Inside: So you thought you knew the biology profession? This survey of what happened to 709 biology graduates after they left school might change your mind…
I knew I wasn’t the only wildlife biology graduate having problems finding a job after I graduated with my master’s degree in 2014.
Now, thanks to the power of the Google machine, I have enough data to confirm this. Last month I wrote an article detailing the problems of finding a job in the wildlife field, and created a survey to go along with it: The Financial Reality Of Being A Broke Biologist.
I got a whopping 709 responses on this survey—wow! I still can’t believe I got that many responses.
So, without further ado, the time has come. Let’s dig into some data!
Warning: This post is also a long read. Go get yourself a cup of coffee. You’ll need it.
- 0.1 First, A Word…
- 0.2 How has the biology field changed over time?
- 0.3 What kind of sacrifices are people making for biology careers?
- 0.4 What kinds of struggles do people face in getting a biology job?
- 0.5 How does your degree choice affect your financial prospects?
- 0.6 How does career track affect your financial life?
- 0.7 Women STILL earn less than men, dammit!
- 0.8 Where My Ladies At? Gender Differences In The Biology Profession
- 1 What does it MEAN?
- 1.1 Should we stop training biologists?
- 1.2 We need to do a better job of teaching people alternate career options.
- 1.3 We need to teach people to have a Plan B…And how to use it.
- 1.4 Women still have a lot of catching up to do in the wage department.
- 1.5 We need to prepare students for the fact that it might take a while to get a job.
- 1.6 Final Words From Me
- 1.7 Words From Other Biology Grads
First, A Word…
Adding in the “other comments” field to each of the questions was both a blessing and a curse. I got a lot of interesting responses from it, but holy wah is that data hard to classify and analyze. Still, you all wrote a lot of useful comments, which I’ll be sprinkling in throughout this post.
Here is the first one:
“Nice article. Not motivation to respond a survey not being scientific. You should have done a scientific survey as you had the opportunity. Combine wildlife management with social sciences.”
She’s right. This was not a scientific survey. A scientific survey would have had a carefully-designed questionnaire, a strategic sampling plan, a budget, and a team of PIs, technicians, and biostatisticians.
Alas. I have none of those things. Instead, I am operating as the sole member of the University of My Apartment. My Institutional Review Board consists of the following members:
Still, even if this data may not be representative of the various biology fields as a whole, it’s still pretty damn useful. In fact, if there’s any researchers reading this who have experience analyzing survey data and want to work together to take this further, please feel free to email me at lindsayvansomeren (at) gmail.com.
Of course, even if the survey wasn’t entirely scientific doesn’t mean we can’t analyze the data. Let me fire up the ol’ Stats-O-Matic 3000 (*chug chug cough wheeze*).
How has the biology field changed over time?
One of the disadvantages of a non-scientific survey is that I don’t have an equal sample representation across the decades. Still, some patterns did emerge.
One of the most noticeable is that more students are graduating with more debt nowadays than before.
Most of the people in the survey who graduated in or around the time I was born (1987) took out little to no student loan debt for their degrees. Even today, many people are managing to graduate debt-free, but they are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule.
This also shows that how much student loans graduates take out is hugely variable. In 2014, for example—the year I graduated—students took out a median amount of $25,743 ± $31,736. That’s a hell of a standard deviation.
One of the questions on the survey was, “How many jobs have you held since graduating from college?” This too showed an interesting pattern:
Many people today are working more jobs after graduating than in the past. Many people graduating nowadays have worked the same number of jobs as people graduating decades ago, even though they’ve only been in the job market for just a few short years.
This might be due to working more seasonal jobs, working more in-between-biology-jobs-jobs, or maybe they’re being let go from more permanent jobs due to funding cuts.
Related: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (affiliate link)
What kind of sacrifices are people making for biology careers?
“Wildlife Biology is the ultimate manifestation of capitalist economics. Supply greatly exceeds demand and those of us in it for the long haul (because nothing else will do) take it in the shorts.”
“Everything. I’ve sacrificed everything.”
People give up a lot for this career:
I also allowed people to write-in their own sacrifices, without any prompting from me. There were some surprisingly common themes:
- 21% sacrifice relationships with family and friends
- 6 people sacrificed sanity or mental health
- 7 people have gotten a divorce as a result of their career choice (that’s 1% of all respondents)
“I only ever see my family when I’m unemployed, and my baby niece wouldn’t let me touch her for several months because I was a stranger to her.”
What kinds of struggles do people face in getting a biology job?
“I moved across the country (literally coast to coast) six times. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THAT COSTS?!?!?!”
Aside from the sacrifices people make, they face a lot of struggles in getting a biology job:
How does your degree choice affect your financial prospects?
You get a lot of conflicting messages about how far to take your education in college.
Complete more degrees and you boost your chances of employment. Go too far and you might be overqualified and be up shit creek. It’s no wonder why master’s degrees are becoming increasingly popular, being nice and in the middle of either end. But how do all the different degrees really pan out?
The more education you have, the more likely you are to have more debt.
Here are the average amounts of student loan debt by degree:
- Associate (3 people) – $3,500 ± $4,949
- Bachelor (318 people) – $19,444 ± $26,329
- Master (304 people) – $20,320 ± $26,295
- PhD (65 people) – $23,575 ± $27,163
Still highly variable, but in general, PhDs carry the most amount of debt. This was surprising to me, since most graduate students generally don’t pay for their degrees.
Related Post: How I Made Over $75,000 By Getting My Master’s Degree
There are two possible explanations in my book: people are paying for their graduate degrees, or the student loans that people took out as an undergrad are accruing interest. I think that’s probably more likely. My initial $50,000 of private student loans bloomed out into $60,535 by the time I graduated with my master’s degree.
The more education you have, the more money you will earn.
Luckily, it looks like the investment pays off in dividends:
PhDs graduate with $4,131 more in debt, yet make $31,756 more per year on average than someone with a bachelor’s degree. PhDs earn TWICE what bachelors earn. Remember, though, this is the mean salary. You won’t earn that much right out of the gate.
Degree-Specific Money Struggles
Whichever degree you settle with affects more than just your paycheck at the end of the day. It radiates out into the rest of your life as well.
Having less education also leads to more money struggles.
55% of people with a bachelor’s degree and 53% of people with a master’s degree report struggling with a low income. On the flip side, only 40% of PhD graduates have struggled with a low income.
Having more education boosts your chances of being employed in your field.
The likelihood of you getting a job in your field scales with how much education you have. 82% of PhDs currently are employed in their field, compared to 65% of master’s degree holders, and just 14% of bachelor’s degree holders.
For a true pants-kicker, having different levels of education also can make it harder to find certain types of jobs. 67% of people with a bachelor’s degree report being underqualified for jobs. Only 38% of master’s graduates and 22% of PhD graduates said they too were underqualified.
On the flip side, 59% of PhD graduates report being overqualified for jobs, compared to 49% of master’s graduates and 32% of people with bachelor’s degrees.
Having more education leads to more job stability. 46% of PhD graduates have struggled with job instability. That’s a lot, but nothing compared to people with master’s degrees (65%), and bachelor degrees (66%).
Even with all of these struggles, most people don’t regret their degree choice. 71% of people with bachelor’s degrees would do it again, right on par with 73% of master’s graduates and 73% of PhD grads.
How does career track affect your financial life?
There are about as many different names of biology majors out there as there are biologists. To simplify things, I funneled everyone’s major into career tracks: fisheries, cell/molecular/microbiology, wildlife management/biology/ecology, etc…
Some biology careers pay a lot more than others.
The average survey respondent earns $40,629 ± $24,097 per year. This holds true across most career tracks.
But, if you choose to go into Animal Behavior, you can expect to make a lot less—only $19,760 per year. Perhaps that’s because two out of five respondents in this career track weren’t actually earning any money.
On the flip side, Cell/Molecular/Microbiologists can earn a lot more—$77,150 ± $39,321 per year, on average.
Your odds of getting a job in some fields are more difficult than others.
Overall, 63% of survey respondents have a job in the field they studied for. For some career tracks, however, it’s a bit tougher:
- Animal Behavior (5 people) – 20% have a job in this field
- Aquatic Biology/Water Resources (7 people) – 14% have a job in this field
- Plant/Soil Science (16 people) – 31% have a job in this field
- Anthropology/Human Dimensions/Science Education (6 people) – 50% have a job in this field
- Environmental Studies (44 people) – 63% have a job in this field
- Evolutionary Biology (6 people) – 67% have a job in this field
- Zoology (36 people) – 56% have a job in this field
Some majors are more likely to regret their decision than others.
72% of people across the board would make the same decision again if given the chance. That means 28% of people regret their decision. We’ll talk more about that later, but for now, I’d like to show that some majors are more likely to regret their decision than others.
- Animal Behavior (5 people) – 40% wouldn’t do it again
- Anthropology/Human Dimensions/Science Education (6 people) – 50% wouldn’t do it again
- Cell/Molecular/Microbiology (6 people) – 67% wouldn’t do it again
- General Biology (116 people) – 40% wouldn’t do it again
I thought it was very interesting that four out of six microbiologists wouldn’t study the same degree again. This was the same group that earned the highest average salary—$77,150 per year.
On the other hand, my own homies—wildlife biology/conservation/ecology/etc… people (207 people) —have fewer regrets than most. Only 19% of people who studied in this career track would not choose to do it again.
Women STILL earn less than men, dammit!
“I was actually told flat out by one state agency that they weren’t going to hire me because I was a woman.”
“There are a lot less women in this profession than men, and I feel like the men get paid more (at least in my experience).”
“Sexism is still rampant in the biology and wildlife biology fields, especially as you move higher up. The exception might be federal government work.”
Voila! Wonder no more, my friends. Now we have dataz.
The mean salary for men is $46,314 per year.
The mean salary for women is $37,646 per year—$8,668 less.
What the hell? This is 2017, people!
Salary differences are greater with certain types of employers.
We’d like to think that people in Federal service have a more equitable pay distribution, because GS levels and all that, right?
This wage gap between men and women is systemic across all types of employers.
Men working for the Federal government make an average of $60,537, whereas women in the Federal government only make an average of $48,492—a gap of over $12,000.
There are a couple of reasons I can think of about why this might be happening. First and foremost, I think there’s less women in the higher-up (and higher-paying) positions.
Second, it’s no secret that many (if not most) “open” Federal positions are listed on USAJobs even though the hiring officials already have someone in mind. It’s possible that hiring officials could list the position as a lower grade for certain people compared to others.
Sadly, that’s not the worst wage gap. Men working in local governments earn an average of $61,267 per year—almost twice that of women, earning an average of $31,370.
Salary differences are more equitable with other types of employers.
Men earn more than women with every type of employer. Still, it’s a little more even for certain types of employers:
- Non-profits: men earn $39,593 annually, women earn $36,332 annually
- State governments: men earn $47,085 annually, women earn $43,700 annually
- Universities: men earn $36,010 annually, women earn $32,382 annually
Where My Ladies At? Gender Differences In The Biology Profession
It’s no secret that women are dominating the halls of colleges and universities these days. Indeed, women made up the majority of every career track in this survey, with a couple of exceptions:
- Fisheries – 55% men
- Cell/molecular/microbiology – 50% men
- Animal behavior – 60% men
“By the time we were ready to start a family, it was too late.”
One thing I found very interesting was that women were not more likely than men to report sacrificing starting a family for their career. Both 48% of men, and 48% of women report making this sacrifice for their career. This surprised me, since biologically speaking the reproductive female biologists have historically had more biological constraints on their career than men.
“Screw male professors who tell their women students to consider how their dream career will impact their ability to have a family. I guarantee men are not given that same advice.”
In other areas, however, women certainly do sacrifice and struggle more than men. 10% more women than men report struggling with a lack of jobs. 11% more women than men struggle with a lack of stability in their careers. 15% more women than men report being overqualified for jobs.
What does it MEAN?
“This survey identified the problems, now we need to look at how to fix it.”
Should we stop training biologists?
“It’s abysmal. But it’s some of the most important work we can do — to save life on earth.”
The work we do is important. Even if it’s not always viewed as having immediate economic value (especially in certain politician’s short sights), biology is what will keep us and other things around on this planet in the long run.
“I feel like the school should have played a bigger role in helping its graduates find jobs.”
“I’m a huge proponent of increasing education among biology students about the realities of the job market and broader world. There’s an amazing conference at U.C. Berkeley called Beyond Academia to help students with career exploration. And I’d love to see increased education on adulthood skills like budgeting, insurance, etc…”
But, we have to train students smarter. We can’t just continue chugging them out factory-style and release them into the world like hordes of tender butterflies. We need to prepare them for the realities of this profession regardless of which degree and major they choose.
“By most objective measure I have had a successful career. Financially, I am left with inadequate resources to fund a retirement that will need to commence by, say, age 70. I have never made enough to be objectively financially secure. The reason is only partly because of choice of fields. This is also due to the fact that I bought into the idealism of the mission of my field. I was and am a true believer. This idealism lead to career decisions that were financially stupid. We are also in desperate need of reform across higher education and government funded research.” – 63-yr-old male, working at major agency.
We need to do a better job of teaching people alternate career options.
A full 37% of people do not have a job in their field. They either give up, move onto something else, are unemployed, or something else. Biology degrees—even General Biology degrees—don’t have as much widespread applicability as other degrees, like Finance, Communications, or English.
People are graduating with an average of $25,743 worth of student loan debt. That’s a hell of a price to pay for a career that has almost a coin-toss chance of not panning out.
28% of people wouldn’t choose to do their degree again if given the chance. If biology programs were a business (and they are, in a way), having three out of ten customers dissatisfied with their purchase is not acceptable. That business would shut down in a heartbeat.
You might say to me, “but Lindsay, the skills you learn as a biologist are transferable to other careers.” Bingo! You’re right. The skills I learned as a wildlife biologist are helping me today to make a living writing credit card reviews. Who in flippin’ hell saw that one coming?
Still, most employers probably won’t see it that way. Your resume will likely be the first one in the trash if you try applying as a business/grant manager, a PR person, or a real estate specialist even within conservation-focused organizations.
I even took an entire semester class in how to get a job as a biologist. The professor told us we may have to consider working as a secretary in the organization just to get our foot in the door as a last resort. But nowadays, you can’t even get a job as the secretary unless you have ten years of experience in secretarial work and a Business degree. Don’t believe me? I’ve tried applying for dozens of secretary jobs and never received a callback.
We need to teach people to have a Plan B…And how to use it.
“When I couldn’t find the perfect job, I decided to create my own and founded a nonprofit.”
I went through ten years of college under the assumption that I would be a biologist someday. I don’t think that should be a crazy assumption to make.
Still, the odds aren’t super great. Maybe I will be a biologist someday (I damn well hope so!), but in the meantime I’m doing something else.
It was very difficult to teach myself a second profession. It didn’t have to be this hard. Instead, we need to teach students that they need a Plan B and equip them with the skills to use it.
We need to push for a more well-rounded education with concrete, marketable skills.
“I wish my university had been more helpful in transitioning post degree into a more permanent job (or were realistic in explaining the difficulties). I’d have loved to stay in the field.”
“We must encourage our young biologists to leave school with a certificate or some level of qualification that allows them to work a science or health care related trade.”
Things like entrepreneurship, freelancing, writing, or coding. Many people in the survey wished they had studied GIS, because that is an in-demand skill set that is applicable outside of the biology world.
For Pete’s sake, we need to prepare people to do something other than cleaning up animal poop and mopping floors if they can’t find a biology job.
Women still have a lot of catching up to do in the wage department.
We need more women in higher-paying and higher-earning positions. There are several ways to do this. We can help women develop their own confidence to lead a potentially male-dominated workplace. Teaching women negotiation skills and how to advocate for themselves will also be a huge help.
“There are many, many programs that try to take advantage of wildlife students and new biologists for free labor because they know that we love what we do. Our field needs to fix this if we want to survive.”
I was never taught how to negotiate. Instead, I learned it entirely on my own through freelancing. I quickly learned people would streamroll me all day for a measly $10 per article if I didn’t stick up for myself. Instead, by advocating for myself and negotiating, my average pay is $250 per article. If I’m not being respected by a client? I fire their ass.
I think we’re not taught how to negotiate because professors—whose jobs it is to prepare us for careers—just assume that we’ll figure it out, or that we’ll go into Federal service where negotiation skills are not needed.
Both assumptions are incorrect. Only 16% of female respondents in this survey actually work for Federal employers, and negotiation is a skill just like public speaking or resume-writing. You can’t simply just walk in to an employer and say you want $50,000 more per year.
Related: How To Negotiate Your First Job: 8 Steps That Will Create Value For You And Your New Employer (affiliate link)
We need to prepare students for the fact that it might take a while to get a job.
“They need to stop teaching the doe-eyed idealistic shit to students.”
“Universities should hold more responsibility for graduating such a high number of students in fields that have almost no realistic placement.”
Admittedly, this is not the sexiest way to sell your school’s program. But, ignoring this fact is not only doing a disservice to students, it’s outright hiding the truth from them.
Final Words From Me
I’m presenting a lot of negative data in this article.
That is intentional. I’m not trying to paint biology careers in a negative light, even if it seems that way. But we can’t fix things unless we look at what’s wrong. We can’t just continue going on plugging our ears and singing la-la-la-la-la when clearly things are going wrong for a lot of people.
But, we can fix that.
We can continue training biology students. We need to. If we train them smarter, we can set them up for success in a world that is always telling them No. We can have the best of both worlds: happy people, and a thriving biology field.
Words From Other Biology Grads
“Don’t just “flip burgers.” Stay active in the field, even if you go in the hole financially.” No. You are a career professional, not a free-for-all volunteer program to be used by others.
“I read your article regarding the struggles of a broke biologist. I think it should be retitled to an unsuccessful biologist. Your struggle is all too common but it does not reflect what is required to become successful in the field. Strong candidates find jobs, excel at them, and do well in their careers.” Fair point. You could say I am an unsuccessful biologist. But it’s not for a fucking lack of effort. I know where to draw the lines for what I’m willing to sacrifice.
“When we make career decisions, too often we think “Is it financially feasible? Will I make a metric dickload of money?” What’s sorely missing from this equation is your happiness and satisfaction. Are you making a difference in the world? Do you actually LIKE what you do?”
“Depression and regret are a huge issue now. Even tried offering my skills for free just to get in, and no one wants you as they say you over qualified and it’s a threat to those doing jobs that you are more qualified for. I have even been told to lie on job applications that I don’t have a masters just to be considered, which ethically I struggle to do.”
“My stability side-job was computer repair and network admin nerd work – very good pay, and in academia they were willing to flex my hours when seasonal wildlife jobs cropped up. There is hope for the supremely tenacious (a burrito supreme, and a chicken supreme, and a cutlass supreme..) !” YAAAS! High-five!
“This career changed me. I’ve struggled. Most people will but there are things you can do to make it slightly easier.”
“Had to also side hustle as a realtor…follow your dreams they said haha. Fuck!”
“Nepotism is your friend.”
“Last 5 years have been the biggest mistake of my life. I was told all these fed jobs would be opening up, now they’re bring rolled over into already open positions. Biggest scam ever.”
“I read this article after a long exhausting day collaring black bears for a project I’m a co-PI on. I would never give this up, ever.”
“Even on the most horrible days out in the field… I am still grateful to be out in the field.”
“I would do it again even though I consider myself a failure and have given up.”
“We’re going to need a bigger comment box 🙂 ”
“I can’t believe I still like plants after all this bullshit.”
“We’re going to need a bigger comment box 🙂 ”
“I am the unicorn – I got a permanent, salaried position in my immediate area WHILE STILL IN GRAD SCHOOL.”
“One of the biggest annoyances I’ve faced as an early-career professional is constantly hearing that, “it’s a good time to be in the wildlife career! Baby Boomers will be retiring and all of those positions will be opened up!” when in reality, that hasn’t been the case at all. More and more, baby boomers are holding onto their positions, and if they do retire, those positions close and are no longer being replaced.”
“I feel like bird-banding positions require that you come out of your mother’s womb with experience banding 1,000+ birds.”
“The general point I think that was overlooked in your article is, in general to qualify to get a professional level job, you pretty much already have to be performing all job functions.”
“I went on food stamps for a while, lost my card and couldn’t get another one, and dumpster dived for my food for a couple of seasons.”
“Yes I have had some great experiences in some incredible places but is that worth jeopardizing the financial security of the rest of my life?”
“1) Each step in your education (B.S., M.S., Ph.D., certificates, etc) needs to serve and achieve a specific career-oriented objective (you really only need a Ph.D. if you want a research-focused job, a M.S. if you want a biologist job, a B.S. if you want a technician position, etc); more isn’t always better when it comes to education. 2) have a primary (grant/project funded) and secondary (loans) plan to pay for your education. If you can’t figure out a plan to pay for a particular step in your education, then you probably shouldn’t take that step (yet). 3) education is basically an investment in yourself so consider the RoI. If it takes your entire career for your potential future income to pay back your loans, then that MAY not be a smart investment.”
“I’d like to say the situation for wildlife biologists in developing countries maybe as bad if not worse. 1. Professors don’t have much money and refuse to pay you as per your abilities. 2. the state has little money to spend on wildlife management and we charge peanuts for complicated work. 3. food is cheap generally but we can’t drink too much. 4. its really tough to find a romantic partner coz we have no money.”
“Finally got a break when a consulting job opened up in Wyoming, where I was doing seasonal work. I literally cried when they offered me the job and told me my salary because I was about ready to give up and go back to what I was doing before I went to grad school—managing a Starbucks.”
“People say I sold out, but really I just gave up and ended up in a career in which I could make ends meet. In fact I have paid off my student loans, bought a house here in San Francisco, support my artist (zero income) wife and three kids. I have many cats. We all make sacrifices. I sacrificed the research career I had dreamed of as a young man.”
“Ugh. I’m tired!”
“I have had a side business for over 30 years that has saved us from hardship.”
“I think they should stop recruiting for wildlife biology and tell incoming students the truth about the future of this career. There will be even fewer positions than there are now in future years and students should be made aware of that reality. I wish I had pursued a more practical career in medicine or education, and left my joy of the outdoors and conservation as my hobby.”
“Many of the skills I’ve learned at university are already obsolete. I wish I had focused more on GIS/remote sensing; stats; and computing sciences.”
“Certainly a tough path; we go from seasonal gig to seasonal gig, making very low wages. Eventually I was able to have a long enough resume with a diverse enough background to get into consulting. Environmental consulting isn’t really conservation-minded, but it can be. I still get to go adventuring throughout the country…capturing bats in the mid-west, winter tracking bobcat and lynx in the White Mountains, delineating wetlands in beautiful forests of southern New York…the list goes on. I do not regret my decision and it’s hard work to get to this point. Rage on, my fellow biologists…rage on!”
“In general, as wildlife professionals we sacrifice a lot. Time with our families, sleep, our bodies, as well as financial stability. But I have seen places and done things in the name of science that hardly any other people get to do or see. From living on deserted islands in the middle of the Pacific to helicoptering into remote valleys to capturing endangered birds, I wouldn’t trade these moments and experiences for anything. It’s why I do this.”
Where do you think we should go from here? Leave a comment below. Let’s start a discussion!
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