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Subject: grads. jobs & fisheries
From: grossman <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Academic forum on fisheries ecology and related topics <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Wed, 9 Apr 1997 15:13:06 EDT

text/plain (164 lines)

I would like to respond to several of the posts regarding the lack of
jobs for MSc and PhD's in fish ecology, my own field of
expertise.  First, let me acknowledge that I am going to discuss
generalities here, so please let's not have a bunch of post's
afterwards that are in the vein of, "well I did X and it didn't work"
or "my major prof. told me X and he/she lied so you really can't
believe anything they say".  Most of us are aware that not every
strategy works every time, or for every person.  Also let me state
that the situation in western Europe (at least in Spain, where I have
had quite a bit of interaction with grad students and post-docs) is
*much worse* than that in the States.  Finally, my comments
pertain to the situation in the States, but I suspect that some of it
will be useful information for students in other regions.

First, I'm not going to argue about the ethics or politics of the
current job situation, or the fact that people who do have positions
should aid in the creation of new positions. (Although frankly I
find many of the derogatory comments about those who do have
positions to be remarkably uniformed.)  I will just accept the fact
that the supply of graduates in fisheries is larger than the number
of jobs available and move on from there.

Although it will give many folks little comfort, Steve G. is right,
the job situation for PhD' s hasn't changed much in the last 15
years.  Actually, based on the job placements of my students, I
suspect that things have improved in academia, and at the
federal/state level (where short-term freezes are common) but
gotten worse in consulting.  Nonetheless, a graduate degree is not
a guarantee of a job.  It certainly is a responsibility of faculty
members to inform new graduate students of the job situation
before taking them on, but it also is the responsibility of students
to investigate the job situation prior to making decisions regarding
their choice of educational programs.  It's a two way street and I
have little sympathy for the small but vocal minority of students
(this same topic/complaint also was raised on the ecolog list within
the last 2 months) who seem to think that all responsibilities for
their careers rest on the shoulders of their graduate program or
major professor.  So, if we can agree that a graduate degree isn't a
vocational degree, and that jobs are limited, what can a well
qualified student (i.e. one with good grades and decent GRE
scores) do to increase their chances of choosing a strong graduate
program which also should result in an increased probability that
they will end up with a professional position in fisheries.  I will
begin with some comments on *how* to choose a major professor
or graduate program and close with several hints for those already
enrolled in programs who are interested in ways to improve their

First, your choice of graduate program and major professor
probably will have a greater impact on your future employability
than any other educational decision that you will make.
Consequently, before you decide to enter someone's lab, ask about
the placement rate of their students.  Like most activities that
engage a variety of people, I suspect that you will find that some
faculty have high placement rates, whereas others probably have
no idea how many of their grads are working in the field.  The
same can be said for graduate programs: some have very high
success rates (this tends to most true at the MSc-state biologist
level), whereas others have poor rates. Despite the importance of
these factors, in my sixteen years of interviewing prospective
graduate students, rarely have I been asked about the placement
rates of either my former students, or our graduate program.  (In
fairness to the interviewees, I should add that I always bring up
these subjects, if they are not raised by the student.)   The bottom
line is that the students need to recognize that both graduate
programs, and major professors, vary in quality and if you make a
choice without evaluating the relative merits of a given major
professor or program, then you may be starting off with a
substantial handicap.

Second, one of the better ways of evaluating professors or graduate
programs is by talking to *former* students.  Although discussions
with current students also can be helpful, for obvious reasons these
students may be less candid than former students are.  As with
most discussions of important personnel matters, when talking to
current students it probably is useful to pay as much attention to
what's *not said* as to what is said.  Finally, make some attempt
to match your expectations to your major professor's style of
supervision.  If you function best independently, do not work in
the lab of a professor who thinks that grad students are incapable
of washing their hands solitarily.  Alternatively, if you sometimes
need help motivating yourself, then a more interactive major prof.
may be right for you.  Like all bosses/mentors, major professors
come in a wide variety of flavors and sizes and you need to choose
one who will best compliment your abilities/needs as a graduate

Third, ask for a copy of your potential major profs. curriculum
vita, then examine it carefully.  Determine whether or not this
professor is actively publishing, and if so, is she/he publishing in
first rank journals?  Do they have a publication record independent
of their graduate students?  Does the professor have a good record
of grant support?  Do they regularly attend professional meetings
and give invited papers/seminars.  Have they won teaching
awards?  Do they have good contacts at other universities,
federal/state agencies, etc.?   Although few professors can meet all
of these criteria, these are all factors that you should consider
when you choose a major professor.

Fourth, check out the types of jobs that are being advertised.  You
will find that there are major discrepancies in the employability of
graduates in the various subdisciplines of fisheries.  If getting a job
is your sole goal, then make sure you choose a thesis topic or
research experience that will leave you qualified in an area where
there is high job availability.  For example, folks in quantitative
population dynamics seem to have great success getting
professional positions regardless of the market, whereas students
who choose to do basic natural history studies of species,
frequently have great difficulty finding jobs.  (I'm not commenting
on the relative merits of these two research areas, just on the
employability of students who pursue them.)  In addition, try and
get additional training as a graduate student (e.g. GIS training,
agency internships, etc.).  You have to be a strong student to get
hired, but being strong in more than one area will greatly increase
your employability.

Fifth, if you're a PhD student and you want an academic job, try
to get some part-time teaching experience prior to graduation (e.g.
small liberal arts schools frequently hire part-time faculty).  What I
am talking about here is teaching your own undergraduate lecture
class, not being a teaching assistant.  And make sure that you have
student evaluations for the class.  Nothing impresses search
committees more than someone who is strong in both research and
teaching, and has the publications and student evaluations to prove
it.  Teaching experience, especially diverse teaching experience, is
particularly important for positions at small four-year institutions,
where a biology department might consist of 3 - 7 faculty who
cover all aspects of the field.

Sixth, write your dissertation in chapters which can then be
submitted for publication independently.  (Make sure your
committee agrees to this beforehand.)   Many students who are
close to finishing their degrees are eliminated from searches due to
a lack of publications.  Publishing prior to graduation will reduce
the probability of this occurring.  In addition, it shows that you are
productive and can meet the standard expected of researchers.
Finally, it will greatly increase your chances of obtaining a
position before you finish, if you can say, "Well chapter one is
out, chapter two is in press, and I'm almost finished with the final

Seventh, network, network, network: go to meetings, present
papers/posters, ask your major professor to introduce you to senior
scientists and potential employers,  or go up and politely introduce
yourself.  *Polite* is the operative word here, because being pushy
will definitely work against you.  All of these things will increase
the probability that a potential employer will be able to recall a
face when she/he looks at your application.  This will give you a
definite advantage over other applicants.  In addition, you will
increase your chances of hearing about positions before they are
officially advertised (e.g. many positions are advertised by word of
mouth long before the ad appears in Science).

In closing, I would like to add that my list, though hardly
exhaustive, is meant to give students some constructive advice on
how to choose a graduate program, or if you're already in one,
how to increase your chances of obtaining a job in the field of

Good luck,

Gary D. Grossman, Professor of Animal Ecology, Warnell School
of Forest Resources, University of Georgia

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