Ask Us Anything: the demand for field biologists

A while back, we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next three interrelated questions, from Jeff Hean plus a related fourth question from Andy Park:

  1. Why are biologists paid so little compared to other fields of science and the private sector?
  2. Why do the majority of advertised research positions, particularly in N. America and Europe, seem to require a modeling component these days? Especially when so much baseline empirical data still needs to be collected?
  3. In my personal experience, field biologists don’t make good modelers, and vice-versa. Do field biologists still have a place in ecology, in light of the high demand for young scientists who can “do it all”?
  4. Can we really call someone a biologist if their training has failed to teach them any taxonomic skills whatsoever?

Jeremy’s answers:

1. I may be misunderstanding your question (and if so, I apologize), because I think the premise is false. As a commenter noted, at least in the US academic biologists aren’t paid less than faculty in most other fields of science. As far as I know the same is true in Canada and many other countries. Nor are the differences between academic and private sector salaries particularly great for biologists as compared to academics in other fields, at least not as far as I know. Can you clarify your question?

2. Again, I’m sorry, but your premise is false. The majority of advertised faculty positions do not require (or even mention!) a modeling component. But I’m glad you asked this question, because your perception that academic ecology is being taken over by quantitative types (especially those who don’t collect their own data) is shared by at least a few people. So I spent some effort to prove that it’s a myth. (warning: long answer ahead)

I looked at the ads for all tenure-track faculty positions in ecology and allied fields (e.g., fisheries, wildlife) advertised on the current (2017-18) ecoevojobs.net spreadsheet. I ignored ads that clearly weren’t for ecologists (e.g., computational genomics, systems biology). I only included positions in developed countries, the large majority of which were in the US. I ignored ads for senior positions with primarily administrative duties, like department chairs and field station directors. I included ads at all types of institutions, from large research universities down to small teaching colleges. I omitted positions for which the link to the job ad is now dead. As of this writing (6 Sept. 2017), that gave me 75 positions. I read the entire ad to see what quantitative skills the ad mentioned, if any. I also looked to see if the ad welcomed/encouraged/required applicants to collect their own data, including positions that required expertise in taxonomy/systematics (as for collections-based positions). Ads indicate that applicants are welcome/encouraged/required to collect their own data in various ways, for instance by stating that the successful applicant will be expected to teach field courses, by listing nearby habitats, and/or by highlighting the availability of facilities such as field stations and greenhouses.

Only 40% of the ads mention some sort of quantitative skill, the most common one being the ability to teach introductory biostats. 64% welcome/encourage/require applicants who collect their own data. Drilling down further, only 19% of ads explicitly mention some sort of quantitative skill without also welcoming/encouraging/requiring applicants to collect their own data (which doesn’t necessarily mean that those ads discourage applicants who collect their own data, of course). That’s as compared to 43% of ads that welcome/encourage/require applicants to collect their own data without mentioning any quantitative skills at all. 21% of ads both mention a quantitative skill and welcome/encourage/require collection of one’s own data; 17% of ads (mostly teaching positions) do neither. Drilling down further still, at most 21% (16) of the ads require the successful applicant to have strong quantitative skills not part of the training of most PhD-holding ecologists (I say “at most” because some of these ads are vague as to exactly what level of quantitative skill is required). Six of those 16 also welcome/encourage/require applicants who collect their own data. Those 16 ads include several positions in quantitative fisheries stock assessment (a long-established, distinct subfield that’s always been highly quantitative), several ads for “large scale” ecologists who know spatial statistics, a couple of ads requiring bioinformatic skills, several broad ads that require “strong quantitative skills” without further elaboration, and a few others (e.g., an animal population ecology ad inviting applicants who know advanced statistical methods like Bayesian state space modeling). Finally, keep in mind that the large majority of teaching-only positions for which the ads that don’t explicitly mention either quantitative skills or collection of one’s own data are going to end up getting filled by field ecologists. Small teaching colleges mostly expect their ecology faculty to take their students outside, even if their job ads don’t explicitly say so. Finally, before anyone asks, no, ads requiring strong quantitative skills do not dominate the ads from R1 universities. It’s not the case that prestigious, research-intensive universities are only hiring quantitative ecologists who rely on the data of others, and only less-prestigious teaching-focused institutions are hiring field ecologists who collect their own data.

Look, I understand why it might seem like getting a faculty job in ecology these days requires stronger quantitative skills than most ecologists have. I’m sure there are more positions advertised these days that require some level of statistical expertise than used to be the case (although frankly it’s been a long time since you could expect to obtain a faculty position in ecology or an allied field without knowing any statistics!) And I’m sure that, as a field ecologist searching for a faculty position in a competitive job market, it’s frustrating whenever you see an ad for a position requiring more quantitative skills than you have, and I’m sure those ads stick in your mind. Back when I was searching for my first faculty job, I too got frustrated at how few adverts seemed to be a good fit for me–except in my case, it was because so many seemed to encourage or require field-based research!

So take heart! Quantitative methods haven’t actually taken over the ecology faculty job market, and indeed they’re nowhere close to doing so.

See here for further evidence that ecologists with quantitative skills who don’t collect their own data aren’t crowding out other sorts of ecologists.

3. Yes, obviously there’s still a place for field ecologists in ecology! A large one! As evidenced by, among other things, the demand for field ecologists in the faculty job market (see above). Or, if you prefer anecdata, consider the career histories of the people who write this blog. Meghan was hired at Michigan in part because she is a “muddy boots” field ecologist. Conversely, Brian struggled for years to land a faculty position despite his considerable quantitative skills, in part because universities thought–incorrectly–that he wouldn’t be able to teach field courses. And I almost quit science after struggling to land a faculty position. One reason I struggled, despite having my share of statistical and mathematical modeling skills, was the correct perception on the part of search committees that I was not a field ecologist and unlikely to develop into a field ecologist. But honestly, by far the biggest reason anyone struggles to land a faculty position is because there are many more people who want faculty positions than there are faculty positions. It’s not easy out there for anyone, no matter whether they have serious quantitative chops or not. I sympathize with everyone who would like a faculty position and may not get one, and you should too. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because it’s difficult on the faculty job market for people with your skills and interests, it must be easy for people with different skills and interests. (For instance, spare a thought for ecological theoreticians! Those 75 job ads I checked only included three that even mentioned “theory”, and none that required a theoretical approach.) As to why there are so many people chasing so few faculty positions, whether in biology or in any other field (and why so many people are chasing so few government/NGO positions in conservation biology), I think there are various factors. As Brian says below, it ultimately comes down to supply and demand. But there are various determinants of the supply and the demand.

4. Ok, I know that you’re probably asking about the concerns raised by Tewksbury et al. 2014. But presumably without intending to, I’m afraid you phrased your question in a way that really bugs me. Because I don’t have any significant taxonomic training. As you can probably imagine, I don’t appreciate the implication that I’m not really a biologist, despite all evidence to the contrary. (I have a BA in Biology, a PhD in Ecology & Evolution, I’m a tenured professor in a university Biological Sciences department, etc.) So I’m going to give you a rather longer, different, and more ranty answer than I imagine you wanted. Sorry.

Your question is an instance of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (Flew 1971):

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

No true biologist lacks taxonomic skills for the same reason that no true Scotsman ever commits a brutal crime. By the same token, no true biologist lacks strong quantitative skills. No true biologist lacks computer programming skills. No true biologist doesn’t understand experimental design. No true biologist lacks the ability to read, write, and speak a second language. And so on. No true biologist lacks any skill that might be thought essential for a true biologist.

In other words, there aren’t any true biologists. There are merely biologists.

As taxonomists should know better than anyone, species don’t have essences. Neither do biologists (well, unless you count something trivial like “biologists study living organisms”). There’s more than one way to be a biologist, and there is no essential skill for a biologist that any biologist has not been trained in. Rather, there are lots of skills that are very useful to any biologist who has them, and that it’s essential for some biologists to have.

There are hard trade-offs involved in training future biologists. There are only so many hours in a day, or years in an undergraduate or graduate program. Time spent teaching people to do X is time not spent teaching them to do Y. I’d like to see more serious conversations about those hard trade-offs. Not only what should we teach more of, but what should we teach less of. But a hard conversation about trade-offs in undergraduate and graduate curricula has to start with an appreciation of, and respect for, the full diversity of actually-existing biologists. That’s because everybody understands the value and importance of their own skills, but most likely doesn’t fully appreciate the value and importance of other people’s skills. To have a sensible conversation about trade-offs in curricula, you need to know the benefits and costs of all the options, and you can only learn that by combining the perspectives of different people.

So by all means argue for the view that not enough of today’s biology students get enough taxonomic training for the good of biology as a whole. I’m not sure I’d agree; in this old post I argue that the vast majority of ecologists have sufficient taxonomic training and knowledge of the natural history of their chosen study system to do whatever research they do. But you can make the argument. Just don’t say or imply that you can’t be a biologist without taxonomic training!

Brian: 

  1. Why poor pay? Two words: supply and demand. Fields in academia where people wanting to stay in academia are in short supply (e.g. computer science, law, economics) pay the best. Fields in academia where people have almost no choice but to stay (history, political science, literature) pay the worst. Biology frankly is in the middle. Another aspect of supply is that for whatever reason, I am convinced it is societal and not innate, people who are willing to do mathy things are in shorter supply. So fields like computer science, statistics, economics pay better. Again biology is intermediate. The notion that professions pay based on how much training is required, how deserving the field is, or that we should all be paid equally are nice (and probably true) but aren’t relevant to reality.
  2. Why are most advertised jobs requiring a modelling component? You’re joking right? Actually I’m sure you’re not. But I can assure you it only feels that way perhaps because that is the piece you’re missing. In my experience (and I’ve gone on the tenure track job market three times), there are three kinds of positions. Ones that advertise quantitative only – these are about 10%. Ones that advertise a strong field component (30%?), and the ones that look neutral or say “all subdisciplines” considered but these almost always have fairly real hidden requirements for field work if only because hiring committees are mostly field ecologists who relate best to other field ecologists. Now if we’re talking about postdoc ads, I think you might be closer to the truth. This is partly because of the nature of postdoc (see separate ask us anything post in this batch). But that might not be as bad as it sounds – believe me you don’t want a postdoc that has you in the field 6 months a year due to its impact on your ability to write papers. But the many postdoc ads seeking quantitative skills are also because of all the field ecologists who got hired are trying to extend themselves by hiring a postdoc with more quantitative skills
  3. Do field biologists have a future? Yes. Of course. We need all aspects of science to advance as a field. I don’t have much truck for my way is the only way to do science.
  4. Can you be a biologist without taxonomy skills? I’m not sure what level of skills you’re talking. Do you mean able to write monographs on a genus or family? Or identify new species? Or identify from memory 1000s of species of beetles? No, that is way too much work to get to that point to expect of all biologists. Or do you mean able to identify several dozen species in their system? I do a fair amount of tree ecology and in the temperate world 40 or so species will get you every species you will ever run into in your study site. Personally, I think that amount of taxonomic skill is needed but not much more. Of course that’s not a very high bar and a lot of people who wouldn’t even call themselves biologists can do that. I can train a good undergraduate up to that level in a day.

A common theme through all these questions is absolute thinking about what skills are needed. There are no absolute skills needed. An ecologist just needs to be good enough in enough areas to be competitive on the job market. Nobody does it all. And there is no one sine qua non skill. None. Nada. And that’s a good thing for the progress of the field. We need all types of skills. If we study complementarity of niches in ecosystems, why wouldn’t we see that as a benefit in researchers? My advice is focus on what you enjoy and are good at, be open to new learning, and do good work. You’ll be fine. And so will the field.

20 thoughts on “Ask Us Anything: the demand for field biologists

  1. On taxonomic training: my argument has always been that I think all biologists should take a course in the taxonomy/organismal biology of some group of organisms. Might be entomology, might be ornithology, might be spongology. Once you’ve seen how to attack the diversity (including identification and classification) of one group, you’re well positioned later in your career to tackle another. I really don’t care at all which group students study (which is probably why my Entomology course has 6 students, despite the fact that insects are clearly and objectively the COOLEST CRITTERS EVER). As long as they do one!

    • And yet, here I sit, despite the fact that I never did that. Indeed, as an undergrad I actively avoided taking a course many of my friends were taking, that would’ve obliged me to learn the local tree species. It seemed to me like straight memorization, which I hate.

      The trouble with saying that every student should take a course in X because it’ll be cool and it’ll set them up to learn more about X down the road is that it holds for all X. And there are only so many hours in the day.

      A slightly different argument, which I haven’t seen made, is for extreme generalism at the undergraduate level. For instance, don’t let biology majors specialize on any subject within biology. Oblige them all to take some taxonomy, some biochemistry, some cell biology, some genomics, some ecology, some evolutionary biology, etc. And not just in first year, but in their upper level courses. Obviously, this would constrain their ability to get to an advanced level in any topic, but that would be the point. The argument would be that knowing about any and all of these topics is potentially useful to you down the road, so you should be obliged to “hedge your bets” rather than being allowed to specialize based on risky predictions about what topics will turn out to be most important to you in future.

      The counterargument to this is that everybody needs to start specializing at some point. For instance that’s why we let students major in a specialized subject like biology, rather than having to take classes in all topics like in high school.

    • While I agree with Jeremy that there is no must, I also agree with Steve that that is about the right level of preparation in taxonomy for somebody who isn’t going to be a taxonomist and what I recommend to my own undergrad advisees.

  2. Despite I am very pro taxonomic training, I agree with Jeremy. We had the same argument about an obligate “animal anatomy course” which involves dissecting invertebrates, fish and mices, which some people see as essential for every biologist and I am not. I guess you can have this argument for a lot of different courses, especially as biology is a really broad field.

    I would think, there are enough great biologist who work e.g with Arabidopsis who probably would not recognize it in the wild (mindly exaggerated 😉 ).

  3. Concerning the list of questions and your thoughtful responses, I was curious if there might be a disconnect between the two? I did not see anything in the questions that suggested these topics were limited to faculty positions. Truth be told, when it comes to any of the physical sciences, faculty gigs are but a microcosm of the available job pool for those with PhDs- including research positions. Additionally, in the private sector, once a person has maybe 4 to 6 years of experience and an MS degree they are often promoted to a PI-equivalent status and remain there for the duration of their career. Thus, it might be somewhat of a bias on your part to exclude persons with MS degrees from your analysis.

    I raise these issues because recently I organized a monthly ecology speaker series. So far anyway, all of the speakers for this program had PhDs and were from the private sector. Based upon their presentations, it seemed rather obvious that modeling was a skill they possessed and used frequently. These people also had significant field ecology duties associated with their positions. Thus it could be that the job descriptions for ecology faculty differ significantly from those for research positions in the private sector. Given the private sector employs far more ecologists than academia, it might be useful to sample the grass on the other side of the fence…

    • “I did not see anything in the questions that suggested these topics were limited to faculty positions. ”

      If you click the link and look at the original wording, you’ll see that the first question contrasts “biologists” with people in other fields of science and the private sector, making clear that the question is about salaries for academic biologists vs. other STEM academics vs. private sector biologists. The same questioner’s second question begins by noting that he’s a postdoc doing field research. In light of all that context, it’s safe to assume that the first three questions, all of which are from the same questioner, are about the job market in academic biology/ecology (as contrasted with the private sector job market in the case of the first question).

      We have various old guest posts from ecologists who switched to various private sector jobs, and the skills needed for those jobs (e.g., https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/a-career-as-an-environmental-consultant-guest-post/). I’d say it’s very sector- and job-specific. For instance, many lower-level environmental consulting positions in Alberta require the ability to sample and identify plants and animals. That’s because oil companies and other firms are required to produce environmental impact statements on their proposed activities in order to get permits, and those impact statements have to include data on the flora and fauna that might be impacted. My impression is that the quantitative skills required for those sorts of positions are fairly basic, though I’m sure it varies. Higher-level environmental consulting positions certainly require more statistical and programming skills. But of course there are many other lines of work ecologists might go into besides environmental consulting or working as a scientist for a conservation NGO. We have a guest post from a PhD ecologist who went on to become a data scientist for a company in Silicon Valley, which of course requires much stronger statistical and programming skills than the typical ecologist has. And a former PhD student of mine went on to join a quantitative business consulting firm in Toronto.

    • Plus I did address postdocs and acknowledged they were a bit different (in terms of job advertisements but not in any fundamental way)

  4. Hi Jeremy; let me ask a slightly different question. In this blog and in a few papers you make a large deal about ZOMBIE IDEAS in ecology [ IDH ] and one theme is that to avoid them requires careful thinking about models [ assumptions, etc]…, aka math skills.
    My own experience is that some minimum level of math skills really is necessary to understand , say, evolutionary ecology…ESS, optimization models, etc.. .[ Forget statistics ]. Maybe its my fisheries PhD, but i really dont see how ANY ecologist can avoid math at least at the level of a full yr of calculus. Of course its best to learn the math in the context of ecological problems; this is what fisheries does. Including computer modeling.

    • “i really dont see how ANY ecologist can avoid math at least at the level of a full yr of calculus” I’m currently surveying my Intro Bio students to see how much math they think is required for ecology, evolution, and genetics. I suspect (based on a small pilot we ran last year and based on my general perception) that they will think genetics requires more math than evolution which requires more math than ecology. I’ve been thinking it could be interesting to see what ecologists think both in terms of how much math is needed relative to evolution & genetics and in terms of the way you framed it — e.g., how many years of calculus are needed to be a practicing ecologist.

      • I actually prefer the sort of class Fred Adler has developed at U Utah [ biology and math depts] that teaches ‘useful math’ for ecology and evolution undergrads. He has developed a text for this; dont recall the publisher.
        My choice of ‘one yr calculus’ is sort of a level of knowledge, not a topic; best to skip the rigor of traditional calculus classes, and cut to the chase of physiology /ecology/evolution problems that need math for insights.
        My own teaching experience is that level of math is not the main issue, with the real barrier being students seeing how to translate the biology problem into a math problem, aka modelling . Using cute ecology/evolution/animal-behavior problems to teach this skill often really grabs their attention.

      • I believe this debate really comes down to the goals of any particular curriculum. Often that involves a choice between “we want them to do this” v. “we want them to understand this”.

        Having earned advanced degrees in ecology and chemistry, I can easily point to examples of each from both sets of curricula. When I took a limnology course, they wanted me to understand the ecology of lakes and rivers… which required that I could do some chemistry (pH, alkalinity, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc). I was taught how to take those measurements in the field, but there was no underlying chemical theory involved. Alternatively, I was required to understand the theoretical underpinnings of limnology. I once took a biochemistry course geared toward medical professionals. All of the chemical concepts presented were applied principles of medicine with no theory presented. When I took a graduate course in standard biochemistry it was almost entirely theoretical.

        As it concerns mathematics, even though I had lots of algebra, geometry, calculus and statistics- I almost never encountered the teaching theoretical aspects of math (statistics was an exception). While calculus teaches some of the basics of derivation, it is not sufficient in many cases, as Jeremy mentions. Early in my career I had no interest in deriving formulas or modeling systems. Now, that is pretty much all I do- and, I had to teach myself how to do it. That was painful, I assure you.

        I frequently find myself wishing I had a boatload more mathematics during my years and years of being a student. So I would lean in the direction of requiring significantly more math-based education in ecology.

      • My overly general assessment is that most undergrads go into ecology because they think it doesn’t have any math. But most ecology grad students really, really wish they had more math. I don’t know if that leaves you serving the 5%(?) that go into advanced studies, or the 95% or don’t. Or if you think the grad students know more about the whole field even for those who don’t go into graduate studies.

        And I agree with Ric. Outsourcing calculus is our biggest problem with math acceptance. We have several blog posts around this topic. I have a post (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/what-math-should-ecologists-teach/) where I suggest a specific set of math topics that includes elements of calculus and linear algebra and statistics that can be covered in a year long sequence if we teach it ourselves instead of farming out to a generic course and so don’t let the mathematicians teach limits and intermediate value theorems for mathematicians and advanced trigonometric integrals for physicists and …

      • Anecdata broadly supporting Brian and Ric’s point about the problem being outsourcing of calculus teaching: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/my-ug-students-react-to-e-o-wilson-on-math-in-biology/

        Though I would note that in my experience a subset of ecology undergrads are aware that ecology involves more math than some other branches of biology and get into ecology in part for that reason. They’re the subset who like to think more abstractly and conceptually and who see many other branches of biology as just a lot of memorization.

    • I completely agree that there are chunks of biology that are quite difficult to understand, and quite difficult to do empirical research on without making any serious mistakes, if you don’t know some mathematics. But those chunks aren’t all of biology. And even there, just knowing some math might be sufficient for some purposes. For instance, I’ve published papers on topics on which I only know enough math to get the gist of the relevant theory. I can’t actually follow the derivations in any detail.

    • I echo Jeremy’s initial comments on there being lots of types of ecologists. In the last twenty years I can think of only one occasion when knowledge of calculus was relevant to my work, and I collaborated with a mathematician who did the maths. It would be great to be better at statistical modelling, but I’ve never felt the need for knowledge of calculus.

    • IMO at some level X courses in math should be required for any and every *science* degree. IMO Calc I & II, stats and linear algebra seem like the important ones. These courses give people the fundamental skills to understand all basic science.

  5. Just a reminder that jobs for biologists and ecologists extend outside of academia and into the offices and field, such as in federal and state agencies. I left academia to work with USFWS, where many hats are worn, and collaborations are born. In addition to applied biology and ecology, research is also conducted with a variety of other public agencies, university institutions, and the private sector. Just left a meeting today at which the assistant director of the state DEC is a biologist and statistician, and conducts his own studies in the field. And we all know our taxonomy. 😉

    For me, this work has been more productive and rewarding than academia. Public agency positions are another avenue for graduates who desire diversity and a different balance of field and quantitative research than academia typically provides.

  6. @Macrobe – Fully agree! I guess some of the context in the original question that didn’t get copied over here led Jeremy & I to both assume we were talking about academic positions. But I absolutely agree. I’ve had the good fortune to work with colleagues in and have students go into a wide variety of those positions (state federal, USGS, USFWS etc). Anybody who is unaware that there is tip-top research happening in those places is missing out.

    And I would venture the same basic principal applies. Some of those positions you need to be especially strong at taxonomy. Some of them especially strong at quantitative skills. Some molecular skills etc. But there is nothing everybody has to be expert at (although some government jobs do have specific requirements on undergrad courses that tend to lead to a more diversely trained individual).

  7. The latest posdoc position at the lab where I’m a posdoc was for a field ecologist with exprience in plant identification – and we’re talking tropical forest plants. (The person selected is a woman who had recently had a child, so good new for gender equality here!) I also have two other friends who had worked or are working a lot in the field for their posdocs, and I once applied for a posdoc which required both field experience and data analysis skills.

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