Recently, we invited readers to ask us anything. Here are our answers to the next question. Questions are paraphrased for brevity, click the links for the original versions.
What’s an “early career” ecologist? Do grad students count? Is it defined by career stage, or years post-PhD? If it’s years post-PhD, how do you justify a particular cutoff? (from Margaret Kosmala)
Jeremy: I think it’s a gradient, although there can be firm cutoffs in some contexts.
One area in which firm cutoffs are needed is for purposes of award eligibility, such as the George Mercer Award, the Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award, and the Waterman award. The cutoffs for such awards sometimes reflect the history and purpose of the award. For instance, the YIA has a cutoff of 3 years post-PhD because Jasper Loftus-Hills was killed by a hit-and-run driver 3 years post-PhD. Personally, I think it’s completely fine for an award eligibility cutoff to reflect the history and purpose of the award, and to vary between awards. I don’t see anything inherently right or wrong about cutoffs based on age vs. years post-PhD. And since any cutoff has a bit of arbitrariness to it, I think any reasonable cutoff is fine and doesn’t need any particular justification.
Meg: Yes, I agree that it’s a gradient. A few years ago, I got emails on the same day, one referring to me as “early career”, and one referring to me as an “established” scientist. And a couple of years ago, I assumed I’d been emailed in error because the email referred to me as a senior faculty member. Like Jeremy said in his response to Margaret’s original question, it was an adjustment to stop thinking of myself as junior or early career!
In my opinion, grad students are definitely early career ecologists. I’m actually surprised by the question — what else would they be? (That is a genuine question.)
I think that having a certain cutoff based on years post-PhD makes sense in many contexts, though the number of years will likely vary depending on the context and is probably going to always be a little arbitrary. However, one thing I think we need to pay attention to is the need to sometimes extend those deadlines. One thing I did as Chair of the Aquatic Ecology section at ESA was change the rules for our awards to allow for extensions to the cutoff for the birth or adoption of a child or for other extenuating life circumstances.
As Jeremy said, sometimes the age cutoff depends on the specific history or purpose of an award. To that, I’ll add that sometimes it reflects the specifics of the endowment agreement. We sometimes had to check on that before giving the Aquatic Section awards (e.g., when an undergrad was nominated for a grad award) to be sure we weren’t violating the agreement.