Blazing a New Trail

The right graduate degree can help you ditch the desk for a job in the outdoors

April 9, 2012

Martin Ogle trained to be a wildlife researcher but found his true passion in educating others about the environment as a naturalist in the Northern Virginia regional parks.

Martin Ogle doesn’t stare at a computer screen all day. Instead, he tends to trails and interpretive gardens, puts together exhibits about energy and ecology, and teaches people of all ages about the flora and fauna of Northern Virginia.

“I wanted to be in a place where I could not only be outside a lot but also help get the word out about all of this knowledge,” says Ogle, 51, who holds a master’s in wildlife biology from Virginia Tech. That led him to the field of interpretive education and his position as chief naturalist with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

For some people, Ogle’s business day sounds a lot more appealing than sitting at a desk from 9 to 5. If you’d rather punch the clock in the great outdoors, enrolling in a graduate-degree program in the areas of environmental management or leadership might help you get your feet wet. Literally.

“Once a week, our students are in the creek, taking samples to then analyze in the lab,” says Tolessa Deksissa, director of the professional science master’s program (PSM) in water resources management at the University of the District of Columbia. “It’s actual experiential learning that trains them to be ready for a job.”

PSM programs allow degree holders to work in both the scientific and business worlds by combining advanced training in science or mathematics with coursework in management, policy or law. The goal is to prepare students for a variety of positions at technology-based companies, government agencies or nonprofits, according to the National Professional Science Master’s Association.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had trouble finding well-trained applicants, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore launched a PSM specifically to fill that need. Students can now earn a professional science master’s in quantitative fisheries and resource economics. “Those are two areas that NOAA was not able to get enough people trained in,” says Todd Christenson, program manager of the NOAA Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center at UMES. “The program is a good jumping-off point for students going directly into agencies.”


As chief naturalist, Ogle educates visitors about parks and helps maintain trails.

Evan Lindsay, 27, who’s finishing the two-year program in May, hopes the degree will prepare him for a position in fisheries management. “This program really trains you to have an analyst’s perspective,” says the New Jersey native, who grew up on the coast. “I like to be outdoors and on the water, and with fisheries management you get that opportunity to be in the field collecting data.”

Of course, a professional science master’s degree isn’t the only way to get your outdoor dream job. In the fall, American University will introduce a different kind of environmental degree program: an M.S. in sustainability management through its Kogod School of Business. The interdisciplinary degree program trains students to help drive an organization’s environmental programs and policies.

“Our students will be studying science, business and public policy and hopefully combining all three to be well-rounded sustainability officers,” says Daniel Jacobs, the program’s director. That, according to Jacobs, will make them ideal candidates for jobs at government agencies such as the National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency, positions in environmental education or roles at a major retailer like Patagonia.

Scientific research is another career path that can lead you into the woods, to the beach or to whatever kind of wild kingdom you want to explore. “If you want to get outside, consider a master’s or Ph.D. degree with a research thesis requirement, like a field study,” says Albert Torzilli, graduate program director and associate professor in George Mason University’s Department of Environmental Science & Policy.

Candidates need to recognize the realities of conducting research. “You do get to have fun outdoors, but eventually you have to come indoors and input your data,” says Christine Gleason, 35, who’s in her first year of a Ph.D. program at George Mason University and serves as president of the school’s Environmental Science & Policy Graduate Student Association.

Ogle originally thought he wanted to be a researcher. But after spending time gathering and crunching numbers, he realized he’d be happier explaining the stats to others. “There are so many things you can do,” Ogle says. “Even in our own park system, there’s the classic ranger position, there are people who work in horticulture. There are a lot of different ways to get outside if you know what it is you like.”

Sophie Gerard, 33, has known where her interests lie from a young age. As a child, she could often be found in a pair of river boots, standing in a stream and looking for crayfish. Her parents helped develop her inquisitive nature and passion for the outdoors, and now she inspires that same sense of wonder as an ecological educator at the Nature Preschool at the Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Md.

“I realized that I could make a career out of this, of helping others see what’s around us,” says Gerard, who holds a master’s in ecological teaching from Lesley University in Massachusetts.

Gerard spends a good chunk of time each day outdoors with her students, searching for animal tracks, examining acorns or simply listening to the sounds of nature. “There are so many things out there that we walk by every day and never have the chance to take a second look at,” she says.

“My graduate degree has really helped me to focus on the whole, on all the interconnections and patterns we see throughout everything we do. And I’m really happy to go to my job every day.”

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