tl;dr: newly-hired TT asst professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American R1 universities have an average (and median) of 4.5 first-authored papers in leading journals, operationally defined as journals with two year impact factor >3. The range is zero (yes, zero) to 14 first-authored papers in leading journals. In a non-scientific poll, most of the respondents guessed that both the minimum and mean of those data are substantially higher than they actually are.
For details, read on.
Tenure-track faculty job applicants in ecology and allied fields often wonder if they’ll be competitive, and get frustrated by the vagueness of the available advice on what makes for a competitive application. Much of that vagueness–and thus much of that frustration–is unavoidable (sorry!). Search committees evaluate applicants holistically, different searches look for different things, and outsiders are at least partially (and inevitably) ignorant of what any particular search committee is looking for.
But we can compile some data and reduce the vagueness a bit. Previously, I’ve published data on the Google Scholar h-indices of newly-hired tenure-track ecology faculty. Those data give prospective applicants a very rough sense of what level of research productivity it takes to get hired. In response, some commenters suggested it would be better to have data on number of first-authored publications, especially in “leading” journals. Because that’s one thing (among many others) that many search committees actually look at, at least for faculty positions with research expectations.
Ask and ye shall receive!* This year (2017-18 job season) I counted up the number of first-authored peer-reviewed papers by people hired into tenure-track faculty positions in ecology or allied fields, at R1 universities or their Canadian equivalents (click the first link in that last sentence for details of my methods). I also tallied the number of those first-authored papers that were in “leading” journals, operationally defined as any journal in any field with a 2-year impact factor >3.** Read the footnote for justification of this choice.
I only looked at new R1 hires because it would’ve taken way too long to do this for all new hires, and because R1 hires have equal or higher research productivity on average than hires at other types of institutions. So by looking at R1 hires, we get a rough upper bound on how many and what type of first-authored publications it takes to get hired for a tenure-track asst. professor position in ecology or an allied field such as fish & wildlife.
So what did I find?
I was able to locate Google Scholar pages or current cv’s for 40 ecologists hired into TT asst. prof positions advertised during the 2017-18 job seasons at US R1 institutions or their Canadian equivalents (sorry, too lazy to also search Web of Science). Those 40 new hires had:
- 9.6 first-authored papers on average (median 7), standard deviation 6.8, range 3-38.
- 4.5 first-authored papers in leading journals on average (median 4.5), standard deviation 3.1, range 0-14.
Several new R1 hires with few or no first-authored papers in leading journals work in fields in which few or no such journals exist, such as forestry. However, not all do.
So what did ecologists think I would find?
I polled readers on the minimum number of first-authored papers in leading journals required to be competitive for a TT asst. prof position in ecology at an R1 university, and on the average number of such publications by newly-hired TT asst. profs in ecology at R1 universities. The 310 poll respondents are a self-selected, non-random sample of mostly-ecologists. But they’re a sufficiently large and representative group to be worth talking about.
Here are histograms of the guesses, with the correct answers marked in red:
Of course, faculty search committees hold more experienced applicants to higher standards. A publication record that’s impressive for a newly-minted PhD is not impressive for someone 10 years post-PhD. So maybe new hires with few or no first-authored papers in leading journals are all newly-minted PhDs? Not so much, actually. In practice, first-authored papers in leading journals are rare enough that the correlation between how many people have and their years of experience isn’t all that tight, given the limited range of experience levels exhibited by new hires. The correlation between # of first-authored papers in leading journals and year of PhD for these 40 newly-hired R1 ecologists is -0.34. So more experienced people do tend to have more first-authored papers in leading journals, but it’s not a particularly tight relationship. For instance (and this is just one illustrative example), those 40 people include 6 with 2016 PhDs. Those 6 people have 0-9 first-authored papers in leading journals. And the 7 newly-hired TT R1 ecologists with 0 or 1 first-authored papers in leading journals got their PhDs anywhere from 2011-2017 (mean 2014.2). As a group, they’re only slightly less experienced on average than all newly-hired TT ecologists. So no, the variability in these results mostly is not down to variation in years of experience among new hires. Presumably because there’s much more to evaluating an applicant’s potential than just scaling publication rate relative to years post-PhD.
- I stand corrected! Going in to this little exercise, I expected a lot of variation. But these results were even more variable than I expected. Going in, I’d have said that you probably need to have at least 3 first-authored papers in leading journals to be competitive for a tenure-track ecology faculty position at an R1 university. I was wrong. What I had thought was the minimum necessary was merely slightly less than typical. So now I’d say that, once you have a few first-authored papers, including at least a couple in solid but not necessarily “leading” journals, you can be competitive for any faculty position with research expectations. Depending of course on the rest of your cv, the rest of your application packet, your reference letters, your fit to the position, who else applies, etc.
- Most of our poll respondents stand corrected, too. Most of them greatly overestimated the minimum number of first-authored papers needed to be competitive for an R1 faculty position in ecology. And most at least slightly overestimated the mean number of first-authored papers in leading journals by new ecology hires at R1s. Heck, almost half of the respondents guessed that the minimum number of first-authored papers in leading journals required to be competitive for a TT R1 position in ecology is higher than the actual mean number for new hires! And a substantial minority of respondents guessed that the average new R1 hire has 10 or more first-authored papers in leading journals, which is more than double the correct answer!
- I can imagine various reasons why so many people guessed way too high, but I’m curious to hear from commenters. Why did you guess too high? I was only a touch too high on the mean, but as noted above I missed fairly badly on the minimum. For me, it was a combination of forgetting that some fields lack journals with IF>3, and incorrectly assuming that anyone with a first-authored publication list more than a bit shorter than that of the typical new hire wouldn’t be competitive.
- These results are yet another example of ecologists being too pessimistic about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market. I am not criticizing anyone for having an incorrect impression of any aspect of the ecology faculty job market. After all, as noted above I had some incorrect impressions myself! And I’m certainly not suggesting that any faculty job seeker should be happy about what is of course a very competitive job market. I just hope these data provide some useful context to ecology faculty job seekers, and relieve some misplaced anxiety.
- These data are specific to ecology and allied fields. They don’t generalize to other fields (for instance). And they’re specific to North America, I doubt they generalize elsewhere.
- I’ll conclude by heading off a couple of potential misinterpretations of these results. First these data do not show that it doesn’t matter at all how many first-authored papers you have or what journals they’re in. It matters–but so do lots of other things. See here and here for how search committees evaluate faculty job applicants. Second, these data do not give you nearly enough information to second-guess any hiring decisions.
*Offer void where prohibited, or where it would require more than a trivial amount of work on my part.
**Yes, yes, I know, even looking out of the corner of my eye at an impact factor makes me a Bad Person. But all I wanted was some easy-to-apply criterion that roughly mirrors the thinking of many people who sit on search committees when they evaluate applicants’ publication records. Which this criterion does, even though search committee members aren’t literally counting publications in many cases. For instance, the list of general ecology journals with IF>3 is pretty much the journals I’d name if you asked me to list leading general ecology journals off the top of my head (aside: note that my full list of “leading” journals for purposes of this post included all journals in all fields, not just general ecology journals). The IF>3 criterion is not perfect. In particular, this criterion works less well for searches in fields with few or no journals with IF>3 (e.g., forest ecology, entomology). And a couple of the new R1 hires already held asst. prof positions elsewhere, and so may have started accumulating last-authored publications. But there’s no other easy-to-apply criterion that would work any better, or that would greatly change the answer. So if you want more quantitative precision than this post provides, I’m sorry, but you’re asking the impossible. The only quantitative criterion that has any predictive power for the number of faculty interviews or offers you’ll get is the number of positions for which you apply.