The connection between a SIP Fellow and their NPS mentor is an important one. Not only do they support the fellow through the tenure of their position by helping them adjust to the park, teaching new skills, answering questions about their project, and giving valuable feedback on their work, they are also a valuable resource in terms of career exploration and preparation. They can help you network, act as a reference, teach you about NPS and the Federal government, and suggest careers or positions that may be of interest to you.


Getting to know your mentor and their experiences is an important aspect of that connection because it can help you know what to expect as you start your journey pursuing your own career. To do that, I decided to interview my mentor, Evan Childress, to gain some insight.


Evan Childress is the Supervisory Fish Biologist at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and has been for almost three years. Within his position, he is responsible for a wide variety of duties, including managing several ongoing projects and the people that protect the park’s natural resources, coordinating with outside researchers to implement projects within the park, analyzing long-term monitoring data, and documenting trends in natural resources (like declining brook trout populations), communicating with other branches of the park, and more.


  1. Did you always want to work for NPS?


“No, but I’ve always wanted to do science to inform conservation and I’ve been able to do that for a few different agencies: USGS, USFW, and now NPS. I like them all, and each of them has a major role to play.”


  1. What steps did you take that put you on the right path for a job that aligned with your interests? Degree? Internships? DHA? Etc. 


“I have degrees in biology – undergrad, a master’s in environmental science, and a PhD in freshwater and marine science – all of which are relevant to conservation and in aquatic environments in particular, which is my primary interest. I did a postdoc with USGS and that was kind of my entrance into the federal world. I was a contractor there at first, but I was able to convince them to hire me as a term employee. That made a difference. It allowed me to then get a permanent, internal job with the fish and wildlife service.”


“I think throughout my education, I did focus on working with agency people and nature conservancies and others that made it clear that I was interested in doing this and that I demonstrated some ability there. Ultimately, developing the skills that were in demand at the time was the thing that got me those job – especially the quantitative skills.”


  1. What has your experience been like working up the GS ranks? What was your first position with the NPS?


“I started as a GS 11, as a postdoc. With no experience and a PhD, you can start at a GS 11. Then I got an 11-12 ladder position as my first job with fish and wildlife and then I was promoted there to a GS 13, as a manager. Then I took this job, which is GS 12. I actually downgraded to come here, because of largely the location but also the content of the job.”


“I think it’s extremely variable. What people often say is you have to move around to move up. It’s not always true – sometimes there are opportunities that come up but, if you think about the available jobs at Shenandoah National Park, there’s one biologist in a few different areas, it’s not like you move up into those, and then there’s the division chief. The biologists are typically GS 11s and the division chief is a GS 13. You cannot directly move there. That does mean that you have to move around to move up. There are often not the steps in a ladder in place that you are, in one place.”


  1. How long did it take/what did you need to do to acquire a permanent position with NPS?


“I have one path. I’m not sure how representative it is. For my permanent position, having a PhD was appealing to that particular supervisor, for that particular position. Population ecology, quantitative skills, a PhD, an interest in conservation, and some experience with the endangered species act were all things that got me that job. I think that with less education, and coming up the ranks, starting as a seasonal and coming up that way, I think it can be more of a slog – I came in the side, more of the education route, hopping over from academia to the federal government. That worked well for me, so I don’t want to dissuade people from doing that.”


  1. What is your favorite part of your job?


“The times when I can really integrate the management decisions with the science – like collecting data, and that directly feeds back into a decision that we make and we really close that loop, those are best. At USGS my projects weren’t really like that. Other people at the USGS do that in a serious way. That’s well regarded and supported at USGS, that just wasn’t what I was doing. I did it in a very complete way at the USDFW, particularly with a captive rearing program for a couple of species of endangered fish. We collected monitoring data to see how well the fish were surviving and then adjusted the operations of the facility to try and improve that. And here, we are trying to implement something like that with the endangered Shenandoah salamander, a formal adaptive management program. We aren’t there yet with the fish. Managing the fish at the park looks like allowing fishing and removing brown trout. It’s not a lot of management, we don’t have that integration here yet.”


“The place I would like to go here is looking forward – getting prepared for climate change and understanding what the suite of options is for our streams and for our fish populations. Figuring out what we can do now to get ahead of that and what we should not worry about. My sense is that the NPS is going to move into a more active management phase here as climate change comes to disrupt these systems, being prepared for that and laying the groundwork for that so that we can make moves when the time comes is what I’m working towards.”