What proportion of recently-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology have Nature/Science/PNAS papers?

One thing that faculty search committees for positions with significant research expectations like to see is applicants who publish in leading selective journals. I have an old post that talks a bit about why that is (tl;dr: there are good reasons for it). For better or worse (and your mileage may vary on which it is…), Nature, Science, and PNAS are at the top of many people’s mental list of the leading journals in ecology (and most other scientific fields).

This has various consequences. One of which is that, anecdotally, papers in Nature/Science/PNAS seem to take on an outsized importance in the minds of at least some faculty job seekers. I’ve heard people say that you have to have a Nature/Science/PNAS paper to be competitive for a faculty position, at least at a research university. And I’ve heard people say that having a Nature/Science/PNAS paper is pretty much a guarantee of obtaining a faculty position in short order. Now, those views are extreme, and I suspect they’re minority views. But as with many aspects of the faculty job market, I’m sure there’s a range of views out there. In part because many people only know how the faculty job market works from hearsay and their own anecdotal experiences. So here’s a bit of data: just how common is it for newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors of ecology in N. America to have Nature/Science/PNAS papers?

I went back to my pretty comprehensive list of 177 people who were hired into tenure-track positions in ecology (and allied fields like fish & wildlife) at N. American colleges and universities in the most recent complete job season.* These positions were advertised in 2016-17 on ecoevojobs.net, or in a very few cases in 2015-16. I used Web of Knowledge to search for their papers in Nature, Science, and PNAS, excluding letters to the editor, News & Views pieces, comments and replies to comments, etc. I limited the search to papers published in 2017 or earlier, so as to exclude any that weren’t published or in press at the time the person was hired.

For comparison, I also tallied up the proportion of applicants for the most recent ASN Young Investigator Awards who had first-authored Science, Nature, and/or PNAS papers. The YIA applicants are a self-selected group of outstanding young researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior. They’re almost all postdocs; a few are final year PhD students and a very few are newly-hired faculty. They’re probably more likely than randomly-chosen ecology postdocs to have first-authored papers in Nature/Science/PNAS.

Here’s what I found:

  • 24% of newly-hired N. American tenure-track asst. professors of ecology have Nature/Science/PNAS papers
  • 11% have first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers. That’s about the same as the proportion of YIA applicants with first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers (13%).
  • Nature/Science/PNAS papers are more common among new hires at R1 institutions. 39% of newly-hired ecology faculty at R1 institutions (or their rough Canadian equivalents, like McGill and UBC) have Nature/Science/PNAS papers, and 22% have first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers.
  • Before anyone asks: there was no hint of gender imbalance in these data. Women comprised almost exactly the same percentage of new ecology faculty hires with Nature/Science/PNAS papers as they did of all new faculty hires. And the 20 new hires with first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers were split 11:9 men:women.

A few remarks:

  • If my unscientific Twitter polls are anything to go by (see following bullet), not that many people think you have to have a Nature/Science/PNAS paper to get a tenure-track faculty position in ecology, at least at a research university. But for anyone who does, hopefully these data have disabused you of that notion. A large majority of newly-hired tenure-track ecology faculty do not have Nature/Science/PNAS papers. Not even if you restrict attention to new hires at R1 universities.
  • I had thought that newly hired ecology faculty with Nature/Science/PNAS papers were a bit rarer than they are. FWIW, so did respondents to my unscientific Twitter polls. Most of the 120+ respondents thought that <10% of newly-hired ecology faculty have first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers, and that <20% have any Nature/Science/PNAS papers.
  • It’s interesting to compare these data to similar data compiled by Adam Calhoun for neuroscience. He found that 29% of newly-hired neuroscience faculty have a first-or second-authored paper in Nature, Science, and/or Cell. That’s quite a bit higher than the 11% of new faculty hires in ecology who have first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers (aside: that 11% would barely budge if you included second authorships).
  • You can’t infer anything from these data about how having a Nature/Science/PNAS paper affects your odds of landing a tenure-track faculty position, all else being equal. Those odds depend on all sorts of factors, many of which covary with having a Nature/Science/PNAS paper. Offhand, I’m sure that having a first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS paper improves your odds, all else being equal, but it’s hard to say by how much. It presumably improves your odds a lot less if you’re comparing it to “having the same paper on your cv but published in EcoLetts/Ecology/AmNat/etc.” rather than comparing it to “not having that paper on your cv at all”. A first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS paper certainly is not a guarantee of instantly getting a faculty position, as evidenced by the ecology postdocs who are still postdocs even though they have first-authored Nature/Science/PNAS papers. I’m less sure if being a middle author on a many-authored Nature/Science/PNAS paper makes much difference to your odds of landing a faculty position, all else being equal. Personally, I doubt it. Research universities in particular want to see that you have your own ideas and can run an independent research program (which isn’t at all the same thing as working solo, of course!). On its own, being a middle author on a many-authored paper doesn’t really do much to establish that, even if the paper is in Nature/Science/PNAS.
  • That people with Nature/Science/PNAS papers are more common among new faculty hires at R1 institutions than at other sorts of institutions fits with other data showing that newly-hired ecology faculty at research universities have stronger research track records on average (as measured by crude quantitative indices) than new faculty hires at less research-intensive institutions. There’s a fair bit of variation around the average, of course.

*There are a few people on the list whose gender I know but whose name I don’t. That’s why the sample size is a bit lower for this post than for my previous post on the gender balance of new faculty hires in ecology.

24 thoughts on “What proportion of recently-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology have Nature/Science/PNAS papers?

  1. Coincidentally, Meghan, Brian, and I illustrate this post’s point. Of the three of us, only Brian had a Nature/Science/PNAS paper when he was first hired as a TT asst prof.

  2. It’s really nice to see some data thrown at this topic. I think this is one of many ideas that most graduate students are convinced is true and thus makes a career in academia seem unrealistic for many of us. The 60-80 hour work week is another such idea that has been addressed on DE.

    • You’re welcome, glad you found the post useful.

      As I noted in the post, my little Twitter poll didn’t identify many people who believe the myths this post debunks. But it was a small poll of a non-random sample of people. It could be that many grad students believe those myths.

      In the past, I’ve sometimes closed posts like this with a poll asking readers if they found the data surprising. I kind of wish I’d done that with this post. But it’s a bit of a pain to do it now because you have to set up a Google poll. WordPress no longer offers the convenient PollDaddy polls they used to support.

      • I stand corrected; our old PollDaddy polls are now showing up in our posts again! Not sure why they weren’t showing up for a while there.

  3. Interesting analyses Jeremy but I, for one, am not surprised. Because my impression is that the majority of tenured ecologists do not have Nature/Science/PNAS papers on their CVs, nor will they ever have. I’ve no data to support that statement, but I’d be surprised if that were not true.

    • The data don’t surprise me either (well, not much; I thought the true proportions were a bit lower than they actually are). And according to my little Twitter polls, they aren’t a huge surprise to all that many people. Maybe people who believe the myths this post debunks are actually rarer than people who believe that other people believe those myths. πŸ™‚

      I don’t have the data, but I’m suspect you’re right that the majority of all tenured ecologists don’t have Nature/Science/PNAS papers either.

  4. Great read, thanks Jeremy!

    I can’t recall, is there a post about probability of getting tenure with a Nature, Science, PNAS paper acquired between hire and tenure?

  5. Via Twitter:

    Click through to see a few replies seconding/thirding that view, and indicating that new grad students were relieved to hear Erin say this.

    • I would agree. I was told as a graduate student and can confirm as having been on several faculty search committees. Three papers in Ecology/AmNat/JournalEcology/JournalAnimalEcology/GEB/etc (and yes Ecology Letters and PNAS) easily trumps one paper in Science/Nature and two in lower tier journals.

      Hiring is all about trying to predict future performance from limited information and consistently getting in good journals is more informative than having won the lottery once.

      • “Hiring is all about trying to predict future performance from limited information and consistently getting in good journals is more informative than having won the lottery once.”

        That’s a good way to put it. And that’s my experience as well.

  6. For anyone looking for a statistical profile of the “typical” recently-hired N. American TT asst prof of ecology, on many dimensions (gender, research productivity…), see this tweetstorm I just did:

    Includes links to many old posts here.

    • That tweetstorm is sending some folks to some of those old posts. The most popular ones so far (not surprisingly): the one with a crude statistical profile of the research productivity of recenty-hired TT ecology faculty, followed by the one on the gender balance of recently-hired TT ecology faculty.

      My possibly-incorrect inference is that many faculty job seekers worry about whether they’re productive enough research-wise, and that many people care about diversity and equity in faculty hiring. In contrast, worries about, e.g., whether “inside” candidates get all the jobs, or whether you need to have a PhD from the “right” university to get hired, or etc., are comparatively rare worries among ecology faculty job seekers.

  7. For anyone who, like one Twitter commenter, is wondering about other journals–EcoLetts or Plos Biology or Ecology or whatever, I haven’t checked but the answer would be the same. Only a minority of recently-hired TT ecology faculty have a paper (first-authored or otherwise) in *any* particular journal you care to name.

    As Brian noted in a previous comment, a track record of *consistently* publishing first-authored papers in *some/any of a fairly long list of leading selective journals in ecology/biology/general science* is what research universities want to see (it’s not the only thing they want to see, of course). A single paper in any one journal is unlikely to make you competitive for a faculty position at a research university if it’s the only paper you have in a good journal.

  8. While we can’t exactly say this from the data, the fact that the number of people with S/N/P publications only increases from 11 to 24% when we go from first author to any author position, is suggestive that middle author publications in these journals don’t contribute as much.

    We’d expect more than 50% of these hires to have S/N/P papers if that 11% probability held over all positions.

    Why? Because the average number of authors on an ecology paper is about 6 [its probably higher for S/N/P papers]. With this fact in hand, assume an 11% probability of being first author, and also the null hypothesis that author position doesn’t matter for the effect of S/N/P papers for hiring decisions, (i.e. from author position from 1-6 there in an 11% chance you have at least one S/N/P paper with each authorship position). Then the number of people who have been in none of these positions would be expected to be (1-.11)^6, about 50%. There is, of course, so many things wrong with the back of the envelope calculation I just did [independence and fixed # of authors per paper assumption just to name a few], but I think its quite indicative that other positions don’t matter so much in total.

    Although, what is this % if you do first and last author combined?

    • Many, though not all, of these Science/Nature/PNAS papers are indeed from big working groups or multi-lab collaborations, and so they have >>6 authors.

      Offhand, I don’t recall anybody on this list having a last-authored Nature/Science/PNAS paper. Maybe I’m forgetting one person or something, but not many.

      Given that these days ecologists have mostly adopted the “last author = senior author” convention, I wouldn’t expect a grad student or postdoc to be last author on a Science/Nature/PNAS paper.

    • Re: your calculation, as you say, there are many aspects of it that can be questioned, even for a back of the envelope exercise. My biggest concern (assuming I understand the argument correctly, which I may not) is that you’re using properties of a sample of people who were hired into faculty positions to try to estimate the effect of a Science/Nature/PNAS paper on the probability of being hired for a faculty position. Surely you need information about people who weren’t hired, as well as people who were?

      • Yes, that is a problem, but I think in the same way that p-values are a problem in general. In most cases, what we really want to know is, p( hypothesis | data ) and we use p( data | hypothesis ) [a.k.a. p-value], as something we think is informative, despite the fact that they aren’t the same thing*. Your issue above is similar, what I think we would preferably like to know is p( hired | SNP data) but what you have asked and answered is p( SNP data | hired ).

        I definitely wasn’t trying to suggest anything I wrote was about the probability of being hired. What I was saying, is that in a null-world, where position doesn’t matter and it turns out p(SNP ith author paper | hired) = 0.11 for all i, you’d expect the number you presented to go from 11% all the way 50%, not 24% (as you say probably more since n>>6). I was just trying to give that 24% number some context in my mind [outloud]. The calculation I did, I don’t think, is affected by your concern above (although I may just not be getting it). However, your concern, I think, affects the interpretation of that calculation (again, I may very well be missing something here). I think in the same way that p-values tell us something informative, this calculation provides some (although not necessarily convincing) evidence that middle author publications are not as important as first author publications.

        I’m curious if you think that p-value analogy is total hogwash (I haven’t thought it through too much). I tend to not be so careful on comment threads as I probably should be ;).

        *Tangential note, there was a really interesting math paper published on the meta-distribution of p-values recently that seems to suggest they are far more skewed and volatile than I would have ever guessed


        Haven’t quite worked through it enough in detail yet to have formed an opinion the validity of the arguments. But if true, its a super-duper cool paper, because they work out an analytic formula for the distribution of p-values given replication of the same experiment! As someone who generally has always held that p-values are quite useful, despite flaws, this paper concerns me a little that I may be more wrong than I originally thought.

      • You’re right that the data in the post don’t let us estimate p(hired|SNP data), except that it lets us rule out some extreme possibilities, such as p(hired|having an SNP paper)=~1.

        Sorry, but I think your null model addresses a null hypothesis–author order is irrelevant–that’s too implausible to be worth testing, because we won’t learn much whether or not the null is rejected. πŸ™‚

        Re: that Nassim Taleb paper you link to, I confess I’m quite conflicted whether to bother looking at it. You recommend it highly, which strongly suggests it’s worth my (or anyone’s) time, because you’re a sharp person. πŸ™‚

        On the other hand, Taleb’s smart but he’s also a huge jerk (that’s putting it kindly) who spouts a lot of overconfident nonsense about stuff he’s ignorant about, and who thinks all academics are idiots. Which strongly suggests that this paper isn’t worth my time. That it’s going to be some technically-correct but not-especially-interesting/important derivation used as an excuse to insult the intelligence of anyone who’d ever be so stupid as to use a p-value.

        On the third hand, it’s Taleb, so I probably already know more or less what the paper says: “[Thing] has a fat-tailed distribution, which is a hugely important fact that most people stupidly don’t recognize”. Do I need to read it if I already know what it says?

        My pre-reading filters are giving me mixed signals…

  9. Pingback: Is 50:50 an appropriate null model for measuring gender bias? Ecologists should know better – Rapid Ecology

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