Diversity of ecological careers

Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke

March 5, 2019

Our ESA members, especially students and early-career professionals, tell us repeatedly how much they value information on possible career paths, including those outside of higher education. Like many other life science societies, ESA’s membership has long been dominated by academics. Through much of my own professional life, anything outside of college or university settings was labelled an “alternate” career. But this narrow perspective no longer serves our current membership, much less the wider spectrum of those working with ecological science and those seeking to apply ecology to their own work.

My doctoral education several decades ago was typical of the time, focused primarily on research experience. In fact, I was unusually fortunate to gain some actual experience and mentoring in teaching (beyond a simple lab teaching assistantship). We benefited from good networking and advising for academia by faculty who were themselves in exactly that career setting. In reality, a number of my peers did pursue other professional venues, most frequently in federal science agencies. But the unspoken assumption was that we were all aimed at tenure-track positions at research universities (ignoring even the diversity of possible educational settings).

Colleagues who pursued careers as federal employees sometimes landed there after winning Science and Technology Policy fellowships. ESA offers the Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award as an avenue for students to gain real world policy experience by coming to DC for training and to meet with Members of Congress. Participants frequently use the award as a springboard to other  fellowships such as the NOAA Knauss and AAAS Science and Technology fellowships. Others found research or management jobs with NPS, USFS, USGS, or the BLM. And I’ve collaborated with others in those agencies in pursuing my own (or my students’) research projects on federal lands. It was those personal contacts and experiences, not any systematic education or mentoring, that gave me some insights into the very different roles, challenges, and rewards of various career tracks.

What opportunities might there have been to explore anything different? In graduate school I did do one short-term consulting job (identifying and mapping wetland vegetation on the site of a construction project my university wished to build), but this was construed as a purely technical exercise. There was no acknowledgment of any business or project management skills being relevant, and no mention that this might actually be a career opportunity. No one on the faculty appeared to have any expertise in environmental consulting or the private sector generally.

Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and non-profits can also provide great opportunities for ecologists. My own experience with these entities has been primarily as a board member – external to the organization but sufficiently aware of the work being done to assist in organizational support and development. These range from large well-established organizations (e.g., the Nature Conservancy) to very small (such as local environmental education organizations). Several ecologist friends of mine have applied their scientific training in these settings, pursuing a passion for real-world impacts.

Interest in communicating effectively with policymakers and with the broader public has ballooned over recent years, and ESA staff and members have supported that interest. ESA’s Policy Section and the Communication and Engagement Section provide a full lively platform of activities, from training sessions and workshops at the Annual Meeting to online profiles of diverse people flourishing in science communication. This is just one example of how a $5 investment in section membership pays off with tangible links to career exploration and guidance.

ESA has had a tougher time connecting its members with other careers and industries in the private sector. I served for several years on the Corporate Award subcommittee, which recognized for-profit businesses that were doing an outstanding job of applying ecological science to their core business activities.  But this award languished—due, I think, to our lack of understanding of what constitutes effective science-based decision-making in a for-profit business. I’ve recently joined the board of directors of a large environmental consulting company, and now have a much better sense of both the opportunities and the challenges of ecological perspectives in this work. How can we help connect our members to those opportunities much earlier in their careers?

The Education and Diversity Programs Office has worked with the Early Career Ecologists Section and others to launch several initiatives aimed at career exploration. These include the regular series of contributions in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment highlighting different career options, and the addition of a Career Fair with multiple sessions and networking at the annual meeting. We’d like to provide information both about career options and practical skills like resume writing and interviewing preparation. What would be of the greatest assistance to those of you who are not receiving such support in your current setting?

I’ve had a very satisfying life in public higher education, working in research universities as both a faculty researcher and educator and as a leader (administrator) helping others be successful. However, my career has also been very much enriched by exposure to other settings; I’m intrigued by the satisfactions that one might find pursuing other professions. It’s too bad that I don’t foresee having another lifetime to explore and experience more options! Instead, I plan to keep working to help ESA offer even more services and professional development to support the full range of career settings in which ecologists are able to contribute.




Laura F. Huenneke