What careers do women in the natural sciences choose?

Jessica Hartshorn and her advisor Fred Stephen celebrate her graduation. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Forest Entomology in 2016, and is currently a Forest Health Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Image credit: Jeremy Rathje.

My recent, and personally relevant, interest in transitions tied to scientific careers developed into two avenues of thought: introspection and external analysis. My first and most recent blog posts both address introspection. In the form of a survey, I looked outside myself to the scientific community to understand more about how others navigate scientific careers. In the coming blog posts I plan to relate the results of this survey, pause on the apparently meaningful patterns, and ponder how we as science professionals can be a better community.

First, I asked respondents to identify the field and career in which they landed.

The response to my survey was overwhelmingly – and perhaps unsurprisingly (I titled it “The role of support systems on success and retention in science”) – female (785 out of 1156 respondents). Below, I show only the results for women, because of the large bias in their sample size. Participants were mostly from the natural sciences of biology, ecology, entomology, and forest entomology. This probably reflected the identity of my professional network, and where the survey was circulated (Entomology Today, the Entomological Society of Canada, my personal Facebook page). There were many student and postdoc participants (386 of 1156 respondents), although because of the transitional nature of these roles, I chose not to include them in the results below.

Of 504 female respondents with graduate degrees (M.S. or Ph.D.), those in the fields of (a) biology, (b) ecology, (c) entomology, and (d) forest entomology (sample sizes in parentheses), categorized by type of career.

Percentage of graduates in the different careers was generally similar among the four scientific fields, with only a few notable differences. Between one-third and one-half of female respondents were in academia (teaching- or research-intensive), often more in research-intensive (20–30%) than in teaching-intensive (10–25%) positions. This is a larger amount than reported by other studies, which have found that 10–26% of graduates remain in academia following graduation (see this article and that article for more). If my results reflect reality, I find it heartening that these life sciences offer more academic opportunities for women (and probably men as well) than other scientific fields. However, the voluntary nature of my survey may have biased this finding. Maybe academics were more likely to notice or more compelled to complete the survey than others.

Less cheerful was that 7–12% of women were no longer in science, which is probably an underestimate, as many in this category may have been unaware of the survey, having lost touch with scientific circles that circulated it. Among the 256 men with graduate degrees, 6% were no longer in science. I hope to follow up with these groups to find out why they left science and what types of jobs they currently occupy. In a broader context, and much more alarming, is this article that reported 32–46% of US doctoral recipients in 2014 had not secured a job upon graduation.

Career choices of forest entomology graduates were most similar to those in the sister field, entomology, and least similar to those in biology and ecology, especially regarding government positions. Women choosing government jobs ranged from 11% in biology to 40% in forest entomology. I suspect that this reflects a greater availability of government jobs in forest entomology. Government agencies that employ forest entomologists include the USDA Forest Service, APHIS, and state Departments of Natural Resources or Agriculture. There are more women in senior research positions in the USDA Forest Service than in comparable positions in academia (Kern et al 2015, BioScience). Kern et al concluded that maybe the hierarchical structure of government promotes diversification more than academia, which operates under considerably less structure. It’s also possible that government positions are more favorable because they offer more work-life balance than academic positions.

From my results, it’s not possible to ascertain whether the relative percentages of women in different careers reflects the availability of those careers for students and postdocs on the job market. Many studies (this one, that one, and another one) have found that the availability of jobs (especially academic jobs) for people with graduate degrees has not kept pace with the increasing rate at which graduate degrees are being awarded. This has naturally resulted in a competitive job market.

I advocate that those of us with secure careers do more to help students and postdocs prepare for and secure science and science-related careers. These people represent the future of our fields. Take an interest in their professional development. Establish collaborative relationships that include them. Expose them to other aspects of your career that may not be apparent from their academic vantage point. Actively make connections with them at meetings, even if it’s only to ask how they are doing or how their project is coming along. People have done these things for me, and it has made all the difference.

Transitions revisited

Me, staying on the path during a hiking trip in Banff National Park, Canada, 2007. Image credit: Joshua Jones.


Where I’ve been

I have moved more than 10 times in the past 10 years. I’m enough of a regular at Uhaul that they now offer me free stuff with my reservation. I’ve been a resident of five US states and one Canadian province. What did I hope to accomplish on this whirlwind tour? I followed my science. Whether this was duty to discovery or simply because I didn’t know what else to do, I can’t say. I searched across vastly different forests, always asking the same question. What keeps insect populations in check here? The answer—which wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows forest insects—resided in the trees themselves; any weakness in their evolutionarily honed defenses was quickly detected by insects and heavily exploited. I found the same basic answer to my question in many forests, although there were various nuances in each. It seems that much of research is a formal affirmation of what can easily be deduced from careful observation. There are always more forests to explore and more insects wreaking havoc to track down. Research on how to stop them given the rapid changes our planet’s ecosystems now face is greatly needed. But I can’t chase insects and answers anymore; I’m tired.

Change as a constant

I hear people talk of change as something to embrace, something that forces growth and wisdom, and something that teaches resilience. I’d like to believe that, though from my extreme vantage point, those rewards have not entirely been my experience. Constant change and uncertainty have been my world for 10 years. I have not lost in growth or accrual of knowledge during that time, but other parts of life have escaped me. Those missing parts have suddenly and consciously caught up to me. It’s awkward to look around and see how everyone else has had such a different life than mine. Everyone’s journey should be—and is—necessarily unique, but what gives me pause is that the general pattern I see among others is similar. Mine is different, and revolves circuitously (seemingly dictated by the next transition) rather than in a (nearly) linear trajectory. Consequently, the life journey and the choices we make along the way has been a recent preoccupation of mine.

When I was a teenager, I went on a hiking trip with my parents near Batopilas, Mexico. The Tarahumara are the natives of that region. For transportation, they regularly run long distances up, down, and across the steep slopes of Copper Canyon, in sandals made of leather and worn out tires. Just last year, my father relayed to me what our Tarahumara hiking guide told him on that trip, now almost 20 years ago. Nearing a narrow ledge, the guide told him “not to fall off the path”, and my father chose to take the advice figuratively rather than literally. When he told me this, I was sitting at my desk in my parents’ house in their mudroom-turned-into-my-new-office. I had recently lost in love and work, and my journey was at a standstill. Was I on the verge of falling off the path?

My recent transition

Fortunately not. What followed was unexpected. I reached out and people responded. I learned the strength of what would traditionally be called my professional network, but I can’t call it that anymore, because it has evolved well beyond that into something so intensely personal I’m not sure how to define it. These people kept me on the path.

Then, after my ten-year wait (15, if undergraduate school is included, and it should be, since my career trajectory began there), I was offered a permanent job. The moment was not the same as I had envisioned; a natural amount of relief maybe, but so much apprehension ensued. The situation was heavy. It was the first sentence of a story with a 15-year prologue. I was frozen; I couldn’t decide what to do. In the 48 hours the US Forest Service gave me to respond to their offer, I probably spent a good third of that time on the phone with my people. Hands outstretched, they pulled me up and forward on the path, over the pass. The winds are calmer, warmer, and from a different direction on the other side. I am perpetually in debt to them, for the assistance I’ve received so far, and for so much more to come, I am sure. Thank you.


Perspectives Change While Themes Persist at Different Points Along the Career Path

Annie Ray, an associate professor at Xavier University, checks an insect trap for longhorned beetles (Photo credit: Josh Rodstein)

This is a series that peeks into the lives of scientists. Click to read parts 1 , 2 , and 3.

The length of a career could be compared to a marathon—an event more about stamina than speed. Yet the starting point for scientists, graduate school, sometimes feels a little like a race in itself. What looms beyond the graduate finish line? It can be difficult to visualize, but it is critical to consider, because choices and experiences shape futures. This is especially important given the current influx of Ph.D.s saturating the job market, all having just reached a crossroads that requires careful considering, weighing, prioritizing, searching, deliberating, and maybe even obsessing about what to do next. The hope is to find a suitable niche that offers intellectual challenge and fulfillment.

As naturally curious people, scientists seek understanding of what lies ahead and what it will be like. Perspectives on struggles, rewards, and strategies to meet and accept them appropriately change throughout the trajectory of a career. As society evolves and generations pass, the challenges faced by scientists at the same stage of career in different generations may be different. I interviewed scientists at three different career stages (early, middle, and late) to gain insight into these changes, and to identify how individuals at different career stages can connect with and support one another.

See the full story on Entomology Today.

How fast does emerald ash borer kill trees in our forests?

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire) kills nearly every ash tree it encounters, as seen in this aerial view of a forest in Ontario, Canada (Image credit: Troy Kimoto, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, via Bugwood.org).

Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, a shiny green beetle from Asia commonly known as the emerald ash borer (EAB), has taken North America by storm. Assisted mostly by people, but also by its own wings, EAB is rapidly spreading across urban and forested areas alike.

EAB-killed ash trees in urban areas are noticeable and require immediate attention, with either insecticide protection or removal. This maintains safety, aesthetics, and function of the urban forest. Trees that die in natural forests hardly require such vigilance. If dead ash trees aren’t likely to damage property or injure people when they fall, they can often be left alone. Also, in most hardwood forests, ash is relatively less common than other trees such as oak or maple, so the structural and functional loss to the forest canopy may be minimal.

Loss of ash has serious ecological and economic implications, however, as ash fruits and seeds are an important food source for wildlife, white ash wood is used for baseball bats, and black ash is used to make baskets. Given these environmental losses and that this invasive species seems capable of killing nearly every ash tree it encounters, finding out how much damage EAB has incurred in our natural forests is a pressing issue.

In their recent article in Biological Invasions, Randall S. Morin and fellow researchers in the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station used a national forest inventory database to measure just how destructive EAB has been so far in the United States.

Read the full story on Entomology Today.

Ken Raffa shares his passion for working with people to understand insects as agents of change

This is the third in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. Click to read part 1 and part 2.

Ken Raffa pauses to take in the scenery during a hike at the IUFRO World Congress in Utah, 2014. Image courtesy of Ken Raffa.

Ken Raffa has had a storied career. His research has made great strides in advancing current understanding of how insect populations can rapidly explode. His work has revealed fascinating specifics and generalities that take place between pine trees and bark beetles during a beetle outbreak. An army of beetles is needed to attack and kill a tree and the tree has two different lines of defense. If both are compromised, the beetles win; if the tree can combat the beetles, the tree wins. It turns out this binary outcome is decided by the number of beetles attacking the tree; if enough beetles arrive for the attack, the tree will surely lose the battle. There is more: the first line of tree defense not only kills beetles by drowning them in pine sap; it also interferes with communication among beetles by physically blocking transmission of a pheromone the beetles make that attracts more beetles, which prevents beetles from assembling the numbers (the army) needed to kill the tree (see these ground-breaking studies for more details: Ecol. Monogr. 53: 27-49; Amer. Nat. 129: 234-262; Oecologia 102: 285-295). Ken used these key findings along with insights from others’ work to put forth a sophisticated model that explains how insect-driven disturbances operate across the landscape (BioScience 58: 501-517).

Throughout his career, Ken has won numerous awards (including the Entomological Society of America’s Founders Award in 2010), garnered over $9,000,000 in research grants, published over 250 papers in the primary literature, and trained 43 graduate students and postdocs, who have all gone on to be leaders in government, academia, and industry.

People are naturally curious about someone with such an impressive list of accomplishments (see his website for the full-length version of his CV). How did he arrive at forest entomology? What inspires him? How does he train students to be great leaders? I sat down with him at the recent International Congress of Entomology to find out. I discovered someone who is deeply passionate not only about the natural world (maybe not so surprising given his career path), but also about people. He believes in the strength of professional relationships—that are at their core really personal relationships—to solve scientific problems. This may be surprising, given his experience as a student. Here is what I learned from Ken about career paths, studying trees and insects, training graduate students, and the likely future of all three.

Read the full story on Entomology Today.

Are we ready for a revolution in scientific publishing?

Scientists publish their findings. Then others use that information to develop and test new ideas. Society accrues knowledge incrementally through this process. Necessary obstacles arise on the path from results to publication. In the current system, some obstacles are slowing the overall influx of new science and simultaneously letting poor science through.

for-reviewPeers must first evaluate the rigor of a study before it can be freely released into the scholarly literature. In their recent editorial, “Indexing the indices: scientific publishing needs to undergo a revolution”, Delzon, Cochard, and Pfautsch argue that the peer-review process has lost its ability to effectively and efficiently green-light additions to the primary literature. Delzon et al assert that this is a consequence of journals striving to raise their status (i.e., rankings against other journals, impact factor). The way in which journal impact is measured needs a serious overhaul, and Delzon et al think Google Scholar’s H5 index (equivalent to the Hirsch index) is just the tool for the job.

Instead of ranking the quality of a journal by the average number of citations received by its publications within the past five years (the traditional IF5 metric), the H5 index ranks a journal only by its top-cited publications. Papers not often cited (or not cited at all) won’t affect the H5 score either way. A switch to the H5 index doesn’t seem to change the current ranking of top journals (at least in plant science and chemistry, but see this other analysis). The strategy of H5 is advantageous because it doesn’t put pressure on editors to reject papers that they perceive to have little citation potential. If journals are more likely to accept papers (over 75% are currently rejected by top journals), authors are less hassled to re-submit multiple times, each time seeking an outlet with increasingly lower impact. New findings will then reach the scientific community (and maybe the public, if the journal is open access) at an appropriately rapid pace to advance science.

Most importantly, highlight Delzon et al, a switch to the H5 index will also lessen the burden on reviewers.  In the current system, high rejection rates translate to more reviews of the same paper. Reviewers are called into action more frequently than is necessary, and ultimately sustainable, given that peer review is essentially a volunteer service to the scientific community. Over-taxed expert reviewers must decline more reviews, which forces journals to reach out to non-expert or inexperienced reviewers. Not properly vetted, unsound scientific findings then enter the scientific literature, an unfortunate result that undermines the basic tenet of the peer-review process. So, yes, it seems we are in need of a revolution in scientific publishing!

Further reading on journal impact and peer review:

Impact factors don’t evaluate scientific quality and should not be judged as such

Impact shows whether journals can attract the best papers 

Journal impact ≠ research quality

Imbalance of peer review effort across the scientific community

How does research environment shape science and life outside of science?

This is the second in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. See part 1 here.


Jesse Miller collects field data to investigate how soil, habitat connectivity, and fire history influences plant communities in the Ozark Mountains. Image courtesy of Jesse Miller.

All scientists try – or should try – their best to adhere to the scientific method. They pose a curious and contemporarily-relevant question about how something works, usually with a general idea of what they expect to find; they cleverly design a way to go about testing this question; they put in some hard work to carry out an experiment; and they examine the results to see if a preconceived idea about the question makes any sense. Usually it doesn’t, and it’s back to step one. This seemingly ancient cyclical process is the foundation upon which scientists base their life’s work. Traditionally this work took place either out in the natural world or in the laboratory. As we expand our knowledge base in an era of rapid growth in many scientific fields, people are also pushing the boundaries of where science takes place (click here for an interesting example). As scientists are specialists in their subject field, they also become specialists in their research environment. I wondered which aspects of working in different research environments are similar, and which are different? And how does dealing with these common and unique challenges transfer to life outside of science?

To gather some insight, I interviewed a scientist working in each of four research environments: outdoors in the field, and indoors in the laboratory, the office, and the classroom.

See the full story on Entomology Today.