Some ideas for advancing graduate education in Ecology in a time of scarcity

The science of Ecology, like most scientific disciplines, is in the midst of a crisis of sorts stemming from at least two underlying factors. First, funding for science at a national level is stable or in decline, while the number of labs that need funding to persist is rising sharply. Second, the number of PhDs being granted is vastly outpacing the job market. According to some analyses the percentage of newly granted PhDs that got a job as a tenure-track academic in the 1970s was nearly 50%, while that number today is less than 10%.

In the face of this gloomy picture, action is required and I believe there are some clear steps we can take. In my view, lobbying for more federal money, tweaking how funds are distributed, working toward some supplements to federal funds (e.g., this and that) are good things to fight for. Those are “supply side” issues…I would like to also propose some practices in graduate training that may be helpful:

(a) revive and respect the Master’s degree.

In my experience, some faculty view a Master’s degree as a kind of failure. They tell their very best undergrads to avoid doing a Master’s and head straight to the PhD.

It is a “waste of time” they advise.

“the Master’s degree is functionless”

“you can’t do anything with that degree”


In fact, many, talented, intelligent, undergraduates have no business doing a PhD because they are not suited to the particulars of the academic enterprise. We should do our best to only bring people into PhD programs who are clearly dedicated to every facet of the endeavor (see below).

A MS is a good option for most (all?) students interesting in career in ecology. A MS serves as a vital testing ground, even for students who feel confident they want to do a Doctorate.

A MS gives the student a chance to discover if research is really an endeavor they want to dedicate their life to– consuming large quantities of scientific literature, data handling and statistical analysis, writing, presenting research at meetings– in addition to field work, lab work, or setting up and maintaining an experiment.

In my experience ~50% of the undergraduates who think they want to do a PhD, who faculty might say “you really should do a PhD,” will change their mind during a MS degree. In which case, that student can finish up the MS and head off to a job, instead of leaving a PhD partway through, which is a bad situation for both the student and the mentor.

Screening students in this way will help the PhD glut we currently face, resulting in fewer “ABDs” in the world, fewer PhDs who leave the field, and will allow those involved with training PhD students to focus energy on students who are more likely to stay the course and succeed.

(b) filter hard for students coming into our PhD programs.

I would recommend a MS and at least one peer-reviewed article submitted, as a general qualification for admittance into a PhD program.

GREs and course grades are relatively poor indicators of future success in research and they have absolutely no power to predict whether someone will have the passion for the professional grind that is needed to succeed in this new era of science.

I would also recommend that Universities generally employ the approach of refusing to admit into a PhD program undergraduates who just graduated from that same program.

With some important exceptions, that practice is built on faculty who don’t want to bother with searching externally for students, and accommodates undergraduates who really don’t know what they want to do with their life. “I don’t know what to do with my life” isn’t really a good qualification for launching into a PhD track, which is a training pathway that is for those who are ready to commit to research as a life-long endeavor. Overall, applying a fine filter on students entering our PhD programs could be a great help.

(c) be terribly clear about the state of things during mentoring.

We need to speak frankly, to undergrads working in our labs, to MS students, and especially to PhD students, about the state of things in the field. Very few PhDs get academic jobs, because there are not nearly enough jobs to accommodate the glutted market. Some of those who get jobs, won’t make Tenure because of the crisis in federal funding. We have to clearly and consistently tell students these things.

(d) be open to students becoming professionals that are different than us

Increasingly, tenure-track positions are an abnormal outcome for a person with a PhD. Even for good students, landing a faculty position has become the exception, not the rule. We can and should fight this as individuals by pushing those students who want to be a tenure-track faculty member, but we also have to face the reality that the tenure-track is extremely hard to get on, and increasingly hard to stay on! As mentors we have to be open to our students taking different pathways as professionals if the pursuit of a tenure-track job does not work out.

Increasingly we should be thinking about skills training and networking opportunities that might position our students to jump out of the Academy into other walks of life. Doing this without compromising productivity of the lab, per se, is crucial, but there may be opportunities for synergy wherein students get training and exposure and the lab picks up new tools or useful connections. Perhaps most important is that we as mentors reject the attitude of disdain that can sometimes hang in the air around non-faculty positions.

Finally, I want to point out that being a graduate student can be an incredibly exciting and fun experience.  In fact, if you were to randomly interview graduate students in Ecology I believe you would find they are, as a whole, stressed and working very hard, but also loving their life generally.  They would not trade their life style, their project, their colleagues, their lab…I don’t know about other fields, or other labs, but in my experience Ecology is a love affair.

As mentors, we need to be student-focused and accept a duty to get our students off into the next career phase; however, we all need to keep in mind that the grad student experience is an End, as well as a Means…


Six Basic Tips for a Winning Phone Interview


Doing well in a phone interview is a standard part of landing a job in the Sciences and is especially common and important in academia.  The process can be nerve wracking, so I thought I would share a few observations and tips from the phone interviews I have participated in as a search committee member.

Start with these principles:

(a) The faculty doing the interview and making the decision are volunteering their time to add work on top of an already insane schedule.   They likely care a whole lot about who is hired, but they are also super busy.  In one committee I was on, one particular faculty member came to several of the sessions sweating and out of breath from sprinting across campus…and then when it wrapped up…bolted out of the door to the next event.  C’est la vie in the Academy!

(b) The competition is fierce.  For most jobs there are many very good candidates.  It becomes a game of millimeters, not inches.  Little things get magnified and the committee making the call has no choice but to look at what might seem like minor details.

(c) There is most likely no significant agenda other than selecting a good person for the position.  When I was on the job market, I remember a lot of talk about politics in hiring, etc.  That may be the case in some instances, but more likely is that the faculty on the committee just want to make a good match between candidate and the job.


(1) Make scheduling the interview easy. 

The faculty members involved in the search have very busy lives and organizing a time when everyone is free can be damned-near impossible.    Putting together the schedule is a serious irritation under the best of circumstances.  So, as a candidate, you want to make it easy to schedule your interview time.  You can harm your candidacy by creating negativity around your application if you are pain to schedule.  It is subtle, but this is a game of millimeters!  If at all possible, just make whatever time they want happen.

(2) Do some homework about the people and place – present to them how you will fit.

Knowing a little bit about the people, institution and details of the position that you are applying to can be extremely helpful.  I have heard many times, during a discussion on who to move forward in a search, that a particular person “did their homework about us” for the phone interview.  Being able to talk a little bit about what is happening at the institution where you applied is very easy these days with the internet, etc.

The committee is dealing, on a daily basis, with the idiosyncrasies of the particular institution to which you are applying.  They are part of the fabric of the place, and are interested in adding people who will work well in this position given the mission of the institution.  They really are looking for a vision for what you might bring to the particular institution.  Now, obviously, there is much that is hidden from the candidate that can only be known after working at a place for a while, but there are some things that are obvious from the job ad and website.  A simple example- if the job has a relatively high teaching load, the faculty will be looking for this person to be excited to contribute in the classroom.  You need to paint a picture for the committee of how you would contribute as a teacher.  This may be very different than a place where the job is 80% research.

(3) Answer the questions – don’t filibuster!

Especially in interviews for research positions in Science, it is easy for a person prepping for an interview to really think through the dynamite description of their research they want to deliver on the phone.  This is useful; however, only if it neatly falls within the time frame available and within the context of what the committee is trying to accomplish in the phone interview.  The committee has your CV and maybe has even looked at some publications, etc., so your Scientific acumen has done its job…gotten you on the phone with them.  They may not be looking for an exposition on your project.  A big part of the phone interview is filling out around the science in your packet, e.g., will you make a good colleague?

I have seen instances where the committee poses a question and the candidate launches into a clearly prepared statement that ends up amounting to a filibuster.  Later, when talking about the candidate, the committee will have forgotten the content of the science ramble you went on, but they will remember that you didn’t answer the question.  Of course, if the committee asks for an exposition give it to them, just don’t force the exposition on them if they are asking other things.

(4) Stay on time.  

The committee is trying to make these phone interviews happen in a highly constricted time frame, they likely have interviews immediately following yours, and they need for the interviews to be very similar in order to fairly compare candidates.  The interviews MUST stay on time.  So you need to answer questions in a succinct fashion.  You want to give a complete answer, but you can hold on elaboration until the end.  Normally, if you do well on time you will have a chance to bring up a topic and add it in to the conversation at the end.  Running out of time is a very bad deal.  If the committee has to skip questions or otherwise go off-script because you used too much time on a particular question it can easily cost you the job.  “We did not make it through the script with him/her” is something that will come up later as a negative and maybe damage your chances.

(5) Be ready with double-edged questions of your own.

If you do a good job, and stay on time, there will likely be time at the end for you to ask questions of the committee.  While “No, I think you already answered my questions” is a fine statement and will not hurt you, it is a good idea to think carefully about questions, and have some ready in case the opportunity presents itself.  I encourage you to think about double-edged questions– these are questions that both extract information that you really want, and also communicate something about yourself.

The classic double-edged question for a faculty position is:

“Does your university have small grant funding to support undergraduate research?”

This is probably something that you want to know but also sends a very clear message that (a) you are interested in undergraduate research, (b) you are practical about what it takes to do undergraduate research = money, and (c) you are interested in doing the work to make undergrad research happen in your lab.

Another double-edged question I used when I was on the job market:

“What is available in terms of institutional support for submission of federal grants?”

Again, you are acquiring useful information and also communicating about your intentions.

(6) Try to relax and enjoy the moment.

If you enjoy the experience it is likely that you will exude a positive attitude, which is highly persuasive and will shed a positive light on the conversation.  The committee is doing this as an act of service to the Department and University, and so will enjoy the interview more if you are friendly and seem to be enjoying the experience.

Happy Hunting!