probably like ten of them in the entire country. The odds are not ever in your favor.
Here’s the ugly truth: if you limit yourself to one area or one specialty, you may never get that job. There’s so few permanent positions available that once people have them, they cling onto them for dear life.
You can do everything humanly possible to make yourself a fantastic candidate. But if there’s only five biologist positions in your commuting area, you can’t move, and those five biologists aren’t giving up their spots—well shucky darn tough beans. You’re not getting that job.
So, be flexible. Accept that you might have to work another job, even if temporarily. Hell, I’m not working as a wildlife biologist right now. I’m mostly writing articles about credit card reviews and life insurance.
But I still consider myself a wildlife biologist, even if that’s not what I’m doing right now out of economic necessity.
It’s OK To Change Your Goals
None of this information is new to people who’ve been inducted into the biology career path. One of my favorite classes was Population Biology—basically, how to do math with animal populations.
On the first day of class, my instructor said, “You can become a population biologist and make a tiny bit of money. Or, you can take these same skills I’ll teach you this semester, apply them to the human population, and make a shit ton of money as an actuary.”
Of course, this means nothing to a doe-eyed 22-year-old.
Move around the country? Of course I can do that. Not make a huge salary? That’s OK; I’d rather to hang out with trees and animals all summer rather than be rich. Besides, I’m not making much now as a student and I’m fine.
Somewhere along the way though you realize you might actually want to contribute to your retirement account, because you don’t want to be eating cat food as an old person. You might realize you don’t want to be paying student loans into your 50s. Maybe you actually do want a home of your own, but you can’t save up for a down payment.
Maybe you decide someday that gosh darn those little burpy-faced cherubs are cute, and I need like five of them in my life right now (sorry Mom; this hasn’t happened to me yet).
Your life will always be evolving and changing. You are continually making decisions based on incomplete information. This is especially true as an undergrad. Hindsight is 50/50. You can only make the best decision for you today, but tomorrow the rules may change and maybe you wouldn’t have made the same decision again.
So, it’s OK to change your goals. It’s also OK to keep them.
You Might Have An Awesome Career
For those who persist and for whom the stars align, congrats: you made it.
We get to do the kinds of things other people only wish they could do. People pay money to do the things we do.
My first “wildlife” job as an undergrad involved capturing newborn caribou calves from the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. I helped raise and train these guys over the course of several years. I knew each one. They were my friends (whether they knew it or not).
I’m one of the only people in the history of the entire world who’s ever gotten to do that. That’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Even if you don’t end up as a Wildlife Biologist, you can still have a kick-ass career. I’ve got friends who went on to start up a huge beekeeping operation. Bees, for fuck’s sake! They get to travel around the country (with their young family in tow) with their beehives. It’s awesome and they couldn’t be happier.
Others have started small farms, worked in science communications to spread the Good Word, or even became professional dogsled racers. Hell, even here I am trying to teach you how to be better at managing your money so you can afford to work in this job.
This is not an easy career path. I would never tell someone to blindly “follow their passion” like a tender carefree butterfly, right into the jaws of a crocodile.
This career takes more tenacity than Tenacious D searching for the Pick of Destiny (side note: if you’ve found it please let me know because my metal guitar skills are subpar and I could use a boost).
For those who stick with it and aren’t afraid to adapt their master plan, though, this is about the most fun job I can think of.
The ultimate test to ask yourself looking back is, would I have made the same decision twice? Despite all of my struggles, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
I love this career for the struggles. It forced me to grow, to evolve, to adapt, and become something more than I was before I started. Being a biologist means inherent struggle.
At the end of the day, I still love being a wildlife biologist.
Be A Part Of My Nonscientific Research About Scientists!
I’ve always wondered about the fate of other biology students around the world.
Did you get the job you were hoping for? What were your struggles? Is it what you thought it would be? How much money do you make? What sacrifices did you have to make?
Now, my friends, the time has come! Thanks to the power of the Google machine, we can together learn more about the plight of our fellow biologists.
I’ve opened up a survey for anyone who studied biologists in school. I’ve received over 700 answers, and I’m currently in the process of analyzing them.
*Note: The survey is complete! Check it out: State Of The Biologists Survey: Where Do We Go From Here?
Have you had to make any sacrifices for your career? What difficulties have you faced? Leave a comment below!
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