Advice: finding a career in non-academic research (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This post is an email interview I conducted with Joe Simonis. Joe began grad school wanting to go into academia, but after finishing her Ph.D. in ecology decided to leave the academic path in favor of a research postdoc at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Thanks to Joe for answering my questions about why she changed her mind about academia, how she found her current position, how it’s worked out so far, and her advice for others in similar situations.

At the ESA meeting, Joe will be part of a panel on non-academic careers for ecologists. Looks like a great mix of panelists, definitely worth checking out if you’re attending the meeting.

This post is part 2 in our ongoing series on non-academic careers for ecologists. Part 1 is here.


In correspondence, you’ve said that you went into grad school wanting to be a professor, but by the time you finished, you’d changed your mind. Why did you change your mind?

Yeah, I was pretty sure I wanted to be an R-1 professor when I started grad school.  I knew for sure that I wanted to do science as a career, thanks to some awesome undergrad research experiences and a really great job after graduation.  But up to that point, the only people I saw doing science were professors.  I want to do science, professors do science, so I’ll be a professor!  Simple, really.

It was really the process of going through grad school, and in particular the program I was in at Cornell, that made me realize that while I wanted to do science, I didn’t want to be a professor.

Cornell’s Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) department has a general approach of giving their grad students lots of freedom and personal responsibility compared to few codified formal requirements.  They basically treated us like mini-faculty, and my advisor (Nelson Hairston, Jr.) was certainly no exception to that.  I always had his support and guidance, but was free to make my own professional decisions and commitments.  I knew this going into the program (it was a huge selling point, actually) and took advantage of the situation to figure out if I really wanted to be a professor.  And it was during spring semester my 3rd year at Cornell when I finally realized that I didn’t.

That semester, I was engaged in the full smorgasbord of teaching, advising, research, and service.  I designed and taught a grad-level stats and programming class from scratch by myself, started advising an undergraduate (who was eager to learn and would eventually write an awesome honors thesis, but at the time had 0 limnological background), applied for six grants (and got three!), conducted my own research (processing plankton samples and prepping for the upcoming field season), and chaired a seminar committee while sitting on two other grad school/academic committees.  Certainly, the “full-faculty” version is often rougher than that, but it was enough for me to figure out it wasn’t what I wanted for myself.  I was working ~70 hours a week just to keep on top of the class, but every time I sat down to write lecture notes my brain would be on a grant proposal.  My work suffered and I was miserable.  Even during the few hours a day I was not working, my brain was thinking about work.  At a time when I could have really used some personal space, my personal life suffered and I was miserable for it.  Suffice it to say that my personality type and work habits don’t work well in an academic environment, and I figured that out first hand.

I knew I didn’t want to be a professor, but I still really really liked research.  I looked forward to the process of scientific inquiry and all of the nerdy things associated with conducting research.  So, after I emerged from that semester (more accurately, following a overworking-induced crash after arriving at my field site for the summer), I set aside some time for myself to start looking into what kind of research science positions existed outside of academia.

Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted!) from others as your career goals were changing? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you? In particular, did your supervisor or anyone else try to talk you into staying on an academic career path? Or say or imply that you were somehow “settling” or failing if you didn’t continue on in academia?

Thankfully, I only got positive responses from people when I told them I was thinking I might go into a non-academic research field after grad school.  I think a lot of my colleagues were surprised to hear me say it, considering that I had told everyone I wanted to be a professor, but no one tried to talk me out of it.  Maybe it’s my general stubbornness, but people rarely try to talk me out of anything.  😉

Like I said before, Nelson was keen to let me make my own professional decisions, and this didn’t just pertain to what my thesis research was focused on, but also included what I was going to do after grad school.  He supported me as much as he could (as did my other committee members and mentors) by putting me in touch with various folks he knew who did research outside of academia and stuff like that.  As it turns out, a lot of people had gone down that path before.

I think the best advice I got from folks was also the most logical…that I needed to find the kinds of jobs I would be interested in (type of research, type of institution, etc.) and talk to people who are currently in those positions.  A bunch of people told me this, and it was the single most important thing I did when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

And honestly, no one even mentioned “settling” or “failing” to me…maybe they thought it, but they kept it to themselves if they did.  Those notions don’t really make sense to my situation, though, because I was trying to find a position I was better suited for personally.  I certainly could have done the academic route if I wanted to, I just didn’t.  And I think this is probably true for lots of people who don’t go the academic route.  Many of my grad school colleagues that are in non-academic positions now would have been incredibly competitive on the academic job market, if they were interested.

Tell readers a little bit about your current position, how you found it, and what attracted you to it.

I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Population Biology in the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology in the Department of Conservation and Science (C&S) at the Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ) which is in Chicago, Illinois.

LPZ has a firm commitment to research and a great scientific community.  There are six research centers (akin to labs or working groups) with projects covering a variety of topics like great ape cognition and predator-prey dynamics in an urban environment.  The center that I’m in (the Alexander Center) focuses on developing quantitative tools for small population management.  We study captive, cooperatively-bred species as well as wildlife populations and some species that are a combination!  Indeed, for my post-doc I’ve been working on projects that span the captive-wildlife spectrum.   In particular, I’m developing a population viability analysis (PVA) model for the Hines Emerald Dragonfly, a federally endangered species that lives in the Chicagoland area and assessing among-species patterns in the viability of captive-bred populations.  I’m also dabbling in a number of other projects (anyone who knows me will not be surprised) and spending some time familiarizing myself with the oodles of data that zoos have been collecting for decades on their animals.  Breeders and keepers take a lot of data that is useful for studying populations (like who gave birth to whom when!) and we use those data to help understand how demographic events (and the “inherent” variation in their timing…i.e., demographic stochasticity) influence the persistence of small populations.  This is a question that I find really fascinating intellectually (why I studied it for my thesis!), which also has direct management implications.

I actually found the job through Ecolog!  I saw the posting and instantly knew it was for me.  They were looking for a quantitative population biologist who had a background using stochastic models of small populations.  One of the projects that they listed in the posting was working on the Hines project, which is pretty similar to what I did for my PhD.  The position was also exactly what I was looking for in a job: I wanted to put my quantitative skills to work helping people answer existing questions with existing data.  I was really interested in working on questions related to species conservation, and that’s exactly what this job focuses on.  Plus it was in Chicago, a city I grew up near and always wanted to live in.

In what ways do you find your current position to be change from academia? Are there aspects of the position that you’ve found to be a “culture shock” or that have required some adjustment on your part?

It’s definitely been a change of pace moving into the non-profit research sector, but I’m really happy with it.

I very much appreciate the 9-5 culture at the zoo, although it’s something I’m still getting used to.  I had to expend a lot of energy setting work boundaries for myself in grad school (which often failed, see above, re: 70 hour work weeks), so I’m glad to be in a place where the m.o. is to put in a solid day’s worth of work and then go home and do other things.  But I still often find myself at the end of the day printing out a paper to take home to read…some habits die hard, I guess.

Another thing that surprised me a bit was that I now have an explicit dress code.  Not that I dressed like a slob or anything, but I rarely ever got fancied up to go to work in grad school (especially when work was the field, and I got one shower a week!).  I usually just wore jeans and a t-shirt.  But now it’s business casual five days a week.

What is something that you’ve enjoyed about your new position that you weren’t anticipating?

The hyenas out my window!

Yes, this is the view from my office.

But seriously, there are lots of great things about my job that I didn’t quite appreciate before I showed up.  For example, we have a fantastic research internship program, and so even though we’re not at a university, there are lots of young people interested in science around, which is great.  Also, because we’re a zoo (and a free one at that), we have a great platform to educate the public on a variety of topics associated with conversation biology.  And thanks to the zoo’s fantastic PR and exhibit design departments, the research done at LPZ is efficiently disseminated to a wide variety of audiences (zoo guests, Chicago residents, the zoo community, the broader scientific community, etc.).  I just need to finish some projects so I can take advantage of it!

Do you have longer-term plans for after your current position ends? (It’s a fixed-term position, right?)

Yes, it’s a two year post-doc.  I’ve only been here for a half-year, so I’m still trying to focus on my current position and not think beyond that right now.  And I’m really liking my current position!  But I know I’ll need to start planning for the future at some point soon…time just moves too fast these days!

Any regrets about leaving an academic career path? Could you see yourself ever switching back at some point?

As much as humanly possible, I try to live my life without regretting decisions I’ve made.  I don’t have a time machine or a set of replicate universes, so I try to avoid letting my brain run “what-ifs”.  This is something I learned in my personal life and I’ve tried to apply it to my work life, as well.  I’m enjoying my job and that’s what matters.

It’s unlikely, but sure, it is possible that I could be in an academic position in the future.  I’m trying to keep options open for my future, but I like where I am right now.

Anything else you want to say to readers who are considering a non-academic career path in ecology?

The most important thing I did during my job search was talking to people who were in careers like the ones I thought I wanted for myself.  Introduce yourself to people at meetings, send random e-mails, ask your advisor if they know anyone doing what you’re interested in…whatever you need to do, find the people that are working in the field that you’re interested in, and talk to them!  Find out how they spend their days and what they work on.  Most people are pretty candid about their work life when you ask the right questions.  Also, make sure you talk to lots of people, because not all non-academic job environments are the same (just like not all academic departments are the same).

And definitely get business cards.  Now.

18 thoughts on “Advice: finding a career in non-academic research (guest post)

  1. Thanks for the post, Joe! I found it really interesting, in part because I first met you when you were pretty sure you wanted to be an R1 prof. (For other readers: Joe and I worked in the same lab one summer when I was a grad student and she was an REU.)

  2. Thanks for this Joe, very interesting and helpful.

    Your emphasis on talking to people who are in the career you think you want is spot-on. Can you talk a bit more about how you identified people to talk to? Did your profs have contacts? Was it via the sort of panel session you’ll be participating in at the ESA meeting? Or did you identify people in other ways? I ask because I think some ecology grad students aren’t sure where to start when it comes to identifying someone to talk to working in non-academic career X.

    • You’re welcome, Jeremy!

      I ended up taking a few approaches to find people/possible job environments:

      My profs had a few contacts, including some folks working at NOAA and similar agencies, that were very helpful (although now may not be the best time to get into government-agency research jobs). I think a lot of academics know at least a few PhDs working in non-academic positions (who themselves typically know a lot of other non-academic folks), so definitely talk to advisors, etc. and see who they know. And definitely talk to profs that aren’t your advisors, too. I got a lot of really great contacts from faculty in our Natural Resources department.

      I also started introducing myself to people working at non-academic institutions at meetings…hence the need for business cards. Meetings are great places for networking career-wise. I am not always the most comfortable networker, but a quick introduction and contact-info-swap is very helpful for setting up a meeting/phone call later (“Hello Dr. So-and-so, I’m Person X and we met briefly at ESA…”).

      And I did have some great contacts via the field station where I did my thesis research (Shoals Marine Lab). The folks that teach and do research there work in a variety of settings and again, they all know people who work in different fields, too.

      There was also a groundswell of grad students interested in non-academic positions in my department while I was there, so many of my peers were also great resources.

      A lot of this just comes down to networking, really.

  3. Although it sounds like it was a very challenging Ph.D. experience for Joe (not many Canadian Ph.D. students have those kinds of responsibilities), in the end I think it saved Joe valuable years pursuing the TT. I wonder if more Ph.D. students had this experience in grad school they too would also determine whether or not being a TT prof was for them. I will always remember my Ph.D. supervisor telling me to enjoy being a postdoc (I was one for 5.5. yrs) because it is the only time in your career where you can mainly focus on research, and she was right!

    • Totally. I’m really glad I was given the opportunity to figure out what it was like to be an R-1 professor, even if it wasn’t for me in the end. Totally anecdotal, but we have a very high percentage of students that are at least interested in non-academic positions [some of them did a survey recently, only 16% of the grad students in our department are “definitely pursuing an academic position”]. I don’t know how that compares to other programs, though. I wonder how that changes for students over their tenure in grad school, too.

      • My friend in the US had a very challenging Ph.D. experience and was given a lot of extra responsibilities, including teaching, writing grants, running a field program and helping with a herbarium (I’m probably forgetting something!). Even though she was working with a very well known ecologist at an R-1 institution, she determined that a small teaching institution was likely the best fit for her. I think the “mini-faculty” experience for any grad student would quickly tarnish the idealized life of a TT professor. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but I too had experiences early on that exposed this job for what it is, yet I still pursued it. I am glad that you were able to make an informed decision too.

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