When did newly-hired N. American tenure-track ecology faculty get their PhDs? (UPDATED with a second year’s worth of data)

Newly-hired N. American TT asst. professors in ecology and allied field typically received their PhDs 2-5 years before being hired, but both shorter and longer gaps between PhD receipt and hiring are far from unheard of. For the details, read on.

While stuck in an airport over the holiday, I decided to go through my pretty-extensive list of N. American tenure-track asst. professors of ecology hired in 2016-17, or in a very few cases in 2015-16, and checked when they got their PhDs. I was easily able to find this information for most people by googling for CVs. I found the PhD year for 142 people. I coded one person who got his PhD after 2015, but for whom I couldn’t determine the exact year, as “2016”. (UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for a second year’s worth of data.)

The median PhD year was 2013 (mean 2012.9). The middle 50% of the distribution was 2012-2015. The full range was 2006-2017. Here’s an ugly histogram of all the data*:

Before you ask, there’s no substantial difference in the distributions between recent hires at R1 and non-R1 institutions, or between recent hires at PhD-granting institutions and other institutions. Not even the extremes differ; both 2017 PhDs and pre-2009 PhDs were hired at the full range of institutions. (aside: see here if you don’t know what “R1” means) UPDATE: In response to a comment, I just checked, and there’s not even a hint of a difference between men and women; see the comments for details.

A few remarks:

  • These data made me update my priors. I had thought it was typical for recently-hired N. American ecology faculty to have first spent 2-3 years as a postdoc, and very rare for them to have spent more than 4-5 years as a postdoc. It turns out that 3-4 years as a postdoc is typical, and it’s not all that rare to spend 5 years or more.
  • These data seem to conflict with survey data from ASLO that Meghan linked to in an old Friday linkfest (sorry, can’t find it now). IIRC, and I may not, that ASLO survey found that recently-hired faculty in aquatic ecology typically spent only 2-3 years as postdocs, and spent less time as postdocs than they used to spend decades ago. Assuming I’m not misremembering, not sure what to make of the mismatch between that survey and the data in this post. Thoughts?
  • There’s a sharp drop-off from 2012 to 2011. I have no idea how much the comparative rarity of pre-2012 PhDs in this dataset is due to pre-2012 PhDs leaving academia, vs. pre-2012 PhDs continuing to pursue faculty positions but not obtaining them. Or maybe it’s just a meaningless blip that wouldn’t show up in a larger dataset. (UPDATE: I bet it’s a meaningless blip. There’s no similar sharp drop-off anywhere in the 2017-18 data below).
  • These data are relevant to this old post in which Brian and I discussed when to give up on the possibility of an academic career. But not as relevant as you might think, since they don’t really help you estimate your odds of obtaining a faculty position. Whether or not to continue pursuing an academic career (or any other career) is a very personal decision. The most reliable sign that you’re not currently competitive for the sort of faculty position you want is that you’re submitting many applications but not getting any interviews.
  • These data aren’t a random sample of the population of N. American tenure-track asst. profs of ecology hired in 2016-17. I was less likely to be able to identify, and determine the PhD year of, new hires at less research-intensive institutions. I don’t think that matters, because there’s no hint in the data I have that new hires at less research-intensive institutions tend to spend either more or less time as postdocs than new hires at more research-intensive institutions. But keep in mind that there might be a bit of sampling bias here. Whatever bias exists likely is small, since my sample of 142 people includes more than half of all tenure-track asst. profs of ecology hired in N. America in 2016-17.

UPDATE: And here are the data for when 143 tenure-track asst. professors in ecology or allied fields hired during the 2017-18 job season (or in a very few cases in 2016-17) got their PhDs:

figs for newly hired faculty posts

As you’d expect, the entire distribution has shifted to the right by approximately 1 year. In 2017-18, it continued to be the case that most newly-hired ecology asst. profs got their PhDs 2-5 years before being hired (most commonly 3 years before). I can also tell you that in 2017-18 it continued to be the case that newly-hired men and women ecologists got their PhDs at almost exactly the same time on average (different by less than half a year). And that there’s still no significant variation among institution types (e.g., research unis vs. others) in terms of when their newly-hired ecology faculty got their PhDs.

*”Include pretty graphs in my posts, like Meghan does” was not among my New Year’s resolutions. 🙂

Related old posts:

A crude statistical profile of the research productivity of recently-hired N. American tenure-track ecology profs

You can’t estimate your odds of getting a faculty job from common quantitative metrics


16 thoughts on “When did newly-hired N. American tenure-track ecology faculty get their PhDs? (UPDATED with a second year’s worth of data)

  1. Pingback: Ask us anything: when to give up (on a research project, and an academic career) (UPDATED) | Dynamic Ecology

  2. I’m not quite sure what to make of this (tweets are short and lack context):

    but I’ll take it as occasion to comment a bit more on why I wrote this post.

    One reason why I wrote this post is to dispel the myth that you “have” to be a postdoc for X years before you’re competitive for a faculty position. That myth is out there, though I have no idea what fraction of faculty job seekers believe it. This post also dispels the related myth (which I half-believed before I wrote this post!) that basically nobody gets hired into an ecology faculty position after spending 5-6 years or more as a postdoc.

    So this sort of data can dispel some myths about what it takes to be competitive for a faculty position. But this sort of data can’t actually do much to help you estimate your own personal odds of obtaining a faculty position. That’s because those odds depend on lots of factors, that vary a lot among individuals and that aren’t easily measurable or very correlated with things that are easily measurable.

    For instance, if I told you that I was 7 feet tall, that wouldn’t let you estimate the odds that I’m an NBA basketball player, or my odds of becoming an NBA basketball player in future. Not without lots of additional information. And even with a fair bit of additional information (about me, and about other NBA players and wanna-be NBA players), you might well not be able to come up with a great estimate. As evidenced by the fact that NBA teams draw on all sorts of information to figure out who would be a good NBA player, and still get it wrong quite often. Analogously, if I tell you that I’ve been a postdoc for X years, or that I have Y peer-reviewed papers, or my h-index is Z, or that I went to an elite SLAC as an undergrad (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/advice-want-a-scientific-career-get-your-bachelors-at-a-liberal-arts-college/), or that I’m a white male, or etc….none of that stuff distinguishes successful faculty job seekers from unsuccessful ones all that well.

    Which *doesn’t* mean that faculty hiring is just based on *arbitrary* or *meaningless* criteria, or that it’s all corrupt hiring of well-connected insiders regardless of their merit (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/hardly-any-ecology-faculty-positions-are-filled-by-internal-candidates-and-you-cant-reliably-identify-the-ones-that-will-be/). Just as NBA basketball players aren’t chosen based on arbitrary or meaningless criteria, or because they’re well-connected insiders.

    I don’t want to push the NBA analogy too far; there are all sorts of obvious ways in which faculty hiring is completely different from NBA teams choosing players. One big one is that there are many different sorts of institutions of higher education that look for different things in faculty hires, and lots of self-selection by faculty applicants in choosing which sorts of institutions to apply to. There’s much less heterogeneity among NBA teams in terms of what they look for in players, and anyone who wants to play in the NBA doesn’t have much opportunity to self-select which team(s) they want to play for. Another big one is that faculty who are hired into tenure-track positions mostly succeed and get tenure, either where they were originally hired or somewhere else (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/dont-worry-too-much-about-whether-youll-get-tenure-because-you-probably-will/). A much larger fraction of players who are signed by NBA teams go on to have little or no success in the NBA. I just wanted to use the NBA as an example of another context in which crude measurables don’t really predict who gets employed, even though hiring decisions are not arbitrary or corrupt.

    • As a current post doc, I find this type of data useful. I don’t think it changes my estimate of my odds of getting a faculty position, but it’s always good to see what other people are doing. I’m <1.5 years into post doc life, and don't feel especially ready or competitive for a faculty position, so it's encouraging to see that 3-4 years is a reasonable timeline.

      PS the NBA analogy isn't a great one, because in fact, people who are 7 feet tall have extraordinary odds of playing in the NBA, far greater than the average person. I don't know how tall you actually are, but if you told me you were 7 feet tall, my first thought would be "I wonder if he played basketball…".
      But I agree that "I have been a postdoc for X years" is unlikely to tell you anything about that person's likelihood of getting a faculty position in the near future.

      • Yes, I seem to recall reading somewhere that a non-trivial fraction of all US adult men who are at least 7 feet tall play in or have played in the NBA. I don’t recall the exact number though, but if memory serves (which it may not) it wasn’t *that* high–maybe 25% or less? I’m sure the percentage would be much higher if you changed the question to “what proportion of US adults who are 7 feet tall played basketball in high school?”

        And no, I am not actually 7 feet tall. 🙂

        Hopefully the general point of the post still stands even if knowing that a man is 7 feet tall does give you some modest level of predictive power regarding whether they play/played in the NBA.

      • p.s. I think you’re thinking about the data in the post in the right way. As a job seeker, it’s useful and possibly psychologically-reassuring to have some context that tells you if your plans or expectations are broadly reasonable. I’d only add that you shouldn’t limit yourself to considering aggregate data like these when asking whether your plans or expectations are broadly reasonable. I think this is where good mentors come in. For instance, a good faculty mentor can give you a better (still rough, but better) sense of how competitive you are for the sort of faculty position you want than you can easily get by comparing yourself to recently-hired faculty or other faculty job seekers using crude metrics like # of publications or years as a postdoc or whatever.

        I think about this when I think about some of the info on ecoevojobs.net. The “anonymous qualifications” tab on the ecoevojobs.net spreadsheet is basically useless for purposes of helping you estimate your own odds of getting faculty interviews or offers. It’s only useful for giving you a rough sense of what “typical” ecology faculty job seekers look like on various crude quantitative dimensions.

  3. Actually not as bad as I would have predicted! Mind you, it only shows the successful PhD’s, not the hordes that give up. Also, I wonder what it would look like if you split the graph into two by gender!?

    • Just checked re: gender, and as I expected there isn’t even a hint of a difference.

      Women: median PhD year 2012, mean 2012.9, interquartile range 2012-2015, standard deviation 2.5.
      Men: median PhD year 2012, mean 2012.9, interquartile range 2012-2014.5, standard deviation 2.6.

      Even at the extremes, there are no gender differences. There are both men and women with 2017 PhDs, and pre-2009 PhDs, in this dataset.

    • Another nugget from that paper: about 40% of post-2000 US ecology PhD recipients are employed in tenured or tenure-track faculty positions. So if you want to estimate your odds of obtaining a faculty position, there’s the base rate you should use as a starting point.

      That number slightly surprises me, I’d have guessed it was lower, though I wouldn’t have had much confidence in my guess.

  4. Re. the sharp drop-off from 2012 to 2011, might this relate to the recession? Around the time I finished my PhD (2011), universities weren’t hiring much. When the market started opening back up (~2013?), my impression as an applicant was that folks like me were competing with the large backlog of more senior postdocs, and with all the faculty that wanted to move institutions. Now that the job market has been healthier for a few years, our actual output is being compared against newer graduates’ “potential”. This makes sense, but also to some degree penalizes people for starting up longer-term projects, switching fields, etc. (I also know of at least one case where a search at a public university decided to hire someone recently out of their PhD in part because they could offer a lower starting salary.)

    • Might there also have been more Ph.D. graduates around that time as more people pursued advanced degrees rather than entering the rough job market? I’ve heard this was the case, but haven’t seen any data for science Ph.D.’s specifically. If true, there should be more Ph.D.’s awarded from around 2012 onward compared to the few previous years.

      • I don’t think the number of biology doctorates awarded varies THAT much from year to year. But I’d have to check NSF data on earned doctorates. The data is publicly available online.

  5. Pingback: How many first-authored papers in “leading” journals does an ecologist need to be hired as a tenure-track asst. prof at an R1 university? Not nearly as many as most ecologists think. | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Pingback: When, and why, the ecology faculty job market first got so competitive | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: How many times should you expect to move before obtaining a TT asst. professor position in ecology? | Dynamic Ecology

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