What Does It Take to Be a Park Ranger? Words of Wisdom from SCA Alumni (Part II)

Ranger Alex Poole at Yellowstone National Park

What does it take to be a park ranger? To find out, we caught up with SCA alumni who have gone on to hold government careers as park rangers. In Part I, we explored the college majors and internships that can help you land your dream job. In Part II, we’ll explore the range of careers available, networking, and perfecting just the right résumé. Fasten your seatbelts!

Is the National Park Service the only place where I can work as a ranger?

Absolutely not! The National Park Service, with some 417 areas covering some 84 million acres and employing some 20,000 people, is certainly the first agency that springs to mind. But it is by no means the only one. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, which administers 258 million acres of public lands, hires its own rangers. For its part, the Army Corps of Engineers receives more than 250 million visits annually to 4,485 sites, including 383 major lakes and reservoirs – a body of visitation that actually exceeds that of the Park Service! “All of the Corps’ recreation projects are managed by park professionals, so it’s a good place for a career,” says Nancy Rogers of her ranger career at the Corps. “I got to do everything: recreation, interpretation, and resource management.”

And that’s just the federal government: there are also some 10,000 state parks in the United States receiving over 700 million annual visits, all of which require their own staff of rangers. One of the advantages of state and local park work is the variety of experience it provides. “I may be doing a prescribed burn one day, and then on the way back I may have to work a crash on the law enforcement side,” says Eric Runkle, a ranger at Montgomery Bell State Park in Tennessee. Throughout the course of one day, we may “literally wear up to fifteen different hats.”

Another benefit of a state-level ranger job that Runkle appreciates is the inter-park camaraderie. “One of the neat advantages of state parks is that we have a yearly in-service, so we get to see folks from other parks, network on issues they’re having and find out how they’re dealing with things. With federal parks being more spread out, I don’t know if they get to do that as much.”

What can I do to increase my chances of being hired by the government?

The consensus among the park rangers we surveyed is to get your foot in the door in the federal government – however you can. Sarah Spragg, a park ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in Marina, CA, tells the story of a young archeologist she met who, having completed her internship, was offered an initial job as a receptionist. “And she snatched it, which was wise,” Sarah relates. “If you’re not in the government system, you’re not even going to see a lot of the job offers. Agencies try to fill positions through lateral transfers and internal promotions before they ever open them to the general public.”

Doing conservation work on public lands is another way to become eligible. After completing an SCA interpretation internship at the Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado and Utah, Michelle Clark – currently a seasonal interpretative ranger at the Manassas National Battlefield Park – accepted another SCA placement on a Leader Crew at an Army Corps of Engineers site in Illinois. “That crew ended up being especially important in a way that I didn’t recognize while I was doing it,” Clark notes. “Because I was working on a conservation project on federal land, I qualified for the Public Land Corps Non-Competitive Hiring program.” This “PLC” hiring authority allows those who have completed a conservation project that includes at least 120 hours on federal lands to become eligible for non-competitive hiring, allowing them to apply for jobs that would otherwise be filled internally.

In addition to receiving internal hiring advantages, getting into the federal system allows you to meet people, expand your network of connections, and – in the best of cases – find a mentor who will help you chart your professional course. “I did a lot of mentoring later in my career with younger people coming in,” says Nancy Rogers, a 36-year park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers. “I tried to help students and new hires who were feeling confused or isolated at first and enjoyed watching them grow and succeed. That was very personally satisfying for me.”

Can I use my private-sector résumé to apply for a ranger job?

In a word: no. Where concision is the rule for private-sector résumés, their federal counterparts tend to be much more detailed. “My federal resume is currently about twelve pages long, and that’s pretty typical,” explains Michelle Clark. “You have to very specifically support all of your experience, so it’s important to do your research.”

Ian Harvey, a ranger at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, concurs: “With federal positions, there is a very specific way of applying, a certain way you need to craft your résumé and what words you need to have in it. Working with the SCA, surrounded by people who know how to build those résumés, who know how to apply and interview for those positions is a great asset. And I’m sure that’s the same for state and private agencies the SCA also works with.”

For Sarah Spragg, that was very literally the case: while on an SCA internship at the Everglades National Park in Florida, she met a receptionist who told her in no uncertain terms that she had to beef up her résumé, “because ‘you can’t be doing these internships forever!’,” Sarah recalls. “So she taught me how to write one.” The re-write worked, so much so that Sarah left the internship two months early to accept her first job as a biological technician with the Fish and Wildlife Service.


We hope you’ve enjoyed our series with our SCA alumni who’ve gone on to become park rangers! Please read Part I of our series to learn more about college majors and internships. And to find out more about two of the trailblazing women who were interviewed for these pieces, read our profiles on Sarah Spragg and Nancy Rogers.