- Why are biologists paid so little compared to other fields of science and the private sector?
- 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?
- 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”?
- Can we really call someone a biologist if their training has failed to teach them any taxonomic skills whatsoever?
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!
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.