Step 1: Ecology PhD Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit!
January 3, 2017 3:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm a recently-minted PhD with a focus in forest restoration / forest ecology. Most of the jobs I'm qualified for that are even kinda related to my studies pay worse than going back to being an admin assistant. I want to make at least $40K. I don't want to move (so no moderately-paying postdocs). I am kinda burned out on science. I am kinda burned out on physically-demanding fieldwork. Help me make money. Or convince me that paying my dues as a field or lab tech will pay off in a few years.

Location in profile. I've been looking at forest management / restoration / weed management jobs, and they're generally not very remunerative AND they're more outreach-focused than I want AND being exhausted from hiking with equipment all day is lousy for work-life balance. I'm also looking at environmental consulting firms, but not finding suitable positions - advice on pursuing consulting is welcome.

Skills I like using that might make me $$$: data analysis / statistics (in R, mostly), project management, some high-throughput sequence analysis, lower-intensity fieldwork, benchwork (DNA extraction, PCR). I was previously a skilled administrative assistant and am comfortable navigating bureaucracy and workplace dynamics and am great at writing protocols and designing systems.

It looks like there are a decent number of appealing data analysis jobs - does this sound like a viable plan? Do you have suggestions for other jobs/fields that might suit me?

Do you have career development advice? I'm considering doing a MOOC on data science and beefing up my R and Python skills and networks, but I'm not sure if that will pay off quickly enough to affect my current job search.
posted by momus_window to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Data Science with R & Py sound like a good place to start. I presume you've got some GIS skills in your toolkit as well - the intersection of those areas of analysis seem (to me) to be growing right now as well.

[If you do decide to do MOOC on DSci, I'd give the one offered by Johns Hopkins a pass, FWIW.]
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:25 PM on January 3, 2017

What did you want to do when you decided to get a PhD in ecology? Personally I would encourage you to start there. I get that you're burnt out, but assuming you picked this because you love it, you might want to work towards some end goal in this industry.

It kind of sounds like you're jumping from one career to another before you get a chance to become established. Being established will get you 40k (and more!).
posted by KMoney at 3:35 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of restoration jobs out there that pay pretty well, have you looked at state and federal government work? Can you become a licensed forester? With a PhD you shouldn't need to start at the tech level.

If you pm me and tell me where you're located I can give your some specific pointers.
posted by fshgrl at 4:58 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Government? I work for my state's natural resources department and we have ecology PhDs and post-docs in lots of roles. One is my boss, and he manages the people who do data analytics/stewardship/governance work for all the divisions of the department. Depending on what the various agencies where you live are doing with data, there might be a fit for you there. (I googled real quick: maybe the Parks and Recreation department or your county's NRCS office.) It won't pay a ton of money but over 40k is very possible and the work-life balance is inarguably good.
posted by clavicle at 5:03 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you are considering leaving academia, I know multiple people who have landed great jobs after finishing the Insight Data Science Fellows Program (
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 5:22 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look at govt jobs for sure. I have a friend with a very similar background who does GIS/data analysis for NOAA in Seattle and another with an MS who does that for USGS in Portland. Forest restoration and salmon are connected in the Pacific NW, so look at NOAA, USGS, EPA, as well as state and local agencies.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:54 PM on January 3, 2017

I earned more than that when I was public sector, and I don't have a PhD. Private sector wages are usually higher than public, but you work longer hours, so you don't necessarily come out ahead on an hourly basis.

With a PhD you shouldn't need to start at the tech level.

A friend at a federal agency says their recent tech positions have attracted applicants with PhDs, so maybe this is becoming a thing in some situations. But overall I would agree, you should be well qualified for better positions.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 PM on January 3, 2017

I would love to work for government, and that was my plan when I started grad school. I've been looking at non-profit, city, regional, state, and federal jobs for months. I'm also on multiple local listservs where jobs get promoted. I find about 2-4 reasonable-fit + acceptable pay jobs a month, which doesn't seem like enough. Everyone I talk to who has worked for the Feds in relevant agencies talks about how many jobs they're shedding - a couple of them had their positions closed and got reassigned across the country. Some local colleagues with Master's degrees did years of seasonal field work before finding permanent employment (and they're not slackers, that's a pretty normal occurrence). I'm not blindly jumping ship, here.

I'm interested in gaining forestry skills (timber cruising, valuation, etc.), but I don't know how I'd do that without significantly more school. I have some GIS skills on my resume but no formal training. I have no modelling experience, which is a barrier. I haven't worked near streams or wetlands, another barrier. I have no publications yet, which is a problem for postdocs/research (working on it).

I'm also a somewhat older PhD in a hot real estate market, so putting off making decent money means putting off buying a home possibly indefinitely, which makes me really sad. I am reluctant to move away from friends and a city I love, though.
posted by momus_window at 7:42 PM on January 3, 2017

Are you on the Eco-log listserv? Jobs are often posted there.
posted by Toddles at 9:01 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can only speak to my personal experience and interests here, but I have a similar background and finally ended up as a freelance project manager for mostly nonprofit grant-based work. I got a MS in forest ecology about 15 years ago and struggled the same way to find good employment options. I did a fully field-based term position with the USFS for a while, but the constant travel was brutal. I humbly took a short-term job with a huge international nonprofit, even though it was practically a glorified intern position. I even spent a year and a half temping as an admin assistant when I couldn't find other work. Finally, I took a forestry-related, one-year grant-funded position with a local nonprofit. That job led to additional grants, which over time became a decade of work, contacts, and experience. When the grant funding started to dry up, I was able to transition to my current freelance work. I still do work for one of my previous nonprofit employers, along with a couple of others. I take on projects as my schedule and interests allow. This gives me tremendous flexibility for family life, etc. I know that this job profile isn't glamorous or terribly impressive, but it's turned into a rewarding career with terrific work-life balance. The real takeaway here for me though has been the surprise that every one of my previous jobs -- even the temp and intern work -- provided crucial experience that came back to help me later.
posted by hessie at 6:57 AM on January 4, 2017

« Older Help Me Help Them   |   Looking for Visa/MC Gift Card to use for online... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.