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.
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.