The great outdoors are just your thing. From a hike in the woodlands to rock-collecting in fields, you love it all. That can make it tough to pick a career nurturing Mother Nature. Two big possibilities include working as a forest ranger or as a geologist. The jobs have their similarities, such as long hours spent outside. But they have different job descriptions, educational needs and salaries. The path you pursue will also come down to how your skills fit the demands of each job.
Forest rangers and geologists both work with nature, but in different ways. Rangers are basically conservation cops, patrolling state and federal parks to make sure visitors follow rules on everything from fishing to speed limits. But there’s a friendly side to the job: those cool visitor-center displays, site tours and informational pamphlets are often the work of rangers. Geologists, on the other hand, don’t deal as much with the public. They scratch around the Earth looking for gold, oilfields, water and other natural resources, or discovering fault lines and tracking climate patterns. Rather than presenting what they’ve learned to a group of school kids on a field trip, geologists write reports for private businesses and government agencies.
If you love the idea of an outdoor office, you’ll win with either choice. Forest rangers spend most of their time outside, whether they’re cleaning up campsites, looking for lost hikers or installing trail markers. When they’re not taking in fresh air, they’re usually driving on patrol or giving directions from inside the visitors’ center. Geologists also spend plenty of time outside, in environments ranging from ocean floors to volcanoes. But they’re likelier to be indoors for at least part of the week. They typically divide their hours among field, lab and cubicle. Once they’ve collected samples, they analyze the rocks’ properties in the lab. Then, they write reports in the office.
In either job, you’ll need a postsecondary degree, but forest rangers take a quicker path into the field. Some employers require as little as two years of college, such as an associate degree in parks management, outdoor recreation, resource protection or forestry. And expect to spend the first few months in on-the-job training in law enforcement and emergency medicine. Geologists have to go to school longer. Stats from the U.S. Department of Labor show 57 percent of geoscientists, including geologists, have a bachelor’s degree. Another 42 percent have a master’s degree. With a four-year degree, you can get an entry-level job as a research or field assistant. You’ll need at least a master’s to snag a senior job leading a team of researchers or helping government agencies deal with environmental issues.
For the best pay, it’s geology all the way. Geologists and other geoscientists took home a median annual income of $90,890 in 2012, according to the Department of Labor. Forest rangers made about a third of that, at a median of $33,920. Geologists have higher incomes, thanks in part to their greater education level, as well as their position of responsibility setting policies and conducting research for businesses and government agencies.
In some ways, skills for both careers overlap. The ranger and the geologist both need great communications skills. Rangers have to know how to write display materials and give a fun and inspiring presentation. Geologists need to be able to put their findings in understandable terms and share them with employers and the public in written or oral reports. But each career has its own specific needs. If you’re a whiz at designing computer simulations, adding up distances, measuring data and using mathematical models, you have the skills to be a geologist. To be a ranger, multitasking is the best ability you can have, because every day brings new challenges, from planning how to fight a wildfire to observing endangered plants.
- O*Net Online: Summary Report for Forest and Conservation Technicians
- Saddleback College: Geology Careers
- North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation: Meet the Ranger
- Maine Forest Service: Minimum Qualifications
- O*Net Online: Summary Report for Geoscientists, Except Hydrologists and Geographers
- Western Illinois University: Geology Careers