When I started grad school, and people asked what I did, I said I was a field ornithologist. Then in my PhD (which was still very heavily focused on birds), I dubbed myself more of a population ecologist. Now that I’m searching for a job, I’ll call myself whatever the advert wants me to call myself.
But this is part of a trend towards the shame of calling oneself an ornithologist, a mammalogist, an entomologist, or a marine botanist. We’re afraid to let the organisms we study define us in large part because of the shift away from organismal biology to conceptual biology. There are far more job adverts for population ecologists than ornithologists.
Some universities have taken this to the extreme – Queen’s University, for example, offers no taxon-specific courses. And there’s something to be said for the study of environmental physiology, or behavioural ecology, or adaptive morphology since it can often result in a broad education.
But there’s also something to be said for the study of birds, mammals, insects, and algae, and their unique characters. For those of us in the field, many of our research questions are, in reality, driven by the field techniques we know. If you want to catch 50 adult puffins, I’m your man. Give me 3 days, and you’ll get your sample. But ask me to catch 10 voles, or 25 wasps, or 18 trout, and I’m as useless as coals to Newcastle.
That’s not to say that I’m not interested in various broad concepts. I’m fascinated by mate choice, foraging ecology, nutritional ecology, migration, demography, and life history theory – I just apply these to the system I know best: birds.
The folks over at Arthropod Ecology gave a pretty optimistic run-down of how to land a tenure-track job in entomology, which sparked a lively back-and-forth on Twitter with them, and Terry from Small Pond Science as it relates to academic labels, and hiring.
Regardless of what I call myself (population ecologist, foraging ecologist, demographer), I likely won’t get an interview at a department that has one other person who uses birds as their model species. It doesn’t matter if they study Neotropical migrants and forestry practices, and I’m all about seabirds as central-place foragers – in the eyes of the search committee, we’re both “bird people”.
True, a department wouldn’t hire two behavioural ecologists, but they’re also not likely to advertise for a 2nd behavioural ecologist.
How many faculty could supervise students equally well if they are working on ants, seaweed, elk, and chickadees? Probably not many. How many faculty have published on such a variety of focal species? Probably fewer. We all have our favourite system / taxonomic group in which we know how to work.
Hiring committees need to see beyond the means by which we accomplish the ends of our research. If a department wants a population ecologist, it shouldn’t matter if I study populations of African wildebeests, rockhopper penguins, Atlantic salmon, parasitoid wasps, leaf-cutter ants, or crayfish. But in some cases, it probably does come into play, for better or for worse.