Ask Jeremy anything (about the ecology faculty job market)

As I continue to identify newly-hired N. American tenure-track ecology asst. professors and compile publicly-available data about them, I thought I’d ask: what data would you like me to compile? What questions do you have about the ecology faculty job market, that could be addressed with data about new hires?

I can’t make any promises I’ll be able to compile the data you want, for instance if it would be too much work or would involve me seeking out confidential information. But if it’s feasible I’ll do my best.

And if you have any other ecology faculty job market-related questions, feel free to ask away and I and our fine commenters will do our best to answer.

17 thoughts on “Ask Jeremy anything (about the ecology faculty job market)

  1. You can’t answer this from the data that you have at the moment but I’d be very interested to see the age distribution of people who move between faculty positions, particularly what it looks like at the upper end: when do most professors decide that they are at the point in their career where it’s too late (for whatever reason(s)) to move institutions? Or is it a bimodal distribution with most moves early and late career, before kids start school and after they have left home?

    • This is something I could maybe check on in a few years. This is probably the last year that I’m going to compile data on new hires. But I’m planning to go back in 6 years and see what happened to these new hires. Did they get tenure? Did they move institutions?

      Just offhand, my guess would be that moves are most common at the pre-tenure stage.

  2. I really like the ask anything posts. Thanks for doing it once in a while.

    I would be interested in, how much of their academic career (starting from undergraduate) did the newly hired asst. professors spend at North American Universities? Thus, does research stays abroad decrease or increase your chances.
    And is there any newly hired asst. professor that did not worked at a North American University before getting the position?

    Would also be interesting in relation to the citizenship of newly hired, but I guess these data are confidential.

    • Well, none of these posts actually tell you how attribute X “affects your chances” (all else being equal), because I don’t have data on applicant pools. Plus, all else is never equal–individual applicants differ from one another on many dimensions. So nobody can use these posts to estimate their own personal odds of landing a faculty position.

      That caveat aside, it wouldn’t be hard for me to check whether any newly-hired N. American tenure-track ecology profs got hired without spending any time in N. America first. I can tell you that if there are any, they’re rare. I know from previous data that something like 10-20% of newly-hired N. American ecology profs have PhDs from outside N. America. And some of them spent time in N. America before being hired into their current positions.

      And it wouldn’t be hard to check how many new hires with N. American PhDs spent time outside N. America before being hired. Just offhand, I can tell you it’s not that many. Way back, I did. And Jon Levine did. And there are others. But we’re exceptions.

      No, I can’t check citizenship. Only a minority of people state that information on their cv’s; otherwise it’s confidential.

    • Ok, I have the data now. At least 2 but not more than 8 of the 160 TT N. American asst. professors of ecology hired during the 2017-18 job season hold no degrees from a N. American college or university (in some cases I could only tell where people did their PhDs, not where they did earlier degrees). I didn’t also record countries in which post-PhD positions were held, so some of those people may have gotten all their degrees outside N. America but then done one or more postdocs in N. America. But there was at least one new hire I recall who has no degrees or previous employment in N. America.

      Bottom line, there are newly-hired N. American ecology asst. profs who have never spent any time studying or employed in N. America, but they’re very rare: 1-5% of all newly hired N. American ecology asst profs.

  3. It would be interesting to poll search committees asking the number of applicants and the gender ratio of the applicant pool. This is about the denominator as much as it is about the numerator.

    • Yes, that suggestion has come up before. It’s tricky because I think data on gender balance of applicant pools is supposed to be confidential in many cases. In principle, I suppose I could set up an anonymous poll asking people who’ve recently sat on ecology faculty search committees to provide these data. After all, we have had a few commenters share anecdata on this. But I’d be uncomfortable asking people to provide data that’s supposed to be confidential.

    • An important issue. But I’m afraid there’s no good way to get at it with publicly-available information. Gender can be evaluated from people’s names and pictures with sufficiently few errors for the data to be useful (there might well be a few errors in my data due to, e.g., people of non-binary gender identification). But that names+photos approach wouldn’t work with racial or ethnic identification, and I haven’t yet found an alternative approach that would. For instance, emailing new hires to ask them their racial or ethnic identification would be very intrusive, even if I promised to only publish aggregate data. And if I just put up an anonymous poll asking anyone who was a newly-hired ecology faculty member to indicate their racial or ethnic identification, I’d probably end up with a fairly small sample that would be statistically biased in unknown ways.

      The NSF survey of the career paths of doctoral recipients does ask about race/ethnicity, if memory serves. NSF mostly only publishes very coarse breakdowns of the data as far as I can recall. So NSF’s data will give some insight about this, but probably with regards to all biologists rather than specific subfields like ecology.

  4. I’d be interested in where they got their undergrad degrees, top 50 unis, R1s, liberal arts schools, etc. I’d suspect it would be all over the map (even more so than where they got their PhD) and also what their undergrad major was. How diverse, academically, are the backgrounds of newly hired TT ecology A/ profs?

    • Many people do list where they got their undergrad degrees on their cv’s, so that’s easy enough to do. I can already tell you that their degrees are from all over the map. Yes, probably even more diverse than where they got their PhDs, since PhD-granting unis grant only a fraction of all bachelor’s degrees. But if you want to know *exactly* how diverse they are, sure, I can do that. 🙂

      At a guess, people who went to elite research unis, Ivy League unis, or elite liberal arts colleges as undergrads are probably a bit overrepresented among newly-hired ecology faculty. Just because, statistically, people who get bachelor’s degrees from those sorts of institutions are among the most likely to go on to PhDs (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/advice-want-a-scientific-career-get-your-bachelors-at-a-liberal-arts-college/). But I doubt it’s a huge effect. Proud as I am of my Williams College BA, I’m sure my fellow Williams alums (or alums of similar institutions) comprise only a small percentage of all newly-hired tenure-track ecology profs. 🙂

      Not as many people list their undergrad major on their CVs, but you might be able to talk me into compiling the data for those who do. If only to see what fraction majored in biology or some subfield. Just offhand, I can tell you it’s not unheard of for undergrads who didn’t major in any field of science to go on to become academic ecologists.

    • Ok, I have the data, it’ll go up in a future post, but the short version is that your hunch is right. Newly-hired N. American TT ecology asst profs got their undergraduate degrees from even a more diverse range of institutions than where they got their PhDs. It’s emphatically not the case that newly hired N. American TT asst profs of ecology mostly went to places like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, or Williams as undergrads.

      These results are totally unsurprising, because as you note there are many more bachelor’s-granting institutions in the world than there are PhD-granting institutions.

      I didn’t record what the new hires majored in as undergrads. Offhand, many were biology majors of some stripe. But majors in, e.g., English aren’t unheard of.

  5. Jeremy, here are a few thoughts that probably aren’t good fits for the awesome dataset you’ve compiled (thanks for doing that, the posts are really illuminating), but might be good subjects for polls or more reflective posts from the DE team or guests:

    What was your biggest barrier to landing a TT job (e.g., geographic restrictions, personal/family situations, areas of weakness on the CV)? How did you overcome it? Would you have given a different answer to “what was your biggest barrier” when you were applying for jobs than from the hindsight of being hired or earning tenure?

    Challenges and successes in advancing an academic career while geographically restricted. Is it just a matter of extra perseverance and patience since the pool of workable jobs is that much stronger? Or are there any job seeking strategies that might be especially important for those in this situation? For example, even though your data show that in aggregate internal hires are rare and close relationships with members of the department don’t matter, but I suspect that on a case-by-case basis there are people who have made these things work to their advantage, or at least overcome their potential pitfalls.

    • Thanks for the suggestions.

      I think that by far the biggest barrier most people face to landing a TT job is that lots of other people also want TT jobs. But of course, that fact isn’t specific to the situation of any individual faculty job seekers, and no individual can do anything to change it. And so my admittedly-anecdotal impression is that faculty job seekers tend to vastly overrate the importance of various factors specific to their own situation. For instance, worrying if you work in whatever area seems to be “hot” on this year’s TT job market (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/ask-us-anything-the-demand-for-field-biologists/). Worrying if you have “enough” publications. Worrying that you don’t have a Nature/Science/PNAS paper. Worrying that you don’t have a personal connection to anyone in the hiring department. Etc. As an extreme example, recently there was a thread on ecoevojobs.net of job seekers wondering if interviewing at a certain position in the interview order puts you at an advantage or disadvantage! (To which, no it doesn’t, come on.)

      Having said that, yes, there often are factors specific to your own situation that affect your chances, that you sometimes might be able to do something about. We’ll mull it over; this might be something on which we could invite some guest posts. And perhaps some commenters will chime in on this thread.

      It’s certainly common for faculty job seekers to conduct geographically-restricted searches, for all sorts of reasons. To remain close to family, to allow your partner to keep their current job, to keep your kids in their current school, to live in a preferred region, to live in a preferred type of place (e.g., I prefer big cities)…I too would be interested to hear of ideas for strategies that might help one land a TT job, given geographic restrictions.

      One strategy (which won’t be useful for everyone) is “play the long game”. Make it a long-term goal to end up in the location you want to end up in, not a short term goal. That’s what Brian did–he wanted to end up in Maine eventually, but it took him two moves to get there. If he’d insisted from the get-go on “Maine or bust”, it might well have been “bust” for him. Same for Dan Bolnick–he’s long wanted to live in New England, which he now is (just moved to UConn), but only after spending years in Texas.

      Another strategy (which, again, won’t be useful for everyone) is “try living someplace you’re not sure you want to live; you might like it!” That was my (accidental) strategy. I didn’t realize that I actually preferred big cities to small towns, or that I could be happy living overseas far from family, until I did both for my postdoc. My wife and I only took a postdoc in the UK because her mom encouraged us to take the plunge and do it. Conversely, my anecdotal-and-possibly-wrong impression is that there’s less competition for faculty positions at teaching colleges and small universities in rural areas. So if you think you could only be happy at a big research university, or living in a big city, well, are you *sure*? That’s the thinking behind our old post on taking a “starter” job, meaning a job that you consider to be less-than-ideal for you: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/ask-us-anything-taking-a-starter-job/

      And I guess a third “strategy” is to ask “are you sure you need a TT job to be happy and fulfilled in life?” There are lots of things that are important in life. Yes, perseverance is good, or it can be–but so too is knowing when to stop persevering (and it’s a tough and very personal decision to decide if/when to stop). So if searching for a TT job is really getting you down, or seems unlikely to work out for any reason, well, it’s totally fine to go do something else with your life. If you persevere on the TT job track, it should be because *you* want to. Don’t persevere because you feel like stopping would mean you failed, or settled for second best, or wasted your degree, or let your PhD supervisor down, or whatever other unhealthy reason. If you decide to stop pursuing a TT job and do something else with your life, you’re just doing what people do all the time: changing your mind about what you want to do with your life. Some good old posts on this:

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/guest-post-on-having-the-courage-to-build-your-own-non-academic-career-path/

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/helping-grad-students-pursue-non-academic-careers-advice-from-anne-krook/

  6. You may already have done this, I can’t remember, but I’d love to see some VERY basic sorts of data, e.g., how many papers in each authorship position each successful applicant had, with IF of the journal factored in somehow, amount of funding they had acquired prior to the job, students mentored, etc. Those things we’re told matter in making the short list.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m afraid that would be too time consuming to compile.

      I have compiled data on Google Scholar h-indices of new hires, which is a very crude summary measure of publication productivity that’s roughly correlated with some of the variables you mention. And I have compiled data showing that only a minority of newly-hired ecology faculty have papers in Science, Nature, or PNAS, even if you restrict attention to new hires at R1 universities.

      Offhand, I doubt that many of the variables you mention would be very informative. They aren’t predictive of the number of interviews applicants receive (whether phone/skype interviews or on-campus interviews): https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/you-cant-tell-much-about-your-odds-of-getting-an-interview-for-a-faculty-position-from-common-quantitative-metrics/.

      From having looked at the cv’s of hundreds of recent ecology faculty hires, I can tell you roughly what I’d find If I did compile data on # of publications, grant $, etc. I’d find that newly-hired ecologists vary a lot in terms of # of publications, # of publications in journals with IF of at least X, amount of previous grant funding, number of students mentored, number of classes taught as instructor of record, etc. There’d be some trends. For instance, I’m sure that new hires at more research-intensive unis tend on average to have more papers, published in higher-impact journals, than new hires at less research-intensive unis. And I’m sure it’s rare-to-unheard-of for somebody to be hired as a tenure-track ecologist at a research uni without *any* papers in selective international science/biology/ecology journals (e.g., Nature, Science, PNAS, Proc B, Plos Biology, Curr Biol, ESA journals, BES journals, EcoLetts, Oikos, Am Nat, Molecular Ecology, GEB, Ecography, etc. etc.) But those trends would be noisy, with lots of variation around them.

      Bottom line, if you have a PhD and a few publications (like, 3-5ish?), including at least one in a reasonably selective and broadly-read journal, you’re “competitive” for most any tenure-track ecology faculty position with research expectations, in the sense that it’s not a waste of time for you to apply. The search committee will look at your application rather than just binning it after a quick glance. Now, you may or may not be “competitive” in the sense of “likely to be hired”. But it’s impossible for you to evaluate your competitiveness in that sense because it depends on factors you can’t possibly know about, not even roughly (e.g., who else applies).

      Perhaps you’ve already done this, but if not, I suggest looking at the cv’s of ecologists who were recently-hired as TT asst profs *at the sort of institutions to which you’re applying* (see here for more on how different types of institution look for different things in faculty applicants: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/how-much-should-you-customize-your-faculty-job-application-for-each-position/). You’ll develop a good sense of the range of different sorts of cv’s that can be competitive for the sort of faculty position you want. It can also help to have a more experienced colleague (ideally someone who’s sat on a faculty search committee in the not-too-distant past) look at your cv and other application materials and give you honest feedback on how a search committee likely would view them.

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