The Transient Life of a Wannabe Invasive Plants Manager
Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.
When I graduated from college in 2010, I knew what I wanted to do. It’s what I had done during the summers while I was in school, and what I wanted to do as a career: public lands invasive plant management.
The rock and roll life of a public lands manager involves working for, usually, the government for a number of different agencies. Having already worked for the forest service as a student employee, I thought I had a pretty solid in. On top of that, I had a degree in plant biology, environmental science and resource management, and experience in researching invasive plants, which is a hot button issue for us rock and roll land managers.
So after applying to dozens of jobs on the federal jobs site, and getting no phone calls, I decided to look into internship options.
Long story short: I ended up getting an internship through a third-party internship program with the National Park Service. This isn’t the only way to intern for the park service, but I’ve found it to be by far the most common. If you meet a park ranger who hasn’t been an intern, I’d be surprised. It’s a paid position, covering housing and a small stipend, but if you’ve got a car payment, or have been kicked off the family cell phone plan, it’s not enough to live on. Sometimes, there’s an education award, but sometimes there’s not, and with the program I applied to, there was a $25 application fee.
I poured my whole heart into that internship. I scrambled around on mountainsides fighting the good fight against the invading plant menace, and did work I really, and truly, believed in. It was appreciated—my incredible and talented supervisors bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t keep me, and said they would hire me if they could have, but there was no budget, and no way around the bureaucracy of federal hiring, a process that can take months, or years.
I eventually did get a summer job for the park service on the other side of the country, but when my contract ran out, I was right back where I started. I was applying to jobs I was qualified for, and not getting through the black box of usajobs.gov.
I was a year from graduation, embittered towards my career, my chosen field and my coworkers. Every day, I heard a handful of employees complain about how they wanted out, and that they wanted to be doing something more glamorous than weed management. I couldn’t commiserate. This is what I wanted to do, and what I had, and continued, to study. There was more than a small part of me that guiltily wished they would quit or retire so maybe I could have a chance, and do better. Do interns in other fields feel this way?
The instability of this field is crushing. I never stop applying for jobs, or feeling that twinge of rage when I get an automated reply email that says “Qualified, but not referred.” Now, with a little more experience under my belt, I get called about one out of every twenty times. The job is frequently nixed, non-vets aren’t considered, or they already have someone in mind and aren’t really looking for applications, but are legally required to post the job. The level of uncertainty is huge.
Eventually, I got a call from my old park—the one I initially interned at just out of college. They had a position open up and they wanted to hire me back … as an intern. I took it. There weren’t any other offers.
I finished up my second internship, took another cross country summer job for the park service (no benefits, of course. The “at least you get benefits!” thing you hear about working for the feds isn’t true for seasonal employees), and feel the need for winter work breathing down my neck yet again. I’ve moved across the country six times in two years, everything I own fitting in my car, and barely making enough in the summer season to fund my next cross country move. I’m, perhaps against my better judgement, still trying to follow this dream.
I love biology and my field of work. There’s a part of me that really enjoys the travel, and I know I’m lucky enough to be able to (barely) afford it. What’s really draining my spirit is the constant uprooting of the friendships. In one season, we parkies become a thick-as-thieves family who love each other like kin. Every time I drive away, I never know if I’ll ever see these people again. Every time it breaks my heart.
Have an interesting internship story you’d like to submit to us? Send it on over.
Jeannie O’Toole (a nom de plume) would like to work (and stay) in one place for a while. Photo: FS-Northern Region