Next-Generation Point of View: Getting a job

Reblogged Next-Generation point of view post from INNGE's blog [originally posted [01/08/2013 - 15:51]

The second in the series of INNGE’s featured Next-Gen Point of View blog posts covers the topic of skill sets needed for a successful career outside academia. We bring you two blog posts based on an open-access paper in the journal Conservation Biology entitled “Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Nonacademic Conservation Careers”. The study was conducted by a group of eight PhD-students and one tenured faculty from the University of California, Davis, in the USA.

Through analysis of job advertisements and structured interviews, the group of authors concludes that important skills for these career paths “are best signaled to [future] employers via experiences obtained outside thesis or dissertation work”. They further emphasize that PhD-students “should not necessarily expect to be competent in these skills simply by completing their chosen degree path”.

It is not only PhD-students themselves who are highlighting the importance of preparing for careers outside academia. Just last week, Science Careers named the labor economist Paula Stephan their first ever Person of the Year, mainly due to her work analyzing career opportunities for early-career scientists. Science Careers explains of the reason Stephan was chosen:

Stephan has long expounded the view that the current graduate and postdoctoral training system constitutes, in her words, a “pyramid scheme.” This system, she has repeatedly shown, uses young and aspiring scientists as cheap labor for professors’ grant-funded research and then fails to provide the career opportunities that have been implicitly or explicitly promised.

Hopefully the Conservation Biology paper and the honoring of Paula Stephan’s work are a sign that more early-career scientists and PhD-programs will start to seriously address how best to prepare early-career scientists for a diverse set of career pathways.

Below we feature two blog posts that discuss the Conservation Biology paper. One is by a subset of the authors themselves, the other is from a blog based at University of Melbourne in Australia discussing the paper. Enjoy!

Advice for getting your dream job in conservation science

Originally posted on December 4th, 2012 on

A few weeks ago I heard from an early-career researcher in the U.S. who had some intelligent things to say about getting jobs in conservation science based on a recent Conservation Biology paper she co-wrote. Of course, for all the PhDs universities are pumping out into the workforce, there will never be enough positions in academia for them all. Thus, many find their way into non-academic positions. But – does a PhD in science prepare you well enough for the non-academic world? Apparently not.

Many post-graduate students don’t start looking at job advertisements until we are actually ready to apply for a job. How often do we gleam the list of required skills and say, “If only I had done something to acquire project management skills or fundraising skills, then I could apply for this position…”? Many of us start post-graduate degrees assuming that our disciplinary training for that higher degree will prepare us appropriately for the job market. In conservation science, however, many non-disciplinary skills (i.e., beyond those needed to be a good scientist) are required to compete successfully for non-academic positions. What are these skills?

Our recent paper in Conservation Biology (Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers) sifted through U.S. job advertisements and quantified how often different skills are required across three job sectors: nonprofit, government and private. Our analysis revealed that several non-disciplinary skills are particularly critical for job applicants in conservation science. The top five non-disciplinary skills were project management, interpersonal, written communication, program leadership and networking. Approximately 75% of the average job advertisement focused on disciplinary training and these five skills. In addition, the importance of certain skills differed across the different job sectors.

Below, we outline the paper’s major findings with regard to the top five skills, differences among sectors, and advice for how to achieve appropriate training while still in university.

  1. Project management
    • This crucial skill goes beyond the basics of just doing your research. It involves planning, balance, schedules, budgets and implementation. If your research involves multiple projects in the field or lab, coordinating with collaborators and/or scheduling meetings, work days, grant deadlines that involve employees or partners, then you have a leg-up with this particular skill. Experience with project management will likely also enhance other skills such as interpersonal skills, multi-tasking and personnel leadership.
  2. Program leadership
    • Non-dissertation experiences can provide leadership skills. Organising a conference, leading a club or chapter, or running regular meetings quickly signal this skill. If your dissertation project involves others that are not your employee (e.g., lab members), motivating and organizing their efforts demonstrates your leadership ability.
  3. Interpersonal skills
    • Many employers examine this skill through your behaviour during the interview process. However, having documented evidence of your ability to work well within a diversity of teams can still be highly useful. Being part of (or leading!) workshops that involve people of differing backgrounds, especially non-academic, would be a great indicator for this skill. Producing products is an integral part of demonstrating your interpersonal skills. Just attending a meeting will not suffice!
  4. Networking
    • This skill involves developing relationships outside of your inner circle (e.g., beyond the lab group). Being a good networker means you can develop partnerships and collaborate with diverse groups. Writing multi-authored published papers may signal this skill. If your project involves outside organisations, you can document that networking via presentations, collaborative reports, workshops and other multi-person activities.
  5. Written communication
    • Referencing your written dissertation is unlikely to satisfy employers on this point. Successful proposal and grant writing might suffice, but to stand out from the crowd, you should find other ways to demonstrate this skill, such as with popular articles on your research (such as blog posts!), peer-reviewed publications or fact-sheets for outreach. Don’t forget the importance of a well-written cover letter and CV!

Skill loadings on PCA Components 1 and 3. Skill sets associated with Components 1 and 3 were useful for distinguishing among job sectors. Government jobs were associated with intermediate values on axis 1 and high values on axis 3. Non-profit jobs were associated with high values on Component 1 and intermediate values on Component 3. Private jobs were associated with low values on Component 1 and intermediate values on Component 3.

Major differences among jobs and sectors

Differences among jobs tended to align with differences among job sectors. For example, some jobs emphasised that conservation is a social process and required interpersonal, networking, oral communication, outreach communication, program leadership and project management skills. Other jobs focused on the production of technical information in support of conservation and emphasised technical and information technology skills, written communication skills, specific disciplinary skills and field experience.  Nonprofit jobs tended to rank higher for the former skill-set, while private and government jobs tended to highlight the latter.

With regard to less commonly mentioned skills, nonprofit advertisements sometimes sought candidates that had fundraising and monetary skills, as well as cultural and international experience. Government advertisements occasionally featured conflict resolution and negotiation skills, while the private sector focused primarily on information technology skills and field experience.

How to get the skills you need

  1. Focus on the ‘top five’ skills, which are transferable across job sectors.
  2. Decide on a career track early in post-graduate training and tailor your work accordingly. Augment your transferable skill set with sector-specific skills, such as technical and IT skills, or outreach communication.
  3. Start collecting job information early. Develop a process to scan and evaluate job advertisements long before you are ready to apply so you develop the skills needed for the positions you find appealing.
  4. Volunteer with potential future employers.
  5. When applying, include experiences that might have nothing to do with your dissertation or even your academic career! Do you coach a sports team? Do you organise volunteer events?

An expanding field

Surprisingly, interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary training did not emerge as a key skill. This could reflect a shift in employer focus. Rather than hiring biologists who have experience in business or economics, many organisations may now be looking to hire a suite of specialists with advanced degrees in a variety of disciplines, including biology, business, social science, political science and economics. If this is the case, scientists with different academic backgrounds will be increasingly required to collaborate, which will make interpersonal and networking skills even more critical.

So what can post-graduate students do to improve their chances of eventually landing a ‘dream job’? Develop transferable skills, focus on compatible groups of skills, gain experiences that extend beyond the dissertation, and make sure to showcase these non-disciplinary skills and experiences (along with disciplinary expertise) on a CV or during an interview. It may sound like a lot, but in our experience, most post-graduate students are already doing most of these things. The crux may be realising that non-academic employers will probably value your club leadership almost as much as your statistical know-how.

Kristy DeinerLauren M. Porensky and Marit L. Wilkerson

So, you want a job that lets you save the world…

Originally Posted on November 19, 2012 by qaecology

In this week’s QAECO reading group, we changed tack. Rather than a science-based paper, we discussed a recent paper from the Graduate Groups of Ecology and Geography at UC Davis (Blickley et al.). Their paper arose from a workshop on graduate education for conservation professionals, in which conservation scientists, managers, graduate students and faculty discussed how graduate students can gain appropriate training for non-academic conservation jobs.

Training graduate students for non-academic conservation jobs is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, these jobs are vital for improved management of the world’s natural resources. We need people in conservation jobs to be well trained, ensuring that the initiatives they implement are guided by up-to-date knowledge of conservation practice, and, more generally, by the critical, evidence-based thinking needed to evaluate conservation effectiveness. Secondly, the number of graduate students being trained exceeds the number of long-term academic jobs. To be sure of a job, students in conservation graduate programs need skills that extend beyond academia.

Blickley et al. analyzed job advertisements for conservation-science positions and interviewed conservation professionals who have experience hiring early-career conservation scientists to determine what skills are sought by employers. They compared requirements in the government, non-profit and private sectors.

The most commonly required non-disciplinary skills varied among sectors, although the following five were prominent: project management, interpersonal skills, written communication, program leadership, and networking.

Ordination plot reproduced from Blickley et al. (in press) showing how skills nominated in job advertisement correspond to each other and to the three employment sectors that were examined.

An ordination of the advertised job requirements explained ~60% of the variation using three axes. The first and third axes are shown in the diagram, along with the location of the government, nonprofit and private jobs. It illustrates that field and technical/IT skills, which tend to have a disciplinary grounding, are opposite to some of the major non-disciplinary skills that are sought, such as project management and program leadership. That is, jobs that require the former skills tend not to require the latter, and vice versa.

Noticeably, the non-profit sector is absent from the lower left quadrant where field and technical/IT skills lie. This sector is also rare in the upper left quadrant. The skills sought by nonprofit organizations tend to be those on the right hand side of the ordination, where non-disciplinary skills dominate (project management, program leadership, communication skills). Of course, these are only some of the average patterns, and there is variation among jobs.

What can graduate students do?

So how might graduate students gain and demonstrate these non-disciplinary skills, so that they can help improve their chances of being competitive in the non-academic job market?

Let’s work our way through the top five skills indentified by Blickley et al.

  1. Project management
    • Skills in project management are not demonstrated by simply saying “I wrote a thesis – that was a BIG project”. While it is true that successfully completing a PhD does entail considerable project management skills, employers may not be able to link that with the specific skills they have in mind, such as planning and budgeting, delivering projects within budget, efficient scheduling of tasks, supervision and coordination of personnel, etc. It is important to tease these skills out, and identify specific components of your PhD (or Masters or Honours project) that tick the boxes employers seek. Did you recruit and supervise volunteers? Yes = supervision and coordination of personnel. Did you complete a whole season of field work on a tiny budget? Yes = delivery of projects within budget. Did you have limited time to complete several set tasks (write literature review, complete pilot study and submit grant application all by March 19)? Yes = efficient scheduling of tasks. You have the skills, you just need to provide employers with specific, tangible and compelling examples.
  2. Interpersonal skills
    • Interpersonal skills include motivating others, listening and responding to others, communicating clearly, having a sense of empathy, practising conflict resolution, etc. It’s possible that a graduate student could make it through his/her degree without using these skills. But it seems unlikely. Undergraduate courses are littered with group projects that require, and demonstrate, interpersonal skills. Graduate students develop and employ interpersonal skills in many of the common tasks they perform during their candidature, including giving presentations (communicating clearly), liaising with land-holders/stake-holders/management agencies, attending and participating in workshops, contributing to reading groups, etc. Again, it’s a matter of identifying those skill sets within the (sometimes mundane) day-to-day activities that define graduate studies.

    • An important point raised during our discussion of Blickley et al.’s paper was that one can look beyond their educational experience to demonstrate the skills employers desire. Participation in community or sporting clubs requires many of the skills listed above (motivating others, listening and responding to others, communicating clearly, having a sense of empathy, practising conflict resolution), and most graduate students will be able to draw on some involvement in these sorts of activities. Employers are likely to value experiences, so volunteering can help. But make sure volunteering is not simply exploitation, and that the rewards in terms of personal satisfaction and skill development are worth the time you invest.

  3. Written communication
    • Now, a recent graduate might say “I’ve got great written communication skills – I wrote a 50,000 word thesis. That shows I can write!” Indeed it does, but being able to write a tome is only one aspect of written communication.

    • For many employers, the key to demonstrating good written communication skills is showing that you can tailor your writing appropriately to different circumstances. A 50,000 thesis is unlikely to be required in most of these. Writing for a range of audiences can help. If you haven’t already, try writing media releases, opinion pieces, letters to newspapers, articles for newspapers or online equivalents (e.g., The Conversation), magazines (e.g., the Environmental Decision Group’s magazine Decision Point), blog posts, tweets, etc. Many of these activities might not be standard fare for graduate students, but they are clearly helpful for practising and demonstrating your written communication skills. They can also help increase the reach and impact of your research.

  4. Program leadership
    • Most graduate students have opportunities to demonstrate and practise leadership skills. You might be able to help run student societies or other organizations. For example, some of the graduate students in QAECO are members of the executive of professional societies. Others help lead the Botany graduate student organization.

    • If you can’t find an established leadership position to fill, look for them elsewhere or make one yourself. What is the web presence of your lab group? QAECO’s website arose from three students in the group taking the initiative to say “We need a better web presence”, and then they set about creating it.

  5. Networking
    • Networking is an important skill for academics. Academia relies on knowing about the latest research, collaboration, and making sure your research reaches the intended audience. Again, it is not a simple matter of saying “I go to conferences – I’m great at networking”. You will need to demonstrate that you can network in a variety of settings and across institutions and sectors.

    • How one actually does that can be difficult to define – it will depend a lot on your location, the networks of those around you and your own personal comfort levels with ‘putting yourself out there’. Two points we wish to make is that it isn’t that hard, nor does it need to entail overt pushiness. On the first point, you might chat to the speaker after the seminar you just found really interesting, email a researcher whose work you’re interested in, ask to meet up with a policy person from the Department of [insert relevant field], etc. You could even write a blog post about someone’s paper (“Hello to everyone at UC Davis!”).

    • We mention the second point because it is easy (for some of us) to feel that networking is some kind of sordid behavior. But it’s not – it’s just talking to people and getting involved. It is about being part of the conversation. Who knows, you might just enjoy it! Networking in this way, and putting yourself out there is important – it is particularly important for women, who, on average, might be less inclined to self-promotion and networking than men.

To sum up, read Blickley et al. if you’re interested in a non-academic job; think about the skills they discuss – which ones you have, how to develop those you don’t, and how you could demonstrate those skills to a potential employer.

However, even if you’ve got your heart set on being the next Professor of Ecology at The University of Hotshots, read Blickley et al.; many of the skills they discuss will probably be in the Professorship advertisement too.

By Mick, Geoff, Kirsten and Team

Other reading

There are lots of resources about how to get a job as a conservation scientist and in related disciplines. Some of the issues discussed in the subject Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science are summarised here. If you have other suggestions for resources, feel free to submit them via the comments.


  • Blickley, J. L., Deiner, K., Garbach, K., Lacher, I., Meek, M. H., Porensky, L. M., Wilkerson, M. L., Winford, E. M. and Schwartz, M. W. (in press) Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523–1739.2012.01956.x