Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reader question: An ecologist's education, so far?

Today I received a great email from a reader, Sarah:
 ...I was wondering if you'd be willing to answer some questions about your schooling and what you do concerning ecology. I'm a junior in high school and I'd like to be an ecologist like yourself someday.
I of course replied yes, so she wrote back with questions:
Okay so my first question is just to clear things up for me. You have a PHD but you're still in grad school? How did you get to your current level of education and how long did it take? (ex. went to a 4-year college for bachelors, then back for masters, and PHD... etc.) and another question is what are some pros and cons to ecology? (Just in general, could be about learning about ecology in college or your research.)
First things first. I don't have my Ph.D. yet, but I am working on it. Technically I am a Ph.D. candidate because I have passed my preliminary exams. Being a Ph.D. candidate is kind of like being a presidential candidate- you're in the running but haven't earned the title yet. A Ph.D. candidate describes more specifically the type of graduate student that I am (a graduate student can be anyone pursing a Masters or Ph.D.). When I finish my Ph.D., then I can be called Karina Anirak, Ph.D., or Dr. Karina Anirak.

As far as education goes, here's a brief story of how I got to where I am now. I graduated from high school and went to college where I earned a Bachelor's degree in Biology (that took 4 years). I contemplated graduate school, but was not ready to apply because I wanted to gain more work experience in research or education and use that time to reflect on whether or not I really wanted to go to grad school, and if so, for what. Grad school, in any field, is not something you should do because you don't know what else to do. After graduating from college I spent a few years working, traveling, and thinking about whether or not to go back to school (I read a lot about grad school during that time). Did I really want to do research? If so, what would I study? I decided that I wanted to go to grad school so that I could teach biology and do research at the college level, and for that you need a Ph.D. In ecology it is relatively common for people to skip a Masters degree if they have enough research/work experience when they apply, either from their undergraduate education or experiences after that.

I spent hours upon hours researching different graduate programs in ecology (chronicled here, here, and here). I applied during the 2006-07 academic year and began grad school in fall 2007. Now I'm two and a half years into my program. I have completed all of the necessary coursework, identified a research topic, and collected some preliminary data. I organized a committee of scientists (ecogeofemme has been writing about this process recently) who advise me and approved my research topic in my preliminary exam (aka prelims). I expect that it will take me three and a half more years to finish my data collection, analyze it, and write my dissertation. Six years to complete a Ph.D. in ecology is very normal in the U.S. When I finish my Ph.D., I'm not sure exactly what I'll do, but it is likely that I will spend a few more years 'in training' as a post-doctoral fellow (aka post doc).

Pros and cons of being an ecologist? For me I think it's mostly pros. I wrote a post in 2008 that covers many of them. I loved my biology classes in college and I had great professors. Cons? Most ecologists don't have enormous earning potential compared to other fields requiring similar or fewer years of education, but this is only a problem if for some reason your life plans involve needing to be very wealthy.

My advice to Sarah and other young aspiring ecologists is to learn how to learn in whatever classes you take. Figure out how you learn math most effectively. Learn how to find the information you need using search terms and databases.  Learn how to understand the science from reading about it. Make connections between different classes and subjects. Learn how to write well. Those skills will help you succeed in whatever you decide to do. As far as helping you decide what to do with your life, don't stress about it too much now, but do ask people who have interesting jobs how they got there. At the very least, you're bound to get some interesting stories that might help inform your choices down the road.


Transient Theorist said...

Lots of good advice (kudos especially for the math tip)! One thing I'd add:

Another great thing to do towards becoming an ecologist - spend time outside learning natural history!!! I think this skill is becoming a bit undervalued these days as a result of a knee-jerk reaction of ecology towards experimentation and quantification and away from a past of pure observation. Experiments and models are great and bring rigor to the field, but being comfortable outdoors and spending time carefully looking at nature and cultivating the ability to observe strange things - this is the source of many a great hypothesis!

Definitely something I'm trying to make myself work on more.

Karina said...

Thanks for the comment, Theo! I am ashamed that I forgot to say that, so thank you for mentioning it! Observation skills and the ability to recognize patterns go a long way. So does just being savvy in the outdoors.

penn said...

Being outdoors completely helps! I'm pretty sure I learned just as much about nature in the past year and a half teach outdoor ed as I did during my two years of grad school (no joke).

Another question -- what did you do during your gap years? Did you field tech? How did you stay involved in science? I've toyed with going back, someday, and I struggle to keep up with science now that I don't have automatic journal subscriptions.

Karina said...

I had a job leading/creating science and environmental education programs at a field station. I also became a Master Gardener (it's a program through the state extension service- each state has one) which greatly improved my knowledge of plants (I basically ignored them as an undergrad).

In terms of preparing me for grad school, I feel that my undergraduate experience provided a great foundation upon which I built during my time at the field station. I'd say my time after college before grad school was just as important because it broadened my perspective of what ecology is all about. Since I worked at a research field station, I had some access to literature but more importantly I was part of an academic community, albeit a small one. I always tried to attend the seminars.

I left that job after a few years, then Jon and I traveled for several months. One of the things we did during that time was volunteer for a grad student. That was my first real experience working with critters, and it certainly helped. Around that time I started applying to grad school and asked my friends who were academically affiliated to send me papers that I couldn't track down for free. They were a great help!