Spring: a wonderful time of year when a young biologist’s thoughts turn to field work and all the great experiences that come with it. But to earn paid access to all those rivers and mountains, you have to go through the time-honored process of dusting off your résumé, writing cover letters and personal statements, and generally jumping up and down in front of hiring biologists and telling them how great you are.
We’ve put together some basic guidelines for applying for technician positions. These aren’t exhaustive, or even suitable to every situation. Rather, they’re things that we’ve figured out through our combined years of applying for technician and entry-level jobs, and things we like to see now that we’re hiring young biologists on our own field crews.
Before you apply
- Take some time to research the organization, project, and supervisor. Have a good understanding of their work and the greater objectives of the organization. Use this knowledge in your application to demonstrate how your unique skills will serve the organization and project. If the supervisor is more research-oriented, read some of their publications.
- Make contact with the supervisor by email or phone. Express your interest in the position and your intent to apply. Ask them questions that aren’t answered in the job announcement. Be politely persistent and don’t let them forget you. Meet them in person if you can. Find out what it will take to keep you at the top of the stack.
- Have a personal email address that has your name in it. Carpslayer94@yahoo.com might be the one you’ve always used, but it will probably get an eyeroll out of a potential new boss.
Drafting your cover letter
- Put your cover letter in business format, including your address and affiliation, their address and affiliation, and the date. You may be getting dirty in the field, but having a polished cover letter says a lot about your professionalism and attention to detail.
- If there is a contact person listed on the posting, address your cover letter to them unless the posting tells you otherwise. Avoid “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear hiring person.” Remember when you contacted the supervisor before starting your application? That was the right time to make sure you know exactly who is handling your application.
- Be careful with prefixes. If the supervisor has a doctorate, address them as Dr. in your correspondences. If the supervisor is a woman who does not have a doctorate, use Ms., never Miss. or Mrs. Addressing your letter to their full name without a prefix is also acceptable if you’re unsure about the appropriate prefix.
- Don’t use the same cover letter for all of your applications. A universal cover letter might save you time, but it’s obvious to the supervisor and implies that you are not enthusiastic about their position. Your cover letters for different jobs will have a lot of the same elements, but tailoring your letter to the specific job will highlight how suited you are to the job.
- Take inspiration from the qualifications listed in the job posting and use the cover letter to highlight how you meet those qualifications. If the list is long, emphasize the most pertinent ones and the ones that are your strengths. Give explicit and concise examples.
Polishing your résumé or curriculum vitae
- Flesh out your experiences in your résumé, but be concise. Use bullet-points (not paragraphs) to detail your duties and accomplishments for each of your work or volunteer experiences.
- Résumés do not necessarily need to be limited to one page.
- Don’t dismiss your general skills, outdoor activities, or major personal accomplishments. Field work requires stamina, so if you do long backpacking trips, have whitewater experience, or have scaled El Capitan, let them know!
- Don’t leave out recent jobs that are not in the field. Ever been a camp counselor? You’ve got skills in working with a group and maybe leading a crew.
- Have a professor, graduate student, or professional in the field help you structure your résumé. Campus career offices can help, but they’re usually not hiring field biologists and can’t give you that perspective.
- Make sure any previous job or internship mentioned in your cover letter is included in the résumé.
Compiling your references
- It’s OK to give a few more references than the posting requests, but don’t go overboard. Three is good, five is plenty, and eight is too many.
- Contact all of the references you list to verify that they are willing to give you a good This is also a good time to make sure you have their correct email address and phone number.
- If a job requires a letter of recommendation, make sure that the letter is specific to the job for which you are applying rather than a general non-specific letter.
- Make it clear in your résumé how each reference is connected to a listed job or other experience.
Putting it all together
- If this is your first time applying for a technician position or it’s been a while, have a professional in the field read over your application. If they edit anything with track changes in Microsoft Word, make sure they are gone when you send in your application. Better yet, convert everything to pdf.
- Pay attention to the format and naming convention that the hiring person wants for your application. Follow all the guidelines that are given in the announcement. Failure to follow instructions sends a poor message about your attention to detail.
After you apply
- Get confirmation from them that the right person has everything they need from you.
- Maintain contact after you apply to remind them of your interest. A phone call, email, personal visit, or even a mailed note keeps you at the front of their minds. Local chapter meetings of professional societies like the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society are a good place to get face time with supervisors. In fisheries especially, early spring meetings are great opportunities for those supervisors to see you volunteering and active with your peers.
A note about government jobs
State and federal agencies usually require application through an HR website, so the first people to look at your material will not be the project supervisor. Pay attention to all instructions, especially the minimum qualifications for the position. After you’ve submitted everything and gotten confirmation that things went through ok, email the project supervisor directly and send them your résumé and cover letter. This will probably help your chances, but remember that it’s not an alternative to the rigorous hiring process that government agencies must follow.
by Wendy Lanier and Ed Kluender
Wendy is the Spotted Owl Project Leader with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and Ed is a Research Associate II in the Larval Fish Laboratory at Colorado State University.
10 Comments Add yours
Any tips for somebody who is older (mid-30s) and trying to get back “in field”? How about for people who are more lab than field? I currently work as a lab manager in a related STEM field and I would like to get back “in field”. Unfortunately I was stuck working way out of field during the recession and most of my relevant experience is from before then and from undergrad. Thanks!
Were I in your situation, I think I would treat re-entry into field work as if I had never left, with the understanding that I would be a little handicapped for higher-skilled and longer-term positions. I’ve been on field technician or entry-level crews in the past that got Ph.D. level applicants, just because they were tired of being behind a desk or in a lab, and were willing to take a step back in advancement to get back to field work.
Lab skills, especially managerial experience, usually translate to good field-data management and understanding of the essentials of scientific study. Focus on those aspects of your experience, because they can’t be learned in one field season. A good supervisor should recognize the importance of getting high-quality field data and understand that many field skills can be learned a little more quickly in an immersive environment.
So in short, jump right back into applying for field jobs. By now, you know what you’re good at. Don’t discount lab work as irrelevant to field work or assume you’re less valuable because you haven’t been in the field recently. Be prepared to work temporary or seasonal jobs for a little less pay, and don’t pass up on applying for a job that you want.
Any advice for non-US citizens that require visa sponsorship?
This is a situation that I’ve never been faced with, so I don’t know that I could give much insight. However, given that I work at a university and typically hire students, my gut feeling is that the international studies office would be the best source of information for that.
Outside an academic setting, I have no idea. Hopefully someone with experience can chime in soon.
My advice to students is to pick up some audio/visual and electrical experience. Knowing how to solder, wire a camera or make Cat 5 connectors will go a long way.
How to be hireable and skills and habits to cultivate are subjects that could fill books, and do. Perhaps we (or someone else) could do a post on that in the future.
I do wholeheartedly agree with you, though. The ability to build and maintain field equipment is invaluable. Especially with less-than-ideal tools in the field.
AFS also publishes an excellent book:
AFS Guide to Fisheries Employment, 2nd Edition
Thanks for the great article and thoughtful advice (normally I never read blog comments, much less leave one, due high levels of Internet idiocy). I think perhaps didn’t use the term “in field” with as judiciously as I should have. I meant back into fisheries, instead of my current more general STEM field. I’m a passable field technician, but I really excel at lab work. I think a temporary field position that had potential to open the door for a permanent lab position might be something for me to look into. I think it’s a slightly bigger gamble at my age than for people in their 20s.
@ MJ: Fisheries is my second career. I had office/administrative jobs in a big city until I was 35, when I finally decided to go to college and pursue a career in the fisheries/water/restoration field. I have found that my “unrelated” skills from my previous career are actually very related after all. In my case, working in administration and public relations gave me a couple skills that fisheries professionals don’t always have or don’t enjoy: working with people and doing paperwork. A lot of people I’m getting to know say they became biologists so they could work in the field and not deal with people so much. Some biologists also get pretty tired of doing paperwork, applying for grants, etc. during the non-field season. I love meeting with the public or project collaborators. I love building relationships or dealing with challenging people. I used to do paperwork year-round, 40 hours a week, so the amount of ppw in this new profession is no big deal to me. I play these things up in a cover letter and interview and I’m finding it does me a lot of good. I bet you developed skills during your non-fish career time that can apply to fisheries and help put you ahead. You just have to figure out what those are and how to apply and highlight them.
Thank you very much for this post! I am currently completing a restoration diploma to be transferring into a wildlife degree. My passion lies with wildlife research but I have little experience other than what I’ve done in educational labs. But I’m fast tracked to entering the wildlife community with sponsorship to attend the ACTWS conference in March. Thank you for the tips!