Graduate school, the traditional conduit to an academic career, trains people to conduct research. Yet, many people with graduate degrees don’t end up in research careers (see here for stats and here for thoughts on alternatives). Research experience equips people with myriad skills that are useful beyond the lab (see here for examples). There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between developing these skills, identifying them, and finding a useful and satisfying place to implement them (a job!) that many face at some point (in graduate school, or in the final months of a grant, or even well into a dissatisfying job).
What are these skills? How do people prepare for and shift away from a traditional research trajectory, especially when surrounded by academic researchers all day!? And how do people find a non-research career that’s a good fit for their interests? There is plenty of self-help literature on this topic (see here, here, here, and here). Also useful, I think, is talking with others about their experiences.
I interviewed three people who have taken unique routes to a career in entomology. Categorized as extension- or science communication-focused, these careers are essential to deliver science and the products it creates accurately to the people who will use it. Maybe more relevant, though, is that these people identified what they liked most about science, kept sight of important things and people in their personal lives, and then built their careers around these priorities.
The leaves are out; the insects are out. I patiently watched the forest wake up this season. In the midst of another field season I pause to think about what draws me to it, year after year.
People who appreciate the natural world and enjoy outdoor pursuits are often envious of those of us who work outdoors. Rightfully so; the richest and most fulfilling moments of my life have been outdoors. And of course, a love of the outdoors is what initially attracted me to the natural sciences. Yet there is irony behind that naïve envy, because field season makes me feel like a crazy person. So much so that sometimes I think of giving it up for a safe and monotonous desk job. But then, I always return next year. Why?
Field work is rarely akin to a relaxing recreational holiday with friends. It has a habit of revealing and flaunting the worst parts of nature: brambles and thorns, poison plants, biting insects, miscellaneous hazardous wildlife, topography that is precarious at best and life-threatening at worst, sweltering heat and humidity, pelting rainstorms, blizzards, frost-bite worthy temperatures. The work itself is usually repetitive, monotonous, and often physically injurious – or exhausting at the very least. All the hours of travel are ridiculous (especially given that the very resources we are trying to protect are used to fuel that travel). I’ve spent many more hours driving to field sites than actually working in them.
Yet, I readily bolt out of my office for any chance to escape into the woods. The fascination and the drive that fuels a love of field season are, I think, much more complicated than I had realized. Field work awakens a primal sense of attachment and duty to the land that cannot be satisfied in any other way. And it follows an annual pattern that offers a strange sort of comfort.
Planning. Some years are more poorly planned than others, and range from day-of changes to activities neatly scheduled months (even years) in advance. If I can work out a clever balance between people’s schedules, tree and insect phenology, hazardous weather, and random-unforeseen-changes-of-circumstance, then I feel like an organizational master! If not (which is most often the case), then who cares about organized work schedules anyway? Regardless of my planning skills, the work seems to miraculously get done, time and time again.
Preparation. I envision every supply I might need (and often many I don’t need), try to think of whether I have it, someone I know might have it, or if I will have to buy it (grumble), and then I make a huge pile of all of it in the lab, office, or my bedroom. I fluctuate wildly between maximalist and minimalist in this process. Sometimes I’m so over-prepared that I dread putting everything away before I even return from the field. Other times (more often than not), I don’t arrive in the field with everything I need. I forget my raingear often enough that it has become comical. I once forgot my boots and didn’t realize it until we had already driven for three hours. My technician was furious. We went back to get them.
Apprehension. Will the project work? Will all the assumptions that we made about what insects and trees do and when they do it be correct? Probably not. Will the project be a complete failure? Will the entire field season have been a complete waste of time? Never. I always learn something that proves valuable in the future, no matter how meaningless it seems at the time. Is the project important? I wrestle with this one. The big-picture answer, I think, is no. On a smaller scale, it’s important that I make an effort to better understand the world, or to help it sustain itself, and that should be more than enough to satisfy a sense of pride in my work.
Anticipation. This phase usually arrives on the drive. When will we get there? Can we get the hell out of this truck already and get to work? We’re running out of time! But, strangely enough, there’s always enough time. And the work always gets done – even when daylight is escaping.
Chaos. This is almost inevitable. I’ve tried and failed to commit to less to mitigate it. The schedule of events, logistical hang-ups, tree phenology, insect phenology, weather fluctuations, and availability of people manages to saturate my brain at some point during the season. I can’t keep simple things straight anymore. I forget to do my laundry and run out of socks. I forget to brush my teeth. Too much is going on. It’s all so exciting and seemingly important that I don’t even care how scatterbrained I get. No matter how much I forget, the work miraculously gets done.
Rhythm. The chaotic dust has settled. The work has a comforting rhythmic pattern, an eb and flow; my brain and body connect and relax into the effort. The work is difficult, but satisfying. Working alone is easy; working with a team adds some complexity. A little time together and shared physical effort often smooths clashing personalities, and allows the work to flow naturally. Comradery has been established; things are going well.
The peak. I’m excited about how much I’ve accomplished and how quickly I’ve done it. But there is still so much to do…even as I feel myself losing energy. The work is taxing enough that several physical injuries have usually arisen (some more debilitating than others), and I start to look forward to the season’s close. I must now calculate just how far I can go until I can’t go anymore. Attachment and a sense of duty to the land come into focus to carry me through to the finish.
Collapse. I feel like a zombie. I’m so tired, I don’t even know how I manage to get places on my own two feet anymore. It might take weeks to recover. Why then, do I put myself through the rigor year after year?
Repeat. I skipped field season once. I thought it would be a joyous vacation. Instead, I was miserable and felt I had no purpose. So, now I dutifully return to the forest for each new field season, no matter how simple or small my projects seem. I don’t expect to solve the problems of nature. I only know that my presence in the forest, year after year, is certainly needed for my own well-being, and might somehow eventually be useful for the well-being of the planet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.