Is it common for newly-hired TT asst. profs in ecology to have held visiting or TT faculty positions before being hired?

Because I am always on the lookout for easy posts a procrastinator always trying to be helpful*, I keep an eye on the discussion threads to see if ecology faculty job seekers are asking questions about the ecology faculty job market that I can easily answer with my pretty comprehensive list of people who were recently hired into tenure-track asst. professor positions in ecology at N. American colleges and universities.

Here’s one that came up recently: is is true that these days the typical faculty career path in ecology involves holding a visiting assistant professor position before being hired as a tenure-track assistant professor? A closely-related question: were many newly-hired TT ecology faculty already TT assistant professors somewhere else, so that much of the ecology faculty job market is people who are already assistant professors playing musical chairs?

I have no idea how many people were wondering about the answers to those questions. Probably not that many?** Well, whatever. In case you were wondering, the answers to both questions are “no”. For the brief details, read on.

I haven’t actually tallied up all the numbers, but I can tell you from looking at the CV’s of more than 200 TT asst. profs of ecology hired since 2015 that the large majority were postdocs when they were hired, and have never held an assistant professor position, visiting or otherwise. Nor have most of them ever held teaching postdocs or other positions with primarily teaching duties before being hired into their current TT faculty positions.

I did go back and add up the numbers for people hired by bachelor’s colleges in 2016-17. Those are the institutions that you might expect to most value previous teaching experience as an instructor of record. So those are the institutions you might expect to be most likely to hire TT faculty who previously held assistant professor positions (visiting or otherwise). I was able to identify the previous positions held by 25 people hired into TT ecology faculty positions at N. American bachelor’s colleges in 2016-17. 15/25 were postdocs at the time they were hired into their current positions. 4 were visiting asst. profs, 2 were asst. profs, 1 held a soft money instructor/research faculty position, 3 were PhD students.

These data aren’t a complete summary of everyone’s previous teaching experience, obviously. For instance, one of those 15 postdocs was a visiting asst prof before taking that postdoc. And I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a couple of other other postdocs and PhDs students had served as instructors of record. But the bottom line is that, even at bachelor’s colleges, the majority of new tenure-track faculty hires in ecology are postdocs. Not asst. profs or VAPs.

Nothing in this post tells you if taking a visiting assistant professor position will increase or decrease your own personal odds of obtaining the sort of tenure-track faculty position you want to obtain. But I hope it provides some useful context.

*Honestly, it’s all three.

**”Dynamic Ecology: answering questions you didn’t know you had, and probably still don’t have.” 🙂

6 thoughts on “Is it common for newly-hired TT asst. profs in ecology to have held visiting or TT faculty positions before being hired?

  1. It might be possible that people who are appointed as postdocs had a substantial teaching appointment on the side, but just isn’t readily deduced from their public-facing CV.

    For example, our last four hires at CSU Dominguez Hills were all postdocs. However, one was teaching several courses at community colleges for the past 2 years while a maintaining formal postdoc to list on the CV. The other was a postdoc out of a teaching institution and the job involved a lot of things that VAPs do. A third was a postdoc and doing an adjunct teaching gig at a small private college as well. So I think it’s more of a continuum than a dichotomy between postdoc and VAP.

    • Sure. That’s what I tried to get across when I noted that these data aren’t a complete summary of everyone’s teaching experience, but my examples may not have fully conveyed that.

      I hope nobody takes away from this post the message that teaching experience doesn’t matter for faculty searches with a teaching emphasis! Because that’s not my intended point at all. The point of this post is deliberately narrow: to knock down two incorrect claims/speculations that I’ve seen made recently. First, that the “typical” career path to a TT faculty position in ecology these days involves being a VAP first, and second that lots of TT ecology faculty positions are filled by people who are moving from another TT position. The probably-vain hope is that, by knocking down those sorts of wildly-incorrect speculations, I can help good information about the faculty job market crowd out bad information. Help in some small way, at least; you’re never going to be able to completely stamp out bad information and incorrect/ungrounded speculation. There are enough good reasons for faculty job seekers to be anxious/sad about the faculty job market without piling incorrect/groundless reasons on top of them.

      It would be work, but something that might be worth doing would be to compile more granular data on the experience of recently-hired TT ecology faculty at various sorts of institutions. What sorts and amounts of teaching experience do recent hires at teaching colleges typically have? How many first-authored papers in leading ecology journals do recent hires at R1s typically have? Etc. That’s the sort of stuff that experienced people can probably make reasonable guesses about. And I could ballpark some of that stuff, just from having skimmed lots of CVs of recent hires looking for other bits of information. But data would improve on guesstimates.

  2. It’s always interesting to see the difference in the conventions in Math and Ecology. Based on observations with a small sample size, in math, the “visiting assistant professor” position effectively takes the place of a postdoc. So many math courses need to be taught and so few research grants are awarded in math (especially ones that have money for a postdoc) that I’d expect the %TT jobs filled by VAPs to be much higher in math.

    With my ridiculously low sample size of two US R1 schools, I was aware of no VAPs in the ecology departments. So I’m not surprised that few VAPs go on to TT jobs compared to postdocs, given how many postdocs there are in ecology. As you pointed out in one of my previous comments, what would be really great is if we could see the applicant pools. There could be so many postdoc applicants that the proportion of VAPs and APs hired are higher than in the applicant pool.

    • “I’d expect the %TT jobs filled by VAPs to be much higher in math”

      Interesting, could well be, I don’t know enough about math as a field to say.

      In economics and other social sciences where postdocs are rare, it’s much more common for TT faculty to be hired straight out of grad school than it is in the sciences.

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