A PhD in wildlife ecology – Part I: Should I do it?

By Stuart Dawson

A PhD in ecology can be a rewarding or regrettable experience. Enrolments in PhD programs are often more sought-after following downturns in the job market, and it seems likely that following COVID-19, lots of budding young wildlife biologists will use the times as an opportunity to return to uni to do a PhD.

I have thrown together a series of three blogs attempting to provide some guidance to people that are (1) looking at starting a PhD, (2) those that are currently doing their PhD, and (3) those that are struggling to finish. At each stage, I have provided 4 or 5 snippets of advice for potential of current PhD candidates.

This advice is drawn from my own experience and reading, and is unlikely to be relevant to everyone. But hopefully some of the things that got me through will also help someone else. However, if you would like advice from someone with a relevant qualification, please see here or here some insight into the American system, or if looking for a reason NOT to enrol, see here.

Part I: Should I do it?

So, you want to start a PhD… Here are some things to think about before you dive in.

Think about why?

There are a whole range of reasons to do a PhD; some better than others. You should really think carefully about your motivations, as this is the main thing that will keep you going when you’ve had a gut full. I have addressed some of the common reasons here:

  • To get better paid job – Unlikely; generally speaking those who do masters, or enter the workforce earlier after undergrad will earn more throughout their life than those with a PhD.
  • The become an academic – Great, doing a PhD is the best way. But note that there are NOT a lot of jobs in academia
  • To put Dr on my plane ticket – Not gonna lie, it’s worth it.
  • To get paid to do research and make a contribution to science – Great, you will never have more time to focus on research than during a PhD
  • To play with wild animals – Sure, your PhD will give you opportunities with wildlife very few people ever have, but it isn’t free.

Get a real job first

Doing a PhD requires a lot of maturity and life experience, project management skills, finance skills, and truckloads of people skills. I didn’t learn any of these at university, I learnt them from working on construction sites, zoos, mining companies, and in the military. In short, I believe than the more real-world job experience you have, the better you will manage your PhD. Take a year, take three, but don’t feel like you have to go straight from honours or masters into a PhD. See our Western Web volunteer page  for some great opportunities. 

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Working in biological consultancy is a great we to get field experience, project management skills, and learn from an experienced team.

Pick you supervisors carefully

I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that supervisors are the key factor determining whether or not a PhD will be successful (completed). You should aim to work with people who you can be completely honest with, and who are honest with you. These relationships will be likely act as mentors, co-authors, and mates, for long years after you finish your thesis. A good tip is to think of your honours as a job trial for your PhD supervisors, and if necessary, chat to your potential supervisor’s current students about how they find working with them.

The topic matters, but not as much as you think.

Working on your favourite animal/site is great (and we all have a favourite animal we want to get paid to study), but do not underestimate how much you may grow to resent your study species/topic/site. There is no point working on some cute, rare species, if you can’t find enough of them to actually generate a dataset. I trapped three bilbies in my PhD…. Three!!! Sure, they are cool, but that feeling fades pretty quickly when you have to try to piece together a thesis out of a handful of individuals.

The species may be what initially interest you, but the question is what will keep you motivated. In the depths of R-induced confusion and despair, it wont matter whether each data point is a Great White Shark or a beetle, what actually keeps you going is the data they provide, and common, (boring) species are often much easier to gather data on. It’s not about the species but about being able to ask robust scientific questions and collect sufficient data to be able to answer them.

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