PNAS: David Syzdek, Wildlife Biologist

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of David Syzdek, a wildlife biologist.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work as a wildlife biologist for a large water utility in a Western state.

2) What is your science background?

BS in Environmental Studies with minors in Geology and Biology.

3) What led you to this job?

I have worked for several contractors that worked for this utility doing wildlife surveys and endangered species protection work for construction and realized that the organization has an excellent track record in species protection and environmental stewardship. It took over 10 years to get my foot in the door with the help of a lot of professional networking.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Probably 70% office and 30% field. Field work can be difficult and hot at times and is usually in a remote location.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Most days are pretty different. Office work includes writing reports, making maps, reviewing contracts for biological consultants, and going to meetings.Field work can include birding, netting bats, small mammal trapping, snorkeling and counting fish, cutting weeds, chainsawing brush, plant surveys, and lots of driving.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

It’s a huge help. It helps to have a diverse science background to understand different fields. Hydrology, geology and meteorology are important to understand a lot of the natural processes that affect the biology. Construction and engineering knowledge help me understand a lot of the big engineering projects that area an important part of the business. One hydrogeology class a decade ago is helping me today with contracting to have a leaking underground storage tank removed in an environmentally sensitive area.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Get an internship with an utility. Some of my coworkers who I went to college with and started here as interns are now very successful and have great jobs. I regret I did not get an internship here.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Always keep learning and always be inquisitive.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Take a wide variety of hard courses as an undergrad. Get a good background in math, physics and chemistry because these fields are fundamental to everything that you do. Get field and lab experience. Know how write well, present well, and work with the public. Be an intern.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

The pay is awesome and I cannot believe I make very close to six figures as a wildlife biologist.