How to apply for a field job

I’ve hired well over a dozen field technicians in the last 10 years, and have just wrapped up this year’s recruitment.  Below are some thoughts on what you can do to increase the likelihood of success in a job competition, and also some advice on whether to apply in the first place.  You should also read this advice from Auriel Fournier, which hits many of the same points.  Like Auriel’s post, these are things I look for when I’m hiring; other places likely differ.


Don’t be generic

I receive a fair number of what I call “Dear Sir/Madam” applications.  These tend to go along the lines of “Dear Sir/Madam, I am interested in applying for the advertised position in your organization”.  It’s rather obvious that little thought has likely gone into the application, as it doesn’t mention the job, organization, or other details specifically.  This “fire broadly and see what sticks” approach is a waste of time.  It’s not that difficult to personalize job applications, even within a generic framework, and “Dear Sir/Madam” applications go to the bottom of the pile.


The skills

Most job postings are looking for people with a given skill set, whether it be bird banding/ringing, data management, blood sampling, or operating specific equipment.  It’s important in your cover letter to go through each of these and demonstrate how you fit the criteria.  The first thing I do when advertising a job is make a spreadsheet with all the different skills I’m looking for.  When I start looking through applications, I check off which of the requirements each applicant has.  Your chances of getting an interview and being successful are very small if you have the necessary skills or experience the job is looking for (or you don’t clearly demonstrate these in your cover letter).

Use the same wording as the job advert. If the job requires someone with bird banding experience, a paragraph/sentence about how long you’ve been banding, which species/species groups, and roughly how many individuals would be a useful thing to include.


Location & wage

The assumption is that, if you’re applying for a job, you would accept the position if it were offered.  I was advised in grad school to “apply for everything”, which is not a strategy I recommend.  As a postdoc, I had no intention of working in the US, so I didn’t apply for any jobs in the US. Doing so was a waste of my (and the hiring committee’s) time.  Likewise, if you have no intention of accepting the position at the wage advertised, then don’t apply.  This is usually determined by an internal salary scale or the size of the grant.


Follow instructions

In my most recent job competition, I asked for a cover letter, CV, and 3 references (with phone numbers) as a single PDF, yet about 15% of applicants didn’t follow this requirement.  Multiple files, different formats, only 2 references, no phone numbers, … you name it.  Not only is there likely a good reason for these sorts of requirements, but it can also act as a screening mechanism, much like Van Halen’s “No Brown M&M’s” clause – if you didn’t follow these instructions, it doesn’t bode well for the rest.


Check with your referees

I don’t like wasting referees’ time, so it’s unlikely that I’d contact them if you weren’t being interviewed (which generally means you have a good shot at the position).  So make sure your referees are current, and can speak to your strengths for the job required. This might mean (gasp, shock, horror) that your referees differ depending on the job.  While I appreciate that your 3rd-year invertebrate anatomy prof can speak quite highly of your academic abilities, are they the most suitable person when applying for a field job?

Make sure your referees also know you’re applying, either for a particular post, or just generally on the job market, so that they’re aware they may be contacted by potential employers.

I don’t simply ask referees “So, how was X at doing job Y for you?”  I’m interested in their take on your strengths and weaknesses, whether they’d hire you again, and how you stack up against others that held that sort of post before, for example.


The interview

If you’re being interviewed, it generally means you have the technical skills to complete the job to the required standard, and the decision is down to other factors, such as personality, how well you’re likely to get on with other team members, or how you’d react in various situations.

Before the interview, think about what questions are likely to come up.  I’m less likely to ask you about your technical skills (I can generally assess those from the application package).  I generally propose a few scenarios, followed by asking “What would you do?”  There’s no wrong answer, and some of the questions may not seem relevant to the job at hand, but they will tell me something of the person that a CV and cover letter can’t convey.

I’m also very likely to ask what you think your greatest weakness is.  This isn’t an attempt to weasel out your flaws, but to get your perspective on your own professional development.

During the interview, take notes of what was asked, and your general answers. This will help you prepare for other interviews in the future, and the task of writing the questions down can help solidify your answers.  You should also be prepared to ask some questions of the interviewer about the post, or the process.  This shows a certain level of engagement with the application, and that you’ve given it thought between the application and interview.

If the interview is by phone or Skype, pick a quiet room where you’re unlikely to be interrupted by pets, family, traffic, or other disturbances, and do your best to minimize any technical glitches.  If in person or video conference, dress professionally.


There are many other posts about job interview tips and tricks, and these are just a few that I’ve had come through my mind in this latest round of recruitment that might not be covered as extensively elsewhere.  I think it can be summarized by these three points:

  1. Demonstrate explicitly in your application how you satisfy the criteria
  2. Provide referees who can speak to the pertinent aspects of your career for the position
  3. Be calm, professional, and engaged with the interview process


It’s as easy* as that!


Footnote – “fit”

My biggest frustration on the job market was being technically qualified, and being interviewed (or at least long-listed), but in the end unsuccessful because of “fit”.  This can be used for any variety of reasons, some more unsavoury than others (like the exclusion of women or people of colour), but for many field jobs, it’s an important aspect as living/working conditions are likely to be very close/demanding, or for a long period of time in isolation. Having a team get on well with each other is very important.  “Fit” should only be considered once the technical skills have been assessed.


Footnote the second – online presence

Chances are, I’ll Google long-listed applicants in a professional capacity (are you on Twitter, or Google Scholar? Do you have a website?). I won’t stalk you on Facebook (though other employers may).  Be aware of what you put online.

— — —

*a bit tongue in cheek. For each job, there are far more qualified applicants than there are positions, so try not to despair if you’re not successful.

Science is an art

“Friends don’t let friends take arts” – t-shirt I saw frequently as an undergrad


We have set up a dichotomy (or multi-chotomy) that separates science from other academic pursuits – arts, social science, humanities, commerce, fine arts, … – but I think that does a disservice to students, and to scientists.

Long ago, one could obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, and the liberal arts tradition ran deep in the science curriculum.  Liz Coleman gave this great TED Talk on how to revitalize the liberal arts in universities.  But with the push to expertise, narrow the focus and emphasize technical skills, we lose something.

The dominant mechanism for information delivery has become the scientific paper.  A short, contained piece, often boringly written, and devoid of stylistic prose. Attempts to introduce anything aside from emotionless, “objective” technical jargon are weeded out by reviewers and editors.  Gone are the days of speculation where scientists present ideas, without first ensuring that p < 0.05*

Recently, Meg Duffy asked on Twitter for a list of authors ecology & evolution students should know.

What came was, rather, a list of the “classics”. But can one know about Lotka and Volterra without knowing about them? Just as we are more than our papers, shaped by our personalities, experiences, and circumstance, so were they.  The book Modelling Nature by Sharon Kingsland provides a narrative for the history of population ecology.  I posit that the development of ideas, and the people behind them are better understood in this narrative style rather than reading n lengthy scientific papers that do not discuss their context, importance, or authors.

It’s a story. People remember stories.

But because it’s not a “textbook” in the strict scientific sense (one filled with facts, references, and presented as largely black-and-white information), it’s not often considered in science courses.

We do the science we do because of what’s come before. The context in which we “do science” is built on its past.  I think this is particularly evident in conservation biology.  Without A Sand County Almanac, or Silent Spring, we’d be in a very different place.  Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson taught us about land management, toxicology, predator-prey interactions, behaviour, policy, and more. And they did it by telling stories.

We like stories because they follow an arc, a path, that begin somewhere, and end somewhere else. And because we experience it, like a walk in the woods, we can more easily recall it, perhaps because it invokes similar spatial and temporal memory.  A paper, by contrast, would be like stepping into the transporter on the Enterprise, and ending up on a foreign planet. It takes a long time to figure out what came before, and how it has affected the present.  In science, we call this “knowing the literature”, and we often do a pretty poor job of it.

So why not have a book (not a textbook, but a book) in class? Teaching evolution? Stephen Jay Gould has several on offer.  Conservation Biology? I’m firmly in the Aldo Leopold camp.  If you can’t find one, give some serious thought to crafting your own narrative.

Narratives, and stories, are written with emotion, evoke responses, and present interesting ideas that would get whittled out of any scientific paper. But they are no less useful (and I’d argue perhaps more useful) for understanding scientific ideas. This is part of the liberal arts tradition.

So if you’re trying to teach a new concept, think of the stories you can use. We tell stories every day (“What did you do on the weekend?”, “Have you heard about X in the news?”), and we’re darn good at it. It’s an art that we, as a species, collectively mastered, and there should be more of that art in science.


*or whatever quantitative test statistic you want

The allure of islands

Recently, Sarah Boon wrote about her search for silence on Vancouver Island, which reminded me of some of the reasons I enjoy island work so much.  Islands have a cultural allure – cut-off from the mainland, isolated, occasionally uninhabited – and for the majority, they are “elsewhere”.  Immersing ourselves in the natural world is becoming challenging. There are simply more people with greater means of “getting away”.

When living in Newfoundland, a friend remarked that she used to love camping, but that it had fallen out of favour recently. Surprised, I asked why. “You’ve got to go farther and farther into the woods to really get away” she replied. The incursion of the partying, 4×4-driving, fashion-“field clothes”-wearing demographic was simply too great.  This is not to set up a sense of conflict between True Outdoors-folk™ and those who take less pleasure in discussing cross-gate-loading of carabiners, but highlights that the make-up of those in the backwoods is shifting. It’s fantastic that more people are going out to see nature (if that is indeed their goal).

But islands are still the domain of the explorers, the adventurers, the discoverers. They are steeped both in history and in the unknown.

One of my formative island experiences came in 2004 while working at Cape Enrage, New Brunswick, on the shores of Chignecto Bay.  Further up the bay was Grindstone Island, which is now managed by the Nature Trust of New Brunswick. For the previous two years, two friends and I discussed kayaking there from the mainland.  It would be a tough paddle, and had to be timed with the tides.  This was the days before Google Maps (at least it was for me), so we relied on survey charts and published tide tables.  One August afternoon, at about 3pm, we launched from Mary’s Point, and were on the island a little over an hour later.

Paddling out

Paddling out

The one landing beach on Grindstone Island

The one landing beach on Grindstone Island

Grindstone Island lighthouse in August 2004

Grindstone Island lighthouse in August 2004

Grindstone was home to a lighthouse from the 1850s, but was decommissioned in 1985.  During our visit, the lighthouse and keepers’ houses were in a state of disrepair.

But why did three of us spend two years dreaming of subjecting ourselves to a very difficult paddle to go see falling apart buildings? Because we knew no one else who had kayaked there, and because it was there.



With the seeds sewn, I quickly became an “island junky”.  Two years on Machias Seal Island in the lower Bay of Fundy while I did my MSc, and then a move to Newfoundland (a larger island, but an island nevertheless).  But nothing could prepare me for the challenges, the hardships, the memories, and the love I found on Kiska.


Sitting far out in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska, Kiska is an island with a fascinating past. Occupied for thousands of years by Aleut communities, it was largely abandoned by the early 1800s.  The outbreak of World War II saw an American weather station established in 1941, and it was one of two American islands occupied by Japan (the other being Attu, to the west) from 1942-1943.  Today, Kiska is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and his home to millions of auklets (small seabirds related to puffins), but also introduced rats – this was to be the focus of my 4 years of work.

Kiska is large (over 270 sq. km), volcanic, and isolated. A large lava dome also formed in the late 1960s also meant jagged lava rocks that would tear your boots and pants to pieces if you weren’t careful.  We did 11-weeks on Kiska each year, with no resupply, and mostly canned/dried food, relying on rainwater as any natural source was tainted by volcanic emissions.  After my first “big” hike in 2007, through what would become a regular route, I literally asked myself what I had gotten myself into.

Landing "beach" at Kiska. Not for the faint of heart.

Landing “beach” at Kiska. Not for the faint of heart.

Our wee camp. Tents and a weatherport.

Our wee camp. Tents and a weatherport.

The 1960s lava dome in the distance; photo taken from about 1800' up the volcano

The 1960s lava dome in the distance; photo taken from about 1800′ up the volcano

The summit of Kiska Volcano - 4004' above sea level

The summit of Kiska Volcano – 4004′ above sea level

Again, why?

Kiska is a place of immense beauty, and the work we did there had not been done before.  We, quite literally, were going to places on that island that no one had ever been to before.  Stepping where no one had stood before. That’s pretty powerful.


Despite there significant differences, these two islands (and my experiences there) share many characteristics.  First and foremost, I visited them with friends, and that shared experience, through hardship, success, and completing the task before us made our friendships stronger.  Second, and relating to Sarah’s post, they were remote and isolated. No phones (cellular or otherwise) aside from the sat phone (at $1.50/minute), no internet, no television, no distractions.  Complete and total immersion (sometimes literally), for better or worse.  I have spent considerable portions of my life in the absence of anthropogenic noise. Now living in England (where you can be no farther than 3 miles/5 km from a road at any time), I am inundated with noise.

But not for long. These days, I venture to the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha, and spend 3 weeks in joyful natural bliss (and hardship) on Gough Island. The stark differences between my current and future locations make each more intense, which can be both good and bad.

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Postscript – there’s a pervading sense of machismo around field work that I’m certainly not advocating. Field work is tough, hard work, but so is lab work, modelling, writing, administrating, … tough work, not matter the context, can be just as rewarding.

Now accepting submissions:

There are several excellent posts on the problems with volunteer/interns in science:

1. Here’s mine

2. And Auriel Fournier’s

3. One from drugmonkey

4. And by Susan Letcher on Small Pond Science


Today, Sean McCann shared what has got to be one of the worst offenders: this post on EvolDir.  Go ahead and read it (though mind the awkward formatting).  In brief, the pay is $0. Oh, and it will cost you $300/month for food/accommodation, $1100 for permits (WTF?!), travel, insurance, and a minimum 6-month commitment… well you can see where this is heading.

And every so often, colleagues and I point out the inequalities perpetuated, the problems inherent, and the general issues with volunteer “staff”.  What baffles me is that this seems to elicit a very strong response, not necessarily in accordance with my/our views.  Volunteer positions are defended, lauded, and held up as the key breakthrough in someone’s career.  I’m glad to hear that.

But consider for a moment some alternate realities. Would you be as successful if:

  • you were a person of colour?
  • you were caring for an elderly family member?
  • you had a child?
  • you were LGBT?
  • you had little/no financial means?

There’s ample evidence to suggest that these groups are those most at a disadvantage by the current university system, and in science as a whole, and to whom I (and others) argue are done the most disservice by the perpetuation of volunteer positions used in place of paid staff. See the four posts at the beginning of this page for the evidence.

The argument that unpaid positions are the norm isn’t valid: it used to be(/sadly still is?) the norm for women to be kept out of positions of power, for there to be poor field safety, for mothers to smoke while pregnant, for LGBT folk to be assaulted/arrested, or for racist/sexist jokes around the dinner table, and for child labourers to work 80+ hours/week. But, by and large, western liberal democracies have adopted cultural norms that state these are not acceptable.

We don’t ask dentists, car mechanics, analytical labs, airlines, departmental administrative staff, or bakers (or any other professional) to volunteer “for the experience”. We need to treat our field staff (whether they be trainees or not) as professional scientists, because that’s what they are.

So, in an effort to highlight some of the problems in hiring wildlife/conservation/ecology field staff, I and a few others have started, the premiere site for all unpaid positions! Feel free to submit job adverts you’ve found that don’t pay their “staff”.  As the site says, the goal isn’t necessarily to call out people or organizations, but to highlight the issue as a whole.  It even has an RSS feed, so you can follow along.

No money = no lab analyses

No money = no field supplies

No money = no gas for the truck

No money = no staff


It’s not rocket science.

Canadian government postdocs: revived (well, sort of)

I wrote before about the demise of the Visiting Fellowship program, which placed postdocs in Canadian government research labs, and used NSERC as a middleman (middle-agency?).  Recently, the employment practices around this arrangement, particularly whether postdocs were entitled to benefits.  An employment tribunal reasoned that they were, and the program shuttered (though all current VFs were fine through the remainder of their tenure).

Now, it comes to my attention that an open-ended competition for the Postdoctoral Research Pilot Program (PRP) has been posted on the Government of Canada jobs site.  My guess, and those of some informed government colleagues, is that this is the replacement for the old VF program.  But there has been no announcement, no information page, nothing.

Some other interesting queries… all government jobs are classified based on the broad category and salary scale.  Two important ones for our purposes here are RES and EG.  RES is a Research Scientist, and there are 5 levels (RES-5 being the highest). EGs are scientific technicians, with EG-7 being the highest level.  How are PRPs to be classified?  The old VF program scaled salary to n% of the entry level RES-1 (I think it was 85-90%).  If the new PRPs are to be classified (and they would be, as government employees), an entry RES-1 seems most likely.  This is huge, as the base salary in 2013 (the last year of the current collective agreement) is $53,161 (link; search for “SE-RES-1″).  That’s a big improvement on the $49k of the VF program.  It’s even bigger if it includes benefits, which are quite significant in a government job (pension, medical/dental, etc).  So the actual cost goes up considerably.

Where will this new money be found?  Previously, the VF program paid postdocs from their immediate supervisor’s operational budget.  I wonder if the benefits side of things will be similarly covered, or whether that comes from higher up in the department.  And what about unionization? RES positions are represented by PIPSC, and the current agreement is up for renewal.  Granted PIPSC isn’t known to strike as often as the other major federal government labour union (PSAC), but who knows what the future will bring.

One last, yet troubling, word.  The advertisement linked above excludes two of the most science-heavy departments: Fisheries & Oceans Canada, and Environment Canada.  Sources have told me that there continues to be no internal / government postdoc option in these departments, and no indication that one will be appearing soon.  With an already limited pool of postdoc funding, the loss of the VF program, and unavailability of the PRP in all departments puts further strain on PhD graduates in Canada, and especially those who want experience in the public service.

Publication requirements for graduation are a terrible idea

I’ve come across two cases in my relatively brief foray into post-PhD science where students at either the MSc or PhD level were faced with a requirement from their academic department to have n papers accepted/published, and n papers submitted for publication in order to be awarded a degree.  Here, I will try to explain why I think this does a disservice to both students, and science.


Time (and money)

The most obvious, yet least-planned-for aspect of this policy is the additional time required.  Scientific publication is, in many respects, a stochastic process which by its very definition is difficulty to use in planning.  When universities or departments require accepted (or even worse, published) manuscripts for graduation, the student’s fate is outside the control of the student, the supervisor, the supervisory committee, the thesis examiners, the department, the faculty, and the university.  It’s not uncommon for papers to be rejected, or to require major revisions necessitating an additional series of reviews, and reviews are most often the bottleneck in the whole process. It’s not uncommon for papers to sit on desks, for editors to have a hard time finding reviewers, and for those reviewers to take a long time to complete their assessments.  And if the decision is reject (or another round of review), the time functionally doubles (or very nearly so).


This addition of several months to students’ programs of study is rarely accounted for, meaning graduation dates and thesis submission dates get pushed back, and students fail to obtain their degrees in a timely manner.


This leads to the inevitable question – who will pay for the additional time?  The argument that the supervisor and student should know and plan to have a paper submitted by time x operates on the assumption that a favourable result will be obtained between time x and time y, when the student plans to graduate.  In reality, though, even with the best planning and undivided attention to deadlines of a supervisor, this isn’t possible. Coauthors’ comments, final supervisor’s approval, and stochasticity (coauthor A is on annual leave, coauthor B is in the field/at a conference, coauthor C is busy with a full teaching schedule this term) push things even further outside the control of those with the greatest vested interest.


Students don’t shouldn’t work if they’re not being paid, so someone needs to pay them. The supervisor? The department? The university? Someone’s got to step up and cover salary, but the reality is that supervisors rarely have such amounts of disposable funding, and departments/universities are quick to pass the buck back to the supervisor.



If we accept the above (and I do), then we have a situation where science is being produced under hard constraints of time.  Decisions on where to publish manuscripts become even more important (which has the shortest turn-around time? where is it likely to get the easiest time in review?).  This often results in the proliferation of science published in “local” journals whose main purpose, it seems, is to offer the quick publication required by universities. We’ve all heard of these obscure journals (the <demonym> Journal of <discipline>), and occasionally had cause to search some of them out.

My argument here isn’t that these are terrible journals, but that even if they meet some magical criteria (e.g., listed in the Science Citation Index, have an Impact Factor, etc.), they’re not easy to get at, and they don’t do students any favours.  Like it or not, it still matters where we publish, and publications in these journals won’t make students as competitive in an academic job market (more on this below).

It also fosters the proliferation of predatory journals – those who offer publication with a (falsified) Impact Factor, sometimes with no review at all, but who are happy to take your $500 or £750, or €1000.  Jeffrey Beall has a very useful list of journals and publishers to avoid. But to a student or supervisor facing a looming deadline, this is an attractive (though morally poor) option.



Not all PhD students (and certainly not all MSc students) want/go into a research career, so for them, publishing is less of a priority.  Some will go into policy, or advocacy, or education, or management, or administration, or plumbing, or learning the personal computer.  A PhD (and to a much lesser extent, MSc) does not obligate one to a career in research (and for most, that’s the reality)


And that’s OK. But it does set up competing interests between the student and the supervisor, which is rarely a good thing. It also continues the emphasis that the tenure track is the One True Way™, something we’ve been trying to dispel.


Final thoughts

I’m not suggesting for a minute that publishing science is a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t publish science – of course we should.  But the mechanism by which we achieve that goal shouldn’t be through student degree requirements. It should be through better support and improved funding so that students *can* get their science published, or at least into a state where someone else can take care of things after they’ve left.

I’ve done a fair bit of manuscript necromancy, including two former students’ theses (both MSc).  I’m batting 80% at getting things published, and the last paper will never come out because of poor field methods. It’s tough, it’s hard, but we got the science out there in appropriate journals and with little additional cost.  Both students have successful full-time jobs outside research, and are happy with their choices.

If we want student research to be published, here are some tips/gaps:

  • provide better writing support. Make use of your university’s writing centre if it has one.
  • explain scientific publishing, including how long it can take, to students on a regular basis
  • make sure coauthors are aware of deadlines and enforce them/support the student in enforcing them
  • return manuscripts in a reasonable time. 6 months is not a reasonable time (though it’s far from out-of-the-ordinary in the experiences of some colleagues of mine)
  • discuss career plans with students often, and prioritize actions that will maximize their success in whatever career path they choose.
  • share your publishing successes, and especially failures, with students. The bigger the dataset of “how publications work” the better informed they’ll be.
  • recognize that some students will not publish papers, and some will not publish all of their chapters. Make sure drafts, data, and code are available, have sufficient metadata for reanalysis, and think about other possibilities for publishing (e.g., perhaps it’s a quick analysis & few days of writing for a postdoc, or a colleague’s student, or a collaborator, or …)

FAQ, and answers thereto #3

The latest in a light-hearted look at the search terms folks use to find The Lab and Field.


kroodsma (2000, auk 117:1081–1083)

Probably one of the most under-appreciated papers. You should really read it.


gay canadian scientists



how to make an academic website

Somewhat inexplicably (at least to me), this is by far my most popular post. Ever. By a long shot. I wonder if I should update it. Thoughts?


migration of bird moon

The bird moon is non-migratory (and lacks coconuts)


advantages of academic citation

Jobs, money, power, influence YMMV.


non scientific endeavour

Theatre! Vacuuming! Delivering parcels!


why didn’t i get nserc funding

Sorry to hear. Probably because, though I’m sure it was excellent, your application didn’t make the cut. But you’re not alone.



why do we need to have seminar?

Because it’s good for you. Seriously though, it’s great to hear about other research, and broaden your horizons. If your seminar series sucks (and most of them do), make it better.


when do early view articles show up in google scholar

Give them a few days. You can also add them manually to your profile!


how many applicants per job for postdoctoral position

Depends how widely it’s advertised, among other things. You never get the jobs you don’t apply for.


best site for academics

I like islands, or failing that, aboard a ship. But then again, I’m not an academic.


what if birds didnt migrate

Who would carry coconuts from Mercia?


environment canada post doc

Run! Actually, it was beneficial to see the inner workings. Unmuzzled Science has a post about what it’s like as a postdoc in the Government of Canada.


“hipsters” “github”

Are those meant to be sarcastic of euphemistic?


labrador duck not extinct

Yes. It is. Boo.


if you came to our library..

I’d likely check out a book, or other library material.


http://www.peopple sex vs

Well that escalated quickly. This one is a puzzler.


communication is one of the most

And sometimes one of the least.