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?