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Perspective of an Ecologist Outside Academia

From Ecological Society of America NewSource, volume 67, October 1999

Guest Editorial by Sean O’Brien

An Ecologist Outside Academia

“But do you miss science? Do you get to use your degree?” I get asked these questions a lot. If you are a student, a recent graduate, or a professor advising students, I believe the answers to these questions are relevant to you.

In my cohort of ecologists (say, those finishing their Ph.D.s in the 90’s), the desire for careers outside of academia is widespread. Several factors contribute to this. The two most important include the environmental seeds planted in us in the 60’s and 70’s, and necessity. That is, there just are not as many jobs in research and teaching as there are graduates. Despite the increasing number of ecologists, and scientists in general, working outside of academia, the establishment continues to consider these jobs as “alternative.” Tagging these careers as alternative brands them as less than desirable in some way.

We cannot afford to let this continue. If students believe there are no job opportunities in ecology we will lose promising candidates, both those who would continue in academia and those who would follow another career trajectory. If you are reading this newsletter odds are that you are an ecologist by training or avocation, and therefore assumed (true or not) by the general public to be an environmentalist. Hopefully you believe that ecologists can and should contribute significantly to protecting the environment. Also, that we need people to study ecology, not only to ensure an understanding of what we are trying to protect, but to benefit ecology itself through new ideas and points of view. The flip side of this is that when ecologists work in other fields, we spread knowledge and understanding of the natural world. I offer my experience in and outside of academia as an anecdote for the value of a degree in ecology and of the opportunities outside of academia.

I started my Ph.D. program with the goal of working in the environmental movement, and not in academia. However, once I finished my Ph.D. I realized I had little experience with the real world that would indicate to an employer that I was a good risk. With the approval and assistance of my post-doc advisor I set about gathering some skills and experiences to round out my background and to allow me to pursue a job in the environmental arena.

Several years and odd jobs later (which included finance director for two campaigns for US Congress and an apprenticeship at an investment banking firm) I find myself engaged in the environmental arena in a way I never dreamed of: working for a major environmental foundation as a traveling technology consultant to environmental groups around the world. Somewhere between starting graduate school and applying for a “real” job I developed good computer and troubleshooting skills and came to learn that these were needed and desired by environmental groups of all sizes and shapes.

This is why people ask me those pesky questions all the time. How does a Ph.D. in ecology relate to computer/technical assistance? My answer is in some ways specific to the groups I work with, and in some ways generally applicable. One of the great advantages I have providing this kind of assistance to environmental groups is that people expect a technical consultant to be a “propeller head” who cannot speak to the non-computer professional. What they get is someone who not only speaks in plain English, but someone who is interested in their issue and who understands ecology and the environment. This sets people at ease with the technology and how it might help them achieve their goals.

The more general answer is that understanding how to conduct research, complex systems, and the interrelationships between systems and scales is invaluable in any field. If ecologists can get in the door, we can do the job. A few of us have crawled out of the academic window, now let’s unlock the door from the institutional side so fresh graduates do not feel stigmatized by pursuing nonacademic careers. This is the first step toward getting employers to open the door and keeping our field fresh. The stigma of alternative careers can be found in most science and engineering fields. Ecology has the chance to lead the charge to break down this invisible barrier, helping our graduates–and the planet!

Sean O’Brien is an ESA member and works as a technology consultant at the W. Alton Jones Foundation. The author’s opinions are his own and do not reflect positions of the ESA or the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

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