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Return of the Generalist

By Sean Mitchell

Today’s working biologist or environmental technician sits at a nexus of many industries, disciplines, and requirements (Figure 1). Not only must we be knowledgeable and competent in our training (typically biology of some form) but also need to be familiar and conversant with a myriad of other tasks; activities such as reading engineering drawings, understanding soil profiles, and appreciating hydrological analyses, among many, many others. This creates an exciting career, as we are constantly being forced to learn new skills. However, it can be intimidating as well.

Figure 1: Biologist or environmental technician (star) sitting at nexus of multiple disciplines and requirement This is incomplete as there are many other disciplines the modern biologist must be familiar with: hydrology, mining, agriculture, environment quality sampling, use of technology….

In the last four decades or so we have seen the rise of specialists within the disciplines of biology. Instead of fish biologist, we are now salmon biologists; rather than bird ecologist, now we identify as raptor specialist. We need these people, no doubt — individuals with fathoms deep understanding of particular species or groups of species. But, for most biologist and technicians working outside the specialized world of academia, broad and shallow is of much greater value than narrow and deep.

Reading works of early ecologists such as Ian McTaggart Cowan in British Columbia, J. Dewey Soper in Alberta, or the Murie brothers in the US it is clear that these people deeply understood the systems and species upon which they worked because they looked at everything. They were curious about all within their ken. Of course, they were experts because there was so little known in the early days (though more than you would think — read some of Sir John Richardson’s work or John James Audubon to see how much of our knowledge was established in the 18th and 19th centuries). But they were experts, as well, because they were generalists. Of a different sort compared to today, but generalists nonetheless.

Todays generalist must look outside her species or genera of passion and become a generalist in other disciplines that impinge upon her taxa. This may require learning about engineering and industrial processes or becoming familiar with tools she has not been exposed to before. These tools may be cutting edge — new software and digital devices — or old technology she has not previously been exposed to before; things such as bushcraft and use of map and compass.

If I were asked by a biologist or environmental technician just beginning his career what he could do to break into the field or prosper in his chosen discipline (and I do get this question), my advice, for what it is worth, is to generalize. And further to generalize in those things others are not. To do this:

1. Be curious about everything… look at things and try to see how they connect to other things.

2. Never say no to any opportunity. I have managed to work on a huge variety of species and situations on both coasts of Canada by following this simple rule. And yes, this applies to volunteer opportunities as well.

3. Study on your own. Knowledge and competence do not only come from courses. Simply read about those things that interest you and may broaden your understandings.

4. Practice the skills. You can still go out and look at soil profiles, study geology, survey wildlife, look for fish, study grasses, all on your own — not as part of a job or course, but simply to get some experience doing it (and having a lot of fun… and creating memories…)

Having specialized in some species but focussed primarily on maintaining a generalist, I can tell you, unequivocally, the generalist approach is more fun and intellectually stimulating. Fear not being ‘a jack of all trades, master of none’.

NRTG offers courses intended to encourage the generalist approach to environmental work. Some of these courses include: Environmental Field Skills, Fisheries Field Skills, and the suite of wildlife courses.