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.