Guest post: a career as an ecologist at a non-profit conservation organization

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Aaron Hall. Thank you very much to Aaron for taking the time to share his experience.

This post is part of our ongoing series on non-academic careers for ecologists. See here for links to previous posts in the series.


Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what sort of ecology did you do in grad school, and what do you do now?

I am Aaron Hall, and I work for the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. My job title is “Rockies and Plains Representative,” but functionally I am an aquatic ecologist. Defenders works to protect native species in native habitats, and focuses mostly on rare, threatened, and endangered species. 

I have a bit of a varied past: BS and MS in environmental science (but first three years of undergrad as a computer engineer) before i worked for five years as an environmental consultant. Then went back to grad school to get a PhD in applied conservation. For my PhD i studied the conservation of species which require multiple habitats to complete their life cycles, and how the spatial distribution of those habitats might change the way we try and conserve/protect those species. 

How did you get into your current career?

Having been out in the “real” world for several years after my masters, I was very focused on what I wanted out of a PhD. My goal was always to get into some sort of non-profit or NGO where science meets practice, and try and make whatever difference I could for the world. So towards the end of my degree I was all over the job boards and list servs applying for jobs which fit my (hopeful) intentions. 
I got my job through the normal apply and hope scenario, and found the listing on one of many job related list servs. It took me about 6 months after completing my degree to land my current position.
Tell us a bit about your current position and how you got it.
I think of my position as that of an aquatic ecologist, despite the generic job title. It is not, as my boss often points out, a research position. I am also not tied to any one system (other than aquatic) or species, which means that i have become a “jack of all trades, master of none” type ecologist (though I have mixed feelings about this).
About half my job consists of reviewing and commenting on projects at the state and federal level. These projects are required to go out for public review, so I try to determine if they will be good or bad for aquatic biodiversity, and then comment accordingly. Occasionally we litigate over these projects, and in those cases i act as an internal expert to support our legal team and make sure that they have a full understanding of the science, while they figure out the best legal strategies. 
The other half of my job is “in the field.” I think its extremely important to not just be an armchair ecologist, and fieldwork is also one of the best ways to build relationships and networks within a discipline. So I try to help out wherever i can with state and federal agencies, and private landowners. Sometimes that is helping out in the field with surveys, sometimes its attending meetings, and sometimes its trying to find funding. And sometimes its doing nothing because the other stakeholders have everything covered! There is a ton of variety in my position, which keeps it interesting. 
Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your non-academic career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?
I was very fortunate to have a PhD adviser who was supportive of my goals, and she really encouraged me to focus my research and coursework in ways that would benefit me the most. It was also great to have similar minded grad students in the lab as a support mechanism. 
In what ways do you find your career to be a change from academia? Are there aspects of the career that were a surprise or a “culture shock,” or that have required some adjustment on your part?
The biggest difference is that, as my boss is always quick to point out, the non-profit field (or at least my position specifically) is not solely research focused. That is not to say that we don’t contribute to the scientific community. Our scientists do often publish in peer-reviewed journals, but that is not the end game that we are striving for. If we can develop and publish new science while protecting the species/habitats we work on that is great, but not critical. 
In what ways (if any) has your academic background helped you in your career?
The obvious answer is that my background gives me the tools to be effective at my job. I try and apply the best available science to protect species, which means i have to (mostly) understand the best available science. This would not be possible without the years studying in academia.
Similar to academia, the non-profit world is often funded by soft money. This means that there is always the constant battle of bringing in enough money to keep current programs running, and to start the new programs which are needed. This process feels to me very similar to applying for research grants in the world of academia, so i’m more comfortable than i otherwise would be when asked to be involved in the process. 
Any regrets about not pursuing an academic career path?
None at all. I was fortunate to have very specific goals when i went back to grad school, and even more fortunate that i was able to meet those goals. 
Anything else you want to say to readers considering your career, or a non-academic career path more generally?
I think that there are great options out there in the non-academic world, where an academic background is especially useful.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: a career as an ecologist at a non-profit conservation organization

  1. I’m sad that nobody’s commented or asked follow-up questions on this valuable post, so I’ve taken it upon myself to break the ice. Aaron, you mentioned that you were strategic in taking courses and doing research that supported your goal of working at a non-profit/NGO. Could you elaborate on what that looked like for you, and other opportunities that would help prepare people for success in that field? Do you have any advice for people with academic backgrounds who are interested in applying for positions in your field? E.g., to the extent that you can speak to it, how does crafting a compelling application differ between academic jobs and positions with non-profits/NGOs?

    • Hi, happy to try and elaborate. For courses and research, i really focused on applied aspects of ecology. For example, i took a stats course instead of a seminar course because i hoped that more stats knowledge/tools would be more applicable outside of academia. When looking to publish thesis chapters (still in progress on a couple), i try to choose journals with a conservation focus, and ideally conservation in the title. Many people hiring in the non-profit/NGO world are not familiar with the intricacies of journal “rankings” etc.

      Another strategy was to be as involved as possible with conservation “extracurriculars.” For me this was being on the exec board or a member of several groups within my department and on campus (e.g. local chapter of SCB, entomological societies, naturalist societies). From my viewpoint being involved in these organizations shows non-profits/NGOs that you really are interested in the cause.

      As far as applying for jobs in non-profit/NGO, i think it really depends on the position itself. One big difference is the emphasis, of lack of, on research. Especially future goals and research directions. I think its important to be able to show that you have the knowledge to interpret and apply the current science, rather than how the work you have done fills in the gaps and expands the field (though obviously this is important).

  2. Hi Aaron! Great posts, I was actually looking out in the Google ocean for stories of people who switched or re-directed their career towards the non-profit/NGO world. I am actually about to start a PhD in the field of Ecology (in the sub-field of Agroecology). One of my goals is to find a position after my PhD in a non-profit organisation. But I really wanted to know what are the chances? What are the chances of getting a paid job at an organisation such as the WWF, National Geographic, the Nature Conservancy? Most of the times I look into the positions these organisations offer, I see that the positions are very much related to computer or management tasks, and few are the positions for scientists (so I guess competition for these positions must be very high..). Any piece of advice?

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