By Sarah Elzay, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Sometimes the academic job application process feels like a marathon, but without the benefit of half a banana and a too-large tee shirt at the end of the race. In my quest to join the hallowed halls of academia, I have spent months perfecting the following documents: cover letter, CV, teaching statement, research statement, diversity statement, proof of teaching excellence, and a personal statement. For each application, I then alter each document to fit the institution and job posting. And, then I usually wait several months and never hear from the college or university.
Now, I may be doing any number of things wrong. For example, I could be over-estimating my skill set, applying for jobs that my research experience is not well suited for, failing to write convincing cover letters and statements, or failing to write well at all. There have been a few glimmers of hope, but it has been a tough road. My cohort seems to share my experience. Academic jobs are hard to find, and feedback when we fail is even harder. (That said, I do want to take the opportunity to recognize the privilege that has enabled me to attend higher education institutions all over the United States so that I can pursue my dreams.)
I started my career outside of academia, at the National Park Service. I have always considered the possibility of returning to a job outside of academia, but throughout my Ph.D. work I was strongly encouraged to pursue a job at a research institution by way of one or (many) more postdoctoral positions. As the years of my Ph.D. went by, this sounded less and less appealing. For example, I love field work; being outside is way better than being inside. But few of the postdocs and professors I knew spent much time in the field anymore. I also didn’t really trust that academia really had my best interests at heart, which is, perhaps, an ignorant or idealistic idea, but I wanted to explore other options before I made any major career decisions.
So, I endeavored to speak with a few professionals out there in non-academic jobs within entomology and ecology. I also found some resources to share with other recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates. This is, by no means, exhaustive. There are many more jobs and avenues out there to investigate, but I hope this is just a little helpful to you.
The number of tenure-track positions at colleges and universities is not keeping pace with the increasing number of students graduating with Ph.D.s each year. Because you are most likely a scientist, I’ve included citations of a couple of papers I read to understand that academic job market for recent graduates. Some data suggests that tenure-track positions have decreased rather than grown as some universities opt for cheaper adjunct employees and enrollment changes persist. The data out there can be very discouraging to read. Of course, confirmation bias may be at play here.
The point of this post is not to bemoan the state of the academic job market. It is to discuss other career options. Below I will outline a few of these options, tips from folks that hold these types of positions, and resources you can check out to learn more. I should also note that my specialty, pollinators, has influenced the selections shared here.
Jobs in this category include those you might find nonprofits and other non-government organizations such as the Xerces Society (happy 50th birthday!), the Nature Conservancy, the Pollinator Partnership, and many, many more. Many of these jobs have a strong conservation and outreach emphasis. That outreach seems to often be with land managers, land owners, and local, state, or federal government. However, they also do conduct their own research, publish literature, and conduct field work.
Finding job openings in this field is challenging. When I search for them, I visit multiple websites to get a comprehensive list of current open positions. The competition is fierce for these jobs, just as it is in academia. However, if conservation and actionable science is something you feel passionate about, this type of work may be something to consider.
Some helpful posts and links:
I had the opportunity to speak with Ray Moranz, Ph.D., who is the grazing lands pollinator ecologist for the Xerces Society and a partner biologist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Central National Technology Support Center. He describes his role at Xerces as, “collect[ing] the science-based information that is out there and getting it to conservation practitioners—the ones who make a difference on the ground.” I found this inspiring. Many of us do research with the hope that it will make a difference in the world, but there is no guarantee that academic research will make it beyond a poster or journal.
Moranz has previously worked in academia, with the Nature Conservancy, and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says he particularly enjoys the applied nature of his work and how his research—yes, he does conduct research and publish it—is utilized by land managers and owners. “Every day you are helping to save native plants, native ecosystems, native pollinators, and, to some degree, save the planet,” he says.
When asked for any advice he might offer a recent or soon-to-be graduate looking for work outside of academia, Moranz says, “Be aware that there are a great number of opportunities out there in conservation, and a lot of are great people to work with in that field.”
Non-governmental organization jobs may be hard to find, but if conservation and applying scientific research to on-the-ground problems are pursuits you enjoy, keep checking for job openings that might be even more fulfilling.
Government Agency Jobs
There are many jobs available to entomologists through local, state, and federal government. Federal jobs include service as a researcher in the Army, Navy, and Air Force or positions in various departments including the Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, Geological Survey, Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration, among others. State and local government jobs include those in public health, extension services, forensics, and natural resource management.
If you aren’t familiar with USAjobs.gov, it is the federal job search engine. It is challenging to use if you aren’t familiar with the jargon. For any job of interest, first read the application thoroughly and tailor your resume and cover letter specifically for the position (obvious, I know, but it bears mentioning). In my experience, you will be more competitive for federal positions if you include a resume rather than a CV, because you can include all previous work experience that may be relevant to the posting. I also include my salary and hours worked per week for each position I have held.
When you apply for federal jobs, there are typically a series of questions that address your knowledge, skills, and abilities, aptly named KSAs. It is essential that any skills you claim in the KSA questions are supported in your resume. If you do not provide support, you will likely be rejected. When you answer the KSA questions, don’t be bashful about your skill set, as a mentor of mine once told me.
Some helpful posts and links:
Norman Elliott, Ph.D., is a research biologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Specifically, he researches pests of wheat and sorghum at the Wheat, Peanut, and Other Field Crops Research Station in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I was able to interview Elliott about his job with the ARS recently.
An appealing feature of working at the ARS, Elliott says, is that he can conduct long-term research because funding is appropriated by Congress. Occasionally, he pursues additional grants but he is mostly able to conduct his research, staff his office, and publish papers without additional funding. When asked what he loves about his job, he says the funding status allows for “unfettered focus on your research questions with few distractions.” The ARS seems to enable researchers to ask similar questions to those they might pursue in academia but with more continuity.
In the field of entomology, “industry,” broadly defined, includes some of the big names like Corteva, Bayer, and BASF but also smaller startups like Beeflow and others. These companies have many job opportunities and almost always participate in ESA Annual Meetings. As a native bee specialist, not many openings at these types of companies fit my goals, but I have often stopped to chat with the staffers at the booths at ESA meetings and have had great experiences. I often get the card of whomever I am speaking with and, should I ever have a question about an opening, I reach out to that individual in addition to the hiring manager (if that is a different person).
Some helpful posts and links:
Finally, I want to highlight jobs and training in the policy sector. I am not highly familiar with these positions. It is a rapidly growing field, and I was able to speak with a friend, Emily Geest, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Oklahoma State University, about her work as a science policy consultant. Emily earned the Ecological Society of America’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award Fellowship in 2021. As a fellow she learned about federal budgets and appropriation cycles and met with congressional staffers.
She then became a scholar in residence with the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). During the science policy bootcamp that the NSPN offered, she learned to communicate science more effectively with policy makers by writing congressional memos, led science policy information sessions, and worked with non-governmental organizations. As a scholar in residence, she will now work as a science policy intern for six months as she continues to improve her science policy portfolio.
When asked what she likes best about her work in science policy, Geest says she enjoyed working with policy makers to actually make change based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge. Science policy, similar to NGO jobs, seems to be more applied and actionable than academia. If pursuing science communication and evidence-based policy changes is something you are passionate about, science policy is certainly worth considering.
Some helpful posts and links:
Finally, I have included a few more general links that may help your job search. I also cited some papers and have included those references.
- Entomological Society of America Career Center
- Entomological Society of America Professional Advancement Career Training Initiative
- Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board
- Zintellect (featuring internships, experiential learning opportunities, academic fellowships and scholarships funded by government and private sector organizations)
- “How to build a better PhD,” by Julie Gould, Nature, December 2, 2015
- “The prospective shift away from academic career aspirations,” by Brittany Etmanski, Higher Education, May 26, 2018
One last note: After all of the hard work you have put in pursuing your advanced degree(s), don’t discount careers outside of academia. There are so many options out there to consider. Best of luck in your job search, and I hope you find something that fits your skills and passions.
I would also like to thank Dr. Ray Moranz, Dr. Norman Elliott, and Dr. Emily Geest for graciously contributing their experiences and advice to this article.
Sarah Elzay, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in integrative biology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the 2020-2022 Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section Representative to the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: [email protected].