Many ecologists’ beliefs about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market are too pessimistic

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. I’ve also been conducting polls here and on Twitter to see what ecologists know about the N. American tenure-track faculty job market in ecology. I’m sure everyone knows that the faculty job market is very competitive, in the sense that there are many more people seeking tenure-track jobs than there are tenure-track jobs. But what do ecologists (well, the ones who take our polls, who surely aren’t a random sample of all ecologists) know about other aspects of N. American ecology faculty job market? Do they know, say, the percentage of women among recent hires, or how rare it is for positions to be filled by internal candidates, and so on?

Our polls suggest that inaccurate impressions of the ecology faculty job market are common. But it’s not just that poll respondents’ impressions of the ecology faculty job market often are inaccurate. It’s that they’re statistically biased: in aggregate, the responses almost invariably are more pessimistic than the data. Well, “pessimistic” isn’t quite the right word, but I couldn’t think of a better one. Anyway, here’s what I mean:

  • Before I started compiling data, our poll respondents thought that recent N. American tenure-track faculty hiring in ecology was heavily male-skewed. In fact, it’s 57% women. And when I polled on this issue again after publishing some data on it, even people who’d read and recalled the data I’d published were still too pessimistic about the percentage of women among recently hired ecology faculty.
  • Almost 40% of poll respondents think that it’s fairly common, or at least not vanishingly rare, for N. American tenure-track faculty positions in ecology to be filled by people with pre-existing collaborations with people in the hiring dept. In fact, it’s vanishingly rare.
  • 32% of poll respondents think that “most recently-hired N. American tenure track ecology faculty got their PhDs from a relatively small number of institutions”. That’s the opposite of correct.
  • 44% of poll respondents think that “recent N. American tenure-track ecology faculty hiring is strongly hierarchical, meaning that higher-ranking institutions rarely or never higher someone with a PhD from a lower-ranking institution“. That’s incorrect.
  • 50% of poll respondents were somewhat or very surprised to learn that only 2-4% of N. American tenure-track ecology faculty positions are filled by internal candidates. Presumably, most of those 50% thought the true number was higher.

I emphasize that I mean no criticism of anyone’s views of the N. American ecology faculty job market. In the absence of good systemic information it’s not surprising that people would form inaccurate impressions based on the small sample sizes of their own anecdotal experiences, what they hear on social media, etc. Collecting these data has caused me to revise some of my own views of the faculty job market (e.g., I had thought recent hires were about 50% women, not 57%). But I do think it’s interesting, and also a bit unfortunate, that when poll respondents’ impressions of the ecology faculty job market are inaccurate, they tend to be inaccurate in the pessimistic direction. I can imagine various reasons why that might be**, but whatever the reason(s) it’s kind of unfortunate. Faculty job seeking is stressful enough already, and I’m not suggesting that anyone should actually be happy about it. But hopefully these data will be reassuring to some of you.

*Still working on this year’s compilation–send me info!

**One possibility: social media amplifies pessimism relative to optimism.

12 thoughts on “Many ecologists’ beliefs about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market are too pessimistic

  1. This is all rather interesting to me. I don’t mean to diminish your efforts in compiling the data on this, but there a few thoughts your post left me with:

    – I also wonder, what the root issue for these fairly incorrect estimations on the part of poll participants may be.
    My gut instinct would be that these assumptions were fairly the same if not worse in the past. What makes you suspect social media plays a role in the differences?

    – Compared to say five, ten, 20 years ago – how much have these hiring numbers moved towards a more (for lack of a better word) egalitarian state now? (I know you didn’t work on this)
    My naive assumption would have been this. Progress has been made recently, but people’s expectations remained rather low.

    – How much tend good hiring practices to cluster? Or the dark side of that: Are there “islands of malpractice” which could lead to propagate pessimistic views?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking read and I’m curious to hear your two cents on some of the points

    • Obviously I don’t know what people would’ve said about these aspects of the faculty job market if you’d polled them, say, 25 years ago. My guess is that they’d still have been pessimistic. I think social media is probably just one factor shaping ecologists’ impressions of the ecology faculty job market. Probably another factor is that people’s impressions of anything that changes over time tend to lag behind reality.

      I don’t know what the gender balance of new faculty hires in ecology was, say, 25 years ago (presumably fewer women, but I don’t know how many fewer). But if you want to look at broader fields like biology, check out Shaw & Stanton 2012 Proc B (*great* paper analyzing a huge long-term NSF data set on gender balance at every career stage in different scientific fields):

      I have no idea if those institutions with bad hiring practices are spatially clustered.

      • Clarification: I speculate that some other aspects of the ecology faculty job market were pretty much the same 25 years ago. I strongly suspect internal hires have always been rare, as have hires of people with pre-existing collaborations at the hiring institution. I suspect new ecology hires 25 years ago got their PhDs from many different institutions, and that even back then there wasn’t a strong tendency for “high ranking” institutions to only hire ecologists with PhDs from other “high ranking” institutions. But again, all that’s just speculation on my part.

      • Thank you for the paper, Jeremy. I’ll definitely give it a read.

        Also thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Here’s another widespread misunderstanding, though I don’t know that I’d call it “pessmistic” exactly: about 1/4 of poll respondents think that ecology faculty positions advertised as “assistant/associate” or “open rank” are filled at a rank above assistant a substantial fraction of the time. In fact, they’re hardly ever filled at a rank above assistant.

    • I did that in last year’s post:

      Will do it again this year.

      Short version is that recent ecology faculty hiring at less research-intensive institutions skews slightly more towards women than recent ecology faculty hiring at more research-intensive institutions. It’s not a massive difference (less than 10 percentage points), and the precise magnitude of the difference depends on where you draw the line between more- vs. less-research intensive institutions. But I’m sure it’s a real pattern, because it broadly mirrors the pattern for US academia as a whole, across pretty much all scholarly fields as far as I can recall. And that pattern’s been persistent for decades. The long-term trend of increasing percentage of women among academics in most scholarly fields has taken the form of parallel increases in women’s representation at more- and less-research intensive institutions. Rather than convergence towards a common percentage that’s independent of research intensiveness.

      My data don’t directly address the proximate or ultimate reasons for that pattern. I’d speculate that it’s at least in part because of gender differences in what sort of institutions people choose to apply to. But if so, that just changes the question to why those gender-differentiated choices get made. I know there’s a literature on this, but it’s not one I know well.

  3. Even though I know the numbers, I still always pause a bit before giving them because part of my brain says “Wait, is it *really* 57%?” My brain has a hard time wrapping itself around that number even though it’s consistent with the way hiring has gone in my own department. I wonder if it’s because my impressions of gender balance are based more on the overall faculty ratios (male-skewed in my department, as in many) rather than just on the recent hires?

    • Interesting. You’re far from alone in having a hard time wrapping your brain around that number. As I noted in the post, when I last polled on people’s expectations on this, I was struck by how even people who recalled the previous year’s data still expected new hires to be slightly more male than the previous year’s data. Many poll respondents seemed to have such a strong “prior” that hiring would be male skewed that they weren’t willing to let the data I’d published to that point completely swamp their prior. I’ll be curious to see if it’s any different this year. Because now I’ve published two years of data, and the cumulative sample size is so big that you (I mean anyone, not you personally!) really ought to let it just swamp your prior.

      As to why people have the priors they do, I think your suggestion makes sense. Back when I last polled readers on what they expected the gender balance of new ecology faculty hires to be, and why, many people said they expected male-skewed hires because the gender balance of faculty in their department is male-skewed.

      Another common reason for expecting male skew was people’s own anecdotal knowledge of recent hires in their own department, which of course is a really small sample size. Although given that overall recent hiring is 57% women, it’s notable that we didn’t get more respondents saying “recent hiring in my dept has been mostly women, so I expect new hires across all of ecology are skewed towards women”? It seems like people take their own anecdotal experiences more seriously as evidence when those experiences accord with their priors.

      One lesson I’ve taken away from this is that people’s priors on this (and probably on many other matters) are stronger than they should be. My own prior expectation was pretty strong that recent hiring would be 50:50 or slightly skewed toward women. But in retrospect, I don’t think I (or anyone) should’ve had a strong prior at all. I mean, what was my prior based on? Stuff like “looking around the hallways at the ESA and feeling like there are more women than there used to be” and “lurking on science Twitter, where it sure seems like lots of people take diversity and equity seriously these days”. To which, come on–that’s no basis on which to make even a rough quantitative estimate of the percentage of women among new ecology faculty hires! Really, my “prior” should’ve been a noninformative prior. I suspect the same is true of most people.

  4. Pingback: How many first-authored papers in “leading” journals does an ecologist need to be hired as a tenure-track asst. prof at an R1 university? Not nearly as many as most ecologists think. | 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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