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Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: Becoming an Early-Career Entomologist

Lina Bernaola LSU research station

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D., just completed her doctoral degree in entomology at Louisiana State University and is now a postdoctoral researcher there. To fellow graduates now entering the ranks of professional entomologists, she notes, “As creatures of habit, we humans have a tough time transitioning from one major chapter of our lives to another. Shift your perspective to see this as a time to learn something new about yourself.” (Photo courtesy of Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.)

By Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of posts contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

During the ESA Southeastern Branch Conference this past March, I had the privilege to share my thoughts about how it feels to transition from being a student to living the early career professional (ECP) life. As a new doctoral graduate, I’d like to reflect on that presentation and expand on some of those ideas a little bit more. Based on my experience, I will enumerate a few goals and some important tips I’ve found helpful along the way.

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

Find a Job!

Everyone expects you to land a job as soon as you push the tassel to the other side of your graduation cap. Your job hunt will likely start in your last year of schooling and may continue after you graduate. Try not to stress if you don’t find your dream job immediately. A lot of employers value experience in their new hires; you won’t have much of that yet, but you will soon. Some resources, which you may already be aware of, for finding a job are: the ESA Career Center, the job board at Indeed, searching favorite companies online, carefully reading department emails (in which professors frequently forward job opportunities), social media (Twitter and LinkedIn, especially), and networking events of course. Learn to market yourself and advertise your greatest strengths.

Career Development

Never stop building your curriculum vitae (CV) and fill in technical gaps as much as possible! Actually, as an ECP, you need to be more aggressive in developing soft skills that you may not have polished yet during your days as a student. Also, you should avoid leaving loose ends by finishing publishing your research articles before any new responsibilities you have escalate.

Regardless of direction, make sure that you have strong leadership skills or a plan to develop them. Expanding your network applies here as well—you should never let up on collaborating on research or multi-disciplinary projects.

Career paths are often fluid; you may find yourself in jobs or places you never expected. It’s very possible you take on a role thinking it will be temporary, and then, suddenly, you find a new interest or passion that leads you in a new direction. Don’t narrowly pursue a single job, but rather keep a plan B or even plan C for other opportunities. Be open to any alternatives in your field of expertise and even some outside of your Ph.D. research.


Something I have noticed is that having a mentor (other than your advisor, who may only guide your research) is becoming somewhat of a necessity in any stage of your career, whether you are a student, graduate student, young faculty member, or a professional in industry. If you are determined, you’ll be able to find someone who can show you the ropes and teach you things beyond just research and work. It can be your advisor, somebody outside your department, someone from your social network, or just someone you can trust and confide in.

As a mentee, understand that you have a responsibility to recognize your goals first, because your mentor will probably not know what you specifically want out of your career. On the flip side, being a mentor helps by training you to coach others, learn empathy, and provide motivation.

Family and Location

How mobile are you willing to be? Typically, either family or work dictates the location of the other. For example, while you are getting your degree, if you have a significant other, perhaps you can make the commitment for a long-distance relationship; however, once you join the work force, you will have to be more flexible when settling down with your partner to find a place where you can both be employed. You may not pursue the perfect job because you want to live close to loved ones. Or, all things being equal between two career opportunities, you may make a decision based on where it is located and the types of recreation it provides.

You might be in a position I was once in: maintaining a long-distance relationship while pursuing a degree. In my last year, I realized flexibility in job location was going to be critical if I wanted to live in the same city as my husband. He and I talked about places where we could both possibly find jobs.

Financial Security

You’re used to worrying about money, and I’m here to confirm that this is one thing students and ECP’s will always have in common. However, there’s no need to fear if you keep a close eye on your budget and balance your living expenses. If you are employed right out of school, in either a faculty, research, or industry position, then you only need to make sure that there is more money coming in than going out. If you can’t find a job in your field immediately, then you’ll have to dip into your savings or find a job to hold your over in the meanwhile.


As creatures of habit, we humans have a tough time transitioning from one major chapter of our lives to another. Shift your perspective to see this as a time to learn something new about yourself. There’s no single recipe to succeed; everyone can find their own way, but hopefully the experience I’ve shared will remind you that transitions are not always bad and that you’re not alone in this. In the meantime, congratulations to all new graduates!

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D., just completed her doctoral degree in entomology at Louisiana State University and is now a postdoctoral researcher there. She is the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board and a member of both the ESA Student Affairs Committee and the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email:

Portrait photo credit: Jessica Catalan 

1 Comment »

  1. The job market certainly has seen changes during the past half century; I guess I lucked out. In January 1967, I had just completed my M.S. in entomology at Purdue University, and had received approval to embark on a PhD program. In February, I was drafted into the US Army. The end result was that instead of a career in academia, I had a career as a medical entomologist in the Army followed by a stint in the Department of Defense working on vector-borne disease risk assessments. I remain active in the West Virginia Entomological Society.

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