Sustaining ecology (and ecologists): is it related only to numbers of individuals?
by David Brakke
Outstanding science, application in practical settings, and attention to its role in education are necessary for ecology to be sustained.
Faculty members at universities and colleges will be critical in this effort, but they are not the only players. However, one might not
get this impression from our graduate programs, which seem predicated on the notion that the Ph.D. is a research degree leading to a
career in research, one linear path from a leading graduate program into a career at a research university.
Currently there are roughly 4000 institutions in the U.S. offering undergraduate courses. Another 2000 providers are offering
courses of various kinds on-line, with roughly twice as many expected by 2005. In addition, many ecologists work for Federal and
State agencies, sometimes involved in research, while others are involved in non-profit and other organizations. I would submit that
ecology has an important role to play in each of these settings, but that our graduate programs are not designed accordingly.
Even if we assume for the sake of argument that every ecologist is interested in a position at an academic institution, where are the
positions for Ph.D. ecologists? First, if we examine the demographics of the faculty in higher education and assume each of those
positions will be replaced with a similar tenure-line appointment, some fields over-produce relative to the demand for Ph.D.s, while
others are not producing Ph.D.s at a rate that will satisfy demand. Institutions relying increasingly on part-time faculty decrease the
number of full-time appointments. For some areas of the life sciences, Ph.D.s are being produced above demand and postdoctoral
experiences can lead to lesser probability of obtaining an academic position.
A second critical factor is that most positions are not in research universities, although some are large and the locations of most
graduate programs in ecology. By contrast, approximately half of all undergraduate students in the country take their first science
and mathematics course in community colleges, with even percentages for minority students. Also, many students who have an
interest in ecology complete their baccalaureate degrees at liberal arts colleges or “comprehensive” colleges and universities.
Academic ecologists are found in a range of institutions and I would argue are importantly represented. Ecologists engage in a wide
range of activities from undergraduate teaching of majors and non-majors, graduate training, research, teacher preparation and
outreach to K-12 schools and the community, to administration. In both setting and activity, ecologists have an extremely important
role to play in the education of K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, and future teachers. The lessons of ecology should be
part of the education of each and every student, with ties to local environments. For this to occur, we need more ecologists who are
prepared to be involved in education and expanded efforts to recruit minorities into the field.
Recently, Golde and Dore (2001; project site - www.phd-survey.org) examined the experiences of doctoral students in 11 fields,
including ecology, at 27 universities. They suggest that despite a decade of reports drawing attention to graduate education (e.g.,
NRC 1998, books.nap.edu/catalog/6244.html), there remains a mismatch: “doctoral students persist in pursuing goals as faculty
members, and graduate programs persist in preparing them for careers at research universities, despite well-publicized paucity of
academic jobs and efforts to diversify the options available for doctorate-holders. The result: Students are not well prepared to
assume the faculty positions that are available, nor do they have a clear concept of their suitability for work outside research.” Given
specific responses from students in ecology graduate programs and information on interest and perceptions contained therein, the
report represents an excellent starting point for the ecology community, which could benefit from extensive conversation of the role
of the field in K-16 (or 20) education and beyond academic institutions.
Some of us hire faculty members in institutions other than research universities. In my case, I will work with a department to recruit
a teacher-scholar, who will be active researchers in their field, passionate about undergraduate education and involve undergraduate
students in their research. Numbers of applicants are not important, although it is of great concern to me if the numbers are high for
a particular position but few applicants meet our criteria. In our searches, we will look for breadth as well as depth, with positions
not defined as a narrow niche. Applicants having narrow focus and relatively little experience in teaching will likely not be
successful. While some applicants are ill prepared and have not even been a teaching assistant, others have taken advantage of
programs that give them considerable mentoring and experience in classroom and field settings, or effective incorporation of
technology in instruction. These experiences are immediately recognized and valued by search committees. Additional skills and
experiences also can be seen as enhancing the capabilities of a department. Thus, students can optimize their chances of success.
Fortunately, there are institutions re-shaping graduate education to produce students well-suited for careers at a wide range of
academic and other settings, adding important experiences to a solid research base (see Gaff, J.G. et al. 2000, Assoc. Amer. Coll.
& Univ., www.preparing-faculty.org). Then, once we have identified an outstanding applicant, some of us also must find ways to
support our new colleagues, not only in their research but also for their teaching, so they will have productive and satisfying careers
of continuing professional growth as scholars and teachers.
Ecology has a vital role to play in our current and future educational institutions and beyond. Maintaining the quality of research and
study, while revising our graduate programs to meet the real, diverse needs of students heading in various directions, is a topic
worthy of consideration for all ecologists. It is a discussion that goes well beyond the numbers of individuals.
David Brakke is Dean of James Madison University’s College of Science and Mathematics. His opinions are his own and do not reflect positions of
James Madison University or the Ecological Society of America.
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