How North American ecology faculty position search committees work

Attention conservation notice: This is a long post which didn’t break naturally into shorter posts. And it’s aimed at what’s probably a narrow subset of readers: students and postdocs seriously interested in a tenure-track job in ecology at a North American research university. The post goes into detail about how job searches at such universities work, in my admittedly-limited experience. The goal is not to provide advice (although I threw in a bit of advice), but just to demystify the process and correct what seem to be some fairly common misconceptions. If this post isn’t aimed at you, you should probably just skip it. It’ll just tell you things you already know and/or have no reason to care about.

In writing this post, I do not mean to imply that tenure-track faculty jobs are the only jobs worth having! Because they’re not. Your career is your personal choice, and no career is inherently better or worse than any other (well, assuming that your career choice isn’t “ninja assassin” or something…). If this post isn’t for you, you might be more interested in our ongoing series of posts on non-academic careers for ecologists (and notice I said “non-academic” careers, not “alternative” careers). All I’m doing here, as in many of my posts, is writing about something I happen to know about in the hopes it will be of interest and use to someone.


Many more people want tenure-track faculty positions than are ever likely to get them, at least at research universities (but see here for a suggestion that many scientists who might actually like working at a teaching institution are failing to consider the possibility). One natural side effect of this is that people applying for tenure-track faculty positions often are very nervous about how search committees will view their applications. About whether some minor aspect of their cv will make the difference between getting an interview or not. About whether the search committee will deal with the flood of applicants by just ignoring anyone who doesn’t have a Nature or Science paper, or who doesn’t have at least X publications. Etc.

This nervousness is compounded by the fact that most job applicants haven’t served on a search committee themselves, and so often have only a vague idea how search committees operate. Lack of information also sometimes leads to misunderstandings, frustration, and resentment on the part of applicants.

In this post, I’ll try to demystify the process, focusing on the stuff that happens before on-campus interviews. I’ve sat on a couple of search committees myself, and have talked with colleagues who’ve sat on search committees. So while I don’t have massive experience, and while search committees and the individuals who sit on them absolutely do vary, I think I can provide a picture of how a “typical” (or at least, non-unusual) ecology search operates at a North American research university. Some (not all) of what I have to say may apply to searches in allied fields like evolution, to other types of institutions like liberal arts colleges, and to other places like the UK. But I leave it to commenters to confirm or correct that.

If you’re looking for a tenure-track job at a research university, I can’t promise that this post will be reassuring to you. After all, knowing how search committees work doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of people chasing few tenure-track jobs. But hopefully it will at least help you feel nervous for the right reasons, if that makes any sense. Basically, I don’t think you should worry that your application will be dismissed because of one little thing.

Note that I’m not going to offer much advice on preparing your job application. This post is mostly just informational, though there is a bit of advice at the end. Googling will reveal many sources of advice, such as this post from an evolutionary biologist who just got a tenure-track job, and this compilation of resources from ecologist Spencer Hall (click on “Grad resources page”).

Finally, this post is descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m just trying to describe how search committees work, based on my own admittedly-limited experience. I’m not arguing that they work optimally (although I do think they mostly work well), or about how they ought to work in some hypothetical ideal world. I’m sure some readers feel strongly that search committees ought to operate differently than they do–that they shouldn’t give any weight to publication venue or whatever. But for purposes of this post (which is already very lengthy), I’m just going to focus on descriptive issues. If you want to argue that search committees ought to operate differently than they do, or that the people who sit on search committees ought to value different things, I can’t promise I’ll reply. I just don’t feel like getting into prescriptive issues.

What happens before you see the job ad. The search began well before you saw the ad. All sorts of factors go into determining whether a department gets permission to run a search, what exactly they end up searching for, and who gets to be on the search committee. Different people will want to search for different sorts of candidates. Some people want someone who can teach certain courses, others want someone who does a certain sort of research (works on a certain system, uses a certain approach, whatever), others want someone who’s as similar as possible to whoever just retired or left, others want someone who shares their interests, others want someone who will contribute to some new university-level initiative, etc. For this reason, job ads often are compromises; their wording is negotiated, often word by word. The composition of the search committee often is a compromise too. Different individuals or factions within the department may jockey to get the “right” people on the search committee. And the compromises that go into writing the job ad and determining the membership of the search committee usually aren’t the end of the department’s internal negotiation process. For instance, the compromises needed to get agreement on the ad wording might have had the effect of simply postponing rather than resolving internal departmental debates about what sort of person to hire, so that the search committee members end up with the job of resolving that debate. So in the end, who gets the offer often will be a compromise in some sense (not always; even people with different “search images” often end up agreeing on who the best candidate is). All of this happens even in departments that aren’t at all fractious.

One thing that’s not always appreciated is that search committee members generally aren’t all experts in the field of the search. For instance, I once sat on an environmental microbiology search in my department, even though I’m not an environmental microbiologist. This is deliberate, it’s a way of ensuring that whoever is hired is a good choice from the perspective of the entire department, not just from the perspective of one narrow subset of the department. Often, search committees will even include a member from another department, especially if there’s some hope that whoever is hired will have some interactions with people in that other department. For instance, the Mathematics and Statistics department here at Calgary recently searched for a biostatistician, and a member of my department (Biological Sciences) was on the search committee.

Another thing to keep in mind is that different universities operate independently. I mean yes, there are trends in the popularity of different subfields. But those trends just reflect trends in the field of ecology as a whole, they don’t reflect different universities coordinating their hiring plans with one another. Most research universities want to hire people who will become future leaders in their fields. So writing a job ad usually involves discussion of where the field is going. And in many cases, those trends are sufficiently obvious that several departments will independently decide to search for the same sort of candidate. For instance, if I recall correctly, Brian commented once on some old post about how he struggled to convince people to hire him–and then all of a sudden one year there were a bunch of ads for “quantitative ecologists”, meaning basically people just like him. But having said that, I don’t think you should worry about how broad trends in the field will impact your ability to find a faculty position. I think broad trends in the field are just one determinant among many of what sort of job ads get written and what people get hired, and far from the most important determinant. US politician Tip O’Neil once said that “all politics is local”. In my admittedly-limited experience, the same is pretty much true when it comes to hiring for academic jobs. It’s mostly local factors (i.e. factors specific to that search, department, and university), not global factors, that govern what sort of searches get run and who gets hired.

What happens after you apply. After all the applications are in, each member of the search committee usually looks through them independently and comes up with a ranked short list. The committee then meets one or more times as necessary in order to come up with an agreed list of people to interview. The details will vary depending on how the search is structured (e.g., will there be phone interviews before on-campus interviews?), but that’s the basic idea.

Here’s how I come up with a short list. I don’t think my approach is unusual. In comments on old posts, Brian’s indicated that he operates in a broadly-similar way. But I can’t say exactly how representative my approach is. Hopefully commenters who’ve sat on search committees themselves will note ways in which their own approach to the task matches or contrasts with mine. I don’t claim that my approach to coming up with a short list is the “right” way, or the best way. It’s just a way that happens to work well for me.

Like any search committee member, I’m time limited. I don’t get teaching relief or postponement of grant deadlines or anything in order to sit on a search committee. And North American research universities often get 40-300 applicants for tenure-track jobs (I give that wide range because, contrary to popular belief, 200+ is not a typical number of applicants for an ecology position, not even at research universities). Each application typically includes a cover letter, cv, three reference letters, statements of research interests and teaching philosophy, and three publications (sometimes the reference letters and/or publications are omitted, and only requested later from promising applicants). I can’t read all that material in detail, not even close, not without neglecting the rest of my job. So like everyone, I use shortcuts and heuristics to cut down the task. Does that mean I run some risk of making a mistake and not including in my short list the person who would actually be best for the position? Yes. But that risk would still be there even if I read everything in every application; nobody has a crystal ball. Further, as I’ll discuss below, there’s reason to believe that this risk is small.

As an aside, when I talk about the need for time-saving shortcuts, you should not infer that I see sitting on a search committee as an unwelcome burden! Like everyone who sits on a search committee, I care desperately about finding the best person and try very hard to make sure that happens. Hiring a tenure-track faculty member is probably the most important decision a department makes, because it will shape the future of the department for decades. Sitting on a search committee is a lot of work, even with the time-saving shortcuts. But it’s hugely important and very interesting work, and I’ve welcomed every opportunity I’ve had to do it. The same goes for everyone else I’ve ever spoken to.

Ok, back to how I come up with my short list. I first skim everyone’s cv, looking primarily at degree dates and publications. On this first pass, I’m just looking to quickly eliminate obviously uncompetitive applicants. People who haven’t yet completed their PhDs, people whose research is totally not what we’re searching for, people who only have one or two publications, etc. In my experience, this first pass will eliminate some substantial fraction of the applicants, though the precise fraction varies from search to search.

Then, I go back and look at the remaining cv’s more carefully. As needed, I also look at some of the cover letters and research and teaching statements. For instance (and this is just one example), if there’s someone with an otherwise strong cv whom I’m not sure is a good fit for the position, I’ll look at their cover letter and research and teaching statements to see how they see themselves fitting the position. As another example, if there’s someone who looks promising but inexperienced, I’ll look at their cover letter and research and teaching statements to get a better sense of whether they’re ready for a faculty position. Etc. My goal is to cut the pool down to a “long list”. I want my long list to include everyone who could reasonably be considered competitive for the position. Given that only 3-4 people get interviews, and given the applicant pools I’ve seen, in my experience a long list of about 20ish people usually is enough for me to be confident that I’ve included all the competitive applicants. But I emphasize that there’s nothing magic about “20ish”. My long list could have more or fewer people on it depending on the applicant pool.

I don’t have any hard and fast criteria as to how I select applicants for my long list. I don’t look for at least one Science or Nature paper, or at least X papers, or anything like that. Indeed, I’ve never heard of anyone who uses such hard and fast criteria (that’s not to say such people don’t exist, but as far as I know they’re rare). But there are various things I look for. “Fit” to the position is a big one, although there’s never just one way to be a good “fit”. Different candidates can be good fits in different ways. And “fit”, while important, is just one consideration among many. Winning competitive awards and getting competitive grants is good. More papers is better than fewer, though I don’t want to see salami slicing. Papers in selective, widely-read, internationally-leading journals are better than papers in other sorts of journals. That’s for various reasons. Granting agencies, deans, and other scientists value such papers. More importantly in my view, publishing such papers shows that you can convince smart, critical experts (namely, peer reviewers and editors) that your work is interesting and important, which is something academic researchers have to do all the time in various contexts in order to be good at their jobs and become leaders in their fields. And there are other reasons. (Just as an aside, what I consider to be a “leading” journal is determined by my own professional judgment, not journal impact factor.) A mix of lead-authored and collaborative work is good. Such a mix indicates that you have your own ideas, but that you’re also capable of working as part of a team. It’s especially good if you’re the convener or leader of some collaborations. A mix of different sorts of work is good, because having all your eggs in one basket is a risky way to run a research program, and can also indicate someone who’s overly-narrow or a one-trick pony. That mix could take all sorts of forms–empirical and theoretical; new data and existing data; solo work and collaborative work; more than one project or system, etc. Regularly presenting at national and international conferences is good, because that’s something that active researchers do. (Aside: which conferences you attend is also one clue, among many others, to “fit”. For instance, as a postdoc I applied for some environmental microbiology jobs, which was a stretch for me. One giveaway that I wasn’t actually a microbiologist was that I’d never attended a microbiology conference.) Having been invited to give talks is good. That’s one line of evidence that your work is considered interesting and important, and that you’re a future leader in the field. Having come from a lab that does good work is good (which is not necessarily the same thing as coming from a big lab or a lab that’s run by a famous PI). Although if it was a big lab I’ll be particularly keen to see evidence that you have your own ideas and that those ideas aren’t just minor wrinkles on the ideas of your lab’s PI. And there are other things I look for, which is the point: there are lots of things I look for.

As I said, when constructing my long list I tend to look more at cv’s than other parts of the application, though I do look at those whenever I need context on a potentially-promising cv that I have some questions about. In particular, I often find reference letters less helpful than you might think, because in my experience too many of them just say that the applicant is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now, that doesn’t mean reference letters don’t matter to me at all. Good ones in particular will provide evidence and reasons why the applicant is the greatest thing since sliced bread, rather than just relaying the referee’s personal opinion that the applicant is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Good reference letters will also provide context for the other application materials (e.g., explaining something unusual in the applicant’s cv). And they’ll compare the applicant to others at a similar career stage. Anyway, like I said, I tend to find reference letters most helpful after I’ve constructed my long list. But I think this is something people vary on; some people look at reference letters and other materials early in the evaluation process more than I do.

Then I look carefully at the full applications of everyone on the long list, save that I only skim the publications (close reading of publications wouldn’t help me decide who to shortlist). I make notes about each application. I’m looking for things like whether the applicant has a coherent, compelling, ambitious, robust research program (which is about much more than just knowing what your first grant application will be). Whether they have really strong reference letters. Whether I’d be excited to have them as a colleague, and how they’d fit in at the department and university (e.g., what people or institutions within and outside the university could I see them interacting with?) Etc. I identify the top eight or so applicants and put them in rank order. That’s my short list. There’s nothing magic about eight, it might be a couple more or less depending on the idiosyncrasies of the applicant pool.

In all of this I scale my expectations relative to career stage. A cv that would be impressive for a first-year postdoc is not impressive for someone who’s already an associate professor. This is in part because, like all search committee members, I care about future potential, not just past accomplishments. Someone young, with a short cv that’s nevertheless impressive for their career stage, might project as a future star. Someone more senior, with a longer cv, might come off as more of a known quantity, as having already done their best work.

I take that short list and my notes to the search committee meeting, where everyone else brings their short lists. After a general discussion of the applicant pool (was it strong? any surprises in terms of how many or what sort of applicants we got?), we put everyone’s ranked shortlists up on a whiteboard. That serves as the starting point for a lengthy discussion where we all explain our choices and discuss the listed candidates in detail. Often, one or a few candidates will be on everybody’s short list, while other candidates might only appear on one or two short lists. If there’s someone we’ve all ranked very highly, we might discuss that applicant only briefly, just to make sure we’re all on the same page and that there aren’t any red flags. Conversely, if there’s someone who only made one person’s short list, that person will get the chance to make the case for the applicant. I’m sure different search committees run their meetings differently, but the general idea is the same–every competitive candidate is discussed. We end up with a list of 3-4 people who will be invited for on-campus interviews.

You’ll notice that I haven’t specified how I weight different factors relative to one another. That’s because I can’t. Every application is a unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses, plus many features that can’t even really be described as “strengths” or “weaknesses”. Further, strengths and weaknesses are always relative to a specific position. And what constitutes a strength or weakness can be debatable. This is something that’s not as widely appreciated as it should be. For instance, if somebody has a string of high-impact papers developing a single idea, is that a strength because it represents a track record of productivity, or a weakness because it indicates a one-trick pony who will struggle to remain productive in future? Conversely, does having papers on a wide range of topics indicate a really big, broad thinker–or a dabbler who doesn’t have a coherent research program? Evaluating job applicants always involves a lot of judgment calls. And if you think that means that academic job searches are subjective, well, I think that depends what you mean by “subjective”. Job searches cannot be made “objective”. There is no objective fact of the matter about which applicant is the best for a given job, the way there is about whether whales are larger than bacteria or whether two is an even number. For instance, an application for a faculty position cannot be usefully summarized in a few, or even many, quantitative metrics. And even if it could be, that would not make the search process any more “objective”, since humans would still be making subjective judgments about what metrics to use and how to weight them. Hiring decisions aren’t subjective in the sense of, say, a preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Rather, they’re a matter of people applying what I’d call “professional judgment”, which is “subjective” in a quite different sense. Professional judgments aren’t purely personal or inherently arbitrary, they have grounds that other professionals can understand and appreciate, although without necessarily agreeing.

The big take-away from all this is that I don’t think you should worry about your application being derailed by one little thing. There are always so many considerations in play that no one little thing about your application, positive or negative, is likely to make the difference. I think that’s true even though the job market is really tough. If your application is competitive, it’s going to get a close look from several different people. All of whom are doing the best they can to see your application as a whole, and project what you’d be like as a colleague, now and in future.

Answers to some common questions and concerns:

How can I tell whether I’ll be competitive? You can’t tell for sure, obviously. But if you want to get some sense of what constitutes “competitive” these days, have a look at the cv’s of people who’ve recently been hired into the sort of position you’d like to have.

How can I tell if I would “fit” the position? Apply. I once got an interview for an environmental microbiology position, even though it’s a real stretch to consider me a microbiologist. And the person who was hired for that position was really a biochemist who happened to work on microbes, i.e. we were about as different as two biologists could possibly be.

I hear that you have to have a Nature or Science paper to get hired at a research university. No, you don’t. I was hired without one. Every year ecologists are hired at research universities without having Science or Nature papers.

I hear that having a Nature or Science paper doesn’t matter at all. Like it or not, this is false. I don’t want to debate whether it ought to be true, or whether it will eventually become true, or whether academics ought to alter their behavior so as to make it true, because those are simply separate issues. All I’m saying is that right now, it’s false. Just because it’s not essential to publish in Science or Nature, and just because a Science or Nature paper isn’t sufficient to guarantee you a job, doesn’t mean it makes no difference whether or not you publish in Science or Nature. Now, it’s difficult to isolate the effect of having a Science or Nature paper, all else being equal, because in real life all else is never equal. People who have Science or Nature papers usually have many other strengths. And people whose applications are very strong in other ways not infrequently have Science or Nature papers. But speaking from my own experience, most people will indeed see a Science or Nature paper as a significant strength of your application, independent of other information in your application.

I hear that Plos One papers don’t count. Perhaps some search committee members don’t give any weight at all to publications in Plos One or other journals that judge papers only on “technical soundness”. I don’t know, having not served on a search committee in the past couple of years, during which time Plos One has really taken off. I’m just guessing, but I think most people would consider Plos One papers as more or less like papers in other unselective journals–such papers count for something, but not as much (perhaps not nearly as much) as papers in selective journals. So yes, there is a risk that if you choose to publish in unselective journals, when you could have published in selective journals, your application won’t be as competitive as it otherwise would have been. And I’m afraid I have no idea exactly how big the risk is. Times are changing, but it’s hard to say exactly how fast, which makes it difficult to describe the current state of play.

One way to think about this question (and the previous one about Science and Nature papers) is in terms of “lines of evidence”. Think of your application as providing various lines of evidence as to how good you’d be at the job. The more lines of evidence that make you look like a strong candidate, the better. For your ability as a researcher, relevant lines of evidence in the eyes of most search committees include publications in selective journals (including selective open access journals like Plos Biology), competitive awards you’ve won, your research statement, your reference letters, and more. But remember that all applicants have their own research statements, their own reference letters, their own competitive awards, etc. So if you choose to publish exclusively in unselective journals when you could publish in selective journals, you’re basically choosing to rely on fewer lines of evidence than other applicants, which might be risky. And while I said above that no one little thing is going to derail an otherwise-strong application, I confess I’m not sure whether “publishing exclusively in unselective journals” would constitute a “little” thing in the eyes of most search committee members. Hopefully others can chime in in the comments with their experiences and advice on this point. For instance, ecologist Ethan White is an editor at Plos One; here’s his advice on choosing where to publish.

As an aside, if you’re trying to get a sense of the current state of play, it probably behooves you to draw on other sources of information in addition to “what blogs and tweets say”. Bloggers and Twitter users are a highly non-random sample of all ecologists in many ways, including when it comes to their views on publication practices. For instance, see here.

For what it’s worth, I know of ecologists who’ve been hired recently to tenure-track jobs at research universities while having several papers in unselective open access journals to their names, albeit also with several papers in selective journals (e.g., Sarah Diamond).

Do search committees care about how often you’ve been cited? About your h-index or other citation indices? In my admittedly-limited experience, search committees don’t expect applicants to include citation data on their cv’s, and they don’t use citation data as a simpleminded way to cut down the applicant pool. Nobody just mindlessly shortlists the most-cited applicants or whatever. But some people do like to see citation data (e.g., Ethan White, and I think Brian as well). And it’s becoming more common for applicants to report how many times their papers have been cited, their h-indices, and perhaps other citation information. It probably doesn’t hurt to report such information, as long as you don’t go overboard. And it might help, for instance if you’ve written only a few papers but they’ve all been very highly cited.

Just as an aside, I personally don’t care about your h-index. In practice your h-index is correlated with how many papers you’ve published, how long you’ve been publishing, and how often you publish in leading selective journals (Acuna et al. 2012). So personally, I don’t think your h-index really adds much information I can’t get very easily just from looking at your cv. The same goes for various modifications of the h-index. Now, I emphasize that that’s just me. But it illustrates a broader point: your application already provides an awful lot of information to the search committee. At some point, adding in more and more information basically amounts to repeating yourself. There is such a thing as providing too many lines of evidence; you want your application to be easily digestible. Search committee members have to sort through lots of applications, they don’t have the time or inclination to slog through excessively-lengthy or overly-detailed applications. So by all means include citation data on your cv if you want to, but keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing. For instance, you don’t have to provide data on how many times every one of your papers has been cited. You could just highlight papers that have been cited a lot.

Lots of people make their cv’s available on their websites. Go look at some of them to get a sense of what sort of information people are or aren’t including on their cv’s these days.

Do search committees care about altmetrics, such as how many times my papers have been downloaded or tweeted? About blogging? About my social media activities? About “open science”? About development of software tools or online databases? About crowdfunding? About some other new or new-ish thing that I am really into? I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about how search committees feel about these sorts of things, since they’re fairly new. And I haven’t sat on a search committee in the past few years, during which time many of these things have started to take off, so I don’t have any first-hand experience to draw on. I’ll make some general comments and educated guesses based on the experience I do have, but hopefully commenters will chime in.

  • Search committees always do their best to evaluate the material provided to them by the applicants. And it’s always up to you as an applicant to put your best foot forward and explain how your professional choices and achievements make you well-suited for the position. So if you want to include how many times your papers have been shared or downloaded or tweeted, or talk about your blogging, or talk about how many people use the software package you developed, or whatever, go right ahead! Just try do it in a way that will be understandable and compelling to a broad audience. This is just like how, in your research seminar, you have to explain to a broad audience what you work on and why it’s interesting and important. See following bullets for some tentative suggestions on how to do this (or not do it).
  • My comments above about not overloading the search committee with information apply here. In particular, while some search committee members may care about altmetrics, many others probably don’t. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good idea to clutter up your cv with a bunch of altmetrics for every paper you’ve published. One possible approach is to only provide altmetrics when they’re particularly outstanding (your paper’s been downloaded eleventy-bazillion times or whatever).
  • Search committees care much more about the science you do than the nitty-gritty details of how you do it. They care much more about ends than means. For instance, if you find Twitter to a useful way of finding cool new papers to read, or find Google Hangouts a good way to keep in touch with collaborators, or find GitHub a useful source for snippets of code, etc., I don’t think search committees will care. Any more than they care about what operating system you use on your computer, or the details of your data collection methods, or whether you prefer to write in the mornings or evenings. So I think it would look a little odd if in your application you played up how you use newfangled methods to do your day-to-day work. But if you can, say, explain how you used your programming skills to do cutting-edge citizen science and collect a unique, massive dataset, that’s something a search committee might get excited about. The end product–the dataset–is exciting, and because of that the search committee also might be interested in how you collected those data. This is basically how I tried to pitch my microcosm work–I focused on the unique, powerful experiments I could conduct, that couldn’t be conducted in any other system.
  • Following on from the previous point, I don’t think most search committee members will see the fact that you do “open” science as a major virtue in and of itself. Indeed, I think if you come off as caring more about the openness of your science than about the science itself, you risk turning off at least some search committee members. I emphasize I’m just guessing on this, not drawing on personal experience. But for what it’s worth, other people with different backgrounds than me seem to feel more or less the same. For instance, Titus Brown, who’s active on social media, has a good post and a bunch of slides touching on this. To paraphrase him (because I think his remarks on social media apply to open science as well), nobody is going to hire you because you publish all your papers in open access journals, or share all your code on GitHub, or post all your preprints on ArXiv, or whatever. Rather, they’re going to hire you because you’ve made the case that your “open science” approach feeds into traditional measures of achievement for research university faculty. That it leads to you publishing widely-cited papers, getting grants, becoming influential, becoming a leader in your field, etc. And while I’m sure you know that, as Titus notes you need to be careful not to accidentally give the impression that you think otherwise. Much as when I was applying for jobs, I needed to avoid accidentally giving the impression that I only cared about what was going on in my microcosms, to the exclusion of what was going on in nature.
  • If you have some experience with crowdfunding, I think you could make a good case that you’ll be able to use it as a supplement/complement to traditional sources of funding. For instance, as a source of funding for pilot studies that feed into traditional grant applications. I think you’d have a much harder time making the case that it’ll be your sole source of funding, at least at a research university. And you might have a hard time making the case that you’re going to make heavy use of it if you’ve never done it before. But I’m just guessing.
  • Have a colleague who’s a good scientist, but who is totally ignorant of whatever newfangled stuff you do, read your application packet and give you feedback. This is just like how you ought to have someone from  outside your own field (even from outside of ecology) watch your job seminar and give you feedback.
  • For what it’s worth, ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are active with blogging, tweeting, and other social media have been hired for tenure-track jobs recently (e.g, Jarrett Byrnes, Jacquelyn Gill). So while I have no idea what was in their job applications or how their applications were evaluated, their examples at least show that you can be active on social media, and also get hired for a tenure-track job.

Do search committees care if all of your work is based on data collected by others? Hard to generalize, I think (although if the ad says they’re looking for someone who will develop a field-based research program or something, that’s a signal that they want someone who will be collecting their own data). Yes, there are some ecologists who think you’re not doing real ecology unless you’re collecting at least some of your own data, and that you’re somehow a free rider if all of your work is based on data collected by others. I’m not sure how many ecologists feel this way, though I doubt it’s the majority (if it was, I don’t think former NCEAS postdocs would have had as much success on the job market as they’ve had). Personally, I don’t feel this way, but I’m just one person. Perhaps Brian will be able to comment on this, as much of his work is based on data collected by others.

What if you have an unconventional background, or have made some unconventional choices? Will that be held against you? The previous few questions are all different versions of this question, I think. So let me spell out the line of thinking that underpins my answers to the previous few questions: if you’ve made some unusual or unconventional choices, well, that’s not unusual. One person may publish a lot in Plos One. Another may spend a lot of time on software development. Another may have worked in a bunch of different systems. Another may have switched into ecology from a completely different field. Heck, I worried about whether spending all my time doing laboratory microcosm experiments (and a bit of modeling) would be held against me by search committees. Brian worried about whether spending all his time doing macroecological analyses of existing datasets, as opposed to going out into the field collecting his own data, would be held against him. Etc. Everyone’s application has unique features, and many of those features can be seen as strengths or weaknesses depending on what job you’re applying for and who’s reading your application. It’s your job as an applicant to “own your choices” and make the case for them. And if the search committee doesn’t buy your case (at least not enough to hire you), well, try not to take it too hard (I know, I know, easier said than done). It does not necessarily mean the search committee didn’t appreciate or value whatever it is that you do. It probably just means that they were faced with lots of applicants who all made good cases for themselves, and they could only hire one of them.

Why do search committees write such broad ads? They could make their own jobs a lot easier, and save applicants a lot of wasted time, if they wrote much narrower ads. Breadth of job ads varies. Sometimes, there’s good reason to conduct a really broad search. Other times, there’s good reason to conduct a much narrower search. As an applicant, you’re rarely in a position to fully appreciate how any particular ad was shaped by a department’s short- and long-term needs, goals, and plans. Suffice to say, when a department advertises for an “ecologist”, with no further specification as to subfield, study system, research approach, etc., it’s almost always with good reason. Plus, even when the search is narrower, there are cases in which a candidate who doesn’t really fit the ad gets hired because they’re outstanding in other respects.

How do search committees take diversity into account, and ensure that female applicants and applicants from other underrepresented groups get a fair shake? In both formal and informal ways, which in my experience vary from search to search. At some universities, someone from the university’s Human Resources department sits on every search committee (in an advisory rather than voting capacity) and helps ensure that all applicants are fully and fairly evaluated, both before and during the interviews. Some departments make sure that there’s at least one woman on every search committee. And in my experience, these days most everyone who sits on a search committee is keenly aware of diversity issues and is keen to make sure female applicants and applicants from other underrepresented groups are given a fair shake. Of course, as Meg has noted, even women are subject to unconscious biases against female applicants. And it’s rare for search committee members to have received formal human resources training in how to evaluate job applicants or how to avoid unconscious biases. So even though search committee members these days have the best intentions, there might still be subtle biases against some candidates. For what it’s worth, things are a lot better than they used to be on this front. Whether they’re as good as they could be, I don’t know.

How come I never got any official acknowledgment that I’m no longer being considered? Yeah, that part of job searches was frustrating for me too. I agree that it’s polite for applicants to be promptly notified when they’re no longer being considered for a job. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t happen.

Final thoughts. As a job applicant, all of this is mostly invisible to you. But it’s helpful to keep it in mind, if only for your own sanity. There are sooooo many different things that people look for in new hires. And everyone involved in the search process, directly or indirectly, is probably looking for at least slightly different things than everyone else, weighted in at least slightly different ways. So guessing why you didn’t get an interview, or why you got an interview but didn’t get an offer, is a mug’s game (unless you hear something first-hand from someone on the search committee). And if you don’t get an interview, or don’t get the job, don’t take it hard. Just try to control what you can control and put your best foot forward. That’s all you can do. Good luck, I hope it works out for you.

32 thoughts on “How North American ecology faculty position search committees work

  1. Unfortunately, it seems that the mysterious “fit” criterion usually excludes more women than men. I have seen this to be true in my own limited experience, and the hiring patterns data over the past decade (drop-off in numbers between women grads and post docs and and women faculty) lend some support to this notion. Hiring is an opinion-based (not entirely data-driven) exercise, thus capricious. I think that should be written in every job search posting: this search and search committee will disappoint most of you, sorry in advance.

  2. What an interesting post. When I was a graduate student I served on a search committee (I got to voice my opinion but I did not have a vote). There, I advocated for more thoughtful consideration of the candidates as undergraduate and graduate teachers, which seemed largely lost in the hiring process. It is no easy thing to quantify “teaching potential”, if there even is such a thing, but I was disappointed that it seemed to mattered so little especially since it was 25% of the stated job responsibilities. It’s not clear to me whether what I observed was the norm, however. Is a candidate’s teaching background important, and if so at what stage during the search does that come to light?

    • Good question. As my post probably implies, I don’t really look at evidence of teaching ability at all when constructing my long list. Once I have the long list, I do look at teaching statements, cv, and reference letters for evidence that the candidate can teach the sorts of courses we want them to teach. I agree that these sorts of considerations tend not to be primary (in all honesty, they’re not primary for me). Although I think Brian has stories of not getting jobs in part because of (poorly grounded) doubts about his ability to teach field courses.

      At the interview stage I think research universities mostly tend to use your job seminar as evidence of your teaching ability, though some places will also have candidates give a teaching seminar (a mock undergraduate lecture on a specified topic).

      Ability to teach at the graduate level isn’t really a consideration. At most places, faculty aren’t required to offer graduate courses, and if they do offer them it’s on topics on which they’re experts. And the emphasis of most graduate programs isn’t on coursework. The few courses taken by most graduate students tend to be either discussion-oriented seminars, or courses aimed at giving students technical skills (stats courses, molecular techniques courses, etc.). For all these reasons, it’s taken as given that any competent researcher can, if they choose, teach the occasional graduate course. And even if that turns out not to be the case, it’s not considered a big deal.

    • At an R1 university, the teaching truly, really, doesn’t matter in the decision, other than an a willingness to teach when necessary. People can claim otherwise, but I’ve never seen, nor even heard of anecdotally, any evidence or circumstance in which potential excellent teaching helped someone get the job, or evidence of poor teaching or a lack of interest in teaching reduced the chance someone could get the job. I’d LOVE to hear otherwise.

      • Not entirely true. Sometimes R1 searches are targeted for teaching needs. Sometimes. Ability to teach in that one or two classes does matter for those searches (this is what we are doing right now). But they are relatively rare.

  3. It is unbelievable that someone is considering the h-index as a criterion. A metric that does not take into account if you are first author or one of the 200 coauthors and that increases with the number of coauthors you have because authors are more likely to cite their work. And close to nobody is considering modified h-index (almost nobody consider corrections to GDP either).

    Some other things I’d like to know:
    – how much does it count to be in one of those restricted circle of people getting invited to NSF or similarly-funded working groups? It seems quite a bit to me.

    – how much does it count to have reference letters (or pedigree) coming from top names in the field?

    – What are the chances of getting hired if you did not get your PhD or did not have post doc experience in a North-American institution (not my case, btw)? I thought close to none, but yesterday I discovered a kinda of exception.

    • Actually, the invalid part of the h-index, is that a person with 400 papers with 10 citations is viewed as equivalent to someone with 10 papers with 10 citations. In otherwords, it is only a single metric where about 10 need to be used simultaneously. The impact factor, however, is even worse, as it is an improperly applied statistical metric. The impact factor is a mean, and the data distribution is largely a power curve. hence, by statistical convention, the measure of central tendency should be a median, not a mean, and the then withought a measure of dispersion (SE, SD in normally distributed data; quartile range and range for non-normally distributed data) it tells you relatively little about the individual’s citation behavior. Also, none of these account for the fact that being #22 on a list of 50 authors in a paper in Science does not leave much contribution for the selected author. I cannot say if this is relevant to many search committees or not. But, I can say that the impact factor is looked at by many people as a golden gate, when it is an improperly assembled statistic.

  4. In one of his ‘Israel Journal of Ecology and Evolution’ pieces, Bob Holt mentioned that he liked to see single-author papers from job candidates. I wonder what other’s thoughts are on that- especially regarding the tradeoff between time spent on high-impact collaborations and [potentially] riskier ‘lone wolf’ research. (here’s the article link:

    Also, as a member on a recent faculty search I would say that once the top 4 or 5 people are chosen to be interviewed, the playing field in terms of research accomplishments is pretty much even, and it is at that point where teaching experience, scientific outreach, and general rapport can make a difference. Ultimately, as Jeremy and Bob both mention, there is a inherent degree of stochasticity at certain stages, which hopefully lessens the blow of rejection.

    • Well, as someone with a number of sole-authored papers to his name, and who had Bob as his external committee member, I’m certainly not going to contradict Bob! 🙂

      In seriousness, I agree with Bob. Sole-authored papers are by no means essential. But nothing says “I have my own ideas” like a sole-authored paper. In this increasingly-collaborative age, I think sole-authored papers are one thing that can help a candidate stand out from the crowd.

    • SAP (Single Author Papers) are an interesting case.

      Sometimes in the curse of publishing SAPs, you may also make collaborators quite angry, even when they did not directly participate in data collection nor analysis nor anything related to that paper but collaborated on other related projects (even if not closely related). This is especially true for countries with stronger cultures of “collaborations”.

      SAPs may translate into troubles in very early career phases, so young scientists really should take the time to think twice, and make sure advisors or related people agree for SAP.

      This of course turns around overlooked issues as to authoring policies. Some scientist are “cooler” and don’t feel necessarily despoiled (it all depends on how people feel entitled to end up on papers they did not contribute much to).

      • Well, if your “collaborators” didn’t actually contribute to the paper in question, then they’re not collaborators on that paper and so they’re not entitled to authorship!

        I have an old post on the issue of authorship:

        In general, it’s good policy to discuss authorship of any project in the very early stages with those who will be contributing.

        It sounds like your concern is mostly with supervisors who assume that they should be co-authors on any project their students do, solely by virtue of being the supervisor. Personally, I don’t agree with that at all, and in fact many journals have authorship criteria that explicitly forbid that sort of thing. But unfortunately, it happens.

        One way to partially address the issues you raise is for papers to include explicit statements of author contributions. Some journals now require these, and you’re always free to include them in the Acknowledgments.

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