How to Apply for a Field Job

I’ve been on both sides of the problem for several years now. I spent years applying for field technician positions, interviewing, and snagging a few, now I just finished hiring for my fourth field season of my PhD fieldwork. I’m something of a questioner, I’m always asking people for their thoughts on how to do things, and I’ve picked many brains about how to apply for field jobs and here are my take aways, for those who are coming up in the ranks.

  • Disclaimer - these are my thoughts, disregard as you see fit, ESPECIALLY if a job positing specifically requests something

Read the Job Positing

  • How do you fit the posting? What are they looking for, and how is that you? Write down 3-4 things from the job positing that you fit, these are the talking points for your cover letter and interview.

  • What are you lacking? Often you will not have a qualification that is desired, that can be ok, acknowledge it, mention any similar experience you have, or how you think you can overcome it.

Cover Letters

  • Spend the time to make the application custom to the job
    This doesn’t mean a brand new cover letter for each job, but it does mean writing a few new intro and closing sentences to show why you are a good fit for this position. Proof your cover letters, make sure they are addressed to the right person and for the right job. Don’t let these simple mistakes get you thrown into the ‘no’ pile.

  • tell me what YOU did.
    I have read a few cover letters that read like this person has run their own project before, and then I look at their resume and see that they volunteered for the project for a weekend. I want to know what you did, I am hiring you. Highlight what you accomplished, what you gained on that project, what you lead, what you added to the project. Did you help develop some new technique, or take on extra responsibility? What conditions did you work under (cold, hot, nocturnal work, deserts, etc).

  • Don’t spend the entire letter telling me some cliche
    If you want to add in a sentence or two about why you love field work, great, but don’t let it take up too much space, I go into this assuming you like being outside, otherwise lets be honest, you can make more money elsewhere. I discourage the use of inspirational quotes or poetry in your cover letter, this is a place for showing what you can do.

  • Don’t tell non-professional stories
    Keep it professional, don’t tell me you slept with your last boss, or cheated on your girlfriend. Please, do not do it, I will not hire you.


  • Do NOT limit yourself to only a two page resume
    I know that your career center in college said that two pages was the rule, and if you were in a field other then field biology that might be true, but right now, add in the detail! No, I’m not going to read all of it word-for-word, at least not at first glance, but I want to be able to look at your resume and get a feel for what you have done, what training you’ve had, what skill sets you have, who you have worked with and where. Details like coursework are not as important (unless the job posting asks for them).

  • list all your trainings, ALL of them
    Also, KEEP DOCUMENTATION OF YOUR TRAININGS. This is huge, if you are already trained you can save your employer time, money and headache and get a leg up. Keep track of what you have, when it expires, etc, and slap it into your resume. Seek out trainings as part of positions you have, especially power tools, ATVs, and first aid.

  • When applying for a field job, use a reference who knows your field skills
    A common mistake I see people make is keeping their professors from undergrad on as references after they have worked several field jobs. Having a professor or two as a reference is fine, but as you work with more and more people, and you no longer interact with them regularly, its time to drop them off. When I contact a reference I have specific questions (how does X person handle working solo, how do they handle an ATV, are they diligent collecting data, would you trust them to drive your car?) and if I get ‘I had X in my class, they were cool’ that doesn’t help me much.

  • Use recent references
    Your references don’t have to be your three most recent jobs, but there should be at least one from your last couple jobs. If I look at your references and they are all >5 years old, and I contact them and they tell me ‘I haven’t heard from X in 5 years and have no idea what he is doing with his life’ it doesn’t make me very confident in your current abilities and makes me wonder why you aren’t using your recent references. Its not an issue if you have a boss you didn’t get along with and you don’t use them as a reference, but if all your recent jobs are missing, I start to wonder.

  • Keep things in order
    I think reverse chronological makes the most sense, but pick an order. I understand the motivation to pick a job with relevant experience from two years ago and put it at the top, but its confusing to read. Highlight relevant jobs in your cover letter, and put things in order.

  • When I open your resume in my web browser I should be able to read it
    See above bullet point about its ok to go over two pages, don’t use tiny text, its hard to read and makes me not want to read it, which is bad for you. White space and larger text are your friend.

  • Unless you are still in high school or are not in/graduated from college I do not see a reason to list your high school diploma.
    It frankly doesn’t matter, I care about your post high school education. Its ok to include experience in high school if you think it is relevant (waiting tables, maybe not so much, but landscaping experience, farm experience, auto shop experience, etc, sure, throw it in there)

The Interview

I hate interviewing people, I feel really awkward about it, and I try to make it painless. Not everyone feels this way and interviews can be rough.

Many interviews for field jobs are over the phone, or skype, its a seasonal position so they aren’t going to fly you out or anything.

Tips for Phone interviews

  • Have a pad of paper in front of you (so you can make notes if you have questions while they are talking and you can fidget if you are nervous, also good for writing down bullet points of things you want to mention)
  • get somewhere with good reception, or warn the person if that is going to be difficult
  • charge your phone
  • triple check time zones
  • answer the phone and say hello, don’t just pick it up and sit there, quietly.
  • spend 10 minutes before the interview thinking about the job posting, why you want it, what you can bring to the project

Tips for Skype Interviews

  • Good Internet connection
  • Make sure you are in a place that is quiet
  • Wear pants :)
  • Wear clothes that are not-unprofessional (you don’t have to dress up, but wear something appropriate, no profanity, etc)
  • Have a background that won’t be distracting or inappropriate
  • Be Patient, sometimes skype interviews have quirks and take a few moments to iron out

how to handle the questions

  • Know why you want the job.
    Are you interested int he project? want to gain some specific experience? Expand your resume to a new taxa or system? I need a job is not the right answer. I need someone a little more invested then the paycheck. When you are asked about your experience talk about what you did, not just list things. ‘I monitored X number of nests X days a week and observed these behaviors to accomplish this’ not just ‘i monitored nests, it was cool’.

  • When asked about experience with a specific technique or equipment (say mist netting or ATVs) don’t tell a negative story
    Unless you can spin it positive. This is not the time to brag ‘about that time you flipped over an ATV and ruined it’ or the ‘time you killed five birds’. Mistakes happen on field jobs, I know that, but bragging about them is not cool.

  • Do not assume you have the job because you got an interview.
    Most people interview several more people then they plan to hire. This is your second chance at a first impression, don’t blow it. I’ve been totally turned towards and away from people based on their interviews, mostly based on the three points above.

  • Feel free to ask the interviewer questions about the project.
    What the project is going to accomplish, what would your daily responsibilities be, what kind of weather you might expect, etc.

  • Be prepared for a question like ‘what is a difficult time you’ve faced, or a stressful situation, or a time you’ve made a mistake’
    Be honest, and be sure you have a way to show how you addressed the issue, how you overcame it, how you will ensure it won’t happen again. This is a good time to talk about what you did when the mistake occurred, how did you communicate the mistake to your boss, how to you ensure your or others safety if that is a factor, how did you ensure the safety of the organisms you work with.

  • Don’t be afraid to be funny, to laugh, to be yourself.
    Part of the interview is seeing you as a person, understanding how you will fit within the crew, so be yourself. Just don’t drone on for a long time.

  • You are also interviewing the job
    Sometimes you will interview for a job, and leave the interview with a weird feeling in your stomach. Not every job is a good fit for you, not every job is worth having. Use the interview to figure out if you want the job and to get a feel for who you will be working with. Sadly, not everyone hiring technicians has your best interests at heart, you have to look out for yourself. It is totally ok to turn down a job when it is offered to you, for whatever reason, though if its because you got a funny feeling in your stomach, maybe don’t tell them that.

  • Once you accept a job, don’t back out, unless (1) you get a weird vibe and feel bad about the position (2) you get a full time permanent job elsewhere (3) you get into graduate school (4) some big life thing happens and you can’t do the job. Do Not back out of a job after you have accepted because you found something better. Field ecology is small, you will be amazed how people talk. If you are offered one job, but want to hold out for a second, ask if you can have some time to decide, but don’t accept with the plan of backing out. Its not professional, and it can really hurt a project, and you.

End Thoughts

Getting your first field job is daunting, and can be very difficult. Don’t take it to hard when you send out dozens of resumes and don’t get dozes of job offers (and yes, I encourage you to apply widely, especially at first). Don’t limit yourself geographically if you can, don’t limit yourself to a system or taxa, find projects that sound fun, that sound challenging, that sound like places you can grow. Field work is the best (except when its not) enjoy it.

I haven’t figured out comments on github yet, so if you have thoughts tweet at me (@RallidaeRule) or email me ( I’ll make edits to expand this advice.


  • Put everything in one file with your full name in the file name
    This makes it so much easier for the person doing the hiring to work through files and find what they need. Its amazing how many files you end up with entited ‘resume’.

  • Assume that you will be googled
    I chose not to do this, for a variety of reasons, but many employers will google you, or search for you on twitter or other social media. Make sure you are ok with what comes up when they do so. Best way to check this is to open an incognito window in a browser so you don’t get searches based on your cookies, and search for yourself. Click through a few pages of results, you might be surprised.

Written on June 22, 2015