On the differences between natural resource and biology departments

Six weeks ago, in my post on research funding, in the comments several people noted that funding for TAs and RAs were different in natural resource departments than in ecology and evolutionary biology or biology departments. A reader Steven Byrd, emailed me asking me to expand on the perceived differences since he was about to make the switch moving from his masters in a biology department to his PhD in a natural resource department. I myself have jumped this divide nearly every move I’ve made – PhD in EEB department, Postdoc in Fish and Wildlife, tenure track at McGill in Biology, tenure track at Arizona in School of Natural Resources. Since many people like myself and Steven cross this divide or at least contemplate crossing this divide at least once in their career,  I thought it would be interesting to comment on the cultural differences I have observed and see what others think.

First a bit of background. This is specific to the US, but I know it is similar in Canada and believe it has parallels in Europe and Australia as well. Definitely curious to hear from our international readers. Most universities are organizied into departments nested inside of colleges nested inside the university. Ecology is typically found in two locations. One is in an EEB or Biology department inside of a College of Science (or on a smaller campus a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences). This college also has chemistry, physics and often some of atmospheric sciences, oceanography, geology, etc and is focused on pure research without focus on applications. The other is in the College of Agriculture where there are usually departments like Wildlife and Fisheries, Forestry, often Soils, Crop Science, Range Management, Hydrology and some others that overlap with ecology as well as things like plant sciences (plant breeding and pathology), animal husbandry, etc. The college of Ag is focused on applied questions, and in the US in land grant universities the college of Ag is naturally where the agricultural extension agents are homed. The college of Ag is also where federal cooperative units with the USGS (which has a mission of biological inventory and survey) and the US Department of Agriculture are homed – these units are employees of their respective federal agencies and are forbidden from teaching undergraduate classes but otherwise are rather regular members of departments doing research and having graduate students. In many campuses the forestry, wildlife, etc departments have been shrinking and have been merged into unified “natural resource” departments. These departments have also been undergoing a major transformation in recent decades from an emphasis on “hook and bullet” management of game animals for hunting and fishing to conservation of endangered species.

OK – so enough background. These departments all do ecology but if you’re contemplating a switch, what should you you know about the differences between the Biology/Ecology and Evolutionary Biology/College of Science and the Fish and Wildlife/Forestry/Natural resources/College of Agriculture world? (From here on I will abbreviate these two contrasts as EEB vs NatRes). The following are my own observations. They are general stereotypes based on the many departments I have visited and certainly do not apply to 100% of institutions, and in fact none of them apply to every place I’ve worked (and most of them don’t apply to my current place at U Maine which has several unique features with respect to this divide). But broadly speaking:

  • Research funding – EEB goes after NSF and maybe NASA or NIH. NatRes goes after USDA and an occasional NSF, but the majority comes from contract work for state and federal agencies (e.g. monitoring endangered species). As a result I think EEB tends to be a bit more boom-bust and (also divides people into have and have nots) while NatRes tends to be a bit more slow and steady.
  • Research topics – both sides are doing good ecology which is probably the most important point. But there are subtle differences. NatRes is more focused on collecting data and using sophisticated quantitative methods to make sense of the data. In EEB there is more of a split between pure field work and pure mathematical ecologists. In EEB there is also more of a focus on questions rather than information. Sometimes when I sit on NatRes committees I have to push students to ask questions that tie to theory (but many NatRes faculty are doing the same push), but sometimes when I sit on EEB committees I get bemused by how much handwaving there is about incorporating the latest trendy question (can you say phylo-spatial-functional trait coexistence?) without really thinking through the value of the work.
  • Reputational basis – evaluation for tenure and more generally for reputation is more mutlidimensional in NatRes. Papers and grants are still vitally important, but relationships with state and federal agencies, making a difference on the ground, outreach and education are all also important. EEB tends to be very one dimensional on papers and grants. For these reasons the pressure levels might be slightly lower in NatRes (although no tenure track job on the planet is absent of stress). Certainly I think people in EEB are more likely to know and talk about their h-index.
  • Relationships between departments – in general EEB tends to think they do better science and look down on NatRes. NatRes tends to think EEBers have their heads in the clouds and are irrelevant. For the record, I’ve seen places where from an objective outside view, NatRes is clearly the superior department and places where EEB is clearly the superior department and places where they’re both good, but they all still tend to adopt this attitude towards each other. Which is unfortunate, because despite the fact that in my opinion both groups are doing exactly what their mission mandates and there are enormous synergies, on most campuses these judgmental attitudes prevail and there is very little interaction between the two groups (and they are often physically separated by large distances).
  • Undergraduate curriculum – NatRes are training undergrads to get jobs in state and federal agencies. For students to be hired by these agencies, they must have taken a very specific set of courses so the whole curriculum is built around these national requirements. EEB tends to teach a lot of service courses (i.e. introductory biology, neurobiology, plant taxonomy) taken by people all over campus. The majority of undergrads majoring in Biology want to go into medicine/health sciences.
  • Graduate trajectory – in NatRes most students stop after a masters (again targeting jobs in state and federal agencies or maybe an NGO). If you want to get a PhD you usually need a masters first, preferably from another institution. In EEB – most students are doing a PhD, often without having gotten a masters first. Traditionally EEB departments see their graduate program as primarily for creating new professors, although I do think they are increasingly embracing the role of training people for conservation work as well.
  • Graduate funding – in EEB it is a mix of RAships from NSF grants and lots of TAships (coming from the service courses). In NatRes TAships are few and hard to come by so it is mostly work on the contracts with state agencies and any USDA grants. The TAships in EEB help to counter the boom-bust nature of pursuing NSF funding (i.e. provide backups when funding goes dry), so it can be very hard to have students in a NatRes department if you primarily pursue federal funding and don’t have a steady stream of state/federal contracts.
  • Internal departmental culture – EEB is much more bottom-up governed while NatRes is much more top-down governed. Both groups have regular faculty meetings and votes. But the opinion of the department chair (and in NatRes often an executive committee of 4-5 senior faculty) counts a lot more heavily, and I’ve seen people have heavy consequences from getting on the bad side of a department chair much more in NatRes – EEB is the stereotypical herding cats where everybody just shrugs their shoulders and expects some people to be prima donnas. Also I think it might be fair to say that the proportion of old white males is slightly higher in NatRes than EEB (although this is changing and nowhere in ecology does particularly well on race). I don’t know a nicer way to say this but some (and only some) NatRes departments still have more of a “good-old-boy club” feel. Some EEB departments might have more of an elitist attitude.
  • Relationships between the colleges – almost invariably the College of Agriculture is the second richest and most powerful college on campus (after the college of medicine if such exists). They always have new buildings, money floating around for various initiatives, etc. Within the college of agriculture, NatRes is usually near the bottom of the ladder. In contrast, while colleges of science are usually less powerful, EEB/Biology is often the biggest and richest department within the college (especially when its a joint Biology department with EEB and molecular/cellular biology). So NatRes tends to be the little fish in the big pond, while EEB tends to be the big fish in the small pond. There are advantages to both – mostly depending on whether resources are being allocated at the university level (e.g. buildings which favors college of ag) or at the within college level (e.g. various travel awards to students which can tend to favor EEB).
  • Interior decorating – by far the most important distinction is what the hallways look like!. EEB departments tend to be in generic university drab with perhaps a glass display case of books by the faculty or maybe something out of the collections. NatRes Have large stuffed mammals, often a bear, mounted upright in the wildlife half and to have gorgeous solid wood paneling on the forestry half.

Those are the differences that jump most immediately to my mind. As already stated they are sweeping stereotypes and the landscape will differ in individual units. My only goal here is to provide a “quick reference” for people contemplating the switch. Overall, I find it highly regrettable that these cultural differences exist and that people don’t work together better between these units. We are all doing ecology after all. And it makes me really appreciate the structure here at U Maine where all of the biological sciences (from EEB to nursing and food sciences to forestry) are in one college – effectively a college of biology. More universities should move in this direction. Maine is also a place where people aren’t very hung up on the basic-applied distinction – something else I wish more universities would foster

I fear that somebody will get annoyed by my putting this down in black and white, but my intention is to help people new to the issues. Keep in mind that these are only approximately true, and that I love – repeat love – my time spent in both types of units on multiple campuses and nearly always end up finding a way to have cross appointments or what not to effectively end up in the middle between the two which is where I am happiest.

What are your observations about the similarities and differences across the “divide” (which shouldn’t be as big a divide as it is)? How does this generalize in other countries? What about people at private universities or undergraduate education-focused universities in the US – which culture matches better to what you experience?

16 thoughts on “On the differences between natural resource and biology departments

  1. Everything you wrote rang 100% true to my experiences (and I’m glad you included the bullet about interior decorating, as that is not just the most important distinction, but also the most reliable). I’m teaching an interdisciplinary undergrad course this fall (Conservation Behavior) that bridges these two fields and will have students from both halves, and I’m looking forward to hearing the different perspectives of students from each side.

    Have you noticed any patterns regarding sociability? I am an EEB-er married to a NatRes-er, and in grad school, when we hosted prospective students, there would often be some variation on this conversation as we tried to promote our respective departments:

    me [EEB]: We do really interesting science.
    husband [NR]: Yeah, but we do *useful* science.
    me: If you are interested in getting teaching experience, we have lots of opportunities for that.
    husband: But we have much better parties.
    me (sighing): That’s true. We go to their parties.

    Anyway, this is a topic that comes up a lot with the students I advise who are considering grad school, and now I can happily point them to this post, so thanks for articulating it so well!

    • Interesting question regarding sociality Given my life stages (e.g. young children preventing socializing) just by chance I’ve attended a lot more parties in EEB than NatRes. But I suspect your experience generalizes. I think it might be safe to say there is more banter and idle chit chat and laughter at NatRes faculty meetings than EEB which tends to be fairly efficient and focused.

  2. Really accurate comparison, Brian.

    I would just note that not all fish and wildlife or forestry or etc. programs are administered as departments by a College of Agriculture; many strong programs are their own, independent colleges (e.g., Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State, which has a number of its own, more specialized departments – quite a few other universities have similar arrangements).

    A College of Natural Resources may be a smaller pond overall than a College of Agriculture (although in my experience, that isn’t necessarily assured), but I think that split can in some cases result in further differentiation even between natural resource programs on the basis of autonomy and control of priorities.

    But I would agree that the difference between a College of Natural Resources and an Ag administered Department of Natural Resources is quite smaller than the differences between either of those and an EEB department.

    • Thanks for the additional information. I have seen places where NatRes is a school (pretty often actually) but that is really a merger of older departments (e.g. Fish & Wildlife with Forestry) and is still under Ag. Good to know that NatRes is elevated enough to be its own college some places!

      • I don’t know if it’s a product of my own regional bias or background, but those that jump to mind tend to be western US universities: Colorado State, Utah State, U Idaho, Oregon State, U Montana, Humboldt State. I wonder if that’s a product of states where traditional natural resources disciplines like forestry or range hold more comparable (even if not equal) economic or political influence relative to more traditional agricultural disciplines like crop science? Entirely speculative; I know schools in other regions like Virginia Tech or Wisconsin-Stevens Point have quite good colleges (rather than depts or schools) dedicated exclusively to natural resources.

  3. This is an interesting read for me since while I was a grad student Rutgers split up their Dept. of Biology and the EEB folks moved into the former Natural Resources Dept. at the ag college, which became the Dept. of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources. So we were a hybrid.

    Besides that, I don’t really have much relevant experience of my own on this, but from what little experience I have, what you say rings true.

  4. Brian, I agree with everything you wrote, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that the future may look quite different. Based on my experience at Colorado State (as a grad student) and Utah State (faculty) I think 1) the differences between EEB and NatRes are shrinking, and 2) the future of the core NatRes professional societies (Wildlife, Fisheries, Forestry, and especially Range) is unclear.

    The differences between EEB and NatRes are being eroded from both sides. Traditional EEBers are being pushed by professional societies (ESA) and funding agencies (NSF Broader Impacts) to do more “relevant” science (whatever that means). Traditional NatRes-ers are seeing agency funding sources evaporate. My predecessor at USU apparently ran most of his research program, which included quite a bit of basic plant ecology, on BLM money. I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Changes in tenure evaluation are also pushing NatRes faculty to publish in the same journals as EEBers, and compete for the same grants.

    Another reason the future is unclear for NatRes is that we have generally succeeded in answering many of the “original” questions from 60 yrs ago (what are sustainable stocking rates on western North American rangelands?), while the current management challenges, about invasive species, restoration, altered disturbance regimes, and climate change, require a broader, more integrative, and more mainstream ecology approach.

    The dilemma NatRes departments face is how to continue training undergrads for traditional wildlife, forestry and range management positions while hiring faculty who are pushing the limits of applied ecological research and can meet current tenure expecations. Maybe this should be the topic of a post of its own…

    • Interesting and valuable perspective. I suppose different universities are more or less far along this convergence you posit. As I briefly described, Maine is pretty far along which is one of the reasons I like it here, and I recall from my visit to you all at Utah State that it seemed far along. But I’ve definitely been to places not so far along in the convergence yet.

      Interesting question about how to maintain the training with faculty research going in a different direction. In the end that is probably not so different from EEB departments where 80% of who we train are pre-med or some other pre-health track, but most of the faculty is far removed from those topics.

      Probably opens a really interesting question of if you could ignore tradition and history and reallocate all the people and resources on campus doing ecology, what would the optimal configuration look like today? I suspect it would probably look like one large ecology department (although that doesn’t solve where to put people doing organismal or integrative biology if the molecular cellular biology is split off). Certainly in a world of tightening resources, deans are wondering why undergrad ecology is taught in as many as 3 or 4 different departments.

  5. In addition to what’s on the walls, NRC is also more likely to have interesting bits squirreled away…like the table we currently use as a surface for undergrad materials which secretly contains a stash of hundreds (thousands?) of fish scales…or the various megafauna that were unearthed last summer when one of the basement freezers broke (you don’t even want to imagine the smell!).

    I will say generally though, that junior faculty (myself included) in my NRC department are much more basic research focused than senior faculty. We are all going after NSF etc., although I think the broader impacts bits are a little easier for us all. So, I agree with Peter above – the trend in NRC in my experience is to hire folks who do exciting research with some application…not so much ‘applied’ research per se.

  6. One of my favorite things about my master’s program (Field Naturalist & Ecological Planning) at UVM was that our funding was split — half of the students were technically in Natural Resources (Ecological Planning) and half in Biology (Field Naturalist). I was funded through Natural Resources and got much better (more interesting!) TA-ships including the field-based Intro to Natural Resources, Ecosystem Management (a cool science/policy interdisciplinary course) and Statistics (required for all NR undergrads and extremely well-taught). Otherwise, I got the best of both worlds — all the Field Naturalists and Ecological Planners shared course work, office space, access to advisors (my advisor was actually on the Field Naturalist side), comprehensive exams (I took the Field Naturalist version of the exam), and, outside of school, our social lives overlapped completely. I loved my cohort, I loved my program, and I loved the ability to be both EEB and NatRes. Now, as a phd student, I’m just plain old EEB and I definitely miss the variety.

  7. You wrote, “One is in an EEB or Biology department inside of a College of Science (or on a smaller campus a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences).” Clearly I am on a smaller campus, then, because here at UMich, EEB is in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.🙂

    • Ha little old U Michigan with 45,000 students, one of the largest in the world. Seriously though, your Dean must have a huge number of faculty to supervise.

      • When I’m at college events and people talk about their research, the diversity of research foci always really impresses me. It’s really neat!

  8. Yup, rings true. Interestingly, the U of Minnesota was recently considering a merger of the College of Biological Science (home of EEB) and the College of [take a deep breath] Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (itself the result of a merger). The timing was good politically because both deans were retiring, but the exploratory committee ended up recommending against because “a merger focusing on just these two colleges would fall short of what is needed to realize the scientific promise and societal implications of the “new biology””, among other reasons.

  9. Sorry to be late to the party on this post. I was trained in an EEB department but got a job in a NatRes, and you NAILED IT, for which I’m grateful – it’s often very hard for people to get the difference between the two. One thing I disagree with though, or at least is not as true here at UF, is the funding. It’s true that when it was rare for faculty to go after NSF funding, but in the 12 years since we have hired plenty of faculty that see NSF as a (or even the) major funding source for the type of work they do (tropical ecology and international conservation, spatial ecology, quantitative population biology, conservation genetics). The cuts in NSF funding rates have therefore hit those of us in that group really hard – it’s our primary source of student support. My guess is this is may be true in other places where NatRes departments have hired faculty that would have felt just at home in either NatRes/Conservation Biology or EEB departments.

    As an aside, I don’t think I agree with everything in Peter Adler’s comment above, but I absolutely agree with the last paragraph (the tension between student training needs and the research interests of many of the faculty) – it’s an issue I definitely see emerging in in our department. I like his suggestion, go write a post about it!

    Thanks for this – I think it’s important to consider these differences as we engage in discussions about how we think NSF and other agencies should respond to the changing financial landscape (e.g., your earlier and thought-provoking post on frog-boiling: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/are-us-researchers-slowly-boiled-frogs-or-thinking-out-of-the-box-about-the-future-of-nsf/)

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