Becoming an NPS ranger – The nuts and bolts

A question I receive from many is a simple one: “How did Joan become a park ranger?”   Joan’s path to this avocation happened mid-career after years as a research scientist and after her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. This article will not detail why she went from a scientist in the lab to a ranger in the field. Instead, this article will specify the path she followed to exchange a lab coat for a flat hat.  This article is the “How” and “What” of becoming a ranger. A future article will detail “Why?” -PM

Ranger Joan with some happy students. PCO DS

Many people are intrigued when I tell them what I do. They are curious about what it takes to land a so-called “dream job” as a Park Ranger with the National Park Service (NPS). The short answer: I volunteered!

Shoveling snow at El Morro National Monument.

How much volunteering? A lot. I served as an AmeriCorps member for Montana State Parks (two summers), volunteered at El Morro National Monument (three months), and interned through the Student Conservation Corps (SCA) at Arches National Park (four months). These experiences landed me a seasonal NPS job at Mammoth Cave National Park in 2017. I finally got a permanent position two years later.

Some AmeriCorps programs like this one have no age restrictions.

The reason why volunteering (or interning) is necessary is that jobs with the NPS are incredibly competitive. You will be competing with hundreds of people for seasonal, entry-level (GS4 or GS5) position. Unless you have specific hiring preferences (as a veteran or student), you need to show on your resume that you have experience (and are an “expert”). And this expertise consists of doing all the tasks that a park ranger does to get hired for that specific position (e.g.” lead field trips for kindergarten through sixth-graders at a park”  ).

I am gaining valuable experience cleaning the outhouse.

Figuring out how to jump through all the hoops of USAjobs can be difficult. Getting your resume into the needed format works best if you can get help from someone who has already figured out the process.  I applied to hundreds of jobs before I got my first seasonal position. Some of my colleagues say they had to apply year after year before they finally got an interview. Volunteering allows you access to the insider scoop on how to navigate the hiring system.

In the Fiery Furnace of Arches National Park.

The great thing about volunteering is that it is rewarding in its own right. I loved getting a “behind the scenes” view of amazing parks. Volunteers get access to park libraries and resources to prepare programs. It was worth it to volunteer to get the chance to live in park housing and to make life-long friendships with fellow volunteers and rangers.

Only park rangers get to see this sunset view at El Morro National Monument because the park is closed to visitors by early evening.

As a volunteer, I had opportunities to shadow rangers in different jobs and at neighboring parks. Some rangers were miserable being stuck at quiet, small parks. Some rangers cautioned that you might get less variety at a more extensive park since positions tend to be very specialized. I found my volunteering helpful since it allowed me to figure out what type of park would be a good fit for me.

Monitoring water quality at a spring in Canyonlands National Park with the resource inventory and monitoring crew.

We are working with the Montana Conservation Corp for a National Trail Days volunteer event at my park.

Many people don’t realize that park rangers with the NPS fill different roles. There are law enforcement rangers, backcountry rangers,  and those that do interpretation (tours and programs), fee collection, admin, education, or natural and cultural resources. When you volunteer, you can find out which position fits you best. I didn’t realize that I would find my niche in education.  Also, note that there are other positions such as maintenance and engineers that the NPS employs.

Volunteering is expensive. Some positions provide a “living stipend” and free housing. Americorps provided us a letter to take to the office of public assistance to get food stamps. I got my healthcare through the Affordable Care Act. But to make volunteering work and avoid going into debt, I kept my expenses low (no new gear!).

Additionally, I saved up over two-years worth of my previous salary before I left my previous career. I also don’t have any debt, kids, or pets. Not having much stuff also helped because volunteering and being seasonal required me to move every four to six months, often across the country.

This not a golf cart.

It may seem like volunteering is expensive, but honestly, being a park ranger is financially tricky too. The pay of entry-level positions is minimal, and there are few prospects of making it up the career ladder. Seasonal jobs are limited to 6 months and aren’t always full time (mine was only 20 hours/week). So you will be faced with having to get other work in the offseason and having a second (or third) job to try to make ends meet. Unless you are very lucky or talented, you will be faced with many weeks or month-long gaps in employment. Since positions rarely fit together, you will need time to move, and often hiring is delayed due to snags in HR.

If you want to be a park ranger, volunteering is an excellent route to get your foot in the door. It will give you a good sense of whether the park ranger life is right for you.

Bringing students on an outdoor education field trip in Moab, Utah.

For me, it has been worth it. I love waking up every day with a purpose.  I love helping people connect with the outdoors. I feel like I am of service by nurturing children’s curiosity for the natural world and caring for this park.

Want to find a volunteer gig? Here are some resources.

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3 years ago

Interesting perspective, Joan! I didn’t realize the multiple application times over the years that some folks were doing. When we moved back to Texas I attempted to get some seasonal sea turtle work at Padre Island Nat. Seashore but of course that didn’t pan out. From people I’ve heard who have worked at National Parks but also NWRs, there seems to be a push to move parks every 5 years or so? Is this still the case? I know some who refuse to move because they love their park or because family is nearby.

Joan West
Joan West
3 years ago
Reply to  Misti

Hi Misti! Good to hear from you. 🙂

Many people in the park service tell me that the only way to advance your career is to move parks. It makes it tough if you love your park and have put down roots. Another option I’ve been trying to find out about is doing a detail at another park for a few months.

3 years ago

Joan, you need to cross post this to your blog. There was a question about changing careers in a fb group and I wanted to share your post. Took me a bit to remember it was on PMags page. I think it’s an awesome reality check!