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…


5 thoughts on “Some ideas for advancing graduate education in Ecology in a time of scarcity

  1. An excellent and timely piece! I feel a bit “cheated” by being encouraged to go into a PhD when my friends who stopped at the MS level are now making more money and actually making a difference as “real-world” biologists. I’m “lucky” to be one of the 10% of PhDs that found an academic position, but no one told me the odds were so low. In fact, every single time I have brought that up to faculty, they just brushed me off and pulled out the old line about “if you work hard enough, you’ll get the position you deserve.” Most baby-boomer faculty members that I know seem incapable of admitting the market is flooded.

    Furthermore, if I want to change careers and get a “real-world” job now, I’m out of luck. Having spent 8 years on graduate degrees instead of work experience, I’m overeducated and under-qualified for agency jobs. I suspect many phds are in a similar position.

    Please continue to be honest with your students! I’ve passed along your post to my students, and really appreciate another honest voice out there (presumably tenured!).


    Joanne Crawford, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of Biology
    Department of Biology and Agriculture
    University of Central Missouri
    Warrensburg, Missouri 64093

    “We are scientists, and we can teach ourselves anything”

  2. Pingback: Some ideas for advancing graduate education in Ecology in a time of scarcity | The Dr.* Science Chronicles

  3. As a current MS student in ecology, this line really resonated with me: “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.”
    Unfortunately (from my experience), a good portion of professors are not adequately equipped to think about or connect to students to opportunities/resources beyond the Academy. It is likely the pressures of “publish-or-perish” that keep researchers so narrowly focused.

    What ideas do you have about addressing this obstacle? Should students such as myself work harder to advocate for skills training and networking opportunities? Should departments or colleges provide these resources instead of individual professors?

  4. Its tricky because faculty are clearly charged with scientific productivity as a basic part of their job. Advocating for change is a good idea, but faculty only have so much time in their work-life.

    One thing you could think about doing as a student is getting together with fellow students and reaching out to practitioners in the community where you live. Invite folks to campus for an informal “career” conversation or even mini-seminar. Informal, just reserve a classroom, and get some bagels. Its easy, don’t start an administrative rigmarole, just do it. I bet you would get a really strong response as many folks who are “in the field” love the idea of connecting to the University.

  5. I feel that a M.Sc. is vital for the majority of students that plan to pursue ecology(or any field) as a career, either in research or outside of academia. Therefore, having it ‘revived’ as an advancement degree is great idea. To be honest, I think the reason the M.Sc. has become a degree with less value is because those that supervise a M.Sc. degrees are those that have made their career with a Ph.D. and sometimes cannot relate and see the importance of a M.Sc. outside of academia.

    In Canada (where I grew up and did graduate school), most universities have undergraduate students start at the M.Sc level and after a year, if they want to pursue a Ph.D. can ‘size up’ their project to a doctorate. This process allows students time to decide whether research (size up to a Ph.D.) or a career outside of academia is what they want. Also, this allows for students that do want to do a Ph.D. but may not like their particular project to finish their M.Sc., and move on to a Ph.D. that may be more in line with their interest. For me, I decided to finish a M.Sc. then do a Ph.D. which was a great experience.

    Having a M.Sc. is very important for those that choose to have a career outside of academia, and may be more a desirable degree on the job market than a Ph.D. When I finished my Ph.D., I found that having a doctorate in ecology (plant and soil science) hindered me more than those with only a M.Sc. when trying to get a job outside of academia (I was mainly looking at consulting environmental work). I searched and applied for months to get into consulting and nothing ever materialized. On the other hand, my graduate school colleagues with a M.Sc. got into consulting right away, with a very little time period between the end of graduate school and starting work. I believe one potential problem was that having a Ph.D. resulted in me being ‘type cast’ as a researcher, and highly intellectual individual, but no direct and useful skills for the consulting field. My suspicions where proven correct, when after making many phone calls to consulting companies about job opportunities, one manager admitted to me that having a Ph.D. is a potential problem because consulting companies are afraid that I will just leave as soon as I find something better. As a result, companies do not want to put the time in to training me for me just to go somewhere else. Whereas, someone with a M.Sc. they see as an individual they can develop and have a long career with. I also think that this also has something to do with degree recognition. Those that have a M.Sc. (which many consulting employees have) relate better with those that also have a M.Sc,, where as individuals with Ph.D. relate better with others with Ph.D.

    Luckily, after a year trying to find an outside of academia job, I got pulled back in and started my tenure track position this past September. Since starting, I have come to realize the important roles supervisors need to play in developing the careers of the individuals that they are mentoring. I think it would start to benefit these M.Sc. and even Ph.D. students more if we started to streamline their education. For example, for students that are sure they do not want to go into academia, we as supervisors should be either a) not taking them on or b) have projects where they work with industry more, such as consulting companies. This would allow the student to develop connections and gain important skills that are needed for those type of jobs. Requirements for such a degree, would be less focused on the research part (although still an important component) and more focused on class work, legislation, and technical lab work that are skills needed for consulting jobs. For students that want to pursue an academic job, then their requirements are more research focused as they are now. One could even argue to have another stream line for academic focused Ph.D. students, where individuals pursuing academic jobs, but not at R1 institutions, need to also do some pedagogical research as well, which will help them when they apply for more teaching focused schools.

    Overall, the world is constantly changing, job requirements are changing, and we as educators also need to adapt our supervision of M.Sc. and Ph.D. students to make sure that not only are we training individuals to be the next great research scientists, but also providing individuals with experiences and skills that build the foundation allowing our students to be the next great ‘insert outside academia ecology job’ they want to be.

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