The Life History of an Ecology Ph.D.

The ecology Ph.D. is an understudied beast, and its life history remains obscure. We lack concrete data to inform the probabilities in this transition matrix. Is it even possible, given all the variation?

The ecology Ph.D. is an understudied beast, and its life history remains obscure. We lack concrete data to inform the probabilities in this transition matrix. Is it even possible, given the large amount of variation?

What is the outlook for ecology PhD’s in today’s job climate? A little background research made it clear that the Ecology PhD’s life history is convoluted and remains obscure. To explore the career climate, I delved into the literature and talked to people recently on the job market. This post is a summary of what I found out, and is meant to be helpful and informational for those on the job market, preparing for the job market, or advising those on the job market. I will instill some hope, dispel some myths, substantiate others, and help you develop some strategy.

I hope this post will serve as an impetus for discussion. Constructive and relevant comments are welcomed.

1) Postdoc Pay and Benefits: It is highly likely that a newly minted Ph.D. in ecology will transition to a postdoc, or transition to some other temporary position, such as visiting professor or sabbatical replacement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says biologists and environmental scientists make $27 to $38 per hour (assuming a 40-hour work-week…laughably…), but it’s hard to know who they counted in these blanket career categories. It’s unlikely they measured postdocs, or adjuncts, or maybe even lecturers, all of whom generally make less than the average rate. In a survey of 7,600 postdocs in 2005, postdocs reported a median salary of $38,000, well below the national average for those with bachelors or master’s degrees. This number has not risen much over the past 8 years, although NIH postdocs may get a pay raise (Holla!). (See NIH minimum salary rates here.) Just under half of the surveyed postdocs in the 2005 study had no retirement plan, no family leave nor childcare, no disability insurance. Of course, most also lack long-term job security, which is not fun when you’ve been through 10 years of higher education and are in your thirties. On an upshot, most postdocs do have some form of health insurance provided as a benefit (soon to be mandated under the Affordable Care Act). You might get dental insurance for the first time in your life! (Thumbs up!!)

Clearly, money is not a motivational force for those who stay in the field of ecology and choose to postdoc. What is the motivation, then? When asked, ecologists cite one really important reason: Science is fun. And academic researchers have a lot more autonomy than the average office employee. Either that, or ecology attracts hopeless optimists and masochists. But I’m going to go with the first conclusion.

2) Who are the postdocs? About 55,000 people are at this career stage across the sciences, according to the 2005 survey of postdocs. Of those surveyed (7,600 postdocs), 3% are ecologists, so that makes about 1650 postdocs a year. This figure seems to be a low estimate, but highlights just how difficult it is to find any data on postdocs. According to the NIH, there are about 15,000 postdocs available in the biomedical sciences each year. Ecological Society of America (ESA) membership is >10,000 people. How many are post-docs? Adjuncts? Non-tenured faculty? Tenured? A recent article in Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution reported that out of 1,283 nonstudent ESA members 61% are in academic positions, 17% in government, 6% in corporate/private, 6% in nonprofit, 4% self-employed, and 5% in other positions. Is ESA membership already biased toward academics, or is this an accurate reflection of where ecology Ph.D.’s end up? And they didn’t ask how many were postdocs, anyway. For shame.

3) Who’s getting the full-time gigs? A 2009 survey found that at the time of hire for their first permanent academic position in ecology, respondents spent on average 2.92 years in a postdoc, had 11.75 publications and had received 4.2 grants. The variations around these means were high, especially for publications, because higher impact publications “counted” more. The authors wrote: “First-time hires had, on average, two first-author publications in journals with impact factors between 2 and 10… and one first- or co-authored paper in a higher impact journal.” These results are from 181 respondents who acquired permanent academic positions between 2004 and 2007, before the decline in the job market starting in 2008 with the economic downturn. All of those numbers are probably higher now.

So, how can you tip the scale in your favor? A 2012 study showed that the top 1% of the most highly cited ecologists were men (93%), American (65%), had an average of 32 years of experience in science, spent an average 11 hours per week writing grant proposals and publications, had a large lab of an average 11 people, and had average annual funding of $500,000. Similarly, the 2011 ESA survey I mentioned earlier also concluded:

“We can describe today’s ‘typical ecologist’ as a 55-year-old male professor who studies communities and ecosystems using field observations and experiments, and who finds professional satisfaction in his research. Twenty years ago, the description would have been a 38-year-old male professor studying aquatic communities.”

So, the keys to success are the ability to get funding and the ability to network and collaborate. It also apparently helps if you are a man (I will address the subject of gender in a later post to avoid digression here).

This info also begs the question: What will happen when all those 55-year-old ecologists retire? How will future retirements and future academic needs pan out for future jobs in ecology? I don’t want to digress into that subject, but note that a glimmer of job-market hope shines on the horizon as the average age of ecologists continues to grow.

The surveys of ESA members and ECOLOG also likely exclude the experiences of those who decide to leave science completely, a group that is largely made up of women. (For more info on this kind of job decision, see the Versatile PhD website.)

4) What information is still needed to fully understand the job market? So what options are available for those outside the top 1% who just want a decent permanent job already? And since you can’t change your race, age and sex to get the traits of the “typical ecologist” described above, that info is nominally helpful for those of us on the job market who are not middle-aged white males. There must be some traits that you can actually develop to help your odds on the job market. Right?? No one has tackled such questions since that 2009 study, and I couldn’t find much information at all about the climate outside of academia….

To address some of my questions about others’ experiences on the job market, I sent out a query on the ECOLOG listserve asking for job search application numbers from those who’d served on search committees and asking for number of applications per year, interviews per year, offers per year and number of years on the job market from those who were or are on the job market. According to info I collected from the shout-out on ECOLOG and a search through the Ecology jobs wiki, the number of applicants for a full-time ecology position (not necessarily academic, although I think most answers were biased toward academic searches) vary between 45 and 700, with an average of 164 and a median of 120. As one might expect, the positions with the highest number of applicants (>500) were broad, open rank postings. The number of jobs that ECOLOGGERS applied for while on the job market was highly variable, and there was no magic number. Out of the 30 respondents who gave both number of job applications and number of years in a temporary position (postdoc, sabbatical replacement, or visiting professor), the number of applications per year in that temporary position varied from 1 to 60, with an average of 15 and a median of 10 applications. The number of applications was not related to number of successful full-time job offers (see figure below). Note that in the figure below few people got more than one job offer in a given year. This is disheartening, because job seekers are often not given much choice in their next career step.

Application strategies can be analogous to r/K selection theory in ecology; in this analogy, there are two application strategies–r-selected and K-selected. Those with r-selected application strategies put out lots of job applications willy nilly with the expectation that most will die but that more applications means a higher likelihood that one will “survive.” Those going by the K-selected application strategy put out few, carefully selected applications, with the idea that a high amount of effort will ensure survival. Given the data shown in the figure below, it’s clear that the r-selection strategy is *not* very viable in the ecology job market. No one wants to put out dozens of applications and get one job offer.

According to a survey of people on the ECOLOG listserve, more applications does not mean more offers. In fact, few people had more than one offer. It would be interesting to see how widespread this phenomenon is.

According to a survey of people on the ECOLOG listserve, more applications does not mean more offers. In fact, few people had more than one offer. It would be interesting to see how widespread this phenomenon is.

What candidate qualities are related to successful job offers? Each ecologist has had his or her own experience on the job market, and perhaps has served on some search committees. But this is like observing a landscape through a camera’s viewfinder–without widespread data, no one can see the whole picture right now. I think it would be really cool to use a model selection approach to test the variables that have the greatest influence on successful full-time job offers, relative to job type. Here are the variables that I think have the most influence:

– number of publications, their impact factor and how many are first author

– number collaborators

– amount of grant funding won

– interview ability, social skills, charm, extraversion

– job application strategy (r-selected versus K-selected)

– gender, family status, sexual orientation

– popular, marketable skills (next-gen sequencing, bioinformatics, big data)

– pre-PhD relevant work (this one gets little mention, but I think it’s a huge factor, not just because of the experience that one might bring to the job but also because people with more application and interview experience will write better applications and interview better.)

– geographical restriction versus willingness to move

– your advisor and his/her network (How do you even measure this? Maybe the lab’s overall job success rate? Have respondants rank their advisor’s networking ability? The advisor’s h-index?)

People find many different postdoctoral career routes. Many ecologists are happy with their careers and with postdoc positions, citing creative freedom as a major boon to their jobs, even in the face of today’s constraints. Still, the ability to be creative is no doubt restricted by these increasing limitations on future positions (increased competition for decreasing funding, increased teaching loads or student numbers, preparing for the next round of applications or the next move across the country). Indeed, the 2011 ESA survey noted that there was “an emerging gap between what ecologists do and what provides [them with] satisfaction.” More power to those who are able to maintain creativity under these pressures.


The Life History of an Ecology Ph.D. — 21 Comments

  1. This is a great summary. I took the non-post doc route to avoid the tenure track hassle. Hence went with the K survival strategy with selected few agencies. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Thanks for the great article! One thing I would note here is that there are a diversity of tenure-track jobs. A position at an R1 is a much different animal than on at a small-liberal arts institution or even a masters-level institution. This is true for acquiring a position as well as the day to day tasks. I would be very interested to know how to best prepare when applying for non-R1 tenure-track jobs. Also, are there any data on the level of job satisfaction for professors in these different positions?

    Thanks for the good work!

    • Great question about job satisfaction in different positions. I don’t think anyone’s looked at that.

      As for non-R1 TT jobs, there is a slew of reference material out there. I think most people will agree that candidates are more marketable for such jobs if they postdoc first. Also, for institutions that value teaching, experience designing and teaching your own course (say, at a field station or community college, if you can’t do this at your home institution) will be way more marketable than teaching assistantships alone.

      Lastly, check out the Pearls of Wisdom blog at “The Professor is In” for more career advice:

  3. Not all ecologists need to run for academia, it is possible to generate science away from universities. However, it is important to learn how to communicate science and occassionally learn to upscale understanding at the landscape level.

  4. I recently completed some statistical modeling to find factors that act significantly affect career attainment patterns for recent stem PhDs. Institutional rank, primary funding model, gender, race, dependent status, marital status, and educational history are all important in the likelihood of getting a position. Field of study is also important. Mason recently published an article on babies and the two-body problem, both of which seem to affect women’s careers more than men. The coach survey from Harvard presents some satisfaction data for various institution types.

    • Deborah, I’d love to read your study. Please drop me a line when it’s been written up (if it hasn’t already).

  5. One thing I observed in my job search is that applying exclusively for academic jobs can be really limiting because they are so much more competitive–you get 100+ applicants for a tenure-track position. Even if you are amazing, your odds are pretty low. In contrast, some really great non-academic jobs may be much less competitive–the job I finally wound up at had “loads” of applicants, which I later discovered meant ~15 people. So my suggestion would be for people to think really hard about whether or not an academic job is what they want. Clearly, if that’s your passion, go for it, but if you think you could be just as happy doing something else, look into that something else!

    • In contrast, my agency (which is quasi-governmental and not academic) had more than 100 applicants for my position when it opened up 2 years ago. (We just had almost 300 applicants when our administrative assistant position opened up a couple of months ago- but that’s more a reflection of the current job market for non-PhDs.
      I do think there’s more variability in the number of applicants once you’re out of academia- I think all academic positions will have millions of applicants, but apparently non-academia jobs can be a bit more hit-or-miss.

  6. I suspect this was an innocent mistake, but you have perpetuated a common misunderstanding (leading to misuse) of impact factors. Papers don’t have impact factors, journals do. Nonetheless, a terrific post and I enjoyed reading it!

  7. This was an interesting and well-constructed post. Thanks for sharing your findings!

    However, I do find the results depicted in the graph to be odd. Why would there appear to be such a low upper-limit to the number of job applications submitted by respondents with no job offers (i.e. compared to those with at least one offer)? Could it be that without at least one job offer under their belts ecologists just cannot bare to submit another 30 or 40 applications?

    I can only speculate that either i) some respondents with no job offers tend to to downplay the number of job applications that they have actually submitted, or ii) would-be respondents are too embarrassed to admit that they have submitted 40 applications but have not received any hits (I have spoken to at least one post-doc with an 0-40 record, so I know they’re out there).

    • Point well taken, Kevin. First, the number of job applications is per annum, so that may be why the upper limit is lower. Also, my sample size is pretty low. It would be really great to get more data.

  8. Nothing in the article mentioned sexual orientation until the list of variables that have the greatest influence on job offers. It was a surprise, then, to see it lumped with gender and family status on that list. Why would you say that sexual orientation is important in this context?

    • Not sure I understand your question (Which context? Job market or gender/family status?). But it’s true that I did not spend a lot of time on the issues of gender, family status, or sexual orientation, mostly because all of them introduce really big digressions and research time. The main point of this post is that we don’t know where people with ecology Ph.D.’s are going after they finish the Ph.D., nor do we have a good understanding of why they end up along different career routes. This makes advising and decision-making difficult.

      If effects of sexual orientation on job market outcome is an issue you have researched, I’d appreciate any info or studies you can share on the topic. I’m sure other readers would be interested as well.

  9. I have been doing a lot of thinking on this topic generally and thought I would put something on the table that academics are reluctant to acknowledge. Distance learning (internet courses) are coming, probably sooner than anyone expects in light of the outrageous sums universities are asking for in undergraduate tuitition. Stanford offered a computer science course taught by one of its shining stars and thousands signed up. It is not much of a step to consider a large portion of those thousands as undergraduates at other universities. And if they are taking a course at Stanford, why not pick up another at MIT, two more at Carnegie-Mellon, another at CalTech and finish up a sixth at Stanford. Which means that the non-superstar professors at their own institutions have watched their client base wither by 60% (assuming 10 courses to get the degree), which will not be lost on the administration. In the battle to shore up falling enrollments, an institution that can offer reduced tuition and courses taught by Nobel laureates, National Academy of Sciences members, etc., will come out ahead. But that will necessarily mean that professors will be let go in order to reduce that tuition cost. And so, perhaps 60% of the computer science faculty may find themselves on the street. All of which is a long-winded way to caution all (computer scientists as well as ecologists) who think academia may be the right choice.

    • I don’t think academics are reluctant at all to consider online courses. Some of just recognize that online courses have been available for many years and appear to work best for a niche market. This may change of course. Two factors to consider about the current MOOCs. First, the completion rate is horrible — something like 5-10% of students actually finish MOOCs in the best of circumstances. It takes dedication and motivation (which may explain why foreign students have a higher completion rate). If the usual professor had only 5% of his/her students complete a course, we’d have difficulties keeping our jobs. Second, studies on the effectiveness of MOOCs are still rare. However, some studies find that on average students have exhibit poor learning, and that this is especially true for certain groups such as hispanics and even males. I’d take this last study with a grain of salt until more studies are out. Overall, I’d say online courses remain a quite interesting alternative to standard classroom learning, but one that remains unproven.

  10. I assume your list of influential variables is not ordered in any way. Geographical restriction is enormous, as are the connections and willingness/decency of your advisor/institution to help you find the next lilly pad, so to speak.

    However, I have found in my own experience and from talking to others who have found and not found success (by success I mean finding any kind of employment post-graduation) is timing and luck.

    So, to edit your list:
    1) luck
    2) timing
    3) ability to move and live anywhere despite whatever else might be going on in your life
    4) connections
    5) everything else

  11. I think the current job market is unusually out of whack. The recession and subsequent hiring freezes has really messed up the flow of postdocs into permanent positions. Now there is a backlog of people who are very qualified who have not had the opportunity to apply to positions because so many schools were in lockdown. We (a big R1) have had an unusual number of assistant and associate profs switching schools this year. There is a national-scale game of musical chairs going on and I don’t think postdocs are invited.

    For the hiring committees I’ve sat on for tenure track positions the most important variables have been (in order):
    1. Number of peer reviewed pubs divided by the number of years since you finished your PhD.
    2. Evidence that you can get grants, do independent research, supervise grad students. But this could be a hunch of the committee – not necessarily hard dollar amounts.
    3. Fit and willingness to move here. Fit is huge.
    4. Teaching experience. Really. It’s a pain when someone has to learn this on the job.

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