Where did recently-hired N. American tenure-track asst. professors of ecology get their PhDs? (UPDATED with a second year’s worth of data!)

At lots of different places! For the details, read on.

Some social science fields are quite hierarchical when it comes to faculty hiring. There’s a widely-agreed ranking of graduate programs, which have a strong tendency to hire faculty only from programs of similar or higher rank. As we’ve discussed, there are some defensible reasons for that, but probably also bad reasons. The same is true for computer science, business, and history. For instance, in those three disciplines, the top 10 programs train >70% of all US tenure track faculty, and only about 10% of US faculty are hired at institutions ranked higher than the one from which they obtained their PhD.

Anecdotally, my impression has always been that academic hiring in ecology (and other life science fields) is much less hierarchical. That the name of the institution from which you received your PhD isn’t considered by search committees, and correlates only loosely or not at all with the many things that search committees do consider. But why rely on anecdotal impressions when you have data?

So I went back to my pretty darn extensive list of people who were hired as tenure-track asst. professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities in 2016-17 (or 2015-16 in a very few cases). I was able to identify where 157 of those newly-hired ecology faculty got their PhDs (having tried to identify every single one). I was interested in the following questions:

  • Do the graduates of a few “top” ecology programs comprise a really disproportionate share of newly-hired ecology faculty?Β 
  • Do “top” ecology programs exhibit a disproportionate tendency to hire faculty from other “top” programs?

The answer to my first question is “no”. Those 157 newly-hired ecology profs got their PhDs from 93 different institutions. Simpson’s index was only 0.017, meaning that if you picked two of those 157 people at random, there’s just a 1.7% chance they’d have PhDs from the same institution.Β The most common places from which those 157 newly-hired ecologists got their PhDs: UC Davis, Florida, and Hawaii-Manoa, each of which had just 6 PhD graduates in this dataset.*

UPDATE: 150 new hires into N. American tenure track ecology asst. professor positions advertised in 2017-18 got their PhDs from 95 different institutions, with no more than 7 from any one institution. So in case anyone was wondering, the 2016-17 data weren’t a fluke. Also, 13% of those 150 new hires got their PhDs outside the US, most commonly from Canada (5%). /end update

UPDATE #2: I’ve now ID’d a few more people and combined the data across both years. 321 recently hired N. American TT asst. profs in ecology got their PhDs from 147 different institutions. The most from any one institution were Georgia, Florida, and Colorado (10 each). /end UPDATE #2

Here are a couple of amusing ways to illustrate the diversity of places from which newly-hired N. American ecology profs got their PhDs. First, they’re more diverse than the tropical tree species in the 50 hectare plot on BCI, which has a Simpson’s index of 0.026. Second, as many people in my dataset got their PhDs from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford combined as got their PhDs from the University of Northern British Columbia–namely, one person. πŸ™‚

A bit of a hierarchy does show up if we shift focus to types of institutions rather than individual institutions. 71% (111) of those 157 people got their PhDs from R1 institutions.** The remainder mostly got their PhDs from either R2 institutions (12%) or non-US institutions (17%). Now, I don’t know what fraction of all recent-ish ecology PhD recipients got their PhDs from R1 institutions. It might be more than half, given that R1 institutions are a substantial percentage of all US PhD-granting institutions and that they tend to have larger graduate programs than other PhD-granting institutions. But I don’t think it’s as high as 71%. So I suspect people who got their PhDs from R1 institutions are somewhat over-represented among newly-hired ecology faculty, relative to their representation among recent-ish ecology PhD recipients. There could of course be various reasons for this, which I discuss a bit below. (Aside: note that that 71% does not include several people who got their PhDs from non-US institutions that are functionally-equivalent to R1s, such as Toronto, McGill, and UBC).

Narrowing a bit further, 45% (70) of those 157 newly-hired ecology profs got their PhDs from AAU universities. Those are 60 top US research universities, plus Toronto and McGill in Canada. I don’t know what fraction of all recent-ish ecology PhD recipients got their PhDs from AAU universities. But I suspect it’s less than 45% (though not way less). Especially since a few of the AAU universities have small or nonexistent PhD programs in ecology and allied fields like wildlife and fisheries.

I was also going to calculate the proportion who got their PhDs from top-ranked EEB programs according to the 2010 NRC rankings, but then I decided I really needed to get back to work. πŸ™‚

There are various non-mutually-exclusive reasons why PhD recipients from R1 universities, or AAU universities, are probably a bit over-represented among recently-hired ecology faculty, relative to their frequency among all ecology PhD recipients. From having sat on search committees myself and talked to many people who have, I can tell you what’s not going on: it’s not that faculty search committees in ecology check which applicants got their PhDs from R1s. Rather, it’s presumably down to variation among institution types in their propensity to attract and graduate students with both the desire to go into faculty positions and the cv’s to be competitive for those positions. Survey data on the career plans of prospective and finishing graduate students would speak to some of this, and I know those data exist. But those surveys tend to classify grad students quite broadly (e.g., “biology”), and I can’t recall seeing any surveys with data broken down by institution type.

The answer to my second question is “no” as well. For instance, of the 63 N. American tenure-track ecology faculty positions at R1 universities for which I was able to identify where the person hired got his or her PhD, 68% got their PhDs from R1 universities. That’s basically the same as the 71% of R1 PhD-holders among all 157 recently-hired ecology faculty. And 14/20 (70%) of identified hires at bachelor’s institutions got their PhDs at R1s.***

UPDATE: Of the 41 ecology asst. profs hired in 2017-18 at R1 universities whose PhD uni I could identify, 80% got their PhDs at R1 universities. So, a bit higher than last year but not a significant difference given the sample sizes. Overall, over the past two years 73% of new ecology hires at R1s were people with PhDs from R1s. Similarly, in 2017-18 80% of the 25 new ecology hires at bachelor’s colleges whose PhD uni I could identify got their PhDs at R1s.

Even if you restrict attention to “top” N. American ecology programs, the answer to my second question is “no”. Now, there’s no “objective” way to decide which are the “top” ecology programs, but FWIW the 2010 NRC “S” rankings for EEB programs and 2018 US News & World Report rankings of “ecology/environment” programs both include Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Berkeley, UC Davis, Yale, Minnesota, UC Santa Barbara, Washington University, Columbia, and Oregon State in their top 21. I’m Canadian, so I’m going to include Toronto, McGill, and UBC on the list of “top” programs even though they weren’t eligible for the US-only NRC rankings. And I’m going to include Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Georgia, Texas, UC Irvine, and Wisconsin to bump up the sample size, and because Meghan would get mad at me if I didn’t include Michigan. πŸ™‚ That list includes some places I think of as stronger in evolution than ecology and omits several programs on my own mental list of “top” N. American ecology programs. But whatever; the answer to this question doesn’t change no matter how you define “top” ecology programs. In total, in 2016-17 those 21 “top” programs hired 9 ecologists I was able to ID (1 at Duke, 1 at Berkeley, 1 at Minnesota, 1 at McGill, 2 at UBC, 3 at Michigan). Here’s where those 9 people got their PhDs: University of the West Indes, Girona, UC Santa Barbara, Simon Fraser, Calgary, Toronto, Georgia, Maryland, University of Chile. So, only 3/9 hires at 21 “top” ecology programs got their PhDs from those same 21 “top” programs. Ok, not a big sample, but sufficient to establish the point, I think.

Some of you are probably wondering if the answer would change if instead of looking at recently-hired faculty I looked at all faculty. To which, I don’t know, but offhand I doubt it would change all that much. For instance, I don’t think any of the 10ish ecologists in my department got their PhDs from the same place.

I’m sure there are a few exceptions. I wouldn’t be surprised if people with Ivy League PhDs, or who spent time as Harvard junior fellows, are overrepresented among Ivy League profs in ecology and allied fields (then again, maybe they’re not!). And there’s probably some odd department out there that hires a disproportionate number of its own PhD graduates.**** But the exceptions are just that–exceptions.

What did poll respondents think I would find?

Last week and earlier this week I did some unscientific polls on Twitter and here to see what people thought I would find. Obviously, the respondents aren’t a random sample of ecologists. But there are enough of them (e.g., 157 respondents to my poll here) that I think their collective opinions are worth talking about.

Overall, a substantial minority of poll respondents both here and on Twitter thought that recent N. American ecology faculty hiring is less diverse and more hierarchical than it actually is. 32% of respondents here incorrectly agreed with the statement that “most recently-hired N. American tenure track ecology faculty got their PhDs from a relatively small number of institutions.” And 44% incorrectly agreed with the statement that “recent N. American tenure-track ecology faculty hiring is strongly hierarchical, meaning that higher-ranking institutions rarely or never higher someone with a PhD from a lower-ranking institution“. Finally, 63% of respondents here, and 81% on Twitter, mistakenly thought that BCI trees are more diverse than the institutions from which recently-hired N. American TT ecologists got their PhDs. :-)*****


In conclusion, I find these data heartening and hope you do as well. As I said above, there are some defensible reasons why faculty hiring in some fields is extremely hierarchical. But I don’t think that’s a healthy state of affairs. It creates the possibly-justified, difficult-to-rebut impression that the entire field is run by a cabal of well-connected insiders. Personally, and speaking as someone who got his PhD from a fine program that nevertheless does not rank high on any list of “top” ecology programs, I’m glad to be in a field in which the place where you got your PhD has at most a modest correlation with your prospects for a faculty career.

*It is very much not the case that getting your ecology PhD from a top program like UC Davis more or less guarantees you a tenure-track faculty position if you want one. Which is in contrast to, say, economics, where a PhD from, e.g., Harvard or MIT does more or less guarantee you a faculty job. At least, that’s my understanding; happy to be corrected by anyone who knows better!

**See here if you don’t know what “R1” means. Roughly, it means “big US research university”. Think Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, etc. For “R2”, your search image is institutions like Wyoming, Maine, and Ball State.

***It is rare for bachlelor’s institutions to hire ecologists with PhDs from non-US institutions. I wouldn’t make too much of that because this dataset doesn’t include a huge number of hires at bachelor’s institutions, or a large number of non-US PhD recipients. But for what it’s worth, I suspect that trend is real and due mostly to self-selection on the part of non-US PhD recipients. I bet that most ecologists from outside the US who are prepared to take up faculty positions in the US are looking for positions at research universities, not teaching colleges. Teaching colleges might also be concerned about how well-prepared applicants with PhDs from outside the US are to teach US undergraduates (see here for a bit of discussion).

****In case you were wondering, none of the 157 people in my dataset were hired where they got their PhDs. Yes more evidence that ecology faculty positions are hardly ever filled by someone with a previous connection to the hiring institution.

*****On the blog I also polled people on what fraction of new hires got their PhDs from UC Davis, or Florida, or Hawaii-Manoa. But I phrased the question ambiguously, so that it sounded like I was asking for the total fraction of new hires who got their PhDs from any of those three places. Many answers missed high anyway, but I’m still just going to ignore this question.

41 thoughts on “Where did recently-hired N. American tenure-track asst. professors of ecology get their PhDs? (UPDATED with a second year’s worth of data!)

    • What do you think the answer would be if you did the same analysis for the UK? My guess would be that it’s a bit more hierarchical than N. America. That Oxbridge and Imperial College London train a higher proportion of British faculty than any three N. American unis do for N. American faculty, and that they have a detectable tendency to hire people with PhDs from Oxbridge and ICL. But I’m just guessing and could well be totally wrong.

      • Yeah, good question. There are likely to be some patterns, as you describe, but a lot less hierarchy than you might expect. Amongst my contemporaries at Oxford Brookes, for example, some have ended up in quite research intensive universities (not me, obviously…. πŸ™‚

  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for this analysis. It reassures me hiring may be more meritorious in ecology than other disciplines. (Stochastic would be another hypothesis. There’s a paper here!)

    I’m embarrassed to make this point, but so many people read your blog that it might help the field just a bit: There’s no hyphen necessary between adverbs and adjectives. It’s “newly hired,” “widely agreed,” “functionally equivalent,” etc. I’ve been seeing hyphen creep in manuscripts over the past 10 years and hope we can all reduce publication fees by reducing the need for copyediting. Hyphens are okay for compound adjectives (“tenure-track hires”) and compound nouns (“grammarian-ecologist”).

    Aside from making weirdos like me twitchy, there’s problem no harm done, but I thought I’d say it.

    • “It reassures me hiring may be more meritorious in ecology than other disciplines. (Stochastic would be another hypothesis. There’s a paper here!)”

      Yes, there’s more that could be said here (though I’m not sure the data exists to say some of it…). One thing to be said is that they’re not alternatives, or mutually exclusive. For instance, if you look at the amateur drafts in pro sports like the NBA, NFL, and MLB, you find that higher draft picks do go on to better professional careers, on average (e.g., for MLB, see http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2009/06/draft_picks_and.php and https://www.fangraphs.com/community/success-rate-of-mlb-first-round-draft-picks-by-slot/). But there’s also substantial variation around the average; it’s not rare for even the #1 overall pick in MLB to have a poor professional career. Now, I don’t think professional sports drafts are actually analogous to faculty hiring; there are some very important differences! Just illustrating why I don’t think “meritocracy” and “stochasticity” should be posed as alternatives.

    • We should form a club for people who get twitchy from unnecessary hyphens!!!! The hyphen creep bugs me, too. One of my roles as an author on manuscripts is to remove all the hyphens after adverbs. And I’ve considered abusing my powers to access Jeremy’s posts ahead of time and using them to remove the hyphens. πŸ˜‰

  2. Based on the fact that ecology highly values publications (performance rather than prestige driven), this should be exactly what we expect. Social scientists would have definitely predicted this result. [or even the opposite of what we’d expect] The theory is called “relative deprivation”. Basically, students thrive in environments where they are doing better than their peers. A really good, but not the absolute best, ecologist, on average, will publish more papers, in better journals, if they go to the 30th best program than if they go to the 1st best program. It is amazing how much our brain is influenced by our baseline perception of our peers.


    • “A really good, but not the absolute best, ecologist, on average, will publish more papers, in better journals, if they go to the 30th best program than if they go to the 1st best program.”

      Really?! Ok, I need to follow up and look at that Gladwell piece and the underlying studies, because I need to be convinced of that. I need to be convinced in part because I don’t think you need to appeal to “relative deprivation” to explain the data in the post. I think the data in the post are consistent with various stories about the underlying data-generating processes.

      “this should be exactly what we expect. ”

      FWIW (maybe not much!), all the results in the post are in line with what I personally would’ve expected. And I think that most experienced ecology faculty would’ve expected the same. So my working hypothesis is that the substantial minority of poll respondents who expected different are mostly grad students and postdocs (which isn’t to say most grad students and postdocs would’ve had incorrect expectations, of course). We know from other polls on this site that grad students and postdocs are more likely than faculty to have very inaccurate impressions about other aspects of the faculty job market in ecology, like the proportion of women among new faculty hires. One of my motivations for writing these data-driven posts about the faculty job market in ecology is to share information that otherwise can only be learned (if at all) only through years of experience.

    • I like Jeremy’s comment that multiple plausible models could generate the data. Here’s one alternative, but first, I find it awesome that the statistics came out this way. Thanks for compiling those!

      Okay: There are many ways to succeed in ecology (mathy, or experimenty, or, persistence, collaborativeness, etc, etc, and of course luck) with none really requiring extreme individuals (or talent). In other words, most ecologists are pretty good with only a few somewhat better than the rest of us. This means that there are lots of pretty good PhDs in Ecology out there who populate many, many schools. This is good for students everywhere, from the undergraduate level on up.

      By contrast, in physics, math, CS, or economics, there are fewer ways to be good (theory or math and in physics very creative experiments) and these few ways have unbelievable variation in “talent”. Hard work or persistence won’t get you a position at Harvard (Or as Andrew Gelman has said of himself, he wasn’t talented enough to go into physics, despite his undergraduate degree in physics from MIT). This means that a theoretical physicist at a top uni will be light years better than the average theoretical physicist. So if a student has extreme talent in physics or math, they go to a few top schools, otherwise they won’t learn much from an advisor. It is pretty common for a student that is off-the-charts in high school math at a local or state level struggling mightily when they go to Princeton as a math major. I don’t think this happens in biology. Or Biology is just not a discipline that sorts talent in this way (think of Ed Wilson arguing that biologists don’t need to know math).

      I think the opposite is happening in lots of social sciences and humanities. In the social sciences, there is a lot of cargo-cult science going on and in the humanities, I’m not sure that there are very objective measures of quality. So humans do what humans do and judge a scholar based on their pedigree.

      (I’m also skeptical of the idea that we thrive in environments where we are above average – in my biased understanding of the world based on my subjective experience, we rise or sink to the level of those around us)

      • @ Jeff and Matthew:

        In an old linkfest (can’t find it now, sorry), I linked to a study asking whether faculty research productivity changes after moving to a higher- or lower-ranking uni. “No” was the answer, IIRC.

      • I am skeptical about the idea that you have to have a crazy amount of talent for physics, CS, economics. Or, that the people with that amount of talent are all found at elite schools. Would love to see some data on that claim!

  3. “UC Davis, Florida, and Hawaii-Manoa, each of which had just 6 PhD graduates in this dataset”

    This brings up the question of how many PhDs each of these schools are graduating. I’d expect 6 of UC-D and Florida to be small % (<50%?) of graduates but a larger % at UH-M.

    Also, I'm always curious how the Canadian hires shake out – top American institutions for the 'top' Canadian university hires and 'more likely to have attended' for the 'lower' schools is my guess. I'm also guessing there is not enough data to do this analysis πŸ™‚

    • Yes, no one N. American institution trains more than a very small percentage of all PhD-holding ecologists. Possibly, if you compiled several years worth of data, you might have enough power to find that, say, UC Davis PhDs are a bit overrepresented among recently-hired N. American ecology faculty. That they’re 3% of recently-hired ecology faculty or something despite being 1% of all ecology recent-ish ecology PhDs. I confess I personally wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. And if it were I would think it was fine.

      And yes, as the first footnote notes, it’s surely not the case that those 6 Davis PhDs or 6 Florida PhDs or 6 Hawaii-Manoa PhDs are the only recent-ish ecology PhDs from those unis that want/wanted TT faculty positions in ecology. We know from other data recently published in Ecosphere that about 40% of recent-ish US ecology PhD recipients hold tenured or tenure-track faculty positions in ecology. I’m sure there’s variation around that base rate among PhD programs. I have no idea how much variation there is, though I doubt that any ecology PhD program of any size places close to 100% of its graduates in TT faculty positions.

    • We have ~35 students join the ecology program at Davis each year (plus ~7 for population bio), most (~80%) of whom complete a PhD after ~6 years (yes, that gives ~130+30 students).

  4. I thought I might add a perspective from a progressive local government (King County, WA). Hiring committees at the County are required to watch a quick video on implicit bias which encourages that you not consider where an applicant went to school. This is one small piece in a larger effort to increase equity and social justice in our workplace. For a recent entry level position (stream ecologist/water quality scientist) we received over a 100 applicants, and more than 10% had PhDs. As an ecologist with a academic background, it is hard to disregard an academic pedigree, but we’ve found it’s not necessarily a great predictor of success for our work. When applying for non-academic jobs, it may be best to highlight technical and interpersonal skills rather than where those skills were developed.

  5. Just for laughs, a quick Twitter poll taken shortly after this post went up (i.e. some of the respondents may have already read the post) finds that 18% of respondents think 6-10% of recently-hired N. American TT ecologists got their PhDs at the uni that hired them, and 20% think it’s >10%.

    Unscientific poll obviously–a small sample of a very non-random set of people. But FWIW, it’s another modest bit of evidence that a non-trivial minority of ecologists have some very inaccurate impressions of the ecology faculty job market. Nowhere near 10%+ of N. American TT ecology faculty positions are filled by people with PhDs from the hiring institution! Not even if we restrict attention to hires at PhD-granting institutions.

  6. One thing this little exercise highlights is that you shouldn’t overgeneralize from that Clausen et al. study of hiring in CS, business, and history (linked to in the post). Clausen et al. don’t say how they chose which fields to study (unless I missed it in my skim?) But however they did it, they chose three fields that are *very* hierarchical in terms of their faculty hiring. Further, they’re fields that experienced people would’ve guessed were quite hierarchical. If Clausen et al. had looked at life science fields (and/or chemistry fields?), which are a substantial chunk of all of academia, I bet they’d have gotten a very different answer. Not criticizing them or their work. But purely anecdotally, it’s my impression that that paper got a lot of play on social media, and so I worry that many readers (especially less-experienced readers like grad students) may have overgeneralized from it.

  7. Another takeaway from this post is “be careful what you wish for”. I know from watching, e.g., discussions on ecoevojobs.net that there are faculty job seekers in ecology who are stressed and unhappy about being evaluated according to their research productivity (though as an aside they sometimes have mistaken impressions about how search committees typically go about those evaluations). And I totally get that–I don’t know anybody who *likes* feeling pressure to publish, and to do so in leading journals! But as the examples of other fields illustrate, the alternative is to be evaluated on dimensions like “where did you get your PhD?” Which seems to make many faculty job seekers in those fields pretty stressed and unhappy too. Or think of how stressed and unhappy premed students get about their GPAs and the MCAT exam, knowing that those two piece of information will go a long way towards determining whether they get into med school. So if you wish that ecology faculty job applicants weren’t evaluated on the bases on which they are currently evaluated, well, keep in mind that you might not like the alternatives either.

    Which I think just illustrates that, in any field (inside or outside academia) in which there are many more job seekers than jobs, many of those job seekers are going to find the job search process stressful, no matter how those doing the hiring evaluate job applicants.

  8. Pingback: Recommended reads #123 | Small Pond Science

  9. Over at Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn kindly links to this post and asks about the role of postdoc institution: https://smallpondscience.com/2018/02/23/recommended-reads-123/.

    To which: I haven’t compiled the data, but offhand looking at those 157 cv’s it seems like postdoc institutions are really diverse too. Which makes sense, I think. Ecology faculty search committees don’t look at whether you did your postdoc at a “top” program. And where you did your postdoc correlates only loosely (at most) with the things that faculty search committees do look it.

  10. Thanks for doing this. It was definitely not what I expected. How many of the recent hires got their PhDs from European universities?

    • Very few. Most of the non-US ones were from Canada, and some of the remainder were from outside Europe (e.g., University of the West Indes). I recall one from Sheffield, one from Cardiff; there might’ve been one or two others?

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