Guest post: A career as an ecologist at a governmental agency

Note from Meg: This post is an email interview I conducted with Dr. Wendy Morrison.* Wendy works for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I know her from when she was a PhD student at Georgia Tech, and am thrilled that she was willing to answer our questions!

This post is part 3 in our ongoing series of guest posts related to non-academic careers for ecologists. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. My post on training students for non-academic careers is also related to this series.

1. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career working with a government agency?
I got a job working for NOAA after my M.S. degree and loved it. I decided to go back for a PhD, but knew I would probably end up back with a government agency.

2. Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted!) from others about taking a non-academic career path? 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?
I was pretty clear about what I wanted from the start so I did not get hassled. I think there were a few folks who assumed I would see the light and change my mind, but they seemed OK with my choice. My major professor mentioned a couple of times that we needed good people in the government positions, so he was supportive.

3. Tell readers a little bit about your current position, how you found it, and what attracted you to it.
I have had 2 positions with the Government which have been quite different. I will briefly describe both. After my MS degree, I spent 4 years working for the Biogeography Branch in the National Ocean Service at NOAA. I worked on two main projects. The first one involved implementing fish and habitat research and monitoring for the Caribbean U.S. National Parks. I got to spend weeks underwater in the Caribbean collecting data on fish, corals, algae, etc. to 1) inventory the resources they have and 2) answer specific management questions. The second project was for the Marine Sanctuary Program. We helped find and collect survey data completed by Government (federal or state) or academia within the Sanctuaries (started in California then expanded). We then used this data to run meta-analyses and answer specific management questions. I loved the job. I was doing field work and statistics (I love statistics) on projects that had specific and direct impacts on management decisions.

My current job is working for the Office of Sustainable Fisheries in the National Marine Fisheries Service at NOAA. This position is less direct science and more policy. We provide guidance to the fishery managers on things they should be considering when making management decisions. For example, I am currently creating a methodology for looking across a large number of fish species and using their life history characteristics to predict which species may be more vulnerable to climate change than the others. I get to use my strong background in ecology to create a methodology that will be very useful to managers.   When that methodology is complete, I am also going to start working on a project that will determine where ecosystem based fisheries management is working and where it is falling short so we can provide advice on how to better manage ecosystems in the future.

4. 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?
There are quite a few changes from academia. The hardest one has been to adjust to working in a cubicle. Sigh. I really miss field work. One of the better adjustments has been to work only during regular work day hours. I have been in this position 4 years, and I can count on two hands the number of times I have had to take work home in the evenings. I can separate my work and home better than I was able to do in academia.

5. Are you planning on staying in this position long-term?
I am planning on staying with NOAA long term. It will most likely be with this office, but I am keeping my options open.

6. Any regrets about leaving an academic career path? Could you see yourself ever switching back at some point?
At this point I do not have regrets. I miss field work and I miss teaching students. As my own children get older, I will try to find a way to include both back in my work. I may decide to switch back at some point. Life is fun and you never know where it may lead you.

7. What are some of the unexpected positive aspects of your current position?
I really enjoy the people I work with. Most are hard-working people who have a passion for fishing or marine conservation and do their best to make a difference in the world.

8. Anything else you want to say to readers who are considering a non-academic career path in ecology?
If you want to work for the government, I recommend looking into fellowship programs such as the Sea Grant Knauss or AAAS fellowships.


*Yes, I cheated and used the same questions Jeremy asked Joe Simonis. Shhh, don’t tell.

4 thoughts on “Guest post: A career as an ecologist at a governmental agency

  1. As a current Sea Grant Fellow (I’m one of the few who aren’t at NOAA [placed at USFWS]), I agree 100% with using Sea Grant and AAAS, as well as other more policy-centric programs such as American Geophysical Union and Presidential Management Fellowships, to get an introduction in gov’t-related science policy. Coming from a pure scientific background, the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship was the perfect opportunity to get some science-policy experience. My placement in Congressional and Legislative Affairs at USFWS has definitely given me that experience. However, I don’t know if it’s something I’ll stick with forever. I miss the field, I miss active research, and I miss teaching. Regardless, I will take my experiences here and apply them to whatever career path that I choose. These fellowships are a really great opportunity to try something new while still staying within a realm that is familiar and interesting.

  2. Pingback: A career as an environmental consultant (guest post) | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: The Post-PhD Conversation | Pep Talk Ecology

  4. Pingback: Guest post: Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in US government science, in light of the recent government shutdown | Dynamic Ecology

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