Guest post: Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in US government science, in light of the recent government shutdown

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Jim Grace, who has worked in both academia and US federal science. It was written last week, during the then-ongoing US government shutdown, which is why the post refers to the “ongoing” shutdown. Thank you to Jim for sharing his personal views.

If you’re interested in this post, you might also want to have a look at our previous guest post from NOAA’s Wendy Morrison on a career as a US government scientist.

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Jeremy, thanks for inviting me to post on the topic of, “Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in government science, in light of the ongoing shutdown.”

I think that rather than give a long narrative, I will try to offer some nuggets for folks to consider. I will point out that this is challenging for me because I respect that there can be many exceptions to any generalization. To narrow things a bit, I will admit that my advice is aimed towards folks considering US Federal positions, since this is the domain I know the most about. Also, very relevant to what I say below, I am confining my thoughts for people in permanent positions. The business of being in a non-permanent position comes with a whole different set of concerns that can override the points I make below (as true in academic positions as in non-academic ones). As the reader who sticks with the post will find out, my advice is not heavily focused on the current shutdown, but is intended as a more general set of points.

Nugget #1: I think federal science positions tend to have a bit of a different appeal from the appeal of academic positions. There ends up being perhaps more overlap in the jobs than one might initially imagine. However, in my experience, the question young scientists are often considering is, “Do I want to work in the academic environment, where the focus is on my colleagues, or do I want to work at the interface between investigation and application and in the community of people involved in that enterprise?”

I find young federal scientists to have a great deal of excitement about the significance of their work. At the same time, there is also an awareness of the challenges of being more on the front line. By front line I mean you are commonly in the field or in meetings with people who have to make decisions or provide potentially usable advice (in this context, for managing the nation’s natural resources). This is an environment where you may be challenged to explain why the science you are interested in should be a priority. In this environment, you don’t control the conversation, though you certain can and should be able to make important contributions. So, if you choose the federal science environment, (1) your research interests need to align with the topics you will be asked to work on in the position and (2) you already need to be adaptable as to exactly what you work on because priorities shift. The reward is, your contributions get built right into the institutional knowledge of the folks you are working shoulder to shoulder with. When the problems being addressed are hard ones, there is often a considerable amount of strenuous debate about priorities and action choices. You may end up frustrated sometimes, but often you find that your work makes a difference in the world beyond its influence on other scientists.

Nugget #2: It seems that a central point of this post may be to get at the question of job satisfaction. A great deal has to do with how well you match up with the position. So, I would ask the inquiring individual, “Tell me in general terms what kind of position you are looking for or looking at and how well that matches the advertised jobs you are seeing.” I would have a follow up question for them as well: “How adaptable are you?”

My observation is that our young scientists usually match up with their jobs quite well and they seem to be generally satisfied with their situations (which means their situation matches their expectations). As a result, I think that at least in the short-term, ecologists will find lots to like in federal science positions.

In my experience, the real challenges come from major changes to your work environment, the personnel around you (e.g., heads of departments and programs), and even your agency’s mission during the course of your career. This is where disillusionment comes in most commonly, in my experience. I see more dissatisfied mid-career scientists than any other group (not that the percentage is high in absolute terms). I would probably go so far as to advise anyone considering a career in federal science to anticipate at least one major change in direction or situation in your career.

Sometimes the changes make logical sense, for example, being hired to work on an endangered species that is your research passion, then finding the support for the work to dry up when the species is taken off the Endangered Species List. Other times the changes are the result of some poorly thought out ideas by new leaders wanting to make their mark on the organization. Regardless, you are going to need two traits to maintain your morale, (a) an ability to adapt to the new priorities and (b) an ability to focus on the productive role you can play in the new situation (and not get caught up in “what should be”).

In my case, I have transitioned from a focus on wetland ecology, to prairie ecology, to fire ecology, to invasive species ecology, to quantitative analysis methodology. The big surprise for me in my position has been how quickly the science priorities (and availability of resources) can change. I feel I am well suited to all this because I love to learn new topics and I also expect to have to adapt to a changing environment.

Relating back to the “What are you looking for?” bit, I think that one important variable is people’s answer to the question, “What do you want to get out of a life in science?” This is a very personal piece of the puzzle. It is certainly true that as a tenured professor at a university (the position I left, in my case), I had more autonomy and self-determination. It is also true in my particular case that the most important things I have done in science were motivated by the challenges of creating scientific tools that work in the real world. I have also gotten to work on a huge variety of very cool systems and research problems. No complaints from me on that end.

Nugget #3: My final point would be, “Your ultimate satisfaction with your job and your life will be heavily dependent on your accumulated self-management skills.”  Being content and staying productive are things you learn how to do, not something that comes from your situation. I can think of many cases in universities, involving my former professors and my colleagues, where institutional changes (e.g., a shift in focus away from their disciplines or changes in administrators) led to their departures and even their abrupt retirements. There is probably no work environment where one is immune to major administrative changes and I have observed that these are the most difficult challenges folks face during their careers.

For me, the government shutdown is a sad reflection of dysfunctionality in our society. That said, I don’t find it to have changed my feelings about being in federal science or my job satisfaction. It certainly does not change my advice for a young scientist considering a career in federal science. Rather, I find it to be a reminder that I work on the front line where things are messy, but where determination and adaptability has an observable long-term effect.

11 thoughts on “Guest post: Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in US government science, in light of the recent government shutdown

  1. Thanks Jeremy for the invitation to do a guest post. I was a very interesting process to contemplate the question and the contemplation took me to some places I didn’t originally expect.

      • I discussed my advice with a couple of younger scientists I know yesterday and was pleased that both had similar thoughts. No doubt that individual circumstances vary a lot, however. I am hoping to hear what folks’ find surprising, so I better understand people’s perceptions of the situations (whether derived from the media or from other people they know). Either sooner or later, Jeremy, I would like to know what you found surprising, perhaps that these shutdowns (this is the 5th one I have experienced, the first 2 during the Clinton Administration) are not the biggest challenges?

        Hoping to hear from folks. The right question might make me revise my advice!

      • I was slightly surprised for what in retrospect is a silly reason. Dan Drezner (political scientist focusing on international relations) wrote a column during the shutdown in which he said he’d changed his mind about advising young people to go work for the State Dept. during the current administration. He used to argue it was a great time to go into government service; now he thinks it’s a bad time. I think I subconsciously overgeneralized from that column. So I expected you to discourage young people from going into government science, at least during the current administration.

        What surprised you about your own views as you reflected on them?

  2. The main thing was to realize how the less-than-satisfied federal scientists I know are all mid or later career folks who have encountered major changes in their situations from what they originally signed on for and not be able to fully adapt. Some of the changes are very hard to adapt to (programs funding their work go away). Some examples are folks I would argue are not well suited to their positions as they never really grew into the jobs they accepted.

    Secondary to that. I thought back to all the university folks I know who became very unhappy in their jobs, usually because of some higher-level change. I don’t know how common an experience that is, but I know there were lots of such cases I have seen, especially earlier in my career.

  3. Now that the government has reopened, I have an upcoming [rescheduled] interview for a permanent ecologist position. I was expecting to read this and walk away feeling a bit saddened by the current state of affairs. In fact, I read it and felt encouraged and even more excited about the potential position for which I am interviewing. This post was very timely and I am very grateful for the advice. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful piece! I think this point is really important and a bit of a hard one to learn.

    “My final point would be, “Your ultimate satisfaction with your job and your life will be heavily dependent on your accumulated self-management skills.” Being content and staying productive are things you learn how to do, not something that comes from your situation.”

    Obviously, there are exceptions, such as toxic environments, etc. For me, having a few good collaborators, near and far, makes makes a huge difference in my ability to be content and productive in my job.

    • Maya, I definitely agree with your point about toxic environments. Maybe as a more general piece of advice for young scientists (and all of us), your point about the value of collaborators and colleagues is one that deserves amplification. I didn’t think of that one, perhaps because it is not uniquely tied to federal science, but it is such an important point it should be right up there at the top of any set of advice.

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