November 11, 2016

How to get a wildlife job in the Trump years

Post-election turmoil has gripped the minds of many, and I've noticed that my students--both undergraduates and graduate students--are more than a little anxious about what a Trump presidency means for their futures.  This is not a poor question to be asking.  Political climates affect budgets.  Budgets affect jobs.  Jobs affect you. 

So, let me weigh in with some ideas--in an attempt to provide a way forward.  Let's look at some trends.

First, I made this graphic for
Created by L. Powell, 2016
my senior fisheries and wildlife students.  It's an attempt to provide a big-picture, long-term view of some agencies and NGOs that provide jobs for our students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Point: they've been around for a long time, and will continue to be around for a long time.  Even the oft-maligned EPA was created by a Republican (Nixon) and has survived previous attacks on funding levels.  The majority (even a larger majority than those who voted for Clinton in '16) of the citizens in the US is concerned about the environment, depends upon the environment, and likes to spend time outdoors on vacations.  These agencies and NGO's will remain well past a Trump presidency.

Will jobs be fewer in these agencies?  A Republican administration has always created that fear in the
Ironic source:
environmental community--it happened when both Bush gentlemen were elected.  That fear was present when Reagan was elected. Not all of the representative environmental agencies are in the Department of the Interior, but the ones most susceptible to budget cuts are in that agency (Forest Service is in the USDA, for example).  If we look at the budget trends, adjusted for inflation, we see that in the past, there are certainly more dollars for Interior during the Obama administration (in some cases almost 40% more than in the previous administration), but Interior's budget was also prone to lean-year cuts (e.g., 2012). Take-home point: yes, good chance budgets will be smaller and federal jobs may be harder to get. 

The work-around for current students: take advantage of any chance to get into federal employment.  Pathways Program.  Take a non-biologist job to get into the federal system.  I know many current federal employees who tell stories of taking jobs as office assistants or maintenance workers just to get federal status.  They bided their time until a position was open and their federal status gave them a leg up. Do what is needed.  Be geographically flexible--yes, you may have to spend time away from your boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancĂ©.  You may have to move away from family for a few years.  How badly do you want to work in the field (and this has been true even when jobs were a little more plentiful at the federal level)?

How about research careers?  You want to get into graduate school
Source: New York Times
for that MS or PhD?  What's going to happen to research funding?  One type of funding that won't change too dramatically is the funding for wildlife research based on Pittman-Robertson funds--the funds that are derived from gun sales and ammunition.  These funds have been at high levels, as the figure here shows, during the Obama administration because people thought gun regulations were going to limit the types of firearms and ammunition they could own.  So, ironically, every time Obama was elected and every time there was a school shooting, gun and ammunition sales would dramatically increase--and the 11% tax would come back to states for research on game species. 

That point is important--game species.  If you are a student with dreams of doing conservation on bobolinks, consider getting a summer job working with pheasant research (funded by the PR funds).  If you want to have a research career with focus on reptiles, consider a summer job on a white-tailed deer research project.  Learn how to conduct research.  Use the game species funds to your advantage.  Come back to non-game species when opportunity provides--don't sit around waiting for a bobolink project to magically appear.  You'll waste some of the most critical years of your career.

And finally--what about those students who are looking at jobs funded by state government?  Academic positions or jobs in state wildlife agencies?  Both types of jobs are supported by state-level budgets. Although a Trump presidency has potential to affect the economy, there are also longer-term economic trends that are coinciding with the new Trump administration.  Students should be looking at those as they plan where they might work and target their job applications. 

Take a look at this figure of 2015 budgets by region,
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
and you'll see that the agricultural states in the Midwest are slumping as ag commodities struggle. Yup--there is a connection to how many of these states voted in the election as well.  But, to the point of students looking for jobs--my suggestion is to not hang all of your hopes on states that are struggling.  Look at states where budgets seem to be doing better and don't leave those off your job searches.  Sure, there will continue to be jobs in states like Nebraska, but if I were looking for state-supported jobs, I'd be looking at the Blue States in this figure...states with increasing GDP.  The point--pay attention to budgets.  People aren't just waiting to hire you because you are an excellent prospect.  They have to have funds to hire you.

Academic work-around: look at smaller state schools and private colleges.  This was my career track during the late 90's when academic positions were also in short supply.  I worked for three years at a private college--it gave me teaching experience and the start to a research career, and I worked what was left of my nights to get manuscripts published from my postdoc and PhD.  After three years, I was more competitive for a large-University position.  Do what it takes.  Students will always go to smaller schools, and there will always be positions there.  Smaller salary.  Yup--my family was $2500 away from food stamp level the first year of my first academic job.  I did what I could to start my career, and we made it.

Another work-around: look to NGOs. Non-governmental sources of employment.  Audubon, TNC, zoos, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory--and other similar folks.  Especially in states where economy is going well, these groups may have funding for positions in conservation and research that are not dependent (as least as much) on federal dollars.  Their members or supporters provide funds--these donations are dependent on the economy (people donate when they have extra money to donate), so keep your eye on the economy as you look at these organizations.

Last work-around: look to environmental or ecological consulting firms.  These jobs are sky-rocketing, to be honest.  In times of state and federal budget shortages, agencies may have money to do a project but no money to hire the workers to do it.  The solution is to contract the wetland restoration or forest management planning process to an environmental consulting firm.  Start looking at job ads with those firms and see what they require of their employees.  Plan your courses and training appropriately, or spend a summer working for them rather than working on a graduate student research project (as much as that pains me to write it...). 

It's your future--society needs you more than ever.  Our environment needs you more than ever!

Don't panic at the change occurring, politically.  I'm not addressing any human rights concerns of a Trump presidency here--my goal is to specifically work with students on their career options.  I hope these thoughts are helpful. If you have other ideas, feel free to post a comment! 


  1. Pittman-Robertson Funds are for any bird or any mammal. Bobolinks and pheasants are equally funded under the law. PR does not say game or non-game species. State agency preferences might caused unequal funding in some states. It is important for students to know that PR funds aren't game funds and could be used for all non-game as the law is written.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sunshine. I'm asking my friends in agencies to look into this. I guess I'd qualify your comments by saying that it is certainly important to understand the law as written. But, students should keep in mind who it is most commonly applied, and that means that funding for research is more often available for game species. One can use that opportunity to get experience to lead to a career working with non-game species when non-game funding is tight...that's my opinion.

    2. So a quick update from an agency friend of mine confirms both Sunshine's comment and my qualification. The PR funding does allow game and non-game funding for wild birds and mammals, but agencies realize WHERE the funding comes from. So, to keep the funding available (not just preferences for the type of research needed) by keeping firearms and ammunition manufacturers happy and the hunting community happy (the folks who pay the tax), funding tends to be applied to game species. So, my prediction would still apply--game species funding will be much more likely to be available in a Trump administration. But, thank you for the clarification on the law, Sunshine. It's an excellent point. And, it's another example of how politics (i.e., the politics of maintaining a levied tax) are critical to the understanding of the dynamics of our occupation.

    3. I'm not sure who is telling you it's OK to be used for Non-Game. In Twenty Five years with AZ Game and Fish Dept as a research biologist (completely paid for by PR funds) we could only do research on Game type species. We tried to do some reptile work (affects of fire on them) but USFWS didn't approve the funding.

    4. I'm not sure where you are getting your info from. In twenty five years as a research biologist for AZ Game and Fish, almost 100% PR funded, I was only allowed to do research on game species. We tried to do some work on the effects of fire on herps but USFWS would not approve it because it was not a game species.

    5. And I want to echo Mark's reply, great job and I'm sending this link to a bunch of very nervous undergrads I now teach.

    6. I am posting as anon bc I do not want to stir up any trouble (or put my funding at risk!) but I work for a state wildlife agency and this east coast state does allow for PR funding to be used for nongame spp. Two of my biggest projects were funded that way and will continue to be so in the future.

  2. While the election could impact this program, the Directorate Fellowship Program is another way into the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a competitive program for undergraduates and graduate students. Ten week fellowship in the summer and upon completion and graduation, two years non-competitive status. Check it out.

  3. Larkin, very well done. I am posting this to all of our gradstds and graduating seniors. Mark Wallace, Professor and Chair, Department of Natural Resources Management, Texas Tech University.

  4. There are some good tips here. Thanks for the help!

  5. Your students should also be made aware of legislation that will be introduced in the spring of 2017 called "Recovering America's Wildlife Act." Draft legislation was introduced in July (HR 5650) which would provide an additional $1.3Billion with a B for the recovery/management of "species of greatest Conservation Need." The legislative intent of this money is to be additive with P.R. Funds, so if they want to guarantee a career in wildlife, have them go through an exercise of what they can do to support Congr. Don Young's bill in the new session.

    1. I was going to post the same thing. If it goes through, there will be more opportunities than most people can even imagine. For my state, a lot will be contracted out bc we simply do not have the manpower (or an administration that wants to grow state government) to spend it all. I know people have been down this road before (ie Teaming With Wildlife) but the bi-partisan nature of its inception and buy-in from industry makes me hopeful.

  6. Also remember a lot of biologist, wildlife managers, etc. are retiring. If you love this field stay the course, work will come. I got a job as a biologist after graduate school in 2007 during a recession, I still have that job today.

  7. The students,should also look at working with a non profit youth conservation corps. Theres the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act with bi partisan support. These paid internship positions often lead to public land hiring preference thru the Public Lands Service Corps Act) with federal agencies. Many are approved for Reseach Assistant Program hiring authority. Therefore after you work with a youth conservation corps, it creates a pathway to federal hiring.

    Also, consider the huge growth in the five gulf coastal states ehete tgetes s need for training local workforce to restore the gulf. College studebts are needed for research assistant, marine biology, et.

  8. Excellent advice! I agree that flexibility is key. I've been doing short-term wildlife research work for 16 years now and have always been able to find work because I will go anywhere.
    Also, as a job-seeker, if you can keep your expenses low (e.g. debt payments) that will open up many more opportunities. I've had to pass up quite a few awesome jobs because I couldn't pay the bills if I took them.