Careers in Ecology

For some, a "career in ecology" can evoke the image of fieldwork in the great outdoors. But the field is becoming more diversified and moving beyond its traditional academic boundaries, say many ecologists. Consulting firms, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and advocacy groups are creating new demand. In fact, graduate students are clamoring for more information on careers inside and outside of academia, so much so that the Ecological Society of America (ESA) held its first workshop devoted

Aug 21, 2000
Karen Young Kreeger

For some, a "career in ecology" can evoke the image of fieldwork in the great outdoors. But the field is becoming more diversified and moving beyond its traditional academic boundaries, say many ecologists. Consulting firms, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and advocacy groups are creating new demand. In fact, graduate students are clamoring for more information on careers inside and outside of academia, so much so that the Ecological Society of America (ESA) held its first workshop devoted to careers at its annual meeting last month.


Kay Gross (at left) packs seeds in a greenhouse with Heather Reynolds
Kay Gross, a professor of botany and plant pathology at the Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University and past president of ESA, says that most ESA members are academics, with the rest working in federal government, in the private sector at nongovernmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, and in private consulting. There's also a large student group, but not all stay in academia. For example, she says many who get master's degrees in ecology work at the local, state, or regional level at state departments of fish and wildlife or parks and recreation; other state and federal agencies; and consulting firms.

Christy Johnson, a Congressional Science Fellow in the office of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), typifies many recent ecology graduates. She was certain that she wasn't interested in a career in academia: "I wanted more applied work with long-term regional or local conservation issues." Before getting her Ph.D. in forest ecology and biogeochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999, she obtained an M.S. in regional planning. She came across her present position through an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship.

In her one-year internship, she's been working on a variety of environmental topics, including open space, dredging, pesticide use, and the spread of the West Nile virus. Her position involves much writing--composing memos and drafting letters, statements, and press releases, for example. She also briefs the senator and his staff on the different sides of a subject and its pertinent legislation, and talks with constituents.

"There's a huge and growing need for people to make the translation between research and the folks handling the issues on the ground," notes Johnson. For example, she says, people on local zoning boards that deal with open space issues need good information to make land-use decisions. "Graduate students definitely want to know more regarding their options outside academia." They usually get it by word of mouth and through the ESA. The society has also recently added career articles to its Web site.

Resources

American Association for the Advancement of Science
www.aaas.org

Conservation International
www.conservation.org

The Ecological Society of America
esa.sdsc.edu

Environmental Careers Organization
www.eco.org

National Science Foundation
www.nsf.gov

Society for Conservation Biology
conbio.rice.edu/scb/info

Society for Ecological Restoration
ser.org

Depends on the Definition

Tom Muir, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is currently assigned to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, environment division, in the Executive Office of the President. He says that determining where most ecologists are employed depends on how expansively you define ecology. "If you look at environmental science broadly, you'll find a good distribution across the sectors. If it's narrowly defined, then more people are found in academia." For example, if you examine the broad membership of ESA and other environmental professional societies such as the Society for Conservation Biology and the Society for Ecological Restoration, these organizations are attracting practitioners from such varied backgrounds as engineering and social science. Muir says that the most opportunities are for "bridgers," people trained in ecology and something that is, ecology and law, ecology and statistics, ecology and remote sensing, and ecology and geographic information systems. "It's a bullish market for generalists with a marketable specialty," he concludes.

Richard Pouyat, co-principal investigator on the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research site in Baltimore and a forest ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, advises graduate students to round out their scientific training with experience interacting with the public and policymakers. "Find degree programs that allow for that or get an adviser that's flexible, or do an M.S. in one and a Ph.D. in another," he advises. A prime example of this is Johnson's M.S. in urban planning and Ph.D. in forest ecology.

Pouyat thinks workplace settings for ecologists and environmental scientists will become more diverse. "A good barometer for the field is the [change at] professional societies. About eight years ago there was no talk regarding careers; now there's talk of this all the time. A growing proportion of ESA members are saying: 'Let's get real.'"

He adds that most ecologists now recognize the need to take a broader view of ecology to include such disciplines as education, social science, and policy. Another sign of change is that the many university environmental science degree programs in the country integrate ecology, policy, and education.


Leeanne Alonso in the Pantanal wetland of Brazil

The Center for NGOs

For Leeanne Alonso, working at an international NGO was the perfect way to blend her research and desire to see the practical implications of ecological research set into action. After receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1994 in organismal and evolutionary biology, specifically in tropical ant ecology, she completed two postdoc programs, one with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another with the University of Oklahoma. Now she is director of the Rapid Assessment Program for Conservation International in Washington, D.C., where she has been since 1998. She organizes teams of expert taxonomists to conduct surveys of plant and animal species in 25 hot spots of biodiversity. The purpose is to identify places that warrant protection and to use the survey information to make management plans and set conservation priorities.

"Students need to know that scientists working in NGOs don't usually do research-type science, but some do," she cautions. Alonso is an exception. In addition to her project management responsibilities, she does get to use her knowledge of ant taxonomy in the field. But, she quickly adds, "What most people do is organizing, planning, and managing people and projects." Ecology work with NGOs is becoming more plentiful, she thinks, but people have to be willing to do more than research and broaden their scope of interest.

Most of the people in NGOs get hired from within the community, so they need to get a foot in the door. But how? She advises students to seek internships with NGOs via the Environmental Careers Organization, which holds environmental career fairs and maintains a Web site. "The tempo for projects is fast, so flexibility, proximity to organizations, and mobility are key in the short term. Washington, D.C., is the place to be for international NGOs, as well as most environmental NGOs," she advises.

 

What Students Want to Know

Priyanga Amarasekare, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies the mechanisms that maintain biodiversity in fragmented environments. She has used a combination of mathematical models and manipulative experiments to understand how insect communities persist in the highly fragmented California coastal sage scrub ecosystem. The center was established by the National Science Foundation to bring together scientists with complementary skills to address important questions such as global climate change. "It is sort of like an ecological think tank that is set in an academic environment but also facilitates communication between researchers, resource managers, and policymakers addressing important environmental issues," explains Amarasekare.

Graduate students have felt pressured to follow purely academic careers because many of the prestigious graduate programs in the country were geared toward basic science and were not well equipped to train students for careers outside of academia, she notes. But that trend is changing very quickly. Conservation biology is part of the curriculum in most graduate programs, so students get the necessary training for careers outside of academia, adds Amarasekare.

Faith Kearns, a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, works in freshwater ecology, primarily urban streams in the San Jose area. She says that above all, "students want realistic ideas about job prospects." The main route for this is being exposed to people who do different things; hence the ESA workshop, which Kearns helped organize. "It's hard to get a clear and accurate picture of everything that's out there." S

 

Karen Young Kreeger (kykreeger@aol.com) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.