How many newly hired N. American TT asst. profs of ecologists have a pre-existing collaboration with someone in the hiring dept.?

tl;dr: Almost none. For the details, read on.

As most of you know, every year for three years now I’ve tried to identify everyone hired into a N. American tenure-track asst. professor position in ecology or an allied field such as fish & wildlife. One reason I do this is to provide information and context to faculty job seekers. Faculty job seeking is stressful enough already, for good reason: there’s a lot of competition for tenure-track faculty jobs. I think it’s a shame for faculty job seekers to also get stressed about job market rumors and speculation, which tend to flourish in the absence of good information.

Today: the worry that someone who applied for the same faculty position as you might have the inside track by virtue of already being a collaborator with someone in the hiring department. How common is it for tenure-track asst. professor positions in ecology to be filled by someone with a pre-existing collaboration with someone in the hiring department?

According to my unscientific Twitter poll, a decent number of people think it’s common, or at least not vanishingly rare. 23% think that >10% of newly-hired ecology asst. profs had previously co-authored at least one paper with someone in the hiring dept. An additional 17% think that 6-10% of new hires did so.

The correct answer, or at least the best estimate of the correct answer based on the data I’ve compiled so far, is ~0%. I’ve gone through the Google Scholar pages of 35 people hired into N. American tenure-track asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields advertised on ecoevojobs.net in 2017-18, not including the rare people who were currently employed in some other capacity by the hiring institution at the time of their hiring. I checked the addresses of everyone with whom the new hires have co-authored. I have yet to find anybody who’s co-authored a paper with someone in the department that hired them, but wasn’t already employed by the department that hired them.

Now, this is a haphazard rather than a random sample. It’s skewed towards new hires with fewer papers, because they’re quicker to check (compiling data on this is time-consuming…). But the sample does include some people with dozens of papers, and it includes hires at the full range of institutions, from tiny teaching colleges to huge research universities. So I don’t think my sample is too unrepresentative. And it’s not a huge sample. But FWIW, if (say) 10% of new hires have co-authored a paper with someone in the hiring dept., then there’s only about a 3% chance that a random sample of 35 new hires would fail to include anyone who’d co-authored a paper with someone in the hiring dept.* Even if only 6% of new hires have previously co-authored a paper with someone in the hiring department, there’s still only an 11% chance that none of them would be included in a random sample of 35 new hires. So although I’m sure the true number isn’t literally 0%, <1% is the best guess based on the available data, and anything >6% or so is fairly unlikely.

This lines up with my own anecdotal experience, and the experience of the people I’ve spoken to who’ve sat on search committees or been interviewed for ecology faculty positions recently. In my experience, and in the experience of the people with whom I’ve spoken, it’s fairly rare for those being interviewed to have previously met anyone in the hiring dept., never mind collaborated with them. It also lines up with other considerations. Many new ecology faculty are hired into teaching colleges where faculty do little or no research, or into departments in which they’re the only person working in their research area. It’s no surprise that those hires have never collaborated with anyone in the hiring department before being hired. And the vast majority of newly-hired ecology faculty are <6 years post-PhD and have done only one or two postdocs. They rarely have geographically-extensive collaboration networks. Most of them have only ever co-authored with their graduate and postdoctoral supervisors, their current and former labmates, and maybe with ecologists at a few other institutions. About the only way they could be hired into a department where they have a pre-existing collaboration would be for them to be hired into a department where they currently work or have worked in the past. Which happens in only 2-4% of all tenure-track ecology hires at the asst. professor level. Finally, profs don’t like anything that smacks of nepotism on the part of their colleagues, and they don’t want faculty searches conducted for the personal benefit of any one current faculty member. Any prof who tries to steer a faculty search towards hiring one of their current collaborators is likely to get a lot of pushback from their departmental colleagues.

I hope this data provides some useful context for you faculty job seekers out there.

*3% is the percentage of the time you would expect to get 0 successes in 35 Bernoulli trials with a per-trial success probability of 10%.

Related posts:

Hardly any ecology faculty jobs are filled by internal candidates, and you can’t identify which ones will be

The graduates of “top” ecology PhD programs do not comprise a disproportionate share of newly-hired faculty, not even at “top” universities

Most newly-hired tenure-track asst. profs of ecology are postdocs at the time of their hiring, not tenure-track asst. profs or visiting asst. profs

No newly-hired tenure-track asst. profs of ecology were hired where they got their PhDs (scroll down to the footnotes)

Only a minority of newly-hired tenure-track asst. profs of ecology have Science/Nature/PNAS papers, even at big research universities

The h-indices of recently-hired tenure-track asst. profs of ecology vary a lot

N. American tenure-track ecology faculty searches advertised at the “assistant/associate” level or “open rank” are almost always filled at the asst. prof level

Recently-hired tenure-track ecology asst. profs are 57% women

The only decent predictor of the number of faculty job interviews you’ll get is the number of positions for which you apply

10 thoughts on “How many newly hired N. American TT asst. profs of ecologists have a pre-existing collaboration with someone in the hiring dept.?

  1. As with all your posts on hiring patterns (or lack thereof), this one is interesting and useful. One related concern I’ve had is related to your statement “…are hired…into departments in which they’re the only person working in their research area..” As an applicant, I’ve often felt “there’s no way I’m getting an interview, my research interests are too different from existing faculty, what could we possibly collaborate on?” just as often as “there’s no way I’m getting an interview, my research is extremely similar to an existing faculty member.” I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify, say, research overlap between new hires and existing faculty to see if one situation is more common than another. My own hunch is that both situations I’ve described occur with similar frequency. (Perhaps I’ve just convinced myself that this is not something I should be concerned about. However, that does not negate the point that it makes writing a cover letter challenging, figuring out a way to make your own work sound different and similar to existing faculty at the same time.)

    • Sometimes departments want to hire people who do research similar or related to that of other people in the dept. Cluster hires are an extreme example. Sometimes departments want to hire people to fill a gap, as when they really need someone who can teach certain courses. And sometimes they want some of both, for instance when they want someone who can (say) fill a gap by teaching quantitative methods courses, but who helps build strength in depth in ecological research X. And sometimes departments have various things they might want but also want to remain open to discovering a candidate with attributes they didn’t know they wanted, so they write broad ads. Whatever the department does, they have a good reason for doing it.

      In general, most of this is invisible to you as a job applicant, beyond whatever’s in the job ad. So just read the ad and write your cover letter to respond to it as best you can, without trying too hard to customize your cover letter in more detail than is really possible. For instance, if the ad says “the successful candidate will teach a course on X”, and you’ve taught a course on X or work on X or etc., by all means say that. But I wouldn’t try to explain how your research overlaps (or not) with that of the current faculty.

      We have an old post on how much to customize your application for each faculty position for which you apply: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/how-much-should-you-customize-your-faculty-job-application-for-each-position/

    • I agree with Jeremy. The department often has a preconceived notion of what disciplinary boxes they want a candidate to check. More often than not this is pretty transparent in the job ad, although sometimes the department is still discussing and cannot be fully transparent. I believe thinking of it as the boxes to check is probably more useful than framing it as degree (or non-degree) of overlap with other faculty. They want somebody who (e.g.) works on insects, can teach stats and use the fancy new microscope in the department. Thus responding directly to the job ad (in its detail, not its breadth) is usually a great strategy. And I think you’re right to not stress about overlap/not-overlap in your applications.

      More generally, at the application and skype stage it is more important just to communicate that you are excited about the department and informed about the department, not to have specific notions of who you would work with. At the on campus interview it becomes more important that by the end you can list some people that you can imagine working with in a complementary fashion. Although having figured out what the exact disciplinary boxes they want checked and selling yourself on those boxes to the best of your ability is still more important.

      • Hi. I appreciate your advice and it’s generally how I approach letter writing. On the other hand, I’ve also been told – and I think I’ve seen on various websites – that it is critical to mention in your letter with whom in the department you could see yourself collaborating. I took that to mean to give a little bit of “how” or “why” as opposed to just giving a list of names. Furthermore, some job ads do ask you to specifically talk about possible collaborations. As in so many aspects of the job search, there is so much contradictory advice.

      • If the ad says to talk specifically about possible collaborations, sure, talk about them (though personally I think that’s a weird thing for an ad to say…). And it’s fine to point out in passing in one sentence (say, in your research statement and/or cover letter) that your research interests broadly overlap with those of Drs. X and Y. I used to do that, back when I was applying for faculty positions. But FWIW, and acknowledging that your mileage may vary, when I’ve sat on search committees or talked to people who have, I’ve rarely read or heard about applicants suggesting specific collaborations that sound plausible to the search committee. Learning enough about what some complete stranger works on to be able to suggest a collaboration with them, that said stranger is also interested in…? It’s just hard.

        For instance, if some community ecologist applied to Calgary and said something like “I’d be very interested to collaborate with Jeremy Fox to apply the Price equation to my BEF data on stream macroinvertebrates”, well, I’m sorry but that’s not nearly enough information for me to tell what you have in mind, much less if it would be worth doing. And nowhere in a standard N. American application packet do you have enough space to spell out what you have in mind. Ok, there’s the research statement, but that’s only about 2 pages long, needs to describe long-term plans and goals (not just specific projects), and shouldn’t focus solely or primarily on proposed collaborations with current faculty. You need to show that you have your own independent research program. You don’t want to come off as proposing to ride the coattails of your future colleagues.

        Plus, real collaborations don’t emerge from somebody proposing something to a stranger in an application packet. They emerge from more extensive two-way interactions between prospective collaborators. And proposing specific hypothetical collaborations in your application packet isn’t predictive of your ability to form actual collaborations via extended two-way interactions. At least, I don’t think it’s predictive, and I don’t think many other people would think it is, though I’m sure there are exceptions.

        Conversely, in the rare cases where there is some obvious, compelling, specific collaborative opportunity with faculty in their hiring department, they’ll likely see it without you going out of your way to point it out as an applicant.

        Typically, search committees want to be able to imagine you interacting in some way or other with other faculty in the dept. They don’t need to imagine specific collaborative projects you’d pursue with specific faculty members. When you get to the interview stage, show that you’re personable, and show some curiosity about your future colleagues and what they’re doing, and you’ll be fine.

  2. Pingback: Useful links related to tenure track job searches in ecology (last update June 2018) | Dynamic Ecology

  3. It would be very interesting (although very difficult) to see numbers on whether people being hired have had previous interaction, more generally, with someone in the department. I have been told that if someone on the search committee recognizes your name (through knowing you or because someone else in the department mentioned you to them), they may be more likely to pay attention to your application.

    • Hard to get data on that, but in my experience and in the experience of the many people I’ve spoken to it doesn’t matter. All applications get “paid attention to”, meaning that they get looked at by everyone on the search committee. And nobody gets interviewed or hired just because they once met somebody on the search committee, or just because someone on the search committee once saw your talk at a conference, or just because somebody on the search committee is friends with their PhD supervisor, or whatever. That stuff doesn’t even tip the balance between closely-matched applicants. Seriously, it doesn’t. Here’s how search committees work:

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/advice-how-north-american-faculty-position-search-committees-work/

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/guest-post-many-american-universities-use-score-sheets-to-rank-faculty-job-applicants/

      Here’s another way to look at it: think about how rarely ecology searches hire internal candidates, or people with whom someone in the dept. has a pre-existing collaboration, or people who got their PhDs in the dept, or people who ever worked or studied in the dept. at any point in their careers (I’m currently compiling data on that last one). If those sorts of much more substantial connections to the hiring department hardly ever lead to people getting hired, does it seem likely that very minor connections like “someone in the hiring department once heard your name” would affect your chances?

  4. Pingback: Many ecologists’ beliefs about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market are too pessimistic | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: Tenure track N. American ecology faculty searches rarely hire someone with a current or past connection to the hiring institution | Dynamic Ecology

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