We are all aware that professional certification and licensing are required for practitioners in fields like medicine, law, and engineering. Although not as well known and not typically required for employment, many natural resource scientific professional organizations provide certification programs for their members. Some examples are the Ecological Society of America (certified ecologist), the Society of Wetlands Scientists (professional wetland scientist, wetland professional in training), the Society of American Foresters (certified forester), and The Wildlife Society (certified wildlife biologist, associate wildlife biologist). These organizations all recognize the value of these certification programs to their professions, as does AFS.
The AFS professional certification program started in 1963 with two tiers of certification (Pegg et al. 1999), and it retains that same basic structure today. Associate fishery professional (FP-A) is for early career individuals and focuses on education requirements. Certified fishery professional (FP-C) is the main type of certification where work experience in addition to education must be substantial. Emeritus status FP-C can be granted when someone has been certified for at least 20 years and is retired or works less than full time. As of this writing, there are 118 FP-A, 342 FP-C, and 143 emeritus status FP-C. This total of 603 certified individuals represents about 10% of the AFS non-student membership.
Fisheries science, aquatic sciences, and other biological sciences coursework represent the largest category of coursework required for certification. Other required courses are within chemical and physical sciences, mathematics and statistics, and communications. Human dimensions coursework requirements were added in 2002. A recent survey of fisheries employers analyzed by Kaemingk et al. (in press) suggests that there should be increased emphasis on communications and statistics coursework compared to general biological or physical science coursework. These suggestions, along with the fairly recent addition of human dimensions, demonstrate how the AFS certification program is continually evolving to remain relevant to effectively meet the needs of the profession.
The other requirements for AFS certification involve work experience and professional development. The minimum number of years of qualifying work experience decreases as the level of degree advances. For example, five years are required for a bachelor degree, whereas two years are required for a doctoral degree. Professional development includes continuing education training, oral communications, written communications, and service. AFS provides many opportunities in the area of professional development through its continuing education class offerings, scientific meetings, outlets for publication, and Unit leadership positions.
The process for AFS certification is relatively straightforward, with the applicant providing education and experience information. Decisions on certification are made by aboard of certified AFS members. If an applicant is unsuccessful, he or she can appeal that decision with the Board of Appeals. Except for emeritus status FP-C, certification must be renewed every five years to demonstrate continued personal growth through professional development achievements. My experience is that being a moderately active AFS member each year easily fulfills the professional development requirements.
Colleges and universities accrue benefits from the AFS certification program. Most importantly, the educational requirements can help guide curricula development. If their curricula align with the educational requirements of AFS certification, graduating students will have these satisfied. Many schools use this as a marketing tool to attract students in the competitive arena of higher education.
The AFS professional certification program benefits employers in several ways. An organization can be perceived as being more credible to its constituents if a high percentage of its workforce is certified. Certification can be important in the private sector where such qualifications might make a difference in gaining contract work. It can also be important in the public sector when such qualifications could be a consideration in awarding grants. Surveys of certified AFS members suggested that certification could provide credibility when testifying at legal hearings (Pegg et al. 1999) and perceived expertise by the public and peers (Long and Slaughter 2012).
There are personal benefits of AFS certification. For some positions, certification may provide a competitive advantage in gaining a job or a promotion because it sometimes is listed among factors preferred in applicants. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources accept FP-A or FP-C in lieu of required coursework for fisheries biologist applicants. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has posted fish biologist positions that require applicants to be FP-A or FP-C. Some employers provide tangible benefits to professionally certified staff. Biologists employed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are eligible to receive a 6% pay increase if they obtain and maintain FP-C. As a result, 36% of AFS non-student members with addresses in Arkansas are certified, which is much higher than the Society average of 10%.
Other personal benefits of AFS certification are less tangible but could be more meaningful to certain individuals. Certification is a form of recognition that might be helpful for motivation in work situations where praise and awards are scarce. Knowing that certification needs to be renewed every 5 years may help prevent job stagnation by stimulating continuing education and professional Society engagement. Finally, AFS certification represents a way of supporting the fisheries profession by documenting the professionalism embodied by Society members.
Maybe it is time for you to reconsider AFS professional certification. Perhaps it will benefit you in ways that you had not thought of before. Maybe it will provide benefits to your employing agency. Perhaps the certification process is not as onerous as you envisioned. Regardless of the reason, please give AFS certification another look (fisheries.org/membership/afscertification). You might be glad that you did.
Kaemingk, M. A., R. J. Essig, S. L. McMullin, C. Bonds, R. L. DeBruyne, M. E. Mather, C. A. Myrick, Q. E. Phelps, T. M. Sutton, and J. R. Triplett. In press. Examining the relevancy and utility of the American Fisheries Society certification program to prepare future fisheries professionals. Fisheries.
Long, J. M., and J. E. Slaughter. 2012. Certification benefits AFS members working in the private sector. Fisheries 37(9):424–425.
Pegg, M., K. Pope, and C. Guy. 1999. Evaluation of current professional certification use. Fisheries 24(10):24–26.
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