Erin McCance admits she has been “hooked” on The Wildlife Society ever since she was first introduced to it as a master’s student at the University of Manitoba in 2008. Now a Ph.D. candidate studying urban deer, McCance says the connections she’s made through her TWS chapter and section “have been instrumental in my development as a new wildlife professional.” The Society, she says, will be “a vital part of my future and career.”
Supporting students like McCance as they pursue wildlife careers has been a fundamental goal of our Society since its inception. TWS Leadership sees the connection to wildlife students as an essential com- ponent of achieving TWS’s mission: “To represent and serve the professional community of scientists, managers, educators, technicians, planners, and others that work actively to study, manage, and conserve wildlife and habitats worldwide.”
Students are clearly responding to the Society’s efforts. Today, TWS has 2,349 student members, 195 sponsored students, 71 international students, and two sponsored international students for a total of 2,617 — nearly a quarter of our membership. As 25-year veterans of TWS, we find this very gratifying. No organization or profession can survive without an influx of young, enthusiastic, well-trained individuals. Recognizing this, TWS has devoted itself to student outreach, a process that has evolved and expanded enormously over the years.
Early Interest in Students
Students have always played a significant role in our Society. We were founded by educators like Aldo Leopold, whose graduate students (such as H. Albert Hochbaum and Robert McCabe) became notable researchers and leaders in TWS. The Society officially incorporated the “student member” category into its bylaws in 1962 — our 25th anniversary year. “The student member option has been very popular, with a total of about 380 up to March 1, 1962,” wrote then-Executive Secretary C. Gordon Fredine, reporting in The Journal of Wildlife Management. “Interest in joining the Society apparently is being stimulated by the student chapters that are forming at several universities” (Fredine 1962).
Council authorized the first student chapter in 1962 at Utah State University in Provo, where Frederic Wagner became the first student chapter adviser. “Dr. Fred Wagner was my and my brother’s mentor,” recalls retired Manitoba wildlife biologist Herb Goulden. “He and Dr. Al Stokes were the wildlife gurus of the day there, and had a tremendous influence on both of us. They both had experience out in the real world of state wildlife management and were very practical in that regard.” Today, 157 advisors share their knowledge and expertise at 124 student chapters in 50 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. To recognize the outstanding contributions of advisers and chapters, TWS began offering a Student Chapter of the Year award in 1994 and Advisor of the Year award in 2004.
To encourage networking and information exchange among student chapters, TWS supports student conclaves — regional meetings that draw students from area universities and colleges to get training in field techniques, interact with working professionals, and engage in a little friendly competition. The first student conclave — organized by the TWS Western Section — was held in 1966, and today there are five conclaves each year, with four in the United States and one in Canada. These conclaves and their inter-institutional competitions — such as game calling, identifying bird calls and mammal tracks, and preparing wild foods — have become a highlight of many academic wildlife programs.
In order to establish consistent standards for wildlife biologists, TWS launched a certification program in 1977 with categories for Certified Wildlife Biologist (CWB) and Associate Wildlife Biologist (AWB). The AWB level was designed to appeal to new graduates of wildlife programs, encouraging them to pursue additional education. To date, 1,862 people have attained their AWB credentials after graduating from wildlife programs and meeting criteria established by Council and verified by TWS’s Certification Review Board. About half of those AWBs have gone on to attain CWB status, granted to those who have gained at least five years of post-graduation wildlife-related employment experience.
“I’ve been building my academic profile to meet the AWB criteria for two years,” says Megan Silsby, a newly minted Virginia Tech graduate with a degree in wildlife sciences. Citing the extreme competition for jobs in a down economy, Silsby has applied for her AWB, believing it will give her an edge. “Hav ing an AWB shows that I have, as a college student, made the effort to stand out. It represents skills that are recognized in my field by professional biologists.”
The Wildlife Society further expanded opportunities for student professional development when, in 1993, Council established the concept of topical working groups to encourage wildlifers with specific expertise to collaborate on their sub-disciplines. Today there are 25 working groups, all of which encourage student participation. The following three in particular are geared toward students, educators, and young professionals:
College and University Wildlife Education Working Group. Launched in 1995, this group focuses on the professional development of TWS members working as college or university educators, and on improving curricula, teaching approaches, course development, classroom technology, critical thinking, experiential learning, and advising. The relationship between TWS and academia will be further enhanced through the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Association of University Fish and Wildlife Programs.
Student Development Working Group. Begun in 2010, this group promotes increased student awareness of TWS benefits and helps to prepare students for professional wildlife careers. It hosts meetings, workshops, poster sessions, a mentoring program, and a student chapter leaders’ breakfast at the TWS Annual Conference — activities that promote networking with experienced professionals. The group also selects the winner of the Student Chapter Advisor of the Year award, and its chair serves as student liaison to Council.
Early Career Professional Working Group. The Society’s newest working group, which gained interim status in 2011, was launched to serve as a bridge between TWS student members and established professionals. The idea for this group came from members of TWS’s 2010 Leadership Institute.
A handful of other working groups have been particularly active in promoting student interests. The Native People’s Wildlife Management Working Group, for example, won TWS’s Diversity Award in 2011 for its mentoring program for Native American wildlife students. This program — supported by several federal natural resource agencies — brings qualified students to the TWS Annual Conference, where they attend sessions, network with profes- sionals, and participate in the working group’s annual symposium.
The Annual Conference itself — first held in 1994 — provides one of the Society’s greatest opportunities for meaningful student engagement with TWS. From its inception, the conference has catered to student needs and aspirations through activities such as student paper and poster competitions, which enable students pursuing wildlife degrees to share and receive recognition for their work. Many academic advisers now require their graduate students to present a paper at least once at a TWS Annual Conference.
To further stimulate student participation, in 1997 the Annual Conference began to offer a student- professional mixer where students can mingle informally with seasoned pros and seek advice on educational and career advancement. Students also benefit from the career fair, the Quiz Bowl compe- tition, field trips, résumé-writing workshops, and a work-in-progress poster session designed for students in the early stages of their wildlife research. Such offerings have helped increase student attendance. In 2011, for example, 322 student members and 125 non-member students attended the conference in Hawaii for a total of 447 — nearly a third of total attendees.
Because the conference is so beneficial to emerging professionals, TWS headquarters, sections, chapters, and working groups now help provide student grants to make conference travel more affordable. One such grantee is Daniel Dupont, a master’s student from the University of Manitoba, who attended the 2011 Annual Conference in Hawaii. “For us young emerging biologists,” says Dupont, “there is much to learn from … seasoned biologists.” The conference provided that opportunity. “I learned about these great new methods I’ll be able to use for future studies,” he says, adding, “The sharing of knowledge with fellow wildlifers can expedite your learning.”
The Society also helps build a bridge between recent graduates and professional life through its Leadership Institute, established in 2006. Through workshops, meetings, and mentoring, the Institute provides training that can help prepare promising candidates to move into leadership positions both in the workplace and in TWS. Participation is geared toward early career professionals who are two to three years post degree (either undergraduate or graduate), working in a full-time wildlife position, with evident leadership potential. A small number of slots are also available for more-recent graduates or those who are working while concurrently pursuing a graduate degree.
An Eye on the Pipeline
The Society placed student needs prominently on the table when Council met in 2008 to set priorities for its five-year Strategic Plan. One of the plan’s primary objectives is to “to attract and help develop the next generation of wildlife professionals.” Prompted by that goal, TWS named a student liaison to Council in 2009 and has developed several other initiatives.
For example, the plan calls upon TWS to “develop better tools for students on the TWS website.” To that end, in 2010 TWS launched a state-of-the- art online Mentoring Program to help student members develop professional connections with mentors, who act as role models and provide guid- ance. The program also helps students develop additional contacts, access relevant information, and evaluate the effectiveness of the mentor relationship. To date, more than 1,000 individuals are signed up for the program, roughly split between mentors and mentees.
In addition, the Society’s website recently added a tab for “Professional Development” that includes information about the Leadership Institute, conclaves, grants, online courses, careers in wildlife conservation, and universities that offer wildlife degrees. The Society has also ramped up its social networking sites such as The Wildlife Society Blog (“Making Tracks”), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Linked In — features that are particularly popular with students and young professionals. Four “Go Centers” (for mentorship, careers, membership, and grassroots policy action) are also newly accessible, making site navigation faster and easier.
On a larger scale, TWS Council and staff have long been studying and reporting on big-picture trends in wildlife education, recruitment, and retention. In 1990, TWS President Jim Teer and others produced a report concluding that educational institutions did not always produce graduates that adequately met employer needs (Teer et al. 1990). Nearly 20 years later, Council established an Ad Hoc Committee on Collegiate Wildlife Programs to examine the trends, strengths, and weaknesses of university and college wildlife programs in North America. In its summary report to Council in 2009, the com- mittee noted how a dramatic shift in wildlife curricula and student backgrounds are creating challenges in terms of communication, core curricula, human dimensions, and interdisciplinary collaboration that must be addressed.
Work on that report stimulated creation of a special session at the 74th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference titled “The Coursework of Conservation: Are University Curricula on Target?” Major conclusions from that session support TWS’s 2009 report, noting that universities need to enhance graduates’ communication skills and ability to work in teams with a vast array of stakeholders, and that all members of the wildlife profession need to actively help prepare our future wildlife biologists and managers.
Clearly wildlifers possess a wealth of experience that needs to be more effectively transferred to the younger generation, many of whom grow up in urban environments with no experience of traditional outdoor skills. To achieve this:
- Employers and the academic community need to develop new approaches such as internships, cooperative education placements, job shadowing, volunteer assignments, training sessions, field trips, and mentoring.
- Employers must stay engaged in curriculum discussions with partner universities and support research projects that provide mutual benefit to the organization, students, and academic institutions.
- Certification programs should be re-evaluated to ensure that their mandate is meeting the needs of the employers, and employers should use certification as a tool to derive the best candidate for jobs that become available.
- Employers need to recognize that entry-level employees are not finished products, and therefore need opportunities for professional development.
- Wildlife graduates must strive to continually im- prove their knowledge and skill base throughout their careers.
Building on the momentum of the North American Conference and the ad hoc committee report, TWS formed a Blue Ribbon Panel to explore how to recruit and retain wildlife professionals. With federal support from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, we con- vened an expert panel of 16 people from diverse public and private groups. In 2012 the panel released its final report titled “The Future of the Wildlife Profession and Its Implications for the Training of the Next Generation of Wildlife Professionals.” Like the earlier studies, it concludes that students need enhanced communication skills as well as more thorough scientific and technical training.
This will require wildlife curricula to be reshaped, likely through formal and informal collaboration between universities, employers, and professional societies. We also need a better understanding of student motivations so we can cultivate an early interest in the profession and promote it along a student’s entire academic path and career, working with employers to make that happen. The Blue Ribbon Panel offers these recommendations to address concerns and achieve our goals:
- Ensure that wildlife curricula better reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the profession and the expectations of prospective employers. A core curriculum should include natural sciences along with communications and critical-thinking skills.
- Encourage universities, agencies, NGOs, other employers, and professional societies to collaborate on curriculum development and expand course offerings and experiential learning opportunities.
- Place greater emphasis on recruiting students into the field — especially those from under-represent- ed groups — and advising them throughout their academic careers.
- Support mentoring of employees throughout their careers and place greater emphasis on leadership development, taking advantage of partnerships with existing programs.
- Help employers, academic institutions, and professional societies collaborate to provide academic development and life-long learning opportunities for wildlife professionals.
In another major effort to push the envelope with regard to wildlife education and employment, the Coalition of Natural Resource Societies (CNRS) hosted a Natural Resource Education and Employment Conference in 2011. The conference drew 36 key representatives from universities, state, provincial, and federal agencies, and members of CNRS including TWS, the Society for Range Management, American Fisheries Society, and Society of American Forest- ers. Their summary report concludes, “We are facing increasing demands to expand our natural resources education programs to meet the challenges of a changing world,” yet this is happening at a time when “the political influence of natural resources organizations is diminished … [and] budget woes have put enormous pressure on state and federal agencies.” Despite such challenges, CNRS conference attendees set a goal to “jumpstart a collective effort to adapt natural resource education to these changing circumstances [in] ways that will increase its stature, legitimacy, and influence.” Clearly TWS will continue to play an important role in making this happen in the coming years.
Standing by Students
Watching students progress from being puzzled undergraduates to inquisitive master’s or Ph.D. candidates to entry-level biologists to senior level scientists or managers has been very instructive to us as we have moved through our own careers. Students bring enthusiasm and new ideas to the table—and they hold the future of our wildlife resources in their hands. We believe that the relationship between students and career professionals should never be taken for granted, but should be nourished over time. We are proud that TWS has been a leader and advocate for ensuring that the needs of students are considered paramount in helping to shape the future of our profession, and we are confident that future TWS leaders will redouble their efforts to continue to foster this important relationship.
Author Bios: Rick Baydack, Ph.D., CWB, is Professor and Chair of Environmental Science and Studies at the University of Manitoba and is Canadian Section Representative on The Wildlife Society’s Governing Council.
Michael Hutchins, Ph.D., is the former Executive Director/ CEO of The Wildlife Society.