Graduate Advisors Graduate School Advice

What do Graduate Advisors Look For in Applicants?

A big part of applying to research-based graduate programs is finding an advisor. This faculty member will impact your overall education experience and play a critical role in the success of your thesis or dissertation work. But identifying potential advisors is not enough. You need to find someone who is willing to take you on as a student. Limits on space and funding make things very competitive, especially when assistantships are on the line. 

So what exactly are advisors looking for when selecting students?

In this article, we review the top 9 qualities and qualifications graduate advisors look for when selecting advisees. Equipped with this knowledge, you can focus on making yourself into a stronger candidate.


Note: Graduate advisors wear many hats. They advise, teach and conduct their own research. When seeking students, they look for dependable individuals with specific skill sets because their choices impact the success of their own projects. 


Strong Introductory Email

Graduate advisors receive hundreds of emails from prospective students. To stand out from the crowd make sure to send a strong introductory email. We consulted with professors in ecology and wildlife science to find out what they look for in emails. Check out the popular answers below.

Advisors look for students who…

  • Ask about availability to take on new students
  • Know the advisors’ area of research
  • Have specific research interests
  • Can explain how their research interests fit with the work of the advisor
  • Express an interest in pursuing grant or funding opportunities with the university (if no assistantship is posted). 


Student sample of an introductory email:

Professor Langdon,

My name is Lindsay Keating and I graduated from Franklin University with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in Anthropology. I am looking to get my Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science this Fall (2021) or Spring (2021). In the interim, I am working full-time as a Lab Technician at Ohio State University, College of Medicine, in their Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity and recently finished working part-time, fully remote with the University of Arkansas assisting one of Dr. Kate Fansler’s Ph.D. students. As a result, I wanted to reach out to professors whose research I felt resonated with my interests. Do you anticipate bringing on students and having funding/space for a Master’s student in the following year? I am also willing to work with you to develop a project, write proposals, and apply for outside sources of funding.

I am interested in actionable conservation, moving between conducting ecological fieldwork and then applying the research to develop sustainable solutions by working with stakeholders. In particular, I enjoy working with vulnerable communities and ecosystems and I believe that your research examining the effects of rangeland management, climate change, and restoration on native bee and invertebrate communities corresponds well with these interests. I am very open to exploring many research options and believe that your work would offer me the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. I would love to speak further about how my skills and experience can benefit your research and I’ve attached my CV, transcript, a statement of interest, and a GRE score report for reference. Thank you for your time and consideration!

Lindsay Keating


Relevant Research Experience

Completing an undergraduate degree is a prerequisite to any graduate program, but advisors also want to see that applicants have experience beyond coursework. Relevant real-world research experience will make you a much stronger graduate candidate, especially if you are applying for an assistantship position. If you want to impress to advisors even more, gain experience in a research leadership role. 

Advisors suggest:

  • Start early in seeking out research experience opportunities
  • Find a graduate student or faculty member who needs help with a research project. 
  • Conduct independent research/study 
  • Work as a seasonal technician or lab tech


Check out Building Your Qualifications for Grad School: How to Stand Out for more advice on research experience.


“Research is the most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for graduate school because it will teach you not only how to do research, but whether you like research and if so, what areas of research you enjoy the most.”

– Walter P. Carson – Associate Professor | Department of Biological Sciences | University of Pittsburgh

Meets Minimum GPA/GRE Scores

Many graduate programs have set GPA and GRE minimums (typically a GPA of 3.0 and GRE scores of 1000 combined verbal and quantitative). Advisors want students who check those required boxes. Check to see if the advisors you reach out to want to see your scores in your introductory email. 


Note: If your GPA is higher for your major classes than your overall score, you may want to emphasize this in your communication with an advisor. It will show your focus and desire to succeed in your field. 


Specific Skill Set(s)

Every research topic benefits from particular skill sets. Figure out which skills are most important in your area of interest and strengthen them through experience and additional training if necessary. Advisors especially appreciate when you have applied these skills in a real-world context.

“For genomics/genetics, there are skills sets that are high demand, principally bioinformatics and genomic lab work. These skills were relatively rare at an MS level going into a PhD, so immediately became more impressive”

Liz Kiereplka – Senior Research Biologist/Research Assistant Professor | Department of Natural Sciences |  NC State University & North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Concrete Goal/Focus Area

Graduate school is not like undergrad, it’s more specific, and involves self-teaching and learning-by-doing. Advisors want to see focused students who know what they want from the experience. Furthermore, you should know enough about your interests to confirm that they fit well within the realm of the advisor’s work. 

“Really think about potential research questions and if those questions fit with the professor. Engaging with the professor about what they are interested in and gauging if those interests fit yours will get you far.”

Liz Kiereplka – Senior Research Biologist/Research Assistant Professor | Department of Natural Sciences |  NC State University & North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Note: It’s easy to become overly taxa-focused in wildlife science and ecology. Think about questions and research interests related to an advisor’s work, not the specific species.


Quality References and Recommendations

When actively seeking new grad students, professors rely heavily on network connections. For advisors, bringing a new student into a lab carries risk. When a colleague can vouch for your ability and dedication, the reassurance is worth its weight in gold. This is why you should focus on building relationships with other professors and professionals – not just inside the classroom but, ideally, also in a research setting where they see your work firsthand. You will want these connections to serve as quality references.

“The natural resource conservation and management field (e.g., Fisheries and Wildlife, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Hydrology) is very small and there are very few degrees of separation among professionals…What this ‘small world’ means to potential graduate students is that the professional that you are working with as an undergraduate definitely knows others in his/her discipline and probably knows researchers/faculty in other disciplines.”

– James Peterson – Professor and Leader USGS Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit–  Department of Fisheries & Wildlife | Oregon State University


Compatible Personality

Advisors assess chemistry in addition to qualifications when interviewing students. Remember, you could end up working together for several years. Use your interview as an opportunity to evaluate personality fit just as you might with a new colleague or boss. Be honest with yourself, if your gut tells you the fit isn’t right. 

Advisors want students to ask:

  • What do work expectations look like?
  • Do you work hands-on or hands-off as an advisor?
  • How often do you meet with students?
  • Do you have an open-door policy or prefer scheduled meetings?

Active Participant 

Graduate advisors love when students are active members of the scientific community. You can participate by attending scientific meetings and conferences. If possible, present research (paper or poster) at an event. Not only do these experiences provide great networking opportunities they’ll expose you to new research in the field, sparking new ideas and ways of thinking. Another way to be involved is to participate in departmental events like socials, clubs or seminar series. 

Willingness to Learn

Graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to advance your education and your graduate advisor is there to guide you. Advisors appreciate when you ask questions rather than pretending to know more than you do. Additionally, recognize that the best advisor/advisee relationships are a two-way street. Open communication with your advisor will help you make the most of your time and efforts. 

“I wish graduate students knew it is fine not to know everything. Admit when you don’t know or understand something. Even the smartest and brightest students have areas in which they are not as smart and bright.” – Graduate Advisor at Lidenwood University


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Career Advice Environmental Careers

Career Pathways for Nature-Based Educators

Nature centers are a great place for environmental educators to build a career.

Often located on preserves, nature centers connect people to the natural world by erasing the walls of the traditional classroom.

Educators at these organizations develop and use innovative, hands-on, methods to enhance the public’s understanding of local ecosystems and foster responsible stewardship of nature. Students have the opportunity to engage with the natural environment and witness science in action.

Think visitor centers, guided interpretive tours, museums and exhibits, as well as structured programs, camps and classes for all ages. 

If you are interested in seeing where nature center jobs can take you, continue reading. We review the types of professional roles and educational programs at nature centers to help you understand the possibilities.

Professional Roles: 3 Main Tiers

Roles can be broken down into three tiers, entry level, mid level, and senior level. 


NOTE: Many organizations offer volunteer and internship experiences for students and other people just starting out in the field. While these opportunities can help you become a more competitive applicant, they are not always economically feasible. 


Entry Level:

Entry-level roles are where you will typically start out since they require little to no prior paid work experience. Often seasonal or part time, these jobs are a great way for you to gain teaching experience and become familiar with environmental curriculums. These positions can help you get your foot in the door since many organizations hire from within. 

The specific tasks and responsibilities of these roles vary depending on the organization and the program focus.

  • Assistant Teacher – In this role, you might serve as a teacher’s aid, substitute teacher or on-call teacher for school field trips.
  • Camp Counselor – As a counselor you will implement environmental education curriculum during camp, coordinate activities, guide campers, manage group dynamics, and ensure safety protocols.
  • Seasonal Educator – In this instructor role, you teach – and sometimes design – lesson plans while adapting content to a wide variety of different learners and age groups.
  • Naturalist – As a naturalist you provide environmental interpretive services which can include guided walks for the visiting public.

Mid Level:

Environmental educators in mid-level positions take on more responsibility. These positions however also require more experience – you will likely need a few years (or seasons) in an entry-level role under your belt before landing your first mid-level job. The good news is that mid-level jobs are more likely to be permanent positions as opposed to seasonal or temporary work. They also are more likely to pay a salary with benefits. 

  • Environmental Education Coordinator  – As a coordinator, it is your responsibility to ensure smooth daily operations at the center. This generally includes exhibits, presentations and onsite education programs. You could be involved in the strategic interpretive planning for the center’s exhibits, educational spaces and programs. 
  • Outdoor Education Instructor – As an instructor it’s your job to implement curriculum. You help develop and deliver programming. Work includes long-range planning and daily nature education activities. As an experienced instructor, you may supervise educational assistants. 
  • Assistant Education Director  – As an assistant director you are directly involved with planning, organizing and implementing curriculum and operations. You may recruit, interview, and make hiring recommendations for staff and volunteers.    

Senior Level:

To reach the senior level you will likely need several years of experience in a mid-level position, strong leadership skills and a good familiarity with operations. A graduate degree in environmental education or a related field might be needed in some cases.

  • Director of Education – As the director, you are directly responsible for the management of education programs. You oversee staff and programming, including curriculum development. Additionally, you help create and implement strategic business plans that set the future course for programs.

Program Types

Nature centers can offer a wide variety of programs and learning experiences. Similarly, jobs in environmental education can vary widely depending on the type of program

Below we list some common program types. As examples, we also feature some organizations that offer these types of programs 

School-Based Programs

Many nature centers host field trips on-site and offer to bring their programs to schools. The Environmental Volunteers organization located in Palo Alto, California offers hundreds of programs for school groups. Sprout Up is one unique program that trains college students as instructors to deliver environmental science programs for 1st and 2nd graders. The lessons and activities teach children and their families about the role they can play in protecting the environment and instill a sense of stewardship. 

“We are inspiring a love of science and nature not just because it’s the right thing to do but because we really need the next generation to protect the conservation investments that we’ve made not only here locally but around the world. This is the moment when we can help steer kids in that right direction for the long term.”
Elliott Wright Executive Director, Environmental Volunteers

Preschool Programs

Some nature center programs cater to younger children. The Hartley Nature Preschool at the Hartley Nature Center in Duluth, Minnesota is one example. The preschool teachers engage children at a young age and inspire life-long connections to nature. Instructors lead kids, ages 3 to 5, outside every day (in safe weather) to learn through play and exploration. 

“HNP is changing the world for the next generation, one preschooler at a time and we are so thankful our kids have had the opportunity to be shaped by such an amazing program with exceptional teachers.”
2018-19 Preschool Parent, Hartley Nature Preschool

Summer Camps

During the summer, nature centers offer environment-themed camps for children. For example, Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton, Connecticut offers multiple summer camp programs. They hire experienced environmental educators to guide hikes and canoeing, engage in nature-based crafts and teach wilderness skills and conservation concepts.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to work with kids in the outdoors. They not only enjoy socializing with each other but also exploring, playing, building, and asking questions. In this environment, they often don’t even realize they are learning. These experiences can help cultivate a lifelong appreciation of the natural world.”
Sarah Breznen, Director of Education, Woodcock Nature Center

Nature for All

Some programs provide experiences specifically for kids living in urban environments. The Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, NY offers City Kids on the Ridge which brings children from urban areas into nature. The program focuses on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) learning as it relates to environmental conservation.  

“I have a responsibility to help improve the environment in my area. We can do better. Nature is a big part of our world. We do not treat it as a big problem but if we keep polluting it, it will be gone.”
Nasah and Amago, Students from City Kids on the Ridge, Mohonk Preserve

Wildlife Education

Wildlife education programs give students the opportunity to see animals up close. The Howell Nature Center in Howell, Michigan has a teaching zoo (with both an onsite and mobile option). The center has over 70 permanent native animals that accompany informational presentations for student groups. 

“Our programs give kids and community members the opportunity to connect with and become stewards of the natural world in ways they normally may not. We strive to instill a reverence for wildlife and teach people to live in harmony with wildlife. Additionally, we utilize inquiry-based learning to encourage participants to ask their own questions and develop methods to find the answers to their questions.” – Laura Butler Director of Wildlife & Education, Howell Nature Center


Individual Learning Experiences

For those with a budding interest in nature, some centers offer individual experiences. The Junior Curator and WILD! Keeper Programs at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center in Connecticut provide kids with basic animal care training. Educators play a key role in engaging these students with nature on a deeper level. In some cases, these specialized experiences inspire kids to explore environmental careers themselves.

“For those interested in education, get as much teaching experience as possible. We can teach people what to teach, but not how to teach, that comes with time and practice.”
Lisa Monachelli, Director of Education & Summer Camp Director, Stamford Museum & Nature Center

Extended Education for Educators

Many organizations run programs for adult learning. The Ecology School in Saco, ME offers professional development programs in environmental education for educators themselves. The school focuses on hands-on exploration of Maine’s ecosystems, sustainable living practices, food systems and farming, and conservation-in-action.

“I feel so lucky to have landed at The Ecology School and to have been able to make a career here as part of this very special organization. Being part of an organization that places a high value on community, collaboration and joyful learning as well as getting to work day in and day out with inspiring leaders, teachers and students continue to be a really rewarding part of my life.”
Alex Grindle, Director of Programs, The Ecology School


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Career Advice

11 Reasons to Join a Conservation Corps – Infographic

My service with the Student Conservation Association and the Big Sky Watershed Corps was instrumental in my journey to become an environmental communications professional. Those experiences inspired me to create the following infographic that illustrates just a few of the many benefits of serving with a corps!


Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication. She is also an alum of both the Student Conservation Association and Big Sky Watershed Corps of Montana.


Environmental Careers

Best Boots for Environmental Fieldwork


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Is environmental fieldwork in your future? If so, you should choose your boots wisely.

Jobs in conservation and ecology can mean full days trekking through rough terrain for months on end. The right gear can keep you comfortable and safe for these long stints outdoors.

So which boot is the best boot for fieldwork? And is spending more money worth it or not? 

We collected feedback from conservation professionals about the boots they trusted and loved for fieldwork. 

Below we list 15 pairs of boots that received the most praise.

General Considerations for Field Boots

As you read through this list consider the following questions for yourself:

  • What are the conditions like where you will be working? Do you need solid grip, heavy tread, waterproof, warm, metal toe protection? 
  • What are your own personal foot needs? Wide foot, narrow, high arches, ankle support?

Knowing your needs will help you narrow down your choices. There are lots of great boots out there. But some perform better for certain feet and certain outdoor conditions.

All-Season Boots | Mid-High Mileage


Oboz Women’s Yellowstone Premium Mid B-Dry Waterproof Hiking Boot
Recommended For: High Arches
Cost: $240

If you are looking for great arch and ankle support, Oboz might be the right option for you. The Yellowstone offers premium full-grain leather that users say truly makes these boots waterproof. Some reviews have mentioned they take a little bit of time to break in but afterward fit like a glove.

Obōz has the best arch support I have been able to find and I LOVE my Yellowstone’s. I started with the Bridgers which is a great casual hiking boot. The Yellowstone’s are taller and I got those ones for work in the NPS but I wear them all the time for all levels of hikes. Highly recommend!!”


Vasque Women’s St. Elias Fg GTX Full-Grain Leather Gore-tex Waterproof Hiking Boot
Recommended For: Durability
Cost: $200

Vasque designed the sturdy St. Elias boot to last for many miles. Its GORE-TEX membrane will keep feet dry in wet conditions. Vasque touts this boot as having little to no break-in period. But this could depend on your foot shape. 

“I LOVE these boots! I got them last winter and I wore them every day during a 4-month summer and fall trail crew term. I’ve done a lot of hiking in them with a heavy pack and they provide great ankle support. The GTX also holds up really well. I wear them now every day for my forestry work and they are doing great. Highly recommend!”



Lowa Men’s Renegade GTX Mid Hiking
Recommended For: Ankle Support
Cost: $245

If you need an all-around great outdoor boot the Lowa Renegade could be the right match. The secure fit holds your foot comfortably in place for steep terrain and its GORE-TEX lining will keep your feet dry without overheating.

“Lowa Renegades are the best boots I’ve ever owned. Goretex inside of them. Keep my feet dry, never overheat, and only have got a blister once. Many miles have been done with them!”


Ahnu Women`s W Montara III Event Hiking Boot
Recommended For: Narrow Feet; Lightweight Preference
Cost: $170

The Ahnu Montara boot is a popular choice for environmental professionals looking for a sturdy, lightweight option. Users with narrow feet have found the shape of this boot to provide excellent support. 

“I love the fit and comfort of my Ahnu Montara WP boots. I think a solid footbed would be a good addition, but otherwise they’ve been great. Can’t speak to daily use because I haven’t used them that way, but worth checking out!” 


KEEN Men’s Targhee II Mid Wide Hiking Shoe
Recommended For:
Wide Feet; Toe Protection
Cost: $100-$250 (depending on size)

If your feet get squeezed at the sides by most boots, Keen could be a great option for you. Not only do their shoes generally run a little wider than average, but many of their shoe styles offer a “wide” option. Those who are prone to catching their toes on rocks and roots will love the reinforced rubber toe protection offered on all Keen boots. 

“I had these bad boys for 5 years before some of the stitching started to wear. That was two years doing field rescue and wildlife rehab, countless hikes in the rain and snow, and a summer as a field tech in a wetland. They smelled to high hell by the end but they had a full life!” 


Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot
Recommended For:
Versatility; Breathability
Cost: $135

Constantly moving from office to the field? The Merrell Moab is a versatile boot that provides comfort and style in both the field and office setting. Though these boots are marketed as waterproof, note the meshing. They offer great breathability in the summer but they lack the Gore-tex lining of others, meaning you may want to avoid puddle jumping. 

“I have a pair of Merrell Moab 2’s that I absolutely love! They are lightweight and durable. I’ve had them for about 2.5-3 years and they are still in great shape. I used to use them hiking in AZ and now I wear them in the swamp. They are so comfortable I even wear them as an everyday shoe. They run a little over $100 but they last a long time.”


Thorogood Men’s Crosstrex Series – 8″ 1000g Insulated Waterproof Hiker Boot
Recommended For:
Comfort; Durability
Cost: $125

The Thorogood brand has been making boots in the USA since 1892. They created their Crosstrex series to provide the comfort of an athletic shoe with the grip of a work boot. If your job requires a specialized boot check out the 125 styles that Thorogood offers. 

“I love Thorogood boots! They’re made for EMS but I’ve taken those things through many bushwacking seasons in harsh conditions and they are amazing and comfortable. Usually between $80-150 depending on what your work involves. Check them out!”


Timberland Men’s White Ledge Mid Waterproof Hiking Shoe
Recommended For: Everyday Use; Affordability
Cost: $80

If you are looking for a popular option that won’t break the bank you may want to consider Timberland. Crafted in leather, these waterproof boots offer less ankle support than some of the other options on this list. But for everyday use most users are very happy with this boot. Did I mention that they have 4 ½ stars on amazon and nearly 30,000 ratings?

“With a strained Achilles’ tendon I needed walking boots that supported the ankle and cushioned the heel. Other Timberland footwear I had was comfortable and I hoped that these would be too. Not disappointed. Firm but really comfortable. No wearing in – ideal right out of the box.”

Rainboots | Low Mileage

Muck Boots

Muck Wetland Rubber Premium Men’s Field Boots
Recommended For:
Warmth; Flexibility
Cost: $130-$250 (Depending on size)

The most widely recommended rain boot for field work, the Muck Boot provides excellent water protection and comfort for long days on your feet. The neoprene upper snugs your calf for extra protection and heat retention in cold weather and can easily roll down during warmer months. 

“I found that, when working in swampy tick-full areas, it was better to just get tall boots and tuck my pants into them. I like Muck Boots – they seem to be the go-to brand for fieldwork.”


XTRATUF Salmon Sisters Legacy Series 15″ Octopus Print-Lined Neoprene Women’s Fishing Boots
Recommended For: Comfort, Beach Settings
Cost: $135

If you work in wet conditions but don’t need significant insulation Xtratuf offers a great field boot option. These 100% waterproof boots are also ozone, acid and chemical resistant. Made with pliable rubber they provide comfortable all-day wear.

“They really are the BEST. Totally waterproof and they keep my feet dry. They are very comfortable. I live in Upstate NY and I wear them all winter long and I have never been cold in them at all. I wouldn’t want to stand idle for hours and hours…then I would be cold. I guess it depends on the socks that you are wearing.”


LaCrosse Men’s Alpha Lite” 5.0MM Utility Boot
Recommended For:
Comfort; Traction
Cost: $100

Users rate LaCrosse’s Utility boot as both versatile and comfortable for whatever fieldwork you are doing. An affordable option, these boots rival more expensive brands in quality and functionality. 

“I always go with LaCrosse Boots for rain/muck boots. They are more affordable than many brands, comfortable, and have good traction in the field. I do always end up in men’s though because I prefer the taller boot. I am on my second pair and have just over a decade in fieldwork, so they have lasted me a long time.”


Snow and Cold Wet Weather


Salomon Women’s Toundra Pro CSWP W Snow
Recommended For
: Warmth; Superior Traction
Cost: $200

Planning to work in extremely cold weather? Long days in snow and ice can be absolutely miserable and downright dangerous without good gear. Toundras are Salomon’s warmest boots and are rated to -40 degrees F. Happy users report that this boot provides unbeatable traction on snow and ice. 

“I have been buying Salomon boots and trainers for over 10 years. I buy a new pair of boots every year and have tried nearly every style customized for my line of work ie the most heavy-duty, yet lightweight, waterproof and warm in the most extreme conditions. These boots are by far the best.”


Asolo TPS 520 GV EVO
Recommended For:
Durability, Multi-season
Cost: $330

Though not made exclusively for the snow, the Asolo TPS 520 is highly recommended by outdoor professionals as a great multi-season working boot. With its one-piece water-resistant full-grain leather upper this boot provides long-lasting durability. Users say that pairing this boot with a solid pair of wool socks will keep your feet happy through the winter.

“Rare find, wear them every day and also the previous pair that took me 10 years to wear out. I’ve put in a thousand miles in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and others. Asolo was with me every step. Can’t say enough about them.”


Danner Mountain 600 4.5′ Hiking Boot
Recommended For:
Lightweight; Comfort
Cost: $200

The Danner Mountain 600 provides all the comfort, warmth and durability of a winter boot without weighing you down. Tested by professionals in the field, this boot when paired with wool socks will keep your toes toasty without compromising your ability to remain comfortable on the move. 

“Danner has the best boots!! I have the women’s mountain 600 and I’ve never owned a pair that was so light and comfy!! I’ve owned Columbia, Keen, and Merrell and these are by far the best I’ve owned. Worth the price!”

Irish Setter 

Irish Setter Men’s Ravine Waterproof Hiking Boot
Recommended For:
Narrow Feet (though a wide version is offered)
Cost: $170

The Irish Setter Ravine boot boasts innovative BOA lacing technology that makes it easy to take them on and off in cold and wet environments. Users rave about their comfort, moisture-wicking ability and durability. 

“Irish Setter makes a great women’s hiking boot that’s waterproof and has a neat BOA lace system that keeps one from having to tie/untie frozen/muddy laces (and they’ll send you a free replacement lace kit if they break). I’ve had them as my go-to winter boots for the better part of three years now and love them!”


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Conservation News

12 Land Conservation Wins of 2020

In a year of hardship and sorrow, the field of conservation provided us with some moments of happiness and hope. 

Land Trusts across the United States completed projects to protect 1000’s of acres of wildlife habitat, scenic open space, and prime farmland.

This is an amazing feat in a year where COVID made an already difficult job of protecting land even harder. 

How Land Trusts Protect Nature and Farmland

Before we jump into our list of achievements, let’s look at how conservation groups protect nature and working agricultural landscapes. 

Over 1,500 land trusts operate in the US. These conservation nonprofits protect land from development through real estate purchases or donations.  

Sometimes, land trusts acquire properties outright to preserve them before they can be developed. Sometimes they acquire conservation easements which extinguish the development rights but allow the landowner to continue to own and use the property.

Below we list 12 conservation wins that land trusts achieved in 2020.


1. Sycamore Land Trust | Indiana

Land Trust Reaches 10,000 Acre Land Protection Milestone

In February, the Sycamore Land Trust reached a 10,000-acre milestone for conserved acres. Recent acquisitions to help them hit the mark included the donation of 188 acres of old-growth forest in Owen County and 92 acres of woods and open fields by the Hays family in Harrison County. They also purchased 15 acres to expand the Oxbow Preserve in Monroe County.

This land provides habitat for native wildlife and plants in Indiana including roost trees for the endangered Indiana bat, swampland for rare bald cypress trees, and remote patches for delicate orchids. The protected lands also support 35 miles of hiking trails for the public. 

Learn more about Sycamore Land Trust.

2. Congaree Land Trust | South Carolina

More than 8,200 Acres of Farmland, Working Forests and Wildlife Habitat Protected

Willow Lake in the Cowasee Basin. Photo courtesy of Congaree Land Trust

In 2020 alone the Congaree Land Trust protected over 8,200 acres of land in South Carolina. This acreage is the culmination of multiple projects completed around the central part of the state that protect land, resources and wildlife. This win will allow for a new section to the Palmetto Trail, protected timberland for a healthy Lynches River watershed and the preservation of working farmlands (Wild Turkey Creek Farm).

Learn more about the Congaree Land Trust.

3. Deschutes Land Trust | Oregon

Over 4,500 Acres of Wildlife Habitat Protected in Central Oregon

Overview of Priday Ranch outside of Madras, Oregon. Photo by Ryder Redfield, courtesy of Deschutes Land Trust.

The Deschutes Land Trust conserved the 4,500-acre Priday Ranch in central Oregon in October. The purchase was made possible in part through the help of the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative. The protected land includes over 10 miles of steelhead spawning streams, habitat for golden eagles, mules deer and Rocky Mountain elk and holds cultural significance for Oregon tribes.

“We chose to work with the Land Trust because their goals for the land were similar to ours. The main ranch had been part of our family’s ranching operations for more than 100 years and we wanted to keep it intact. We felt the Land Trust valued that history and would build on our efforts to help keep Trout Creek healthy for steelhead.”
– Annan Priday, landowner

More than 1,123 Acres of Land along Whychus Creek Protected and Poised for Restoration

Aerial views of canyon and Whychus Creek at Rimrock Ranch. Photo by Russ McMillan, courtesy of Deschutes Land Trust

The canyons, pines and juniper forests of Rimrock Ranch in central Oregon will be forever protected thanks to a local landowner who worked with the Deschutes Land Trust to protect their 1,123-acre property in August. The Land Trust is planning for stewardship of the land into the future including restoration of the historic wet meadows along the Whychus Creek. This work will reestablish the creek’s historic floodplain for healthy, biologically diverse habitat. Once pandemic conditions improve, the Land Trust anticipates offering guided walks and hikes for the public.

Learn more about the Deschutes Land Trust.

4. Solano Land Trust | California

2,204-Acre Historic Ranch Protected in Northern California

Brazelton Ranch stone fruit orchards and range. Photo courtesy of Solano Land Trust.

In February, the Solano Land Trust finalized a conservation easement to protect the historic Brazelton Ranch. The dynamic 2,204-acre property supports irrigated farmland, rangeland for agricultural grazing, oak woodlands and grassland habitat, as well as a working orchard.

Along with 1,930 acres of adjacent protected land, the Brazelton Ranch now serves as an important open space buffer along the high-growth I-80 corridor between Sacramento and San Francisco. These properties protect important watershed land and wildlife corridors from intense development pressure.

Learn more about Solano Land Trust.

5. Nebraska Land Trust | Nebraska

1,147 Acres of Unplowed Prairie Protected 

Photo courtesy of Nebraska Land Trust.

In June, the Nebraska Land Trust partnered with landowners Brandon and Kami Meyer to place a conservation easement on 1,147 acres of unplowed prairie. The newly protected land borders the 612-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.

Together these properties serve as a rare botanical treasure in a part of the state where most prairie has been converted to cropland.

The landowners, Brandon and Kami Meyer see their property not just as exceptional grasslands for grazing livestock but as an important refuge for wildlife fish and birds. Their strong passion to keep this land forever protected led them to partner with the Nebraska Land Trust. 

“It is our hope that this pasture can be a part of our legacy that is passed down to our children and someday grandchildren, and that they will be able to enjoy it in the same natural state that we do.
-Kami Meyer, landowner

Learn more about the Nebraska Land Trust.

6. Columbia Land Trust | Washington

4,900 Acres Added to Conservation Area for Washington’s Longest Wild River

After 12 years in the making, the Columbia Land Trust reached 11,000 acres of conserved land on the Klickitat Canyon Conservation Area. The most recent acquisition in July totaled 4,900 acres and completed the third and final step of the multi-phase effort. This protected land serves to connect ecosystems, maintain resilient forests and protect habitat including the upper two-thirds of the Klickitat River. As Washington State’s longest wild river this water is essential for healthy runs of salmon, steelhead and bull trout. 

“It is important to share the understanding of the importance of enhancing and protecting these significant aquatic and ecological places because a watershed like the Klickitat is the last of its kind.” 

– Phil Ridgon, Yakama Nation Natural Resources Superintendent

1,300 Acre Acquisition Sets Stage for 55-Foot Dam Removal

In March, the conservation of 1,300 acres in the Washougal River system of Skamania County marked a big win for the Columbia Land Trust. The acquisition of the land, in partnership with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, sets the stage for the removal of a 55-foot dam on Wildboy Creek. Freeing up the river and conserving the surrounding ecosystem will restore the watershed for key species like salmon and steelhead as well as provide additional recreation opportunities.

“It’s very hopeful to have partners like the Land Trust available for the Tribe. We have similar missions: we want to take care of the land and we want people to be reconnected with the land.” 
-Bill Iyall, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chairman

Learn more about the Columbia Land Trust.


7. Sonoma Land Trust | California

3,364 Acres of Family Ranch Protected for Agriculture, Habitat and Scenic Landscape

Gloeckner-Turner Ranch. Photo courtesy of the Sonoma Land Trust

Sonoma Land Trust played a key role in the purchase of a conservation easement on the Gloeckner-Turner Ranch in Northern California. The project protects diverse habitats and a scenic corridor in the high-growth Bay Area.

The 3,364 expansive acres are critical for wildlife movement and climate adaptation. The easement will ensure the lands remain protected for both wildlife and continued agricultural practice for the family’s financial sustainability.

“The mosaic of habitat types across the property are critical for wildlife movement and survival, and the diverse habitats not only provide a stunning landscape for all to enjoy, but also provide opportunities for climate change adaptation and resilience.”
– Sonoma County, Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins

Learn more about the Sonoma Land Trust.

8. Northeast Wilderness Trust | New England

719 Acres of Wildlife Habitat and Wetlands Protected in New England

Jack & Margaret Hoffman Wilderness Sanctuary. Photo by Shelby Perry, courtesy of the Northeast Wilderness Trust.

In 2020 the Northeast Wilderness Trust protected 719 acres of land. That land contributes to over 37,000 forever-wild acres the trust has protected across New England and the Adirondacks since its inception in 2002. 

One special property protected in November included 130 acres in southern New Hampshire. The Jack & Margaret Hoffman Wilderness Sanctuary protects extensive forest and wetland areas. The preserve contains high-quality habitat and connects existing conserved lands serving as an important wildlife corridor.  This is especially important as climate change makes it necessary for species to move and adapt. 

The landowners wished to provide a safe and peaceful home for wildlife so they sold the land at a bargain-sale price to the Wilderness Trust in memory of their parents.

Learn more about the Northeast Wilderness Trust.

9. Kentucky National Land Trust | Kentucky

1,368 Acres Acquired for Newly Established Warbler Ridge Preserve 

In December, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust acquired 1,368 acres on Pine Mountain. Through this project, the land trust established Warbler Ridge Preserve which encompasses 2,456 acres in total.

Pine Mountain is a biologically diverse forested ridgeline that is vital habitat for thousands of species, nearly a hundred of which are rare species and some found nowhere else. The newly established preserve borders existing state-protected lands and provides habitat for the endangered long-eared northern bats. The preserve protects the headwaters of several tributaries of rivers that are important water sources for many communities and key habitat for aquatic species.

Learn more about the Kentucky National Land Trust.

10. Placer Land Trust | California

192 Acres of Land Protected From Development Provides Habitat Connectivity

Spring Garden Preserve featuring Lynnette Batt, Placer Land Trust’s Conservation Director. Photo courtesy of Placer Land Trust.

In July the Placer Land Trust purchased 192 acres creating the Spring Garden Preserve. The land, originally slated for the development of a 65-lot subdivision, will now be permanently protected for wildlife, local residents and future generations. This property borders an existing 416-acre preserve (Big Bend Preserve), which in turn borders thousands of acres of public lands, making it a valuable addition for habitat connectivity.

“It’s such a beautiful property with beautiful views of the canyon. We are hoping to expand and open the trails and maybe connect them to other public trails in the future.” 
– Lynette Batt, Conservation Director for Placer Land Trust

137 Acres of Beard Ranch Protected as Working Landscape

Beard Ranch. Photo courtesy of Placer Land Trust.

In April, the Placer Land Trust permanently protected the 137-acre historic Beard Ranch. The conservation easement forever protects an important property from development in the growing Sacramento Metropolitan Area while allowing landowner, Patti Beard, to continue ranching practices. In addition to sustaining an agricultural operation, the property also supports grassland and blue oak woodland habitat for wide variety of plants and wildlife.  

Learn more about Placer Land Trust.

11. Western Reserve Land Conservancy | Ohio

480 Acres of Land Protected for Agriculture and Community

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy protected 480 acres in central Ohio through a $3.7 million purchase. A mix of open fields, mature forests, and valuable wetlands, the property will serve as key conservation area that safeguards downstream water quality.  

As Ohio’s largest land trust, Western Reserve Land Conservancy protects over 790 properties totaling over 63,000 acres in the state.

Learn more about the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

12. Land Trust for Tennessee | Tennessee

Sisters Protect 273-acre Family Farm

Photo courtesy of the Land Trust for Tennessee.

Sisters Lou Hoffmann and Rachel Harwell worked with the Land Trust for Tennessee to protect their beloved family farm for generations to come. The sisters recognized the spike in development around their property and took action to protect the land for its special scenic, agricultural and natural attributes. The 273-acre farm is now protected under a conservation easement.

The family continues to live on and work the land while bolstering its conservation value. With help from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, they have planted streamside trees and vegetation and improved habitat for local pollinators. 

“We are so fortunate to work with landowners who see the life of the land beyond their own. This family cares deeply about their farm, and we are honored to help them protect it.”
-Emily Parish, Vice President of Conservation at The Land Trust for Tennessee

Learn more about the Land Trust for Tennessee.


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Environmental Careers

Career Spotlight: How Conservation Districts Protect Natural Resources

In almost every county in the United States you can find a local conservation district.  

Depending on where you live these organizations can go by different names, but they all operate with a similar purpose – to conserve natural resources and promote a healthy environment.

In this article, we review in detail what exactly conservation districts do and what career opportunities they offer. 


Common Names
»  Conservation District
»  Natural Resource Conservation District
»  Land Conservation Department
»  Natural Resource District
»  Resource Conservation District
»  Soil Conservation District
»  Soil and Water Conservation District


What are Conservation District Careers?

Every year thousands of people in the United States graduate from college with degrees in natural resource management, environmental science, agriculture and related fields.

A much larger number of people are looking for jobs related to natural resource conservation and sustainable agriculture. 

Conservation districts provide career opportunities to do this important work. 

Career focus areas include:

  • Education and Outreach
  • Soil and Agriculture
  • Forest Health and Wildfires
  • Wildlife Habitat
  • Invasive Species Removal
  • Water Use and Quality
  • Urban Environment

What is a Conservation District?

Conservation Districts (CDs) serve as local units of government across the United States.

Each CD operates within an individual county partnering with other organizations and private landowners to address natural resource issues.

Districts work directly with cooperating landowners in their region to help manage and protect land and water resources. 

They are the heart of what nourishes and sustains our country.

Why are Conservation Districts Important?

Around 60 percent of the land in the US is privately owned. That’s a lot of land!

The health of our environment depends on how private landowners manage natural resources.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Best practices for managing a property depend on local ecology and community needs. 

This is why nearly 3,000 Conservation Districts exist today. Each one employs specialized experts to suit the needs of their community. 

A Brief History of Conservation Districts

Early farmland cultivation did not include practices to ensure the long-term health of the soil. As a result, nutrients were depleted, deep-rooted plants were removed and the soil’s ability to maintain moisture was lost. 

When a horrendous drought hit south-central United States in the 1930s, up to 70% of topsoil, in some places, simply blew away. The resulting massive airborne dust clouds or “black blizzards” characterized the historic Dust Bowl. 

In an effort to rebuild soil foundation and improve the sustainability of precious resources, President Roosevelt developed legislation establishing conservation districts.

The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” – Franklin Roosevelt

Early CD efforts focused on soil health and included crop rotation, contour plowing and terracing practices. Today CD’s work more holistically and specialize in many areas of conservation. 


Definition: Terracing is a soil conservation practice applied to prevent rainfall runoff on sloping land from accumulating and causing serious erosion. Terraces consist of ridges and channels constructed across-the-slope.


What Conservation Districts Do?

Conservation districts develop resource programs relevant to the needs of the community and local ecosystems.

Education & Outreach

Through education and outreach, district staff teach people of all ages about their local resources and conservation.

District education programs like classroom presentations, workshops and field days, help people develop skills to creatively solve conservation problems on their land and in their community. 

Education and outreach efforts cover a variety of topics including the core areas mentioned below.

Soil & Agriculture

Conservation districts deliver tools and programs to strengthen farmland preservation, soil health, and agricultural economies. 

They also conduct research on crop rotation, cover crops and no-or minimum tillage systems. 

These practices help landowners increase organic content in topsoils and reduce erosion. They also benefit the local environment by keeping the air clean, decreasing flooding, and reducing sediment runoff.

Project Example: The San Mateo Resource Conservation District, in California runs a Good Earth Project, to improve soil health and restore habitat. Efforts include removal of the invasive Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus on the ranchlands in Pescadero and conversion of the tree into soil amendments.

Forest Health & Wildfires

Conservation districts provide technical and financial assistance to small landowners to plan and implement forest conservation projects. Restoration projects and conservation easements facilitate the recovery of threatened and endangered species. They also enhance carbon sequestration. 

Additionally, CD’s develop and implement comprehensive forest management plans and hazardous fuels reduction projects. This helps communities protect life, property, and critical infrastructure.

Specialists help landowners secure federal funding for hazardous fuels reduction treatments, equipment for wildland fire suppression and public outreach.

Project Example: The Trinity County Resource Conservation District in California manages a number of Fuels Reduction Projects that strategically remove certain vegetation by hand, machine or using prescribed burns. In the Oregon Mountain area of Northern California, these projects have reduced over 50 acres of fuel.

Wildlife Habitat

Privately owned farms, ranches and forests provide much of the habitat for wildlife in the US. For more than 70 years, conservation districts have worked with landowners and communities to restore habitat, improve water quality, and protect vital wildlife resources. These actions benefit not only wildlife but landowners, producers, hunters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts. 

CD’s often provide funding, technical resources and even manual labor to help implement conservation projects. 

Project Example: The Snohomish Conservation District in Washington State runs a Habitat Restoration Program to help landowners manage natural resource challenges on their property while improving habitat for local wildlife. The Polestar Farm added native plants to streambanks and removed damaged culverts with the help of the district.

Invasive Species Removal

Invasive species or noxious weeds negatively impact native species, and habitats while compromising the integrity of ecosystems, and local economies. CDs help landowners make responsible weed management decisions and provide tips, tools and support for removal projects.

Conservation district partnerships can help address gaps in management. Invasive weeds don’t pay attention to property lines. Public land managers will often treat a weed only for it to be re-infested by a neighboring property on private land. Conservation districts can step in and work with private landowners to address this challenge.”

– Lindsey Karr, Invasive Plant Specialist, Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, Oregon

Project Example: The Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District in Oregon is currently working on a Goatsrue Eradication Project. The noxious weed is toxic to livestock and spreads voraciously. The District is working to remove over 14 infested acres, the largest concentration in the state.

Water Use & Quality

Conservation districts provide landowners with the tools they need to protect water from sediment runoff, nutrients and other contaminants. District staff work to prevent and mitigate the effects of drought, advance the restoration of dams and reservoirs and improve the management of stormwater.

“Currently in Monroe County, PA we are focusing our efforts on improving water quality research and updating the county’s Act 167 Stormwater Management Plan. Through our partnerships with other state and local agencies we endeavor to make changes that have real impacts in our communities. On an average day you can find our staff inspecting active construction sites to ensure environmental compliance, educating children about the natural world, or assisting watershed volunteers in planting a streamside riparian buffer to improve water quality.”

Kristina Heaney, District Manager Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District – Pennsylvania

Example Project: The Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District in Pennsylvania is working on a new model for stormwater management in their region. The new model will implement more nonstructural water control measures like floodplains.

Urban Environment

Conservation districts also provide technical and educational assistance to urban property owners and communities. A variety of projects help protect and improve the urban environment. Some examples are listed below:

  Rain gardens

♦  Tree planting and management

♦  Green roofs

♦  Invasive species management

♦  Impervious surface removal

♦  Stormwater management

♦  Permeable pavement installation

♦  Small acreage farming

♦  Soil interpretation-protection

♦  Urban erosion and sediment control

♦  Rainwater harvesting

♦  Bioretention


Definition: Bioretention removes contaminants and sedimentation from stormwater runoff by using organic filters like grass buffer strips, sand beds, and ponding areas.


Example Project: The Summit Soil and Water Conservation District in Ohio runs a Backyard Conservation program to help community members start composts, implement rain gardens and understand how their own backyard can support the greater ecosystem. 

Organizational Roles

Now that we have reviewed what conservation districts do, let’s look at the staff positions that conduct this critically important work. 

While job titles and responsibilities can vary by organization, we outline some common roles. 

If you are interested in working for a district, this will show you the types of positions available and a typical career pathway.

“At Sonoma RCD, we have the privilege of supporting conservation and resilience efforts in one of the most beautiful and ecologically-rich places in the world. We do this by working with people, and that’s what makes our team special: they are individuals with strong technical backgrounds who at the same time are wholeheartedly dedicated to helping the people in our community. It’s a special mix, and it makes our jobs very rewarding!”

– Valarie Minton Quinto Executive Director, Sonoma Resource Conservation District – California


Role: Technicians work in both the office and outdoors. In the field, they measure and collect resource data – sometimes under harsh conditions. Technicians perform site visits, interact with landowners and provide technical support. These positions are often an entry point for early-stage professionals with a BS degree with an environmental, geographic, or agricultural major. 

Education & Outreach Specialist

Role: This position helps organize and implement outreach efforts to promote district programs and projects. They build public awareness and understanding of natural resource issues. Tasks could include organizing workshops, developing and implementing outreach initiatives, and creating educational and outreach materials like brochures and newsletters. Staff in these positions often have an environmental background and experience in education or communications.

Resource Specialist

Role: Resource Specialists (also called conservation planners, specialists, coordinators or associates) provide technical assistance and work one-on-one with individual landowners. Many are certified by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service during on-the-job training. This certification training is valuable to both the employee and the district they serve as it enables them to teach, develop and implement the best conservation practices. The specialist evaluates natural resources (soil, water, animal, plant, wildlife, and cultural resources) and develops creative solutions. 

Program Manager

Role: In general, CD’s assign a program manager to each conservation focus area. These professionals manage a team of specialists, schedule projects, create budgets and craft work plans for their area of expertise. Another important role of the program manager is to secure project funding. Program Managers often have 5+ years of experience in conservation and a Master’s degree in a relevant field. 

Executive Director

Role: As the leader and public face of a community conservation district, the executive director supervises the technical and support staff. Reporting to the district board of directors, the executive director helps set the vision and strategy of the organization while overseeing the financial management and establishing key partnerships. Executive directors often have many years of experience in the conservation field and an advanced degree.

“What I like most about working for a Soil and Water Conservation District is the ability to work with local landowners and government to make an immediate difference for the quality and sustainability of our natural resources. Much of our work still takes years to see progress but you still get those opportunities to work with a willing landowner or agency and implement something that makes a difference for our future.”

-Jennifer Fish, Director of Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District (Columbus, OH)


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Assistantships Graduate School Advice

Building Your Qualifications for Grad School: How To Stand Out

When you apply to graduate school in an environmental field you are competing against other candidates for a limited number of openings. If you want an assistantship, you face particularly tough competition. 

What can you do to become a strong graduate school candidate? How can you stand out from the crowd to secure a funded graduate opportunity or acceptance into a top program?

To answer these questions, we have outlined steps to build your qualifications for graduate school. 

What Do Graduate Advisors Look for in Students?

For most research-based graduate programs, you will need to get accepted by a faculty advisor before you can gain admission. If you want to be a competitive candidate for these programs and assistantships, you should pay close attention to what advisors are looking for in students.   

A study done by University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed 171 professors across 51 schools to determine the top criteria that advisors use in considering prospective graduate students. Below see the top 4 factors.

  1. Research Experience
  2. Quality Recommendations
  3. High GPA
  4. High GRE


Research Experience

As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study shows, gaining research experience will help you more than anything else in getting accepted by a graduate advisor. If nothing else, take away that knowledge from this article. 


“Undergraduate research experience, volunteer/work experience in science/research, etc. is probably one of the most important things I look for in a graduate student.” Dr. Aaron Carlisle, University of Delaware

“I primarily recruit students with prior research experience either as an undergraduate or in an MS program” – Dr. William Wilcock, University of Washington


Professors want to know you can perform the work. They also want to know that you are truly interested in doing research and will remain dedicated to the project.

The success of professors depends heavily on the ability of the graduate students in their labs to assist with the research. In environmental fields, research tasks can differ considerably from coursework. A graduate researcher could spend many hours in the field doing strenuous work that requires careful attention to detail. 

Sometimes, students think they want to do research but then discover after starting that they dislike the experience. Professors want to avoid this scenario.

When you gain prior relevant research experience, you give professors the confidence that you have the ability to perform the work and the interest to stay dedicated.

How to Gain Research Experience

Gain research and work experience as early as possible. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to build your qualifications.

However, you should also be selective when considering work opportunities. Take on the experiences that will best meet your goals.

Your goals could include:

  • Taking on research-related responsibilities
  • Building skills and knowledge
  • Showcasing your performance and dedication
  • Developing professional relationships outside the classroom
  • Focusing on an area of interest

Undergraduate Research Experience

Your undergraduate years are the best time to gain research experience. In almost all universities, you can find faculty and labs that are doing environmental-related research. Part of a professor’s job is to help students, so take advantage of that resource. Below are some steps you can take to find opportunities:

  • Contact research labs to see how you can get involved with a project. Labs may offer opportunities for volunteering, a work-study or even a paid tech position
  • Reach out to current graduate students about opportunities to assist with their research
  • Ask professors to sponsor an independent study 

Research and Work Experience After Undergrad

If your undergrad days are already behind, you can still gain valuable experience and build your skills. Many environmental employers hire for entry-level and seasonal positions related to some aspect of research work. If you lack the qualifications for these jobs, you can intern or volunteer for a research project to gain experience.

Pro Tip:  You do not need to work on an academic research project to gain work experience that graduate programs and advisors will view favorably. Many non-research jobs in environmental fields involve tasks similar to the work in a graduate lab – long hours of fieldwork, data collection, data entry, collaborating with a team, etc. If you want to build your qualifications for graduate school search for employment opportunities that are heavier in these research-related tasks.

Start your search for these kinds of opportunities by checking with university departments, non-profit organizations, agencies, and environmental companies in your area. You can also check with larger environmental organizations that operate nationally. A number of niche job boards in environmental fields list paid positions and internships.  

We have listed some resources below:

Job Search Resources for Environmental Research-Related Work

American Fisheries Society Job Board
Conservation Job Board
EPA – labs and research centers
National Park Service
National Science Foundation
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board
University of Georgia, Forestry and Natural Resources Job Board

Pro Tip: Work experiences can help you narrow your focus on an area of interest for graduate school. Science-based jobs give you real-world exposure to a variety of research topics and areas of work. This can help you figure out what you like to do and what interests you.

Once you are able to focus on an area of interest, you can use your time more efficiently in building your qualifications for graduate school. For example, if you figure out that you are most interested in avian conservation, you can focus your time on gaining experiences and making connections that are most relevant to the topic. 

Quality References

Graduate schools and advisors want students who are going to be successful in their coursework and conducting research. Professors will look closely at your recommendations because these writings provide insight into your ability to do work. 

Therefore the best applicants provide references that back the quality of their work. Keep in mind that some recommendations will help you more than others. 

Which References Are Best?

You should aim for recommendations from faculty, researchers, or other professionals in your field of interest who have worked with you outside the classroom, ideally on research-related projects. You want your references to provide insight into your abilities, commitment and work style. A professor who only knows your work from a classroom setting will have less insight into these attributes and will serve as a weaker reference.


“The most useful references are from the faculty and other researchers that worked closely with the potential student. They can provide insights such as, the student: ‘was dependable’, ‘worked well with other members of my lab’, ‘went above and beyond his/her duties’, etc.”
 – James Peterson – Dept. Fisheries & Wildlife, Oregon State University


Relevant Coursework and GPA

Some graduate programs require applicants to have completed certain courses. Other programs do not set explicit coursework requirements but they will still want applicants to have a solid foundation in the field of study. 

For example, oceanography graduate advisors might look for students with solid coursework in STEM areas like programming (Metlab/Python/R), physics and some engineering.

If you have the foresight as an undergraduate student, you should take the courses that graduate programs in your area of interest require or prefer. You can ask your university professors that have expertise in this area for insight into the classes you should take to satisfy graduate school requirements and preferences.

If you have already completed your undergraduate education and you are lacking certain required or preferred coursework for graduate school admissions, you can take courses at a nearby university or online to fill in the gaps. 

Minimum GPA

About ⅔ of environmental programs set a minimum GPA requirement for applicants. The minimum GPA requirement for environmental graduate programs averages 3.0. However, the minimum ranges widely from 2.50 to 3.50. 

Furthermore, even some schools with specific minimum requirements state that they will accept students with lower GPAs under certain circumstances.

So if you have a lower GPA than 3.0, do not stress. You can still get into graduate school. Check with the programs that interest you to see what steps can take to overcome your GPA deficiencies


Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) has long served as a gatekeeper for graduate school. This standardized test measures students’ verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing abilities. 

You may be relieved to hear that graduate schools are increasingly dropping the GRE requirement for program admissions. About 38% of environmental master’s programs do not require the GRE. 

Nevertheless, the GRE remains an important test for getting into the majority of graduate programs. Organizations will also use GRE scores when considering candidates for graduate fellowships. So it’s important to take this test seriously and give yourself time to study. 

This means several months of studying!

Test Prep Resources for the GRE

Unlike many tests where memorization is involved, the GRE is about patterns and problem-solving. Allow yourself the time to become familiar with how to work through different types of problems.

GRE test prep materials are not in short supply. But we have compiled a few resources to check out below including sample tests, video review and free workbooks. 


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Career Advice

11 Reasons to Join a Conservation Corps

Do you dream of doing exciting and important work in an environmental field? Serving with a conservation corps can provide you skills and direction to turn that dream into reality.

What is a Conservation Corps?

Conservation corps are organizations that serve communities by helping to protect and sustainably manage natural resources. Young adults and veterans can serve with a corps program for a set term, generally from 3 months to a year, and gain real-world work experience.

Working with conservation corps can earn you a living stipend and education award. It can also help launch your environmental career.

Want to see if there are programs near you? Check out the Corps Network to find a conservation corps in your state or region. You can also search websites like Conservation Job Board to find specific positions that conservation corps are advertising. 

So how can a conservation corps benefit you? Check out our top 11 reasons below to learn more.

1. Ecological Literacy

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Conservation Corps

If you want a  conservation career, ecological literacy is a must. A service term with a conservation corps is a great place to build a foundation of knowledge in ecology, especially in the region where you hope to work. The Nevada Conservation Corps for example teaches through a combination of field research and direct conservation work. The crew not only instructs their corps members on how to thin forests but educates them on why they are thinning. Other popular topics they cover include biological surveys, exotic species control, and trail maintenance.

2. Networking

Slough Creek Puncheon, Yellowstone National | Park Photo Credit: Alyson Morris

Professional connections are more important today than ever before. In a corps you have the opportunity to connect with leadership, the personnel at your host site, organizational partners and of course, fellow corps members. These contacts, if nurtured appropriately, can continue to serve you years later. As a two-term conservation corps alum myself, I can personally speak to the benefits. Because of my service terms, I have friends in the conservation field all across the US and strong mentors. I even landed a few jobs as a direct result of my network.

3. Job Opportunities

Photo courtesy of Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa

Break into the tough environmental job market by serving with a conservation corps. The experience will not only look great on a resume, but it’s not uncommon for host sites to hire their service members. Shane DeGroy served three separate terms with Conservation Legacy, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa, and Minnesota Green Corps. After his last term he was hired by his host organization, the Hennepin County Forestry Program. Read about his and other CCMI alumni experiences.


4. Technical Skills

Photo courtesy of the California Conservation Corps

The mission of a conservation corps is to empower youth to become stewards of the environment. To do that successfully, these programs provide technical skills training in a variety of topic areas. Not only will these skills help you stand out when applying for jobs but they can also help you achieve success in your future positions. Below we list a few specialized trainings offered through the California Conservation Corps that are fairly universal across many corps programs.

  Flood Fighting Techniques

 Plant Identification

Trail Construction & Maintenance

♦  Emergency Camp Support

♦  Firefighting Techniques

♦  Forestry/Fire Hazard Reduction

♦  Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response

♦. Trail Structures

♦  Construction & Trades

♦  Chainsaw Safety

♦  Tree-Climbing Safety


5. Communication Skills

Strong communication skills are important in all aspects of life. While serving with a corps you often work alongside other members and professionals at the federal, state and local levels. In these roles, you hone “soft skills” like verbal and written communication. Specialized internship programs, like Individual Placement Programs, heavily emphasize these types of professional social skills.

Lucinda Morris, Big Sky Watershed Corps member 2016-2017 | Photo Credit: Nick Franz, Wildlife Conservation Society

The Big Sky Watershed Corps in Montana is an individual placement program run through the Montana Conservation Corps. Their members participate in communication workshops and attend a number of professional conferences that help them bolster their communication skills. 


“I thoroughly enjoyed my term of service with BSWC, it was both challenging and rewarding. I was definitely pushed to a level of a professional standard above any time previously in my life. This personal growth has prepared me to enter the workforce as more than just a laborer by introducing me to a level of responsibility and expectation that I would guess many people my age do not experience. I don’t think I would have been able to find my place here without the connections this program fostered. I would consider myself to have developed into an entirely new person, one that my previous self could hardly have dreamed of.”
-BSWC Member



6. Leadership

Corps members often leave their programs feeling more confident in taking leadership roles. When you serve with a corps program you can work alongside people from different regions, religions, ethnicities, races, socioeconomic statuses and political backgrounds. These programs show how much diverse groups can accomplish with a united goal. This perspective is incredibly powerful in recognizing the ability to make change.

Many conservation corps place a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion. For example, the Northwest Youth Corps offers programs that engage Native American, LGBTQ, and Deaf/Hard of Hearing youth and young adults. The organization also has youth and young adult programs for all the communities it serves.

Photo courtesy of Kupu Hawaii

The Conservation Leadership Development program at Kupu in Hawaii is another program that offers rigorous and empowering experiences for those looking for careers in environmental conservation. They have a great video that summarizes their corps experience and provides testimonials of program alumni.

7. Career Insight

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Conservation corps provide opportunities to “try out” different careers and find professional direction. Sarah V, alumni with the GulfCorps crew, a program run by the Texas Conservation Corps, understands this well. After completing her degree in environmental biology and English she was unsure what to do. Her experience with the Corps provided her with additional skills and direction as she discovered her passion for ecology. Read more about her term experience and other TXCC alumni


8. Work Experience

The struggle with landing entry-level jobs is that many employers want you to have some relevant experience. But how can you gain experience if you are unable to get a job? Fortunately, serving in a conservation corps can help you overcome this obstacle. Whether you are just out of high school or a recent graduate, serving in a conservation corps will give you environmental field experience that can set you apart from other candidates. And the best part is you don’t NEED experience to work for a conservation corps.

Photo Credit: David Kallenbach

The Student Conservation Association offers programs for teenagers 15-19.  Most traditional field crews are 18-25 and if you are interested in more of an internship experience there are a number of individual placement opportunities, that are generally for those 21 and up (these often require a bachelor’s degree before you can enroll). 

9. Education Award

Upon completion of an Americorps term, members receive Segal Americorps Education Awards. You can use this money to pay for college, graduate school, vocational training or towards existing student loans. The award amount will depend on the length of time you served. 

Learn more on the Americorps site about how to use this award. 

Other fun facts. When serving with any Americorps program, you have the option to defer any current student loans you are paying. While a loan is in deferment it continues to accrue interest but many Americorps programs offer interest repayment options at the end of your service.

10. Education Advancement

After gaining career insight (benefit #7) you may decide that the next step in your career journey is additional schooling. All of the benefits described in the article can bolster your undergraduate or graduate application. Experience, direction and professional contacts can all make you a much stronger candidate for environmental Master’s programs

Photo Credit: Alyson Morris

In some cases, your service can help open the door to graduate school opportunities. Evan Norman, an alumni with the Big Sky Watershed Corps, discovered his passion for hydrology during his term of service. His experience introduced him to his graduate school advisor and eventually led to a job with the Montana Department Natural Resources. Read more about how his experience in the corps launched his professional career.

11. Personal Growth

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Conservation Corps

You become a part of something bigger than yourself by serving communities and protecting natural resources. And with that comes a sense of pride. Yet the work is not easy. Any program you choose will challenge you mentally, physically and emotionally. Once you reach the other side however, you find that the adversity you faced has built lasting strength and perseverance. An alumni from the Arizona Conservation Corps sums up their experience. 


“I am more adventurous and capable in the back-country, and I’m less afraid of working hard and getting dirty. I feel that I’m less intimidated by starting big tasks or learning new skills, and have been able to apply them even in unfamiliar environments and challenging new work. I’ll continue to fill my life with out-of-the-ordinary experiences that excite me, broaden my horizons, and teach me.”
-Tracy (AZCC).   


Reasons to Join a Conservation Corps – Infographic


Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication. She is also an alum of both the Student Conservation Association and Big Sky Watershed Corps.


Assistantships Graduate School Cost

Funding for Graduate School: What Are My Options?

College can be prohibitively expensive and graduate school is no exception. In 2020, the average environmental Master’s program cost $37,550 in the United States. When you consider the earning potential for environmental professionals (generally low) the cost of school may give you second thoughts about whether a graduate education is attainable.  

But don’t feel too disheartened. Thankfully, there are a number of options available to students to help pay tuition and other associated expenses. In this article, we review the most common options in detail and we provide tips on how to secure that funding.



An assistantship is a form of academic employment that provides students with tuition reimbursement and certain financial benefits. Assistantship roles require specific work duties in support of a professor, a research lab, or a program department. You can think of them as part-time jobs, with a typical commitment of 20 hours per week.

In environmental fields, both Master’s and PhD programs frequently offer assistantships. In addition to tuition coverage, additional benefits can include:

  • Modest stipend to cover living expenses 
  • Health insurance 
  • Student loan forgiveness 
  • Student housing

How Much Do Assistantships Pay?

Assistantship stipends range from $15,000 to $30,000 per academic year depending on the school. Your stipend may fall short in paying the bills. Student activists at campuses across the country have been pushing for a $15/hr minimum living wage. Some schools already pay above those levels. For example, Cornell University pays a $28,036 stipend for a 9-month academic year of work at 15 hours per week.

Types of Assistantships 

Not all assistantships are the same. Environmental graduate programs generally offer 3 types of assistantships: 

  1. Research Assistantships
  2. Teaching Assistantships
  3. General Graduate Assistantships

These 3 types differ in the main role that you perform, as reflected in their distinct nomenclature. They also differ in how you get them.

You might see the term “graduate assistant” thrown around. This is commonly used as a general name that can refer to any of the assistantship types.

Sound confusing? 

No fear! We review each assistantship type in more detail below.

Research Assistantship

In a research assistantship, you work on a research project, usually under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Research assistants often work in a group or lab environment in close coordination with faculty, staff and other students. While rigorous, this work provides great hands-on research experience that culminates in the production of your thesis or dissertation and sometimes even publication in a scholarly journal.  

How to Get a Research Assistantship

Available funding usually comes from grants secured by individual faculty members. For most research-based programs you need to engage with a prospective faculty adviser and ask them if they would be willing to take you on as a graduate student BEFORE you formally apply to the school. 

Sometimes, faculty will explicitly advertise research assistantship opportunities. Below we list some sources where you can find these opportunities listed for environmental fields:


Find Assistantship Postings

Directly on a lab or faculty’s web page  (look for an “Opportunities” link)
Texas A&M University Agriculture & Life Sciences Graduate Assistantships
Ecophys Jobs Graduate Opportunities
Conservation Job Board 
American Fisheries Society
Northern Kentucky University Rick Boyce Graduate School Opportunities
CJB Network  


Many professors do not advertise available funding. Often, you will need to contact faculty directly to inquire about whether or not funding is available. In some cases, funding for a research assistantship can become available at some point after you enroll. But you should hesitate to enroll in a program based on the expectation that you will secure funding later. It may not happen.

If a professor does not have funding available, they may still be willing to take you on as a student but you will need to pay your own way (or cover your tuition through another method). 

Teaching Assistantship

Teaching Assistantships provide another source of potential funding for graduate students. The responsibilities of a teaching assistant can vary depending on the needs of the department or professor. Roles could include setting up lab equipment, grading tests and assignments, proctoring quizzes, keeping office hours, creating syllabi, and – of course – actually teaching classes. Before applying for a Teaching Assistantship, you should always try to find out what responsibilities the position will entail. 

How to Get a Teaching Assistantship

The application process for Teaching Assistantships varies by school. In some cases, you can apply for these positions beforehand as part of your overall application to the university. For some schools, you apply after enrolling. For example, the Department of Ecology at Montana State University chooses Teaching Assistants mid-semester, to become active in the following term. 

Schools award these assistantships based on a variety of criteria including student merit, financial need, seniority and the specific teaching needs of the department. Before applying for a Teaching Assistantship, you should confirm what criteria the school uses in its decision making. Successful applicants often carry a high GPA, good GRE scores and relevant teaching experience.

General Graduate Assistantship 

Some schools offer assistantships that provide general support to the needs of the department. You might help with any of the following: 

  • Office and  lab maintenance 
  • Clerical and receptionist duties
  • Tech support
  • Recruiting

Similar to Teaching Assistantships, the application process and hiring criteria for these positions vary from school to school. 

Fellowships, Grants, and Scholarships

For graduate school, you will see the word “Fellowship” or “Grant” used more than “Scholarship.” The three terms usually refer to a similar concept – a source of free money awarded to students by the schools themselves or outside funders to cover education-related expenses. 

Common Types of Fellowships and Grants

Fellowships and grants for graduate school can vary widely in the size of the awards, what expenses they cover, and the focus of the funding. Below, we outline some common types of fellowships and grants that you will encounter:

Fellowships as Scholarships – Many graduate fellowships and grants mirror the concept of the “scholarships” that you would find for undergraduate students. These awards cover all or most of your tuition. However, graduate fellowships tend to use merit-based criteria.

Research Fellowships – Research fellowships provide funding to students to support their graduate research. Some awards fully cover tuition and provide a stipend so you can pursue your own research idea. As such, research fellowships can provide a funding alternative to assistantships. We discuss this in more detail in the section, “Funding Your Own Research” below.

Career Development Fellowship – Some fellowships support professional development in a field by providing funding for you to go to school and build your skills. Unlike research-based funding, these awards can pay for your education in non-thesis and online professional programs. Some of these fellowships require recipients to work in the field for a certain amount of time after earning their degree.  

Example: The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Career Development Grants provide $2,000 – $12,000 to change careers in education, health, or social sciences.

Small Awards – Many funding sources provide small one-time awards or grants that follow some specific mission or purpose. These awards typically range from $250 to $2,000 and can help ease the financial burden of graduate school.

Specific Expense Grants – Similar to Small Awards, many funding sources will cover a specific expense item related to your graduate education. A common example, travel grants and conference grants can pay for you to attend events or participate in field experiences.

Need-Based Funding – A number of government and foundation programs provide need-based funding for graduate school.

Where to find Fellowships and Grants

Internal Sources of Funding

Schools and their departments can provide fellowship and scholarship funding for students. You can research this on the university and department websites. For example, UC Davis offers multiple internal sources of funding to students in the Graduate Group in Ecology.

If you are considering a graduate program, you should inquire about the availability of these internal sources of money, especially if you are not able to secure an assistantship. 

External Sources of Funding: 

You can apply for fellowship and scholarship funding from a variety of external sources including foundations, non-profits, government, and even for-profit companies. Below we list some websites where you can find fellowship and grant funding sources for environmental fields:


Where to Search for Funding:
University of Kansas – Grad School Funding Listing
Pathways To Science – Education and career training opportunities in STEM
Montana State University – Funding Sources for Graduate Students


Tips for Securing Funding

  • Start Early – Identify what you might be eligible for before you are eligible.
  • Research – Ask for direction from departments and universities, grant fellowship offices, foundations in your field (or outside), or specialized organizations.
  • Follow Application Instructions -Follow instructions or you risk having your application immediately tossed for overlooking the details
  • Connect – Connect with students who have received funding. Reach out and ask them about their experience. They can often provide insight that will help you with your applications.
  • Share – Use your cover letter to showcase your qualifications. Give examples to back up your claims and be specific.
  • Expand – Ask someone outside your field of study to review your application to make sure you have explained yourself and your proposal well.
  • Be Persistent- There is no such thing as failure, just growth! Applying for money is hard and rejection is common. Develop a thick skin, use feedback as a tool and get back out there. 


Funding your Own Research

You do not need to rely on funding provided by a professor to pay for your graduate research and education. 

As we discussed earlier, fellowships can provide funding for you to pursue a research topic. If you are unable to secure an assistantship, then a research fellowship or grant can provide an alternative source of money to help pay for your education. 

Some highly competitive and prestigious fellowships will fully cover your graduate education and provide a stipend. These fellowships boast some advantages over research assistantships. 

Advantages of Research Fellowships

Research fellowships can boast some advantages compared to other funding sources 

  1. Unlike assistantships, research fellowships typically lack work requirements.
  2. Fellowships can provide more academic freedom to pursue your own research interests. With an assistantship, your research will typically follow a predefined scope which may not be your ideal topic. 
  3. With some fellowships, you can secure funding before you apply to schools. More schools and faculty advisers will want to bring you on if you have your own money. You can be more selective in your decision making.
  4. Fellowships showcase your tenacity as an independent researcher from the get-go. They can build your prestige and create additional tangible benefits. For example, Brown University offers an incentive program for students who are awarded outside funding.


“Fellowships are good because they give you much more freedom to choose your own research topics”.  
-Phil Agre, a former UCLA faculty member with UCLA, discussed in considerations for grad school


Where to Look for Funding

Do your own research and explore organizations, foundations and society groups in your field of interest.

Many students start their search with the National Science Foundation (NSF). As an independent federal agency, the NSF works to promote progress in science. Applicants submit over 50,000 research proposals annually to the agency. The NSF funds about 11,000.

NSF offers a program specifically for graduate students, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program focuses on funding students early in STEM research fields.

PRO TIP: Many research grants exclusively fund organizations rather than individuals. But don’t rule these out completely. The Southern Illinois Grant Funding: A Guide for Graduate Students suggests teaming up with your adviser to apply for these grants through your university to help fund your research. 


Work-study refers to a federal program that provides funding for part-time jobs for students with financial need. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3,400 colleges and universities have a Federal Work-Study Program. These programs allow students to earn money to help pay for educational expenses. The first step to acquiring a work-study position is filling out that same Free Application for Federal Student Aid you fill out for loans (discussed in the next section). 

Keep in mind that qualifying for work-study doesn’t guarantee you a job. You will have to secure a position with your school or a qualifying federal, state, or local public agency; a private nonprofit organization; or a private for-profit organization.

Pro Tip: There may be certain restrictions associated with work-study. For example, graduate students at the University of Denver cannot utilize a work-study job and have an assistantship in the same quarter. 

Student Loans

Depending on your financial situation you may need to take out student loans to pay for school. Loans provide borrowed money for you to pay for school and other associated costs. With most loans, you will ultimately pay back the amount you borrow plus interest. 

If you are considering a student loan, you should first fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). These forms need to be submitted between January and March of the year prior to the start of school. 

Private lenders are also an option. These are usually banks or financial institutions. 

Whichever options you consider, pay close attention to the interest rates. They can dramatically increase the debt you accrue.

Admissions advisor at New Mexico State University, Austin Gentry says, “We would much rather have our students turn to grants, work-study — any other source of aid — before they turn to loans.” –via Nerd Wallet

Pro Tip: Do your homework when it comes to loans. Build out a comprehensive repayment plan, the earlier you can pay them off the less you will inevitably pay over time. 

Self Finance

Consider self-financing with great care. Many resources are available to help fund graduate school and lessen financial burdens. Make sure you are financially prepared for the costs if you choose to take them on and have a solid plan to meet all your financial obligations. 

Before You Go to School

When comparing schools and programs keep an ongoing list of questions to ask administrators and faculty. You want to have all the information you need to make the best decision for your future.

We have compiled our top 10 questions below. 

  1. What percent of graduate students receive funding?
  2. How are they typically funded?
  3. What are the stipend levels?
  4. Are additional benefits provided like health insurance or housing?
  5. Do assistantships waive tuition costs? 
  6. In addition to tuition, what additional fees am I responsible for?
  7. How long does the average student take to complete their degree?
  8. What are the service requirements associated with assistantships? 
  9. What is the time commitment for assistantships? How often do students exceed that time weekly?
  10. What is the average cost of living in the area? 



Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is also a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.


Online Programs

Online Environmental Graduate Programs: Are They Right for You?

What if the only thing standing between you and an advanced environmental degree was a computer?

A graduate degree can help you launch a career or even land a promotion. But are online graduate programs right for you and are they available in your field of interest?

Online program availability in the environmental sciences has grown over the years. In the U.S. alone, there are at least 117 online graduate programs in fields like wildlife science, natural resource management, and conservation biology. And with COVID 19 requiring universities to reimagine education delivery, the number of available online courses is likely to increase even more rapidly.

But how do online environmental programs differ from traditional in-person ones? How are courses structured when you’re not physically there to interact with professors, fellow classmates, or perform fieldwork? You may be feeling some uncertainty about environmental programs taught online but don’t worry, I am here to break it down for you.

This article will help you better understand the different types of online degree programs. I will discuss how the programs work and present their pros and cons. My goal is to help you figure out if these programs are right for you.

Let’s dive in.


Online VS In-Person

Online academic programs allow students to earn their degrees primarily or entirely with a computer and an internet connection. Where traditional college programs require students to be onsite and attend in-person, online programs let you physically be anywhere in the world and earn an advanced degree.

There are various pros and cons to earning a graduate degree online (and we will explore those in detail later on). But the advantage of flexibility is what really differentiates online programs.

Where and when you do coursework is up to you as the student. You don’t have to uproot your life to be physically present on campus, on specific days at specific times. For many, this makes the prospect of earning a graduate degree more achievable. Do you work best in the early morning before work, at night when the kids are in bed, or in small free moments throughout the day? Are you already working full time and can’t make it to class?

An online program might be a good fit.

Types of Online Graduate Programs

U.S.-based universities offer over 117 different advanced environmental degrees online, including 66 master’s degrees, 48 certificate degrees, and even 3 doctoral programs. Program subjects include natural resources management, GIS, wildlife science, environmental education, sustainability and more.

Online Master’s and Certificate programs primarily focus on professional development and career advancement.

Certificate Programs

Certificate programs are short, focused programs that consist of just a few core courses. Programs vary in length but are generally 4-6 courses (sometimes more). Students can usually complete programs in 6 to 12 months. Certificate programs frequently specialize in a narrower topic area than Bachelors’s or Master’s degrees. For example, Colorado State University offers a certificate in Communications for Conservation. University of Nebraska Lincoln offers a certificate in Grassland Management. Not all online certificate programs focus so narrowly. For example, Oregon State University offers an online certificate in Wildlife Management.

Master’s Programs

In general, master’s degree programs can offer two distinct educational tracks – a research-based option (usually culminating in the production of a thesis) or a coursework-based option. While in-person programs can follow either track, online programs are almost exclusively coursework based degrees (non-thesis).

Why is that?

Coursework-based programs (non-thesis) are able to structure the curriculum through modules and can be taught via lectures, seminars and discussion boards.

Research-based degrees (thesis), on the other hand, often require student-conducted research and may involve substantial fieldwork, data collection, and analysis. Research requirements are not as well adapted to remote learning.

If you are interested in a research career or pursuing a PhD, a traditional research-based master’s degree is often a good choice.

Online coursework-based programs are geared towards professionals who already have some work experience and are looking to advance in their field.

For example, Prescott College offers several coursework-based environmental master’s programs that are completed entirely online. Their programs present a unique bioregional approach that applies knowledge and skills directly to each student’s local community and ecology. For those already working in their region, there is the opportunity for immediate application of course work in their professional work and vice versa.

Not all programs are exclusively online. Some programs have the option to attend in person or online, but the curriculum is identical. Oregon State University offers a Master’s in Environmental Science that traditionally was only available in-person but beginning Summer 2020 has been offered completely online as well.

What about online and in-person existing in one program? For those that want to have their cake and eat it too. Hybrid programs also exist!

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a blended learning curriculum for a Master’s in Environmental Conservation. The accelerated 15-month program starts with in-person courses in the spring and summer on the Madison campus, and then transitions to online for the remaining terms in the fall and winter. If you’re looking for an on-the-ground connection with people and the land, as well as some flexibility towards the end of a program, a hybrid model could be a great option.


Structure of Online Graduate Programs


So we know that online programs don’t require you to be there in-person but how do they actually work?

Here’s a breakdown of the day-to-day.

Most schools use an online learning management platform. Once enrolled, students access the learning environment through a web browser. College courses use platforms like Canvas, Blackboard or Moodle. Within these platforms students have access to their courses, posted lectures, links, reading files, assignments and discussion boards all in one place. Additionally, students communicate with professors and other students in their courses through messaging systems within the platform.

Many classes follow a weekly timeline for the entire term. For example, students have assigned readings (a scientific journal article maybe), a lecture and a discussion post. Within the week there is the flexibility to accomplish these items. By the end of the week, however, students need to complete the required assignments to stay on track. Many classes have all coursework and deadlines laid out at the start of a term, giving students the opportunity to work ahead if needed.

Some online programs require virtual class attendance. Students must log on at a specific time to meet with their professors and fellow students. Professors use platforms like Zoom, Skype, Slack, Team Viewer and Google Hangouts to give real-time lectures or host class discussions.

If students are located in different timezones, coordinating calls can pose a challenge. As a popular alternative, pre-recorded lectures allow students to listen and “attend” class at their convenience.

For learning technical programs, online tutorials are provided. Tackling programs for GIS mapping or mastering R or Python for statistical analysis can be daunting without in-person support in a computer lab. But regardless of the course structure or topic professors offer help and check-in opportunities through chat, email, video call or screen-share technology.

Pros to Online

Flexibility. One of the biggest advantages of attending school online. Whether you need to be close to home or want the ability to travel, you can earn a degree without committing yourself to a specific geographic location.

Flat-rate tuition. For many schools, there is no in-state or out-of-state tuition when you enroll in an online program. Each student pays a flat tuition rate to be in the program whether they are physically living in the state of the university or in a different country. This allows traditional “out-of-state” students to earn a degree from a highly respected, regionally accredited school in their field, and not have to pay more than another student.

Expanded networking. Unique opportunities for networking exist when physical proximity isn’t a factor. When enrolled in a program where students attend from all across the United States and abroad a more wide-spread network is available – for example, if for example – you are interested in salamanders and have been studying them in the New England area, and you encounter a student who has years of experience studying a related species in the deserts of Arizona. You have the opportunity to share knowledge and resources you might not have otherwise.

Simpler application process. Are you dreading the Graduate Record Exam (or GRE)? Good news, many online graduate programs don’t require you to submit GRE scores. But make sure to read all your program requirements. Some programs may require work experience minimums instead. Additionally, unlike many research-based master’s programs, online programs don’t require you to be accepted by an advisor first. You just apply to the school or program.

Cons to Online

Isolation. Depending on the person and the program, online school can feel isolating. You may never have the opportunity to get to know your professors and the interactions you have with other students may be limited.

Networking challenges. You may notice that networking is a pro and a con. Although technology can increase the range of people for networking, the lack of direct contact can also make it more challenging. Networking in an online program can require more initiative.  It is increasingly important in the professional world to have connections, particularly in competitive environmental fields. But with little opportunity to meet casually, online students need to be savvy and proficient technological communicators.

Technology know-how. As an online student, you will need to navigate technology, virtual presentations, and new online platforms to complete your coursework. If computers and unfamiliar software make you queasy, and you haven’t taken college courses in a while, then you may find it challenging to jump immediately online.

Motivation and work ethic. In order to be successful, students need to be motivated, communicate well and have the ability to fully manage their time. All responsibility is on the student to stay on schedule and complete all necessary assignments and tasks. For self-starters and introverts, this learning style could be perfect. However, for those that are energized by those around them, being alone in a room with just a computer can create hurdles. A graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Environmental conservation master’s program says,

“ some of the classes are pretty easy if you approach them from a homework standpoint, and it can be tempting to skate through. Don’t – you’ll get out exactly what you put in.” 


Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is also a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.