Park Naturalist Training and Certificate Program Information
Read about degree programs for aspiring park naturalists. Learn about course topics, career choices, the employment outlook and certificate programs for volunteer naturalists.
Park naturalists provide visitor services, conduct field trips to scientific and natural destinations, prepare and present lectures, create brochures and media articles and construct visitor center displays. Park naturalists must usually have a bachelor's degree in a field such as environmental studies; related associate's degree programs can help students start their career. Science and laboratory classes are common in 2-year and 4-year degree programs. Certificate programs are not usually applicable to professional park naturalists, but they may be of interest to serious amateurs.
Associate of Science in Wildlife Management
An associate degree in wildlife management can be the first step in becoming a park naturalist. Candidates gain a conceptual understanding of wildlife management, conservation and ecology. They collect, analyze, identify and interpret wildlife, fish and habitat data. A bachelor's degree is required for most park naturalist positions, but graduates of associate programs are eligible for some entry-level park jobs and can often transfer their credits toward a related bachelor's degree program. Schools often require submission of a high school transcript or GED and official transcripts from any past college attendance. Former courses in math, English and the sciences are helpful.
In addition to general education courses, students take classes on botany, plant ecology and natural resources. Internships, labs and electives may supplement classes in the wildlife, fish, forestry and recreational core, such as:
- General biology
- Basic and advanced ecology
- Regional plants and wildlife
- Wildlife management
- Trees and shrubs
- Forest management
- Streams and aquatic insects
- Fisheries and hatcheries
Popular Career Options
Employees at state and national parks often need several years of work-related experience and on-the-job training. Physical endurance is important because park naturalists exert themselves by walking, climbing, lifting, balancing, bending and stooping. Most advanced positions require a bachelor's degree, but a few opportunities are sometimes available for associate's degree candidates, such as:
- Park aide
- Wildlife aide
- Environmental education specialist
Park naturalists must generally have at least a bachelor's degree in a field such as environmental science. Students who already hold an associate's degree in wildlife management may be able to transfer many of their credits to a bachelor's degree program.
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science
Environmental science programs prepare graduates to work in environmental law, policy and planning as well as for careers as park naturalists or other conservation specialists. Programs cover the natural sciences and relevant public policy, along with communication skills. Because park naturalists work to communicate with those who have little formal scientific training about environmental issues, a program that includes training in environmental science and the liberal arts may be relevant to an aspiring naturalist.
Most schools do not require prerequisites other than a high school diploma. However, demonstrating relevant prior coursework or experience, such as that earned in an associate degree program or through military training, may allow students to enter with advanced standing.
Environmental science programs focus on the natural sciences, with some courses in communication and other liberal arts topics. Curricula may also incorporate electives, internships, practicums, labs and work opportunities. Among many other subjects, intensive coursework covers:
- Life science
- Biodiversity assessment and monitoring
- Biology and field methods
- Environmental issues
- Biodiversity and geography
- Culture, ethics and jurisprudence
- Developing written and oral presentations
- Intro to environmental microbiology
- Social and behavioral sciences
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Park naturalists may work as conservation scientists and foresters. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected that the number of jobs for these workers would grow 5% from the years 2010 through 2020. The BLS also reported in 2012 that conservation scientists and foresters earned median annual salaries of $61,100 and $55,950, respectively.
Park naturalists who wish to move into conducting research or teaching environmental science in colleges and universities will require master's and Ph.D. degrees. Advanced degrees and work experience may also contribute to promotions in other employment areas.
Master Naturalist Certificate Programs
Non-credit master naturalist certificate programs are available at some colleges and universities. Their goal is to develop citizen stewards of the natural resources found within the particular region of the school and courses reflect this. Skills learned will be useful to students who volunteer with local and regional nature centers, assisting in maintenance and management tasks as assigned. They do not generally serve as adequate training for paying positions as park naturalists or related occupations.
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