Sunday, August 3, 2014

On being a wildlife ecologist

Doing anything worthwhile is a challenging undertaking.  In short, it's hard to accomplish, and somehow it's secretly designed to test every fiber of your being.  Your willpower, your dedication, your persistence, your stubbornness.  And when you think you have nothing left to help you carry on, it asks for more.  Trust me, I know.

When I first started down this road of becoming a wildlife ecologist at the tender age of 19, I had eyes only for the glory, those Wild Kingdom moments of excitement, the adventure, the natural world, and those amazing animals living on this one, beautiful planet.  In short, these are the moments I envisaged:

But what I've learned in the intervening years is it's damn hard.  You don't just become a scientist, scholar, and field biologist, you become a Jack of All Trades to accomplish important research.  You become a mentor to those beginning down a similar path, you become a mediator between natural resource stakeholders with often very different points of view, you become an advocate for wildlife and wild places, you become a teacher, and a lifelong disciple of learning.

This dream is not an easy one, and at times you may despair.  There are the things you aren't told about, such as the sacrifice of being away from loved ones, sometimes for extended periods.  There's often repeated failure, drudgery, long hours, days, and months in front of a computer screen.  There's rejection, there's more rejection, and wait...still more rejection. The broad field of Biology is highly competitive, and there are many different aspects you can choose to focus a career on.  If pursuing a wildlife career, broadly those aspects are:  management, teaching and research (typically academic), and private sector (consulting).  I've chosen to tailor my career towards research and academia, with some time spent in management.  But each of you will need to decide which area best fits your personal goals and personality.

Not every wildlife ecologist will choose to pursue an advanced degree, but the majority of individuals in wildlife management hold a Master's degree, with some holding doctorates.  In academia, those conducting research typically hold doctorates, and range from postdoctoral researchers to non-tenured and tenured faculty.  Teaching interests and teaching responsibilities for these individuals run the gamut from none to a full teaching load.  In fact, some academics with doctorates only teach, and do not engage in research activities.

For those pursuing advanced degrees, prepare for the long haul!  Be steadfast and persistent.  My doctorate took 7.5 years from start to finish, only slightly longer than average in the Biological Sciences (Jaschik 2012); each doctorate is unique to the candidate.  I had numerous challenges on my project, including permitting issues, a challenging study species and study area, funding ending before I was finished, and making the decision to teach a full course while writing.  Here is a very useful article from the American Institutes of Research on minority (by ethnicity and gender) groups pursuing a PhD in the STEM fields:  AIR STEM PhD completion, one on women in science Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?, and a longer report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on just what is engendered in the PhD:  So you want to earn a PhD? .   Keep in mind a recent study showed in the STEM fields, that only 55-64% of PhDs are completed by ten years after start, leading to the conclusion that some are never finished (The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market).  Be sure to click the link 'PhD Completion Project' within this article for more information.  Sure, success rates are reported, but why are attrition rates hidden?

Even with successful completion of my PhD, it has taken a year before I was able to move onto the next step in my career, which is this postdoctoral fellowship.  I cannot even tell you how excited I am to be at the University of Alberta in Dr. Stan Boutin's lab!

In the preceding year, I have had to collect unemployment, I've worked two field technician jobs (the sort you usually work as an undergrad or recent graduate), I've worked at the front desk of a hotel, I've been a substitute teacher at a K-12 school district, and I've worked as a reservations/office assistant.  It was a bumpy year to say the least! 

Be unwavering.  Be honest with and true to yourself; keep on dreaming.  In short, this field is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are beyond measure.