By Matthew Bond, SEB At-large Student Committee Member, Botany PhD from the University of Hawai’i.
As a student, people always want to know what I’m going to do after I’m done with university. When I started my PhD, I thought that the only possible jobs were in academia, research, and teaching. However, only 23-30% of social and life sciences PhD graduates work in tenure track jobs– so where are the other 70%? Most science PhDs now work in private companies, while many others find work in the public sector.
If tenure-track jobs are so rare, how can you be prepared for the job market? Today, I’d like to share five alternative career paths for ethnobotany students that I’ve discovered during my own graduate education: conservation, consulting/business, science writing, science policy, and data science. For each of these categories, I describe the career, share contact information for ethnobotanists who currently have these jobs, and suggest ways that you can gain experience in these careers so that you’re ready to find a job after graduation!
Half of the earth’s land and fresh water have been transformed by humans, and we have driven a quarter of all bird species to extinction. Conservation seeks to protect and restore species, ecosystems, cultural sites, and ecological knowledge. Conservation scientists may select project goals, identify the best methods to achieve those goals, establish and supervise management plans, write progress reports, apply for permits to work with protected areas or species, educate the public about their work, and raise funds by applying for grants.
Society of Ethnobiology member Carrie Cannon is employed by the Hualapai Tribe to restore native plants and conserve and revitalize ethnobotany knowledge.
SEB member Grady Zuiderveen works for the U.S. Forest Service to protect forest trees and medicinal herbs from threats like climate change and overharvesting. He found this job by applying for the Presidential Management Fellowship to intern with US government agencies.
SEB member Annie Virnig works for the United Nations Development Program to implement the Sustainable Development Goals to protect humans and the environment.
SEB member Anne Elise Stratton worked for EcoLogic Development Fund to conserve tropical forests by supporting sustainable livelihoods for local and Indigenous communities in Central and South America.
Volunteer for local conservation organizations near your university- this can be key to getting a job at that organization after you graduate! Look for internships in biological and cultural conservation. Take a class in grant writing. Apply for the Presidential Management Fellowship to intern with US government agencies in conservation. Read more about conservation careers in government, nonprofits, and NGOs.
Consulting & Business
Although you may be familiar with the idea of running your own business, consulting is harder to define. Consulting often means providing advice or scientific reports for companies and organizations to help them make decisions. Consultants are typically hired to provide expertise and objectivity for a specific project, so their work is often temporary or seasonal. For example, company might hire a consultant to find a sustainable source for a species of plant used to make herbal supplements, identify which farmers grow a plant species in the right conditions to improve its nutrition or taste, or identify the plant species that are growing on a potential construction zone to minimize their damage to nature and nearby human communities who use the plants.
SEB member Sonia Peter started Heritage Teas Barbados to sell teas inspired by the plants and local knowledge of Barbados.
SEB member Susanne Masters is a consultant that finds unusual and sustainable botanicals for the distilling industry.
SEB member Trish Flaster runs a consulting company that provides sustainable sourcing of herbal and pharmaceutical plants, intellectual property rights information, and quality control of herbal supplements.
SEB member Letitia McCune runs a consulting business for nutritional and pharmaceutical research, environmental and ethnobotanical assessments, and intellectual property rights information.
Ethnobotanist Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis runs a tour company that teaches visitors about the environment of Crete and how to forage their own wild foods.
Take a business class, join a business or entrepreneur club at your university, or read more about consulting.
Science writing careers include journalism (writing for the public) and technical writing (for scientists, organizations, or companies). Science writing skills include explaining complex research and ideas without jargon, working with tight deadlines, juggling multiple projects simultaneously, identifying your audience so that you can find the right publisher, finding new stories that are relevant to current affairs, using vivid description, and taking photos/videos or making art to illustrate your stories.
SEB student member Susanne Masters has written about plants, culture, and travel for many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, and the BBC
Practice your writing and storytelling by starting a blog, writing for your university newspaper, or making videos for YouTube. Apply for science writing workshops and fellowships. Read more about science writing.
Scientists who work in policy are not actually lawmakers, but serve as a bridge between lawmakers and scientists. They impartially share scientific information with lawmakers to help them decide how to vote or write legislation. Science policy experts also recommend how to implement policy with specific rules and help other scientists comply with these regulations. A career in science policy requires many of the same skills as science communication, because you are a “translator” between scientists and lawmakers. However, policy careers also require leadership skills to find common ground and compromises between political parties and interest groups.
Ethnobotanist Katie Kamelamela had an internship in the United States Congress and now works to integrate Native Hawaiian ecological knowledge and leadership into conservation policy on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.
SEB member Grady Zuiderveen participated in the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop to learn about science policy.
Seek leadership positions in university clubs and organizations (like the SEB student representative!) to advocate for change. For example, you could work to unionize students, compost university food waste, or create community gardens on campus. Apply for science policy workshops and fellowships. Read more about science policy.
All scientists use data to answer questions, so why is there a separate career of data scientist? Just like statisticians have deeper knowledge of math and analysis than most scientists, data scientists use advanced statistical techniques on large data sets. Data scientists specialize in machine learning, which is making computer programs that find patterns in complex data and automatically adapt to new data. For example, the video website like YouTube and Netflix use machine learning to suggest which videos you might like to watch next by analyzing patterns in videos you have already watched, and can make new recommendations as your watching patterns change.
For this career, data scientists need to know several computer languages (such as R, Python, and SQL), extract data from public sources such as websites, identify and remove errors and problems in the data, create visual representations of data, write machine learning models and algorithms, and communicate their analyses and results to people who know little about statistics. Other examples of machine learning include predictive texting, automatically predicting fraudulent credit card activity, identifying combinations of symptoms that distinguish diseases with similar symptoms, and targeted marketing (which is based on data like your demographics and search history).
SEB member Matthew Bond is in a postdoc program where scientists with graduate degrees are trained to become data scientists.
Learn computer languages like R and Python to analyze data. Look for research opportunities with statistical modeling and multiple types of analysis. Take classes in statistics, biometry, data visualization, and computer programming. Apply for data science fellowships. Read more about data science.