Where to heretics go to grad school?
April 14, 2012 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I need recommendations on a PhD program in ecology/conservation biology/interdisciplinary studies. I am a biology student who has strong nontraditional interests in cross-disciplinary work, popularization of science (i.e. making science relevant to non-science people), creating social and political change, and examining the relationships between humans and the biosphere from a holistic, non-anthropocentric perspective. Any ideas?

I'm coming up to that part of my undergraduate career where I need to be seriously building a list of graduate programs that I want to apply to. However, I'm at a bit of a loss. My problem is that while I have a passion for biology, ecology, and (most specifically) conservation science, I really want to create a career for myself which takes a rather broader, more holistic view of science than what I would be likely to get at any given good ecology program. I'm not going to get into a philosophical argument about the role of science here, but for the sake of explanation here's a little bit about what I want to do.

What I'm looking for, I think, is a PhD program in conservation biology or a related, possibly interdisciplinary, field. (I'm not overly worried about what specific category I fit into, but biology/ecology is where I'm coming from at this point.) In addition to doing the typical work of conservation science -- figuring out relationships between humans and the rest of the biosphere, and trying to find some potential solutions toward mitigating the damage to the biosphere that we're causing -- I also want to take an activist, advocate role in expanding the relevancy of science. I want to work toward improving popular understanding and regard of the sciences, making science more reactive and relevant to society, improving scientific ethics and making a place for activism and conscience-directed research, building bridges between materialistic and holistic worldviews, and using scientific research as an effective vehicle for rational policy and political change.

I know that this is not something that most scientists -- even conservation biologists -- are really super interested in doing. I know that it's a path that many scientists consider not just non-traditional, but actually wrongheaded and potentially dangerous. If you happen to be one of those people you're welcome to talk with me about it through MeMail (it's a debate that I enjoy having) but what I'm looking for right here is for recommendations on PhD programs where I would be welcome to explore this stuff, and where I can work under a mentor or mentors who is/are already doing work in at least some of these areas. It's a complicated calling and I don't really have a great way of labeling it, which I think is part of the reason why I've had difficulty finding programs that suit me.

The other part, I think, is just that there aren't terribly many people doing this sort of thing, and those who are doing it tend not to advertise it super loudly unless they are rockstars in their field who are immune to the kind of censure that often falls upon ecologists who want to take their work out of the lab and into the world. Surely, though, there are some. It's a big academic world (despite feeling very small at times) and I know there are a lot of people doing some very weird and unusual things in the spaces between the traditional disciplines. I really want to know who those people are so that I can approach them about becoming their student.

I'm also open to pathways that are less-traditional than a four-year PhD program. I really am in a place where I'd like to be making a little bit of money and the idea of a graduate fellowship is super attractive to me, but if there's some other way that I can do studies/work that would put me on the path that I've chosen for myself then I'm definitely open to hearing about it -- especially if there's a large component of fieldwork/outdoor work involved, because I absolutely love that stuff. As long as I can make some kind of modest living doing it, I'm down -- I'm not really financially motivated except inasmuch as I'm not independently wealthy and need to be able to pay rent and feed myself.

Right now I'm not really worried too much about location or about my qualifications, although I'll certainly be using those as criteria to weed out programs if I can get a large enough list together that I don't want to just apply to them all. For the moment I'm really just looking for programs that suit my interests. I know there are a lot of MeFites out there working both in the sciences and in myriad related fields, and I'm hoping that somebody somewhere has bumped into someone that I might click with as a student. I'm really looking forward to hearing about it. Thanks in advance for the advice, and please let me know if there is anything that I need to clarify or anything that I'm not seeing that I need to make myself aware of.
posted by Scientist to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might fit in well at my department: Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, at UBC in Vancouver. Specifically, Kai Chan. MeMail me if you want to know more or if you would like an introduction.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:30 PM on April 14, 2012

Have you looked into the EEB (Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior) program at the University of Minnesota? I've met a lot of graduate students from that program and they seem to be doing really interesting projects, making somewhat unorthodox connections, open to interdisciplinary work, etc. Bruce Braun in the Geography department at UMN might also be someone interesting for you to talk to - a friend took a class with him called "humans and non-humans."

Alternatively, another friend returned from a Peace Corps stint in West Africa with an interest in building global sustainability, and has settled productively into the Horticulture and Agronomy program at UC Davis.
posted by kickingthecrap at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2012

Why do you actually want a Ph.D., and in what field do you want to become a specialist researcher? There are a lot of details here that suggest you're not really fully aware what a Ph.D. is, and what it is for — and that make me worry a bit about the advising you're getting at your college. (Things like, e.g., talking about a "traditional" "four-year PhD" — that is a completely unrealistic expectation, please disabuse yourself of it immediately. Average time to degree in almost any program in almost any field is at least 2 years longer than that.)

I think you need to learn a lot more about what a Ph.D. is, and what studying for one will be like. A Ph.D. is a credential that certifies you as a specialist researcher, not a general-studies certificate. It certifies that you know a lot about a single field/discipline, and a lot more about a specific subfield or research area. You can't do a Ph.D. in a little bit of everything under the mantle of "interdisciplinarity"; "broader and more holistic" is pretty much the exact opposite of what the degree is designed to make you. So step one is to figure out what field will fit your interests well enough that you want to spend years becoming a specialist in it. Is it science education? Environmental public policy? You should really be shopping for a field, not a department, at this point, assuming you even really want to get a Ph.D. — looking at specific programs seems a little like putting the cart before the horse. You write "I'm not overly worried about what specific category I fit into" — but you really, really should be. Fitting yourself into a specific field and subfield and research area is what a Ph.D. is about, and if you end up in one that you're not happy with, it'll be misery.

But first and foremost, seek out faculty in the field(s) and department(s) you're thinking of working in, and talk to them in a lot more detail about all these questions. The Internet can't provide advice that's as detailed or as tailored to your specific situation as the faculty who know you and who are paid to advise you. "Name a few doctoral programs" AskMe questions like this one often result in stunningly random, partial, distorted lists; don't let this be your primary source of information.
posted by RogerB at 4:36 PM on April 14, 2012 [21 favorites]

I know that this is not something that most scientists -- even conservation biologists -- are really super interested in doing. I know that it's a path that many scientists consider not just non-traditional, but actually wrongheaded and potentially dangerous.

You couldn't be more wrong actually and the kind of program you're looking for is far, far, far more popular and numerous than traditional ecology programs at this point. Because a lot of people only get so far in their ecology studies and realize there's not much point doing empirical work on a system that is about to be paved over. Id' say the ratio is about 1000:1 for people interested in outreach/ education/ restoration ecology/ green design/ etc to people doing classic ecology. And even those people inevitably end up doing some conservation work.

I do think you should look into masters programs though, not a PhD unless you want to stay in academia. A MS will qualify you for any job these days except academia and some government jobs. I don't have a PhD an I do tons of research in this field.

I'm mostly familiar with water/ coastal stuff so if you're into grasslands I can't help with specific programs but I'd check into ESRI at U Mich, Duke University env policy programs which churn out policy makers, Berkley has the Water Institute, Louisiana at Baton Rouge has a huge coastal policy program etc. Basically look into the backgrounds of people you think are doing interesting work and see where they studied. UC Davis is mentioned above but it's more on the research oriented end of the scale. You don't say if you want to do a hard or soft science type program which is really going to determine your school. There is perfectly great work being done on both ends all over the place.

Basically any school is turning out grad students in environmental policy/ outreach/ education at this point, far more than are turning out empirical scientists. A lot of these people go into government agencies or work as political aides but a lot go into non profits and stuff too.
posted by fshgrl at 4:40 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

We've got a master's and PhD in Resource and Environmental Management at SFU, in Vancouver, BC. It's extremely interdisciplinary and what you're describing sounds exactly like what many of the students do.

Two student profiles here (full disclosure: I wrote them): Juan Jose Alava and Brent Loken (whose research was mentioned previously on the blue)
posted by wenat at 4:40 PM on April 14, 2012

Fshgrl seems to know what she's talking about, especially on how a PhD may not be necessary for you. That said, lots of big universities should have programs that would serve your needs.

For instance, check out Stanford's Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) PhD program. If you look at their extensive affiliated faculty list you'll see that students in that program can work with policy-minded conservation biologists like Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich as well as various interesting folks in economics, political science, civil engineering (mostly in terms of sanitation), anthropology (biological and cultural), philosophy and law (folks like Debra Satz and Joshua Cohen). People in the E-IPER program get involved in various practical conservation projects. Natural capital/ecosystems services is especially big. I know that some of the big names I mentioned here (eg Daily) take on E-IPER students as advisees. I suspect the situation would be similar at other schools with interdisciplinary programs.

Here's their prospective student page. No idea what their job placement in or out of academia is like, though—do ask about this as you look into choosing programs.
posted by col_pogo at 5:31 PM on April 14, 2012

Humboldt State has a good reputation amongst the environmental/biological sciences folk I know. You definitely would not be a heretic there.
posted by rtha at 5:51 PM on April 14, 2012

Whoops. Meant to link one level more.
posted by rtha at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2012

This is like showing up to college and saying you want to major in something that will focus on pursuing a career as Malcolm Gladwell.

The reason to get a Ph.D. is because there is a specific research itch you want to scratch. The reason professors take on Ph.D. students is because they want you ideas, enthusiasm, and work ethic directed towards doing more research and publishing more papers for them. Professors aren't hostile to the idea of science popularization and community involvement per se. They're hostile to their students living off their stipend doing stuff that is not producing publications and your thesis any faster.

My advice here is to find the specific job you want, first. Maybe it's working for a think tank or science-focused media organization or educational media production company. Then find out what kind of people they hire (my guess is that their scientific consultants have MS's and a few Ph.Ds, but I have no idea at all). But the point is that you should find out what their background is and do that.
posted by deanc at 6:12 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please note that while there are a lot of people with "science backgrounds" in policy there aren't a lot of people with real expertise that really understand things like non-parametric statistics or how to interpret model results. The nuance stuff.

I 100% support someone who is willing to take the time to be an actual knowledgeable professional-type researcher who gets math AND who wants to spend all day explaining that to folks with no technical background. Too often folks in environmental policy don't have a strong enough science background to filter all the info they are fed. Some of them have no real life experience in the field or actually using the kinds of procedures, stats, models etc they are basing decisions on. An undergrad biology degree is just enough info to be dangerous.

So if you are really willing to do a research PhD and become a competent ecologist just to be a better advocate then good for you but that's playing a seriously long game!
posted by fshgrl at 6:23 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

It might also be a good idea to ask the mods to anonymize this question. You present yourself very well here, but there are a lot of pieces in your question that you might not want a graduate admissions committee member at all of the places you apply to reading and connecting to you.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:36 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

RogerB nailed it. But to add:

1. Did you do all this stuff? http://ask.metafilter.com/165183/How-can-I-best-position-myself-for-grad-school

2. A PhD is way more specific than you're thinking of it right now. A PhD will look at a specific phenomenon. You want to find an advisor - not a program - where you can study your phenomenon with the best possible advisor for you with the best funding package.

3. How do you get to that advisor? Mostly through your awesome undergrad advisor's networks/letter of rec. For better or worse, this is how a lot of this stuff goes down. And your undergrad advisor should help you find that person.

4. Interdisciplinary, while a buzzword, is sort of the kiss of death.

But really, listen to RogerB.
posted by k8t at 6:58 PM on April 14, 2012

You have awesome aspirations, and they aren't impossible to achieve. What I would recommend, though, is to expect to break the process up into a few steps, starting with getting good at the science. A PhD program is about suddenly accelerating someone from a broad undergraduate background into a fully developed independent researcher. This takes large amounts of time and focus. It's not that academic scientists look down on policy recommendations or outreach, it's that those areas are each themselves complicated, nuanced topics that require significant effort to develop skills in. In my experience doing interdisciplinary work in physics, networks, and biology, it's hard to develop a deep knowledge in multiple fields at the same time. The best work, research-wise, comes from people with one strong background who then branch out later. Ideally, one stays exposed to the ideas of other areas, but hones one's skills in a particular subject first.

No matter where you go, work on your ability to communicate science well. Give as many presentations and posters as you can, always practice talks, work on both scientific and lay writing, and pay meticulous attention to what good talks do well and bad talks do poorly. Science communication is hard, and the skills you gain anywhere will allow you to best use the research skills you develop.

In terms of policy work, be aware that there are fellowships and internships designed for science PhDs to see the policy world. The AAAS has, for instance, postdoc fellowships and the national academies run a three month policy fellowship for students and postdocs. I know I've seen other programs out there as well, in particular those run by various disciplines' national organizations.
posted by Schismatic at 7:00 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's OK if you think that what I'm trying to do is foolish, but please take it to MeMail instead of telling me so here. It doesn't help me answer my question ("Given that I want to take a nontraditional course of study, where should I think about going to grad school?") to be told that I should change my goals and take a more traditional path.

I should clarify though that I do have the end goal of being a professor and researcher at an academic institution. I want to have a research career that serves as a base from which I can advocate for change within the field as a whole. I have plenty of itches that I want to scratch, believe me. I am open to suggestions of alternative paths that I might try, but that doesn't mean that I haven't already picked a path out.

Many thanks to those who have provided some really excellent answers to the question as it was asked. UBC and Humboldt State in particular look really interesting right now, and I hadn't considered either one of them before they were brought up here. Thank you!
posted by Scientist at 7:46 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Humboldt State doesn't confer PhDs.

I don't think anyone is bashing your goals, just pointing out that they aren't very clearly articulated and that as you stated them they might not have been best served by pursuing a PhD in the Sciences. Also people are telling you that your goals (as stated) are not as uncommon as you think, the interface of economics, design, ecology/ natural sciences, education and human behavior is a very popular field right now. This should be good news as it gives you tons of options for further study and employment.

I do think that getting out and getting a few jobs and some real life experience is really important for this kind of work though, experience you're unlikely to get solely in academia.
posted by fshgrl at 8:00 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I make no comment on your goals but here's another department name for the mix: Earth Systems Science and Policy.

The one I'm familiar with, besides being multi-disciplinary and multi-institution in parts, is also fairly new and interesting. It's based out of aerospace (because the founder got money from NASA and if I remember right, ESSP is an offshoot of atmospheric sciences here), which I'm guessing other ESSP programs aren't, but the program is conservation oriented. Here's the PhD info.

One thing I saw that you might like is that it has an entire group dedicated to reaching out to folks to talk about sustainability; on the other hand, this is a university known for spending a lot of time working on clean coal (on the other end of campus). So take a look (feel free to MeMail if you have campus specific questions).
posted by librarylis at 8:40 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might want to look at the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis.
posted by désoeuvrée at 12:24 AM on April 15, 2012

I did traditional master's and PhD in Ecology, but my research is explicitly applied and I spent way more time than was healthy arguing about public policy related to my research with bureaucrats and the public. I recommend both of my grad school alma maters to you, with a few caveats.

Definitely, absolutely, look at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, the birthplace of modern American ecology research and an all around great place. The Master's in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development is explicitly interdisciplinary and, unlike most master's programs, many students are supported by assistantships. There is a traditional MS in Ecology as well, but the Conservation program is a much better for you. They also have excellent PhD programs, both the PhD in Ecology and the brand new PhD in Integrative Conservation have numerous people doing exactly what you're interested in. In general, the faculty at the Odum School have applied or conservation sides to their research and are very open to student ideas. Actually, I don't have many caveats about UGA--great place, good science, good policy.

As a Duke graduate, I'm always hesitant to recommend Duke (or even admit I went there a lot of the time), but honestly either the Master's in Environmental Management (please note that this is not a funded program--it is actually a money-maker for the School) or one of the PhD programs in the Nicholas School might be up your alley (which of those programs to apply to depends more on who your advisor would be than anything else).

Feel free to MeMail me--I am glad to talk about these schools further, and the pros and cons of getting involved in policy advocacy while in grad school.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:51 AM on April 15, 2012

the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell might be another worthwhile place to investigate.
posted by dizziest at 6:53 AM on April 15, 2012

I'm an E&E grad. I think the Odum School is a fantastic suggestion.

My own university recently started a journalism degree program in communicating science to the public, and I've been doing courses over there in addition to my PhD work in ecology. So, I've been thinking about this issue of hybridizing popular science and PhD research a lot. I don't think I can make any better suggestions than the Odum School, but feel free to MeMail me if you want to shoot the breeze about E&E grad programs, popular science writing, &c &c.
posted by pemberkins at 10:36 AM on April 16, 2012

Followup: thanks again to everyone for the excellent advice. I do apologize for perhaps setting up the question to get critical responses by prophesying their occurrence from the outset. I didn't want to get into a debate of the finer points of those criticisms while the question was still developing, but now that things have calmed down I would like to acknowledge a few things:

I do understand that a "traditional four-year PhD program" is really a five- or six-year endeavor most of the time these days. I hadn't noticed that Humboldt State didn't do PhDs when I mentioned being excited about it but that that definitely puts a damper on my excitement. (UBC, UC-Davis, UG, and others still look extremely interesting.) I am not too worried about this question being non-anonymous as I have a personal policy of owning my words and accepting their consequences. I have indeed implemented the advice that I was given in my question from Fall 2010 and it has served me very well indeed. And, as mentioned already, I do want to get a PhD, do research, teach, and work in academia – in addition to all the other weird advocacy stuff that I mentioned in my original question.

Some of you will already have received MeMail from me, others are likely to get messages soon. The support and advice are always appreciated, even when they are not exactly the answers I was looking for. I know that the concern comes from a place of love, and I hope that you can now see that at least some of the naivety that came across in my question was due to the way the question was written rather than the way I think about my future.

posted by Scientist at 11:51 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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