Career as Ecologist

Career as Ecologist

Ecologists are environmental biologists who study plants and animals, and their interaction and relationships to their environment. The environment includes physical aspects (light, temperature, moisture, solar radiation, gases, nutrients and pollutants in soil, water and the atmosphere) and biological aspects (living organisms).

Ecologists carry out research to determine the effect that people are having (or may have) on the natural environment, e.g. population size, industry, proposed housing developments, recreational facilities, farming methods and pollution. They propose solutions to these environmental imbalances.

Ecologists often work outdoors observing and gathering information to help understand ecological problems and the ecosystem. They also spend time in a laboratory, analyzing and interpreting their data using computers, writing reports, doing administrative work and supervising others in their team. Their research findings help us to understand and manage ecosystems and environmental problems.

Ecology is a broad field and encompasses areas such as mathematics, statistics, physics, chemistry, climatology, geology, soil analysis, hydrology, limnology, and human settlement patterns. It can also involve fields such as, taxonomy, physiology and animal behaviour. Ecologists specialize in a particular area, such as limnology. Limnologists work towards conserving aquatic ecosystems, designing nature reserves, or checking the state of rivers and wetlands by testing the water and analyzing the local plants, fish and animals. They may study the effects of industrial discharges (in the form of waste treatment and spills) on the ecology, or how toxic substances move through the food chain. Limnologists may work as aquatic environment assessors, evaluating aquatic resources and auditing and monitoring potentially harmful practices.

Some ecologists work as ecological consultants, advising on ecological problems, campaigning against environmentally damaging practices, assessing development projects proposed by government or corporates, evaluating the long-term environmental effects of human development and recommending solutions to reduce the effects on the ecosystem. Others work as conservation officers, helping to promote the protection of natural resources and their sustainable use.


Educational qualifications

Ecologists can study a 3-year BSc degree majoring in Ecology, Botany, Zoology, Microbiology, Soil Science, or Geology at university; with supporting courses in Mathematics, Statistics or Computer Science. To study a BSc degree, you need at least a 50% marks in Mathematics and Physics on higher grade. Biology on higher grade is also a recommended subject. Some universities offer Honours courses in specialized areas. Ecologists wishing to work as lecturers at universities or researchers have to study further towards MSc and Doctorate degrees.

Personal qualities

An ecologist should:
enjoy and have a good aptitude for Mathematics, Physics and Biology
be a nature-lover
be observant, curious and imaginative
enjoy and have a good aptitude for analyzing data and problem-solving
have good judgement in interpreting data, based on a good background in as many life sciences as possible
be interested in research and able to work accurately with good attention to detail.

Job opportunities

Ecologists are employed by provincial conservation authorities, and NGO conservation organizations (e.g. World Wide Fund for Nature) and environmental advocacy groups (e.g. Greenpeace). Large organizations that manage and produce natural resources such as wood, fish and energy and large industries who have an interest in conservation also employ ecologists. Some ecologists work for consulting firms that specialize in carrying out environmental impact assessments. Others work for parastatals and science councils, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Agriculture, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and South African National Parks. Water boards, catchment management areas and natural history museums also employ ecologists. Other ecologists work at universities or as independent private consultants.

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