how to become an ecologist

What does an Ecologist do?

Ecologists focus on the relationship of organisms within their environment. Ecology is a branch of biology (biology is the study of life). Given the broad scope of ecology, there are multiple sub-disciplines that an ecologist can choose to focus on. Since all living things (plants, animals, microbes) depend on other living things and a healthy environment to survive, ecologists may specialize in one aspect of an ecosystem. Examples include terrestrial (land), aquatic (water), applied (concepts and principles of ecology), conversation (management of biodiversity), and evolutionary (evolution).

What a video to learn what an ecologist does.

How to Become an Ecologist

Ecologists must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field. However, postgraduate degrees in ecology are highly desirable. Degrees sought include conservation biology, marine biology, zoology, and environmental science. 

Coursework often includes biology, geography, chemistry, and ecology courses along with mathematics. You may also get the opportunity to choose classes that allow you to specialize in an area of ecology, such as genetics, biodiversity, plant physiology, conservation, community ecology, marine biology, and animal physiology.

To get into a graduate program to earn your master’s or doctorate, you will want to earn high grades in your undergraduate program. You will need to take the Graduate Record Exam, also known as the GRE before applying. Graduate school can be competitive; therefore, we also encourage you to volunteer, complete related internships, and get as hand-on-experience as possible. University looks for these in addition to the academic achievements accomplished while earning your bachelors degree. 

Check out the Ecological Society of America’s website for additional resources and information available to students and those wanting to enter the field. They even offer a Student Community section that offers communication lines with students seeking a career in ecology. This is a great way to network and ask questions to those further along in the educational path. 

Research Related Careers in Science

Job Description of an Ecologist

how to become an ecologist

The job description of an ecologist will depend on what they specialize in as there are various sub-disciplines in ecology. However, no matter what area you choose, the primary job is to study natural habitats or nature to focus on what interactions occur within the given environment. An ecologist’s goal is to preserve and protect ecosystems and address concerns affecting them. For example, some ecologists specialize in ecological restoration to restore unhealthy ecosystems. You also have aquatic ecologists that study the relationship of organisms in various marine environments. Community ecologists study how multiple species interact with one another. There are a dozen more sub-disciplines of ecology to research, which makes this career field interesting.

There are a variety of employment locations that an ecologist work in as well. They can work for environmental consulting companies, government natural resource agencies, program management organizations, or even universities. Typically an ecologist works a 40- hour work week, with some nights required. Travel and outdoor tasks may be required, pending on fieldwork requirements. When not in the field, you spend time indoors in labs or sitting at a desk on a computer.

The following Research Ecologist position was posted by the Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service with a posted salary of $76,721 to $118,603 per year on USAjobs.gov, part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.


Major Duties may include, but are not limited to:

  • Provide research support on the ecology and molecular characterization of CFT samples provided by APHIS-VS and others.
  • Work with stakeholders and industry to provide scientific advice to other action and regulatory federal and state agencies, and directly coordinate cooperative research with universities, private organizations, and companies.
  • Conduct ecological research using molecular-based approaches.
  • Develop ecologically-based methods, which improve CFT surveillance to prevent outbreaks.
  • Study the pattern and interaction between livestock and wildlife to understand how this ecological process drives CFT outbreaks across heterogeneous landscapes.
  • Analyze ecological and genetic data using database software to enhance countermeasures against CFT.

Teacher and Student Resources

To learn more about an introduction to ecology, Khan Academy (opens in a new tab) has incredible lessons outlining ecology. The lessons start with an intro to ecology and continues through population ecology, community ecology, ecosystems, and biogeography. Khan Academy is a free resource for students and adults. To learn more about aquatic ecology, visit the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (link opens in a new tab), which provides an Introduction to Aquatic Ecology.

Article Citations

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Environmental Scientists and Specialists.

National Center for O*NET Development. 13-2011.01. O*NET OnLine.

“Principles of ecology – MarineBio.org”. MarineBio Conservation Society. Web. Accessed 16:20 PM 9/16/2018. .