Let’s talk career paths

By Graziella Iossa

I hear you say “Not another talk about career paths”. But we must talk about it. Too many careers in academia follow a conventional trajectory – PhD, postdocs, lectureship/first tenure – especially in the field of ecology. In ecology, we don’t fare well in terms of women retention. The sex ratio is skewed to women in biology/ecology undergraduate courses, and again at PhD level, but the statistics start reversing after this stage (for a nice round up with data from 2014, this blog from Natalie Pettorelli is your must-read with references). Postdoctoral positions and first lectureship/tenure track position are more skewed to men and more heavily so as you go up the career path to Reader/Assistant Professor and Professor. I must add my context is a UK one, as on the other side of the Atlantic it appears that the majority of newly hired North American assistant professors are women. Meanwhile in the UK, this summary of the British Ecological Society’s 2013 diversity report – the BES is the largest ecological society in Europe – shows that only 39% of members are women and a mere 0.5% of attendees at INTECOL 2012 were of black ethnicity.

We have finally started to recognise that we have a real lack of diversity among ecologists. This lack of diversity matters, and affects our discipline in a negative way. We need every bright mind engaged in solving ecological problems facing our present and future, if we are to tackle global challenges such as climate change or antimicrobial resistance. But we also need to be able to speak to people from all socio-economic backgrounds and across cultures. At the moment we very much reflect the views of white middle class people (well, mostly white middle class men).

I read an inspirational blog post that opened my eyes to how equality and diversity in ecology – but broadly across many science subjects – are tightly linked to career paths (apologies to the author of the post but I can’t find it anymore!). Academia is fairly peculiar among professional career paths as it typically involves unpaid periods – when you are usually still expected to produce publications if your CV is to stay competitive – in between contracts. In other careers, unpaid periods are usually limited to the beginning of a career path, usually during internships, apprenticeships or other training stages, which generally coincide with the time when you are a student. In academia this is not the case and you could find yourself at any stage in your career prior to landing a permanent position, when you are unemployed. This puts wealthy middle classes at a clear advantage in our jobs.

From my own personal experience, as someone who has not taken a linear career path, but has instead changed career and taken time off to look after my family, there are still lots of obstacles for those who try to return to science – not least that of the unhelpful leaky pipeline metaphore. Many funding bodies have eligibility criteria such as time since PhD, which inevitably put at disadvantage those who, like me, have changed career and taken time off to look after a family (although maternity leave is generally accounted for). These prevents anyone with a non-linear career path from applying. Things are slowly changing though. Since 2011, gender equality – the Athena Swan gender equality charter in the UK – has received a major boost when the UK Chief Medical Officer announced that only medical schools in receipt of a Silver Athena Swan award would be eligible for funding from the National Institute for Health Research.  Last year the Wellcome Trust announced they have dropped time-post-PhD as one of the criteria for applying for their independent fellowship schemes. We need more institutions and funding bodies to follow suit if we want to increase diversity in ecology. Diversity in terms of people from different ethnic backgrounds and from different career paths. By not taking into account that career paths can be nonlinear, we are excluding all those people and missing out on a whole host of skills too. Think of people with experience in business, industry, ecological consultancies, policy, publishing and more. As scientists those are among the people we are trying to communicate to and, yet, we prevent them from joining our academic profession by not acknowledging that you can take a break from academia and come back, or that you can gain experience in a different field and then turn or return to academia.

Initiatives such as linking funding to positive equality outcomes, and removing obstacles such as time since PhD, are important and welcome but are still exceptions mainly restricted to the medical field. We need to extend these measures to all scientific fields. Equality and diversity go hand in hand, removing obstacles to women is not enough, we need to remove obstacles that prevent anyone from having a career in academia and science in general.

So, yes, I think we should still talk about career paths and start a conversation about how to address the intrinsic obstacles – structural, cultural, financial among others – that prevent people from choosing an academic career in ecology.

Author biography: Graziella Iossa is an evolutionary ecologist interested in behavioural and population ecology and is currently exploring interdisciplinary approaches to link ecosystem services and human health, in the context of antimicrobial resistance. She is an early career researcher and a Back to Science Fellow at the University of Lincoln, UK. @giossa

Image credit: Forest path in Yvelines – France, copyright Wikimedia Commons,