What myths of academia need debunking?

Meg recently debunked the myth that you have to work 80 hours/week to succeed in academia, and the closely-related myth that there are academics who work that much. It’s now our most popular post ever! Clearly a lot of people appreciated having that myth debunked. So I thought I’d ask:

What other myths of academia need debunking? And are there myths specific to the field of ecology and evolution that need debunking? Or maybe you’ve read or heard something and want to find out if it’s a myth?

Note that I’m not thinking here of claims about science or scientific methodology. I’m not asking you to name zombie ideas in ecology or anything like that. Rather, I’m thinking of things like the following:

  • It’s a myth that you have to have a Science or Nature paper to get hired at a research university. It’s also a myth that they don’t matter at all. (The linked post also comments on various other myths surrounding the hiring process at research universities.)
  • It’s a myth that in recent decades ecology journals (or maybe just leading ecology journals) have started to fill up with mathematics and meta-analyses, thereby crowding out observational studies of single species.
  • The NSF Division of Environmental Biology recently went out of their way to debunk various myths about award size and duration, such as that inexpensive proposals don’t get funded, or that the DEB prefers proposals from large teams.

So, heard or read something about ecology, or about academia more broadly, and want to know if it’s really true? Now’s your chance to find out: ask away! I’ll do my best to answer, and hopefully commenters will chime in as well. Or, is there some widespread belief that you know is mythological, and want help in getting the word out? Say so in the comments!

Note that I’m hoping folks will ask about stuff they personally think is true, as well as stuff they think is false. That is, I’m hoping folks will ask “Is this a myth?” about stuff that they don’t think is a myth! For instance, I was really surprised by data showing that the ecological literature actually is dominated by observational rather than experimental studies. So my own belief that “ecology journals mostly publish experimental studies these days” turned out to be a myth, despite me not even suspecting it might be a myth! Which just illustrates that, in general, our own subjective feeling of certitude is a lousy guide as to what’s actually true.

Blogs and other social media are kind of a double-edged sword here: they can aid both myth-making and myth-busting. Sometimes, social media can be great for exposing you to data and anecdotes that contradict your own beliefs, thereby encouraging you to question those beliefs. But other times, social media can be the greatest echo chamber ever invented–a “filter bubble” that you don’t recognize as such. Here’s hoping that this post will help bust a few myths without creating or reinforcing any!

42 thoughts on “What myths of academia need debunking?

  1. There are enough potential myths just about the faculty job search to fill an internet or two. For example,

    To get a faculty job, you:
    1) need a Science/Nature paper (as you mentioned)
    2) need to have graduated from a top program
    3) need to have had a big shot grad / postdoc advisor
    4) need to do experiments
    5) need to work on study system X

    To get a faculty job in the US, you:
    6) need to have gotten your PhD in the US
    7) can’t have done a postdoc abroad

    I have a friend who strongly believes #6, have been told and personally debunked #4&7, and have heard the rest plenty of times. What do you think?

    Of course, a single counterexample can disprove any of these myths, so how about strong tendencies?

    • Re: #2, that’s a total myth in ecology and I think in most fields of science, where the identity of one’s advisor might matter but the program from which one graduated really doesn’t. I’m living proof, since I’m a Rutgers grad and you won’t find Rutgers on any list of top ecology programs. I think it’s not a total myth in some social science fields.

      Re: #3, I think that’s one of those things that might have a grain of truth to it, but that people take to mythological extremes. Much as with the Science/Nature paper myth–having a famous adviser might help, but it’s far from essential.

      Re: #4, every theoretician and macroecologist in the world is living proof that’s a myth in ecology.

      #5 sounds really odd to me. Can you give some examples? I take it you’re not just thinking of “you have to do field work to get a job in ecology”?

      Re: #6, yeah, that’s gotta be a myth, though no debunking examples in ecology are coming to me off the top of my head. Can’t believe I struggled to think of such obvious counterexamples to this as Marcel Holyoak. Graham Bell is another counterexample, if memory serves. And I’m sure there are many, many others.

      Re: #7, I’m living proof that’s false, and so are all the famous ecologists who did their postdocs at the CPB (Shahid Naeem, Sharon Lawler, Susan Harrison, and on and on; it’s a long and amazing list).

      As to which one of these might represent strong tendencies (“strong” meaning “strong enough that you ought to care about them when making career-affecting decisions”), good question. If by “faculty position” you mean “faculty position”, not “faculty position at a big research university”, then I think none of them are strong tendencies, though I can’t point to data on that. If you’re restricting attention to big research universities, then in ecology, I’d say 1, 2, 4, probably 6, and 7 are either total myths, or don’t have enough truth in them to be worth worrying about. I’m not sure if 3 and 5 matter enough to be worth worrying about, in part because I’m not quite clear on what you mean by 5.

      Anyone else with anecdata on these?

      • #5 is usually invoked after a rejection — pretty clearly a myth, since people working on a range of systems DO get jobs. But maybe some systems are underrepresented in new hires?

      • “#5 is usually invoked after a rejection — pretty clearly a myth, since people working on a range of systems DO get jobs. ”

        Ah, ok, got it. And yes, you’re totally right about both the myth, and its origins. That’s a big source of myths, I think–people who lose out in some severe competition leaping to incorrect conclusions about why they lost out. I was certainly tempted to buy into this myth during my own job search. After a dozen failed interviews and many more failed applications, it was awfully tempting to infer that nobody wants to hire microcosmologists. But that inference would’ve been unjustified (and not just because I eventually did get lucky and land a job).

        As to whether some systems are underrepresented in new hires, I have no idea of course, though I don’t see any reason to think so. Plus, I think you have to be careful about what you mean by “underrepresented”. After all, there could be lots of reasons why, on average, people who work in system X are less likely to get hired than people who work in system Y. For instance, maybe system X is really popular, so lots of people work in that system. So that people who work in system X struggle to get hired even though there are actually lots more jobs for people who work in system X than system Y. That’s a totally hypothetical example of course, but it illustrates the point.

  2. The idea that getting a job at a mainly teaching-focused university means having to give up research is certainly a myth, as I’d the careers of many ecologists, including Terry McGlynn and myself, would testify to!

  3. Myth or not myth? If you’re want an academic career, you will have to give up the “luxury” of choosing where (in the world/country) you want to live.

    • Taken literally, this is a myth. I think most everybody has places they won’t move to. For instance, I didn’t apply for faculty jobs at very rural places, or in the US deep South, or in Australia or New Zealand. But like some of the myths lowendtheory mentioned, I think the degree to which this one is true depends on whether you define “academic career” as “tenure-track position at a major research university” (or at any other very specific kind of institution) or as “academic career”. Which makes sense, of course–if some of your search parameters are narrow, you’re going to have to broaden other ones to have a reasonable chance of success. Just as, if you decide “I only want to live in city/state X”, you’re probably going to have to give up the luxury of deciding exactly what sort of institution you want to work at.

      So I don’t know that this one is a myth so much as a poor way of describing the fact that it’s up to you to decide how narrowly or broadly you want to define your search parameters, on all the axes that matter to you (location, type of job, salary, etc.).

      I do wonder how well people do this. I wonder if sometimes people search too narrowly, not realizing that they’d actually be happy with a wider range of jobs (or locations, or whatever) than they think. Terry McGlynn has an old post at Small Pond Science on this, I think, talking about how many people who think they could only ever be happy at a research university actually would be quite happy teaching and doing research at a teaching-oriented school.

      I think thinking about what really matters to you–what things are essential to your happiness, which are less essential–doesn’t just help you define the parameters of your academic job search. It also helps you deal with it if your academic job search doesn’t work out. I talked about this in my old post on how I almost quit science (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/advice-how-i-almost-quit-science/). If Calgary hadn’t hired me, I’d like to think that I still would’ve been able to lead a happy and fulfilled life–just a different one (in my case, probably as a schoolteacher in London).

    • I would say its a myth but you have to be prepared for it to take a while to get there. And I say this from my own experience of wanting to end up in Maine or Oregon and doing it, but only eventually.And from watching a lot of people who wanted to stay in University of Arizona, and people in Quebec who wanted to stay in Quebec (for obvious culturual/linguistic reasons). Ditto for people from smaller countries in Europe who wanted to return home. Everybody who was pretty good (and I definitely don’t mean amazing – I mean like top 50%) and willing to wait eventually made it work, but the wait was measured in years (2-10).

    • Well, I was a postdoc for almost 4 years and got a TT position, though that was a decade ago. And I know people who were postdocs longer than me and got TT positions. Josh Van Buskirk for instance was sort of the equivalent of a senior postdoc for many years in Zurich before finally getting a permanent faculty position there. I don’t know the circumstances (the Swiss academic system has many differences from the US or Canada), but it’s my impression from afar that he just built up such an impressive body of research that eventually they almost had to give him a permanent position. I also know people who are still postdocs and who have been for a while, but who I personally would vote to hire in a second if given the chance.

      Can’t find the link now, but in an old Friday linkfest Meg linked to survey data recently compiled by ASLO and published in their Bulletin, on how long it take ecologists to get a TT job. As I recall, the average time until getting one actually hasn’t moved that much for a long time, but that the shape of the distribution of waiting times may be changing. Increasingly, people either get a TT job fairly quickly, or spend long periods as a postdoc before giving up. But I’m going by memory on that, best to check the source in case my memory is fuzzy.

      In other fields (e.g., various biomedical fields), it’s increasingly the norm to spend a long time (>5 years) as a postdoc before landing a TT job (sorry, can’t recall links to data, but I have seen data to that effect). Which suggests but doesn’t prove that lengthy postdocs per se aren’t a drawback in those fields.

      Of course, none of those data actually answer your question about length of postdoc per se. But that question’s hard to answer because spending a long time as a postdoc could be correlated with other things that also affect your prospects. For instance, I do think that if you do multiple postdocs that are very different from one another, with no clear connecting thread, that could reduce your chances. Not because of the amount of time you’ve spent postdocing, but because other people can’t tell “who you are and what you do” as a scientist. You look like a dilettante, someone who doesn’t have a coherent research program motivated by some well-defined long-term goal or well-posed big question.

  4. “…in general, our own subjective feeling of certitude is a lousy guide as to what’s actually true.”

    Nope sorry that’s a myth. And I’m right about that, I feel it pretty strongly.

      • While we’re on the whole myth-busting theme, I’ll relate that I’ve been doing some extensive research on the issue of the increase in broken hockey sticks, which is to say, I overheard the color commentator, in the Penguins-Rangers game the other night, give his reason for it. He said they were designed that way as a safety feature to prevent skewering if guys were checked into the boards at just the wrong angle w.r.t. the stick. Sounds like fodder for some myth busting to me.

        However, I’ll leave it at that for now, as I don’t want any brawls to break out over the topic, knowing how contentious it is and all…

  5. What about the idea that it’s difficult to get a TT job unless you move institutions? That is, if you’re already a postdoc at a particular university, they’re less likely to give you a permanent position because there’s no net gain for them.

    • Hmm. Anecdotally, I know of at least one case of the opposite–of someone being hired in part because they had extensive experience as a trainee at the place that eventually hired them to a TT faculty position. And as a postdoc at Imperial College London, I got an interview for a faculty position there. I didn’t get it, but I know that at least one of the other candidates had been assuming I would because I was the “insider” candidate. And Josh Van Buskirk, mentioned in a previous comment, spent many years in Zurich before they eventually created a permanent position for him (something that I hear is somewhat unusual, though that’s n-th hand). So based on that n=3 sample, I’d say this is a myth.

      Plus, the notion that there’s no “net gain” to an institution to hiring a current postdoc there sounds odd to me. I mean, if the postdoc is a fixed term position, you’re going to lose that person unless you hire them permanently.

  6. Two I’ve recently heard: It is not possible to get back into academics if you take a non-academic postdoc? You can’t land a TT position at a research institution if you take a VAP at a liberal arts college.

    • I’d never heard either of those! But now that I’ve heard them, yeah, they both sound mythological to me. Unfortunately can’t think of any anecdotes or data on either, though I’m sure you and others must have some.

      Brian’s example (getting into academia in ecology at the grad school stage after spending years in the private sector working in computers) certainly suggests that the first one is a myth.

      • I’ve heard from many people who still second guess my decision to take the position at Allegheny that I am “sealing the deal” and will not be able to land a research university if I decided I didn’t like the liberal arts setting.

      • Hmm, I suppose that might become true at some point, if you spent years just teaching and not doing much research. But the issue there wouldn’t be so much that you took a job at a liberal arts college per se, the issue there would be that you’d spent years not doing much research and then wanted to go back to doing so.

        I do think anytime you try to move from one job to a very different sort of job, you’re going to have to explain why it is you want to change to a very different sort of job, and make a convincing case that you’re the best candidate to do the new job. If you can do that, then you’ll be fine; if not, not.

      • I agree. I took these remarks lightly b/c anybody who knows me well knows this is my dream job. So, for me, it isn’t an issue. I think it becomes an issue w/ a tight job market. Does a candidate stick around for year x on a postdoc (one of the myths above) or take a VAP at a liberal arts college and hope to “move up” next job season? I’ve heard that discussion a couple of times. I also know some good friends who took 2 yr VAPs at PUIs and moved to R1s (and, I bet you can’t fit 3 acronyms into a segment of sentence that small….).

      • “Brian’s example (getting into academia in ecology at the grad school stage after spending years in the private sector working in computers) certainly suggests that the first one is a myth.”

        I disagree. Getting in at the beginning is very different than having a gap in the middle.

      • @ Margaret:

        “Getting in at the beginning is very different than having a gap in the middle”.

        Fair point. In the back of my mind when I commented were things like postdocs doing research at government agencies or NGOs, or maybe more broadly jobs where you’re acquiring or using technical skills that could come in handy for an ecologist (e.g., computer programming). I should’ve specified that. Judging from your further comment below, I’m guessing you have in the back of your mind others sorts of “non-academic gaps in the middle”, including things like taking time off to raise a family?

      • Indeed. Any sort of gap. With the job market so competitive and so many good candidates, why take any sort of risk on someone who has a “gap”?

  7. Similar to Matthew Venesky’s:
    A) Myth or not myth: you can’t get a TT research job if you leave the academic pipeline to take a non-academic research job and try to get back in. While it sounds like a myth, I can’t think of anyone I know personally who has succeeded in getting a TT research job unless they went straight grad school –> post-doc(s) and/or research associate position(s) AT an academic institution –> TT research faculty. And in particular, I know of one top-level candidate in a faculty search I followed closely who was the only invited candidate coming from a non-academic research institution (and with a strong publication record among other strengths); said candidate was docked because of the feeling of both faculty and students that it was unknown how well he would be as a graduate advisor — since he didn’t have that opportunity at his current institution.

    B) Myth or not myth: you can’t back on the TT research track if you leave academia for a couple years to do something not related to research and try to get back in. In particular, I’m thinking of things like taking “time off” to raise a family, or taking a job to accommodate a spouse’s career, or taking a high-paying job to get on better financial footing, or taking “time off” to recover from or manage an acute or chronic health condition. Again, it seems like it should be a myth, but I can’t think of anyone who has done so. And again, I’ve had personal experience with a situation in which I’ve heard a hiring decision maker look at a CV and say, “what did she do those two years? [where there are no affiliations nor publications listed during this time]” with the implication that productivity was not high enough to consider the candidate. And we all know there are lots of grants and fellowships and awards that require being “within X years” of PhD completion, which lends support to this not being a myth.

    • “I can’t think of anyone I know personally who has succeeded in getting a TT research job unless they went straight grad school –> post-doc(s) and/or research associate position(s) AT an academic institution –> TT research faculty.”

      Yes, I have a hard time thinking of counterexamples to this “straight line” path as well, though I bet they exist. But I suspect that partially reflects the relative rarity of people trying to take more non-linear paths.

      Yes, the one example you describe kind of points in the direction of a non-myth, but I guess I’d just emphasize that it is one example. It’s routine for people in academic job interviews to get “dinged” for all sorts of reasons. There are no perfect job candidates, not in the eyes of everyone doing the evaluating. (EDIT: Also keep in mind that just getting interviewed at a research university is no mean feat. The candidate you refer to was good enough to get an interview. If their non-academic position was really that much of a negative in the eyes of the search committee compared to everything else on their cv, the candidate wouldn’t have gotten the interview at all).

      The other thing to keep in mind is that all postdoctoral opportunities have strengths and weaknesses that trade off. It’s a mistake to just focus on and worry about the weaknesses–there are no perfect postdocs. Yes, a non-academic postdoc might cost you the opportunity to gain mentoring and teaching experience–but the upside might be that you get to do great research (more/better than you could’ve done in a position with more teaching and mentoring responsibilities). Or maybe that non-academic postdoc has an upside in helping you build strong links to policymakers or government agencies that will come in handy for the academic job for which you’re now applying. Etc.

    • This one should be a myth but my anecdata tend to confirm it unfortunately. I have a colleague who am I a letter writer for who is in this position and search committees just can’t seem to take any risk on a non-traditional route.

      Very stupid and short sighted.

    • In terms of what to do about this, I would say in my experience people are fairly tolerant of gaps in productivity due to maternal leave, family leave, moving to be with spouse etc. Its the gap in appointments that people get hung up on (again stupidly). So knowing that you can game the system to some degree by arranging to have a courtesy appointment, somebody who takes you on as a “postdoc” without pay, etc to avoid the “not appointed” hole in the CV. Then, if there is a productivity drop (for a valid reason) explaining it in your cover letter. I think this can be a viable strategy.

      I’m not encouraging people to lie on a CV, but given people’s stupidity around this I personally wouldn’t have ethically qualms about using fuzzy edges to cover over gaps.

      And of course not having a productivity gap (or only having a dip instead of a gap) in the one way people measure it (# papers published in each year – its the publication date, not when you did the work that people view) makes it that much easier if that can be arranged. A bit of gaming can be done on this front sometimes too. Sometimes rushing a paper through revision to get it out in 2015 or slowing down the proofs to cause it to slip into January 2016 can be done to manage this.

      • Excellent thought re: non-paid “appointments”; it hadn’t occurred to me (though I just finished a non-paid affiliation that allowed me access to a facility I needed). I like it.

        The paper slide *had* occurred to me, but I agree it could help.

        Thanks for the thoughts.

  8. OK, here’s another one. It seems to be a widely held view, certainly amongst postdocs and younger colleagues, that the only things worth publishing are peer-reviewed papers in academic journals. I’d say that the opposite is true, and a wide range of writing in different fora, peer-reviewed and otherwise, is important for demonstrating breadth of understanding within and beyond your field, and an ability to communicate ideas and findings to a range of different audiences. That includes blogging of course🙂 I had a post related to this some time ago:


    In the UK our top-down obsession with measuring scientific “excellence” via the Research Excellence Framework (and it’s precursor, the Research Assessment Exercise) has relegated non-peer-reviewed outputs as less important, which sends an unfortunate message that reinforces this myth.

    • That’s a good one. Closely related, I often hear that review papers (and even metaanalysis papers) don’t count as much as original research and junior faculty shouldn’t do them. That to me is silly. A well-done review paper is among the most highly cited, field-influencing kinds of papers you can do. And I am currently working on a book even though all advice is its bad for my career because it takes time away from peer-reviewed journal articles (but again, can point to some very highly influential books that give lie to the advice).

      • Dan Bolnick and colleagues once got the Mercer Award for a perspectives/review paper in Am Nat that grew out of a grad student reading group Dan organized. And I note that way back when, in his famous “modest advice” to grad students, Steve Stearns advised students to try to publish their research proposals as critical review papers. So I suppose there might be a grain of truth to this–there are people out there who fetishize the collecting of one’s own data, unfortunately–but I think there are sufficiently many exceptions that it counts as a myth.

        Peer reviewed papers are the currency of the realm, so yes, if you are mostly publishing other sorts of things (whether popular articles, technical reports, blog posts, or whatever), you are likely to struggle to get a TT job at certain types of institutions. But in that case, what’s holding you back isn’t those other sorts of publications per se, I don’t think–what’s holding you back is a lack of peer reviewed papers.

  9. I always believed that being at a ‘better’ institution makes you a better researcher through synergies with your colleagues, the ambient atmosphere, and better facilities, support, and maybe a slight easier time in securing publicity and/or grants. However, a recent Economist article based on a study of physicists that have moved institutions suggests that this might largely be a myth.

    What bothers me is this comment by Jeromy:

    For instance, I do think that if you do multiple postdocs that are very different from one another, with no clear connecting thread, that could reduce your chances. Not because of the amount of time you’ve spent postdocing, but because other people can’t tell “who you are and what you do” as a scientist. You look like a dilettante, someone who doesn’t have a coherent research program motivated by some well-defined long-term goal or well-posed big question.

    Is it really the case that interdisciplinary work is that hard to get hired with? Or is that a myth? Or am I misreading? I have seen articles suggesting that interdisciplinary PhDs earn about $1700 less first year out of their program, and that seems to lend support for the myth; although earning are really not a good proxy for academic success in this case (since established STEM industries outside academics usually have pre-built non-interdisciplinary pipelines, so the stats could be just from that).

    • Hi Artem,

      To clarify, my comment wasn’t referring to interdisciplinary work. I was thinking of things like the following hypothetical (and deliberately extreme) example. If I had gone on from my postdoc doing fundamental population and community ecology in laboratory microcosms of protists to a second postdoc doing forest biogeochemistry, and then a third postdoc doing conservation genetics of caribou, I’d have done three ecology postdocs. But they’d be so different that anyone looking at my cv would quite rightly wonder “what does Jeremy Fox do, and would would he do if we hired him?”

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