What is an Ecology Degree?

Students who want to pursue becoming ecologists study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them.

An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.

The foundation of degree programs in ecology are the six levels of ecological organization:

  • Individual species of living organisms
  • Population of individual species
  • Communities of different species that live together in a particular region
  • Ecosystem of all the living organisms and non-living things (like air, soil, and water) in a particular region
  • Biome or biotic community characterized by dominant vegetation and climactic conditions
  • Biosphere, made up of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere

Among the topics that may be studied in ecology degree programs are:

  • Ecology, evolution, and adaptation
  • Terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems
  • Costs and benefits of social behaviors
  • Estimation of population density
  • Adaptations of predators
  • Food chains
  • Global patterns of biological diversity
  • Environmental issues and resource management
  • Global warming
  • Ecological field and lab techniques

Programs typically combine classroom instruction with laboratory activity and fieldwork.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Ecology – Two Year Duration
Generally, students who earn an associate degree in this field go on to apply their credits to a bachelor’s program. At the associate level, students take foundational courses designed to prepare them for ongoing study. These include calculus, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and technical writing.

Graduates who choose to seek employment with an Associate Degree in Ecology may find work as research technicians, laboratory assistants, and field technicians.

Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, students develop the quantitative approach and analytical skills that the ecology field requires. Some programs may offer concentration options, such as General and Applied Ecology, Aquatic Ecology, and Wildlife Management. Other programs may not allow specialization until the graduate level.

The bachelor’s curriculum includes independent research projects and courses like the following:

  • Conservation Biology
  • Animal Diversity
  • Principles of Wildlife Management
  • Current Topics in Aquatic Ecology
  • Climatology
  • Insect Biology and Control
  • Plant Ecology
  • Environmental Management
  • Forest Fire Management
  • Computer Programming for Life Sciences
  • Ecological Genetics

With a Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology, graduates may go on to work as wildlife specialists, outdoor educators, game wardens, park rangers, and conservation officers.

Master’s Degree in Ecology – Two Year Duration
Ecology graduate programs are targeted at individuals who wish to work in leadership roles in the field. The master’s curriculum varies depending on students’ choice of specialization and thesis topic. Here are some sample courses offered at this level:

  • Soil Ecology
  • Aquatic Communities and Ecosystems
  • Terrestrial Communities and Ecosystems
  • Forest Ecology
  • Quantitative Biology
  • Environmental Planning
  • Ecology of Individuals
  • Ecology of Populations
  • Problems in Ecology
  • Molecular Ecology and Evolution

Master’s graduates may go on to become field ecologists, environmental planners and consultants, wildlife biologists, and natural resource managers.

Doctoral Degree in Ecology – Three to Five Year Duration
Coursework in Ph.D. programs in ecology is focused on independent research of the individual student’s dissertation topic. Here are some samples of dissertation topics:

  • A study of how changing weather patterns have affected migratory habits of geese in Asia
  • The snow leopard of the Himalayas: a study of the conservation efforts
  • A study of the discovery of new species in the last 100 years
  • The fight against animal testing: what has been achieved in the last 50 years?
  • The effectiveness of commercial zoos in the conservation effort
  • The effect of industrial waste on wildlife conservation
  • The effect of wildlife conservation on legislature worldwide
  • The effect of climate change on wildlife conservation

Many graduates with a Doctoral Degree in Ecology go on to work in academia as researchers and university professors.

Degrees Similar to Ecology

Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture
Degree programs in this field teach students how to practise environmentally sustainable farming. Courses include soil science, animal science, plant science, and organic farming.

Botany is the study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants. Degree programs in the field include courses in biochemistry, microbiology, photosynthesis, and plant evolution.

Conservation Biology
Conservation biologists apply biological principles to the preservation and rehabilitation of wildlife. They may be involved in enforcing hunting laws and in conservation education.

Environmental Science
The basis of this discipline is that all natural things interact. Individuals who earn a degree in environmental science develop plans to prevent, control, or find solutions to environmental issues, such as pollution.

Fisheries Sciences and Management
Individuals with a degree in fisheries and aquatic science may run a fishery, research fishes and their environment, study fish spawning habits, or use their knowledge in aquarium settings.

Degree programs in this field teach the science and art of cultivating fruits, vegetables, flowers, and/or ornamental plants. Horticulture students learn about plant biology and nutrition, soil science, and greenhouse and nursery management.

Marine Biology
Students who earn a degree in marine biology study marine organisms and their behaviors and interactions with the environment.

Natural Resource Conservation
Degree programs in natural resources and conservation teach students how to protect natural areas like forests, parks, and rangelands. Classes typically cover plant and animal identification and natural resources policy and administration.

Zoology is the study of animals. Students in these degree programs learn about the anatomy, behavior, habitats, and evolution of animals.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Analytical skills
  • Attention to detail / Accuracy
  • Patience
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Oral and written communication skills
  • Capacity to conduct fieldwork
  • Computer literacy
  • Report writing
  • Project management

What Can You Do with an Ecology Degree?

The following national government agencies may hire ecologists:

  • US Department of Agriculture
  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US Forest Service
  • US Inter-tribal Environmental Council
  • US National Park Service
  • US Natural Resources Conservation Service

Opportunities may also exist with similar state agencies.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
The following are some of the environment-focused NGOs in the United States and worldwide with which ecologists may find employment:

  • Earthwatch
  • Environmental Defense Fund
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Freshwater Biological Association
  • Friends of the Earth
  • Greenpeace
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
  • National Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Rainforest Alliance
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Wildlife Conservation Society
  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Roles for ecologists who work for government agencies or NGOs may include:

  • Wildlife/endangered species rehabilitation – trying to identify why some species are nearly extinct and looking for ways to save them
  • Natural resource management – finding environmentally responsible ways to use natural resources like water, soils, and minerals
  • Research – working to solve environmental problems and to advance environmental issues

Some ecologists work as environmental consultants, either independently or with private consulting firms. In many cases, their primary responsibility is to ensure that development and infrastructure projects do not result in pollution of any kind or infringe upon local species and their ecosystem. They may also work in the area of restoration ecology, restoring ecosystems that have been damaged by human activities like mining or farming.

Individuals with an ecology degree and the appropriate teaching credential may teach the discipline.

Ecologists employed in the forestry industry survey forestlands and work to protect them from wildfires, insects and diseases, and excessive logging.

Zookeepers with an ecology background have the opportunity to both educate the public and partake in conservation.


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