Perspectives Change While Themes Persist at Different Points Along the Career Path

Annie Ray checking insect trap

Annie Ray, an associate professor at Xavier University, checks an insect trap for longhorned beetles. (Photo credit: Josh Rodstein)

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in the “Behind the Science” series by Laurel Haavik that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.

By Laurel Haavik

The length of a career could be compared to a marathon—an event more about stamina than speed. Yet the starting point for scientists, graduate school, sometimes feels a little like a race in itself. What looms beyond the graduate finish line? It can be difficult to visualize, but it is critical to consider, because choices and experiences shape futures. This is especially important given the current influx of Ph.D.s saturating the job market, all having just reached a crossroads that requires careful considering, weighing, prioritizing, searching, deliberating, and maybe even obsessing about what to do next. The hope is to find a suitable niche that offers intellectual challenge and fulfillment.

Laurel Haavik

As naturally curious people, scientists seek understanding of what lies ahead and what it will be like. Perspectives on struggles, rewards, and strategies to meet and accept them appropriately change throughout the trajectory of a career. As society evolves and generations pass, the challenges faced by scientists at the same stage of career in different generations may be different. I interviewed scientists at three different career stages (early, middle, and late) to gain insight into these changes, and to identify how individuals at different career stages can connect with and support one another.

Jon Walter Early-careerJon Walter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas and Virginia Commonwealth University, is an ecologist who studies the spatial aspects of insect population dynamics. (Photo credit: Kansas Biological Survey)
Annie Ray Mid-career: Annie Ray, an associate professor at Xavier University, is an entomologist who studies chemical communication among longhorned beetles. (Photo credit: Josh Rodstein)
Rob Wiedenmann Late-career: Rob Wiedenmann, a professor at the University of Arkansas and past president of the Entomological Society of America, is an entomologist who studies biological control of insects and weeds. (Photo credit: Rob Wiedenmann)

Laurel: How did you become interested in science? Briefly describe your career path.

Jon: I was pretty interested in science as a young kid—both my parents were educated as chemical engineers, so there was a lot of encouragement and exposure to science when I was young. I moved in a different direction during high school; looking back on the experience I think that the educational environment I was in just didn’t suit my learning style, and I found other subjects like literature and philosophy much more interesting. Those kinds of courses encouraged me to think critically and analytically in a way that the science and math courses I was in at the time did not. In college, I took an environmental studies course to fulfill a science requirement, and that really pulled me back toward the sciences. I have always enjoyed the outdoors and valued nature, and that environmental studies course was one of the first for me that connected science with things that I really cared about. So, I switched majors and threw myself at environmental studies and biology classes along with some independent research. In that process, I evolved into an ecologist. I went directly to a Ph.D. program after I finished my undergraduate degree. Even though I figured out what subject matter I’m passionate about relatively late in my education, I have for a long time been interested in independent research and an academic career. I got pretty lucky to land in a good situation because, like probably most beginning doctoral students, I only about halfway knew what I was doing at the time. I finished my doctorate in 2014 and am currently a postdoc looking for a tenure-track faculty position.

Annie: Some of my earliest memories are of catching critters at my family’s lake house in central Kentucky—toads, insects, fish—if they didn’t move fast enough, they became my pets. As I got older, my interest in the outdoors and in plants and animals followed me. Science was always one of my favorite subjects. I took a bit of a detour through high school; I guess I expected to become a musical theater actress or an opera singer. My senior year in high school, I took a special topics course in biology, and our first unit was about aquatic ecology. I was smitten with entomology the moment I looked through a microscope at a damselfly naiad. I knew I wanted to be an entomologist. During undergrad, I developed an interest in insect communication, especially chemical communication and especially in beetles (because, let’s face it, there are so many beetles to study and so many different modes of communication!). So, I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied the pheromones of longhorned beetles for my M.S. and Ph.D. I continued my work on longhorned beetle pheromones at University of California-Riverside as a postdoc. Then, I took the big plunge—moving back east to teach biology at Xavier University, a small liberal arts school in Cincinnati.

Rob: I have been interested in science ever since childhood. I had teachers along the way that made it possible for me to pique my interest and work on projects, even in grade school. As a fifth-grader, I was able to pursue a project comparing organisms from different vertebrate classes, using surgical instruments loaned to me by my teacher, whose late father was a surgeon.

Becoming an entomologist was pure serendipity. I worked on avian behavior as an undergrad honors project and considered pursuing avian ecology for grad school. Some sage advice from a professor at Purdue University convinced me to seek another field, simply based on demographics—the average age of avian ecologists was under 40 and there were hundreds of applicants for academic jobs. While I was looking at different fields and graduate programs, I happened to meet my next-door neighbor, who was a graduate student in entomology at Purdue. He told me about a newly hired faculty member in their department, an ecologist, and that I might want to speak to him. I met with my soon-to-be advisor, Bob O’Neil and, after a few gyrations, decided to work with him. It was total chance that I met my neighbor at the right time.

Laurel: What are your current career goals?

Jon: I enjoy the combination of research, teaching, and mentoring, so my near-term goal is to successfully make the transition from postdoc to a tenure-track faculty job someplace where I will have opportunity and support for doing research. In the bigger picture, my goals are to participate in science that makes meaningful advances in ecology, conservation, and related areas and to teach and mentor people who are passionate about pursuing similar goals.

Annie: I would like to be a full professor one day.

Rob: I am on the downhill slope of my career. After nearly a decade of being an administrator at the University of Arkansas, I am trying to learn how to be a faculty member, albeit one with a significant teaching appointment. It is difficult to restart a research program after having been in a 100 percent administrative role for almost 10 years. My current interest is in teaching. My goals are to finish my career by teaching several courses very well and having them in very good shape to hand off to a future faculty member.

Laurel: What are the biggest challenges that you face at this stage in your career?

Jon: I tried really hard to think of something less obvious than “getting a faculty job,” but all my thoughts kept pointing back to that. It’s a major preoccupation of mine right now.

The job search is very anxiety-inducing. I had no idea how difficult it would turn out to be. This is my first year being seriously on the market, although I had applied to a few select positions in the past. I guess the earlier low stakes and low expectations helped keep my anxiety at bay. I’ve found myself really struggling to decompress from work in the evenings, while also not being able to focus enough to work productively during the day. Exercise is the main way I de-stress, and it’s helped me a lot to cope with this elevated stress. It doesn’t really change how wound-up I feel when I get home in the evening, but it keeps me from sleeping poorly and letting one day’s stress roll into the next.

Annie: I struggle most with time and work-life balance. I’m always overwhelmed; I’m always working. Many people need bits of my time. I teach three courses each semester and a winter break study-abroad course. There is constant course preparation and grading from August until May. I advise approximately 35 undergraduates. I am expected to participate in university service. Then, there is research—I have a postdoc, two technicians, and a handful of undergraduate researchers, all who deserve my time and attention. I receive little support for my research from my department, so I have to fight to keep my lab going even when those around me don’t think what I do is interesting or important. It’s a challenge to juggle all of this with health and life. I haven’t been to the gym since June (it’s now December); I have been sick four times this semester. My personal relationships suffer because I just don’t have enough energy for them. High stress and constant action serves one well as a graduate student, but it will burn you to the ground eventually. Right now, I am looking for a more sustainable relationship with my career.

Rob: I have two challenges:

  1. Restart a research program, without a lab, not knowing how much to invest in getting a robust program going, knowing that I will be facing retirement in a few years.
  2. Have my percent teaching appointment match the time I think it takes to teach my assigned courses fully and appropriately.

Laurel: What has been most rewarding to you in your career thus far?

Jon: Honestly, so much is rewarding to me that it’s difficult to pick one thing. I’m incredibly fortunate to love what I do, and to love nearly all aspects of it. One thing is a paper of mine that was just published in Ecology. It’s a look at some mechanisms by which the amount and spatial configuration of habitat on the landscape could affect the spread of invasions, focusing on spread of the gypsy moth in North America. This study arose from some of the very first ideas that I had as a graduate student and it’s the final paper from my dissertation to be accepted for publication. To be honest, I don’t think it’s my most interesting work, but when I look back on how that project developed, it represents an immense amount of growth on my part as a scientist.

Annie: Travel and teaching. My career has brought me all over the world for research and for meetings with collaborators. Travel has helped me to develop a much broader view of the world, and has helped me to see the importance (and the insignificance) of what I do. I find working with students incredibly rewarding. It’s amazing to start with a room full of generic pre-meds who can’t tell a mosquito from a house fly and end with a class full of beginner entomologists who cogently discuss differences between families of Collembola. I am incredibly lucky that my job is sharing all the amazing things that I know about biology with 18–22-year-olds.

Rob: I have three answers: one about teaching, one about mentoring, and one about public outreach.

  1. The satisfaction gained from teaching undergraduates the past three semesters has exceeded all my expectations and has been incredibly rewarding. I had not anticipated the exciting dynamic between the students and me, as instructor, in a large class.
  2. Mentoring students both while serving as department head and as an advisor was extremely rewarding. The small size of the Department of Entomology at the University of Arkansas gave me the opportunity to engage individually with nearly all the graduate students, which allowed me to have an impact on their future.
  3. The public outreach part of our purple loosestrife biological control project in Illinois was magical. Training several hundred school teachers about biological control and biology of insects, to be able to transfer to the schoolchildren in their classes, was very enjoyable; what was unanticipated was the need to train the parents of those children, who told their parents about the project they were working on at school.

Laurel: In what ways has your field changed throughout the course of your career?

Jon: I have a limited perspective on this being a developing, early-career scientist, but I have seen a couple of changes that definitely began before my career that I expect will continue into the future. The first is an increase in awareness and discourse around diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. That’s not really a scientific change but part of the culture of our field, and one that I hope produces gains in making science and being a scientist more equitable and accessible to a broader swath of the population. The second is a continuation of ongoing rapid development of technological, statistical, and computational capabilities and their applications to ecology and entomology.

Annie: I am not sure if the field has changed, or if my interests have changed, or a combination of both, but I have come to focus much more on invasive woodborers than I did as a graduate student. This may be correlated to the overall decrease in funding rates for so-called “basic” research. On one hand, it’s nice to see immediate application of your results in policy and in national pest-control strategies. On the other hand, it’s a shame that there are so many remarkable longhorned beetles that I can’t study, just because they aren’t economically important yet.

I also worry about the brain drain in entomology. The meetings are full of students and postdocs, but there are fewer and fewer people in permanent positions. Because of the lack of funding for permanent positions (both in universities and in government), people are leaving entomology. That’s a tremendous loss to our field, and a loss to the agencies and organizations that funded these folks’ training and research. Some loss is normal, but the current level of loss is downright frightening. We are sacrificing expertise and institutional memory in the interest of trimming and balancing budgets. It seems like false economy to me.

While the funding situation is a bummer, I have been happy to see a new focus on increasing diversity and inclusion in entomology and in STEM fields as a whole.

Rob: There have been several changes:

  1. Many more publishing outlets and specialty meetings.
  2. Greater need to have a significant publishing record to be competitive for an entry-level position.
  3. Consolidation and mergers of companies in the agricultural industry has made that field less available to graduating students.
  4. Loss of many standalone entomology departments as colleges of agriculture have reduced the number of departmental units.
  5. It seems that many more people that work with insects do not consider themselves entomologists. Especially as you get away from land grants and large university settings, I believe there are many people in small-school biology departments or in different fields who may think of themselves as biologists, ecologists, physiologists, or geneticists rather than as entomologists. Maybe I am generalizing too much, but I don’t think so. One task I was not able to get done during my ESA presidency was to reach out to many more small schools that had faculty or students working with insects, to get them to the meeting. We sent invitations to all the small schools in a three-hour radius of Austin, Texas, to invite them; we got a few to come, but only a few. I was especially keen to try to reach those at some of the minority-serving institutions. I visited the University of Texas-El Paso to try to get some of their faculty and students to the Austin meeting, but it didn’t happen.

Laurel: How might you feel differently about your career path if you were at a different stage? And what would be your advice to someone in a different stage of career than you?

Jon: I think it’s too soon for me to have much perspective on this. My career path so far has been fairly straightforward and conventional, which suits me. I mainly hope that when I have a bit more perspective on things that I don’t have many regrets. If I can give advice to someone who’s earlier in their career than I am, I’d say to work past your anxieties about putting yourself and your work out there. Seek out opportunities for feedback and constructive criticism, especially from people outside your circle. Apply (or ask to be nominated) for awards, especially ones from outside your graduate department. Strike up conversations with visiting seminar speakers and people (whom you don’t already know) at conferences. These are some of the best ways to become known to the people in your field, but all of these things can be intimidating.

Annie: I think there was a time when I would not have seriously considered a career at a so-called teaching school. I guess I thought it was a place where good scientists dim into oblivion. I was wrong about that! Liberal arts undergraduate schools are places where great scientists go to change the future by engaging directly with students and developing meaningful mentoring relationships.

I would advise students and postdocs to advocate for themselves, to network, to be flexible, and to find a way to distinguish themselves from everyone else. Cultivate expertise that others lack. Gain practical experience in fields related to, but outside, entomology (such as basic electronics and construction, chemistry, forestry, foreign languages, photography, statistics, web design). You never know what talent or skill will qualify you for your dream job.

Rob: I wish I were at the beginning of my career! There are so many interesting areas of research that I wish I could engage in now. The new tools to enhance ecological and physiological research would be a great deal of fun to use and allow exploration of different kinds of questions. I am sure it is a contrast between generations, that I could also address questions differently than those a generation before me. Advice? Learn tools outside your core area of strength. Take a step back and look at your project or the interactions from a systems perspective—what is happening at the system level? You need a core area of strength that you will be primarily known for, but you also need to develop other areas. Many people do quite well being “a one-trick pony,” but I think it is better to have a few areas you can claim to know about and work in.

Laurel: In your opinion and experience, what are the ways that people in different stages of their careers can best support one another, given the different challenges that they may face?

Jon: Collaboration and mentorship. I’ve been fortunate to have several excellent collaborators and mentors who have positively impacted my science and pedagogy and other professional skills. And I’ve tried to pay that forward by being a helpful collaborator and engaged mentor for others. I think good collaborations are especially important for early-career people because when it comes to making transitions from Ph.D. student to postdoc to faculty, research products and relationships in the scholarly community are so important. And collaborating with someone often brings you into their network and leads to other potential collaborations.

Annie: We can all stand to cultivate more empathy and kindness. People in later stages of their careers should use their influence to effect change in our field, especially as it relates to speaking up for fairness and equality for all. They need to advocate for permanent positions for recent graduates. Professors at any stage can support their students and postdocs by being invested in their work, by looking out for them, by being honest, and by giving them the freedom to fail a little. Oh, and by making sure they get paid, of course.

Rob: Seek collaborators and partners across disciplines, across institutions, and especially across the range of stages in a career. Late-career people have a lot to bring to collaboration with early-career scientists, and early-career scientists bring a range of tools and methods to work conducted with late-career scientists. Early-career scientists: Find a mentor that you can trust, who has your interest at heart ,and who will be honest with you about your shortcomings. Late-career scientists: Find a junior scientist you can mentor, but do it for the right reasons (to see the junior scientist flourish).

Jon, Annie, and Rob all revealed early interest in the natural world and science. Fueled by this passion, cheered on by supportive people in their personal and professional lives, and with a little added luck along the way, they’ve landed where they are now. As they relate how their careers in science unfolded, the struggles are real and sometimes very personal, yet the rewards are complete and seem to grow in scope as their careers grow.

The marathon of a career is less a race and more a journey to be experienced in full—struggles and rewards alike. Running mates are important. Scientists at different career stages should collaborate and bring different kinds of expertise to the relationship. Early-career people bring new approaches and technologies useful for solving scientific problems, and late-career people bring knowledge and wisdom only attainable through experience, and they can draw upon a vast network of experts, often spanning multiple fields. Collaborations are known to produce scientific products and strengthen the scientific community by building diverse networks of talent and expertise. Beyond those obvious products, connecting with people at different career stages is also critical from a human perspective. Using influence to help others, sharing connections, and simply being kind and providing emotional support is an investment not only in the future of science and society but, perhaps more important, in the future of this planet and the human species.

Laurel Haavik is a Forest Entomologist at the US Forest Service, where she coordinates the Slow the Spread program for the gypsy moth. Follow her on Twitter @ljhaavik, and check out her blog, Science Shapes Lives.


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