Ask us anything: what’s an “early career” ecologist?

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.


6 thoughts on “Ask us anything: what’s an “early career” ecologist?

  1. “In my opinion, grad students are definitely early career ecologists. Iā€™m actually surprised by the question ā€” what else would they be?”

    The ESA Early Career Award does not consider students to be “early career”. They’re just students. Pre-career, I guess. (ESA’s definition — PhD to 8 years post-PhD — is part of what made me wonder if the definition is fixed or fluid.) I’ll also point out that ESA has an Early Career Section distinct from the Student Section. I don’t know if many students belong to both, but I doubt it. I considered myself “early career” in the last years of being a grad student; it was weird to realize that others didn’t consider me so.

    “to allow for extensions to the cutoff for the birth or adoption of a child or for other extenuating life circumstances”

    I think this is super important. But it not only has be to allowable policy, it also has to be stated up front so people don’t avoid nomination or self-nomination because they think they’re not included. I had a kid 5 months after defending and was pretty much out of the race for all the 1-2 year post-PhD awards and grants. Many women are in that position, and I don’t think it’s generally on the radar how much hard cut-offs (without extensions) hurt bio mom scientists.

    • Oh, interesting. I didn’t realize that. I guess I should have guessed based on there being a student section and an early career section, but it hadn’t occurred to me!

      • Regarding your second point: we announce the extension on the Aquatic Ecology website, along with the criteria for the awards. I agree that it needs to be advertised!

    • In my head, you’re early career until you’re ineligible for the Mercer Award.

      I’m no longer eligible for the Mercer, so I figure that makes me mid-career. So now I’m wondering how old I have to be before I’m a “senior” ecologist. I’m thinking 97. šŸ™‚

      • Ps yes I know an age based definition of career stage doesn’t always make sense outside the context of the Mercer award. What can I say? My preferred definition of “early career” is “whichever one keeps me feeling young as long as possible”.ā˜ŗ

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