Even though I’m not even working as a Park Ranger at the moment, I get a ton of people asking how to become one. It’s like one of those mystery jobs a lot of people think they’d like, but never occurred to them as a possibility.
Well, it’s not totally simple, but it’s not ridiculously complicated either. The big thing to know is the Park Service hires mostly summer staff. It’s hard to find a year-round job without putting in some time, either with the Park Service, another government agency, or a very relevant field. Most of those summer applications, furthermore, go up online as early as November of the previous year! There will be constant stream of them coming out every week, each open for about a week, throughout the winter and into spring.
USAJobs is the only resource for federal government jobs, of which the National Park Service is an agency. We get people coming into the visitor center all the time with their resumes in hand and there’s literally nothing we can do with that. Gotta go apply on USAJobs.
Decide What Kind of Ranger
There are a LOT of types of Park Rangers. Some of us do visitor education. We are Interpretation Rangers (AKA “Interps), leading programs such as guided hikes and campfire talks. We’re the Rangers you talk to in the visitor center and yes, we are the ones in the special hats. If there are special events, such as night sky festivals, Interps are at the helm. An outgoing personality and comfort with public speaking are ideal, to say the least.
Others work with wildlife, botany, geology, archaeology… they work in Resources, also called Resource Management. There are fewer visitor interactions when you work in resources. Depending on the park, you may be helping to tag wildlife for research, monitor invasive species, study ancient Indian paintings, etc. These are also some of the harder jobs to get, because your education and experience must be fairly specialized.
There are also Administration (or “Admin”) Rangers, who work in offices. Yeah, you can be a Park Ranger and mostly stay inside! You may field calls from visitors, but you won’t have to deal with them to the same degree as Interps. I’m not totally positive what the people in Admin do every day… but I know a lot of people really like it!
Okay, only two more! There are also those NPS employees who work in Maintenance. This is what my boyfriend does and he loves it. Maintenance workers are really important to keeping a park running. Who do you think keeps those campgrounds looking spotless, or keeps the visitor center air conditioned? Summers in National Parks can be hectic and overwhelming, but it seems like the Maintenance department is always having a slightly chiller time. You don’t have to know how to fix stuff, necessarily, though ideally you’re pretty handy.
Finally, there are the Law Enforcement Rangers (or “L.E.s”). They also wear the hats, like Interps, but the difference is they carry guns and drive big trucks around and give speeding tickets. You must go to a special ~3 month NPS LE academy training program to be one. It’s harder for non-veterans to get LE jobs (just because it seems like this is the department vets apply to most), but it’s definitely possibly. I would never want to be an LE, because they have to deal with visitors as much as Interps do only they have to be meaner sometimes. Actually, that sounds kind of fun…
JUST KIDDING. Kind of.
I promise you won’t hate people after a summer at a busy park.
Pick a Grade
Government jobs are organized by GS level. For example, if you have a Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent relevant experience) you can hop right into a GS-5 Interp Ranger job. Anything less, and you’ll need to take a lower-paying GS-4 for a couple seasons until you have the experience to go up a grade. For each kind of Ranger job you’re applying to, it’s good to actually know the grade you qualify for. It’ll say that on the job announcement, though! Just read through those jobs on USAJobs.gov National Park Service section. You can filter it to show the type of jobs you want.
Make a Resume
Once you’ve pinpointed the kind of Park Ranger jobs you’re applying for, time to actually apply. USAJobs has a resume builder. You have the option to attach one, but from what I understand they prefer the builder template. I did both; submitted their resume builder version and attached my own PDF resume that I uploaded along with the cover letter.
Tip: You don’t absolutely need a degree to be a Park Ranger, though I won’t lie–a Bachelor’s helps. The good news is your degree can be in pretty much anything. My biology/geology degree was super relevant because I wanted to work at parks with fossils, but my friend’s political science degree works just as well because she’s great with government policy and public speaking.
Attach Cover Letters
Unlike the resume, I recommend customizing a cover letter for each job. Or at least, definitely for the ones you really want. If you’re mass applying (which is kinda necessary, as getting a Park Ranger job can be a crapshoot) you can always make a template and switch around a few keywords for each park/role. I had a few different templates at one point: one for interpretation jobs, another for park guide jobs, another for fee collection jobs, another for Alaska-specific jobs… you get it.
Take Your Questionnaire
These are so annoying. Each job makes you take a questionnaire where you rate yourself from 1 to 5 on your experience in a bunch of relevant tasks. Your application is assigned points accordingly, and only applications with the most points even make it to the desk of a hiring manager. It’s a trade secret amongst NPS employees that you basically put 5 for everything, unless it’s insanely untrue. For example, if the question is about organizing HR documents and you’ve used a stapler, just put 5. However, if the question is about tracking Grizzly Bears or fighting fires, that philosophy does not apply. Know that for the most part, everyone else applying to this job is putting 5 for everything. And people in some categories, such as veterans, get an extra 10 points or something right off the bat.
And now… you wait. The process is far from over. You’ll get a lot of misleading automated emails before you talk to an actual human, if you’re one of the Chosen Ones who gets to that point. Each email will look promising, but will actually just tell you if you’re still in the running or not. Eventually you’ll (hopefully) get an email that tells you your name has made it to the park’s hiring manager. At this point, expect an email or phone call from the actual park you applied at! Yay! Sometimes they’re just checking that you still need a job after all this waiting, not actually offering you a job, but sometimes they want to set up an interview. Depending on the park, the phone interviews can be hard. I hear some Alaska parks make you basically give a visitor educational program on the fly over the phone. In my experience, though, the phone interview seemed to be a formality and I was offered the job within a day.
After writing all this, I realize it sounds a lot harder than it actually is to become a Park Ranger. If you’re super passionate about it, you’ll get to do it. You might not get your first choice park your first summer applying, or even your second summer, but I am a big supporter of going places you wouldn’t initially think of. Especially when it comes to National Parks, these places can have the most to teach us.