Eric L. Walters

Assistant Professor

Department of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University




The Top 5 Mistakes That Biology Undergraduate Students Make When Preparing For Field Positions in Biology

What is a field position? I am talking about jobs where you conduct research outside, often in a natural area. There are thousands of such jobs posted each year. They are typically advertised by researchers at universities who are looking for field assistants. They might also be advertised by various state or federal agencies, non-profit societies, or NGOs. There are several websites devoted to these sorts of jobs such as Birdjobs, the Texas A&M Job Board, or Ecolog. This is where I typically advertise for the positions I have open. It is a chance to get valuable field experience and it allows you to travel around the globe to wherever these jobs take place. If you want to eventually get a field job in Biology or go on to graduate school in Ecology, Evolution, or Wildlife, you need to get field experience. I explain why below. Without field experience, you will be lucky to land any job. Experience in a veterinary hospital or working at a wildlife rehabilitation facility is better than nothing, but certainly would not count as field experience. It is vital to have field experience if you are applying to one of my positions.

1. The Student Loan Paradox

Most undergraduates think nothing of taking out a student loan for their undergraduate degree. Many of those same students are reluctant to take a summer position in Biology that doesn't pay well, or even worse, is purely volunteer. This striking disconnect is the great irony. Many will argue that an education is important and will lead to a job so many are more than willing to take out a student loan. The end justifies the means. Well, why are these same people so reluctant to take a low-paying job or a volunteer position in order to gain experience? It makes no sense.

An undergraduate degree with no experience is almost the same as having no degree if you want to go into a career in Biology. What does the average summer job pay? Let's assume it pays $10 per hour. If a student paints houses, for example, and works full time; they will gross about $6,000 for the summer. What does a typical student take out for a loan? The average undergraduate takes out about $20,000 or more in student loans.

So, what is better - sitting at home unemployed (or taking a job outside the field of Biology) with a $20,000 loan or being gainfully employed in a field in Biology with a $26,000 loan. In my mind, it's a no brainer - why take out the loan if you are not going to sacrifice for the work experience? My scenario assumes you have a $10 per hour job (which is probably higher than average) and it assumes that you take a volunteer position for your first Biology job. In reality, the difference between one who takes a student loan and works a non-Biology summer job versus one who takes a volunteer or low-paying Biology-related job is probably less than $5,000. Does it make sense to compromise your future over a difference of $5,000? Not in my books.

2. Limiting Your Career Aspirations

Ask any freshman in Biology what they want to do with their life. You are likely to get about five responses - medical doctor, veterinarian, marine biologist, charismatic megafauna biologist (wolves, elephants, cheetahs, name your favorite animal), or biomedical research. Why is this? Well, I think much of this is related to what we (and our parents) are exposed to in the popular media. We all know the respect and stature that medical students receive from family members. It's an admirable and rewarding profession that has a high salary. Naturally, all of our non-Biology relatives think this is a fabulous career route.

Many students in Biology love animals so the next most obvious profession that our family members (and guidance counsellors) will suggest is becoming a veterinarian. Then there are those of us that watch National Geographic and get turned on by the Jacques Cousteau or Jane Goodall types. We might watch Meerkat Manor or Crocodile Hunter or some other show that turns us on to wildlife. Our family members and most of the public are clueless when it comes to Biology jobs. They don't know the range of positions that are out there so they have no clue on how to guide you to these positions. Most students find them through happenstance or what they see going on in their classes, talking to their professors, or being exposed to university research.

3. The Studies Abroad Myth

Many students give a lot of weight to studies abroad. These are those classes where someone goes off to some exotic place and spends 2-4 weeks on some field project. Many students (and I suspect their parents) think that this will give them an edge. Sure, being exposed to other cultures can only be a good thing, getting field experience is admirable, and seeing the Galapagos or Kenya up close and personal is a chance in a lifetime. But, don't kid yourself. None of these experiences is going to matter when you are getting hired for a Biology position. I look at these experiences as nice but they don't enter one whit into my decision. And, of course, this relates to point #1, above. The money spent on one of these studies abroad would be better spent volunteering or taking a lower paying Biology job in the summer in order to gain valuable experience. Having a season of field experience DOES matter. Having a 2-4 week class in some exotic land (no matter what "field experience" you think you received) doesn't matter one iota in terms of getting a Biology field position.

4. The Courses I've Taken Myth

The majority of undergraduates feel very strongly about the classes they have taken. Many students will outline in great detail the classes they took and how these classes have prepared them for the position I am advertising. For the most part, I ignore what classes students have taken. I am looking to see what kind of degree they have obtained and whether it was in Biology or a related field. Beyond that, I couldn't give a hoot if you took 3 botany classes or an introduction to geology or organic chemistry. There are, however, three (maybe four) areas that I would like to see some proficiency. All Biology undergraduates should have taken Evolution, Ecology, some form of Statistics, and perhaps a class in Ornithology. Beyond these classes, I don't even look at what students have taken. SO DON'T BOTHER TELLING ME WHAT CLASSES YOU HAVE TAKEN - I DO NOT CARE. I AM LOOKING FOR YOUR WORK EXPERIENCE - THAT'S WHAT MATTERS!

Students who have conducted an undergraduate thesis do get my attention and I usually want to know more about their thesis. What were their findings, what was involved with the research, and did they present the findings at a national meeting or do they plan to publish the work? The bottom line is to not sweat what classes you've taken. If you want to have an edge - take lots of quantitative classes in Statistics, Calculus, or Modeling. Beyond the basics (Ecology, Evolution), it doesn't really matter. And I'm most likely not going to even look at the part of your resumé that lists your coursework.

5. The 1-page Resumé Myth

Again, one of the biggest hurdles future Biologists face is dispelling all of the misinformation they receive from parents, guidance counsellors, and friends. What you might have learned in a business course on how to apply for a job and how to write a resumé is mostly useless. I don't want to see how fancy you can make your resumé, or read on an application that the applicant will follow up in a week with a phone call, or those that provide a one-page resumé. If your resumé is only one page, it means you either have absolutely no experience or you are summarizing your experience in a way that trivializes your accomplishments. In my mind, the more the better. I want to see what field experience you have and what sort of tasks you were involved in. I want to see the title of your undergraduate thesis and find out what your GPA and GRE scores are. I want to see who your references are with full contact information. This is your chance to sell yourself.

And, by the way, don't bother telling me that you are proficient in Microsoft Word / Excel / Powerpoint or Internet Explorer / Firefox. To me, that is like saying you can read or use a calculator or know how to use facebook. If you are familiar with more complicated or specialized software (e.g. SAS, Matlab, R, ArcGIS) then by all means include that information but do not include trivial computer programs that everyone should be familiar with as part of day-to-day life.

Miscellany - other random tidbits...

a) Don't write in your cover letter that you will follow up with a phone call. Employers are very busy. If you have a good application package, you will hear back from the potential employer. Following up with a phone call, at least in my case, would hurt your chances. I typically receive over 100 applications for positions that I advertise. Imagine if I received 100 or more follow-up phone calls. I would not be a happy camper.

b) Don't use words like "extensive" or "substantial" when describing your experiences. Very few, if any, recent graduates are going to have "extensive" or "substantial" experience in anything beyond eating or sleeping. To say you have extensive experience in some subject area will hurt you. In my mind, someone with extensive banding experience would be akin to 20 years experience and 10,000 birds banded. So, like I said, no applicant is likely going to have extensive experience relative to my (or any other employer's) frame of reference. Using such descriptors detracts from your overall application and makes you sound naïve or ignorant.

c) Look at the credentials of the person to whom you are sending your application. If they have a PhD, you should refer to them as "Dr. Whatever", not "Mr. Whatever" or "Miss Whatever". Never use their first name - show respect by using a more formal salutation. And, of course, never write "To Whom It May Concern" or some other generic wording. It indicates to the employer that you have not taken the time to find out the name of the person to whom you are applying.

d) Proof and edit all of your application materials. Nothing shows your lack of attention to detail than typos or misaddressed cover letters. I am hiring you to collect data - data need to be collected in a meticulous way and without error. Show a potential employer how pedantic you can be - no errors of any kind!

You can read more about stategies for getting into graduate school by visiting my Primer On Getting Into Graduate School site.

Eric L. Walters 2013 All rights reserved.