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.

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.

Introduction

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:

Slide1

Slide2

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.

Commentary

  • 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.

32 thoughts on “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.

    • Via Twitter, some responses:

    • Re: the wish that some people you know would read this post and remember its message: sorry, unlikely to happen unless you tell them about it, and then remind them over and over. Only a small minority of all ecologists will read any given post of ours (even though we have a big audience for a science blog, it’s still a small minority of all ecologists). And people who do read our post are likely to misremember it if the data conflict with their subjective priors (data on this coming in a post soon…).

      Bottom line: this post is not going to move the needle at all on ecologists’ collective incorrect beliefs about how many first-authored papers in leading journals you need to be competitive for a faculty position. Changing the collective beliefs of a large group of people about, well, anything is just really hard for any one person to do.

  1. I think my guesses of 0 and 6 weren’t too bad, but I only arrived at those after performing some calculations. My gut guesses would have been far higher (maybe 2 & 9). The reason my gut wants to guess high is that I know so many people who have a ton of 1st author papers in selective journals that don’t even get an interview for a *particular* job they just told me about. What my gut fails to notice is that they do usually get a job, somewhere, after a few rounds of applications.

    My guess of 6 was assuming two 1st author pubs per year for each year post phd plus 3 from the dissertation. I additionally assumed that 2/3 of their papers were in selective journals.

    The interesting bit from this data is that 4.5/7 is actually equal to 2/3, so I roughly got the journal quality ratio right. So I suspect, where my calculation went wrong was assuming job awardees were 1 – 5 years post PhD, and uniformly distributed on that interval. Either appointees skew younger, or the 2 papers per year, post phd, + 3 from the dissertation assumption is more productive than average. I’d guess a little bit of both.

    • Yes, you were wrong to assume new hires are uniformly distributed between 1-5 years post-PhD. But that might not throw off your calculations much. Your assumption implies a nearly-correct *average* experience level for new hires (the average is about 3.5 years post-PhD). I think your guess about the mean was off because your assumption about the rate at which new hires produce first authored papers was slightly too high. But overall, yours was one of the best sets of guesses we got. Better than mine!

    • I wish I could say “You win a TT job at a college or university of your choice”. 🙂

      IIRC, only a couple of people nailed both questions, and you were one of them. Well done!

      Care to share the secret of your accuracy?

      • I figured with a large enough sample size the distribution would span 0. Some of the most competitive applicants I have seen for positions have had around 10 leading FA publications. I figured the mean would be somewhere in the middle and likely skewed towards lower values, so I guessed 4.

        Also, over the last few years I have noticed a really wide distribution in the number of publications and leading publications among recently hired friends and acquaintances. I think I was initially surprised when some people I knew with many papers in good journals weren’t getting offers while at the same time folks with few publications had gotten TT jobs.

        Since then I have realized that even within R1 TT positions there is a lot of diversity. Some positions are very broad (e.g. open hire for life sciences) and others are for specific sub-disciplines, systems or taxa. Some R1 positions are at nationally renowned universities, others universities are better known regionally. Some positions are in/near traditionally desirable locations or cities, others less so. These are just a few examples of the many dimensions among which positions vary. A lot of these dimensions are subjective, such that different applicants will have different ideal positions. But some preferences are more broadly shared than others. I think I have tended to pay attention to jobs that receive a lot of applications, and tend to hire people with really impressive CVs. But for every one of those positions there is probably at least one other position that receives much less attention.

  2. I guess that I guessed high because a higher figure jives with what I have actually experienced when serving on or observing search committees in various contexts. Back when I was a PhD student my institution was turning down applicants with 15 – 16 first authored papers. OK, I do not know how many of these were in high impact factor journals. Also highly qualified post docs with five, six or more years post PhD experience and 30 – 40 pubs under their belt who had difficulty closing down positions.

    I wonder a couple of things. The sample size is small. Could it be biased? And how many total pubs did these folks have – given that the specialist journals that contain discipline specific research may have lower impact factors

    • The sample size is small, but it’s not a biased sample. It’s almost every ecologist who was hired as a TT asst prof at an R1 institution (or a Canadian equivalent) in the 2017-18 job season. Possibly, if I did the same exercise again next year, the results might differ a bit. But next year’s R1 ecology hires are just as likely to have *fewer* first-authored publications than this year’s as they are to have more than this year’s.

      Seriously (and I’m not trying to pick on you when I say this, I’m just using your comment as an excuse to make a broader point): nobody should assume that any of this year’s data on the ecology faculty job market “must” be biased, or an atypical “blip”, because the data don’t match their priors. If these data don’t match your priors, you should *completely* abandon your priors. Even a small sample of data should totally swamp your priors in this context, because your priors almost certainly are bad. I say that because over the last few years, over and over again I’ve seen commenters who are surprised by this or that aspect of the data question whether the data are really representative. *Invariably*, those commenters get surprised again the next year, when the next year’s data come out about the same as the previous year’s. Ecologists as a group are *way* too reluctant to *completely abandon* their crappy subjective priors about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market in light of data. I say this as someone whose own priors about some aspects of the ecology faculty job market were at least somewhat crappy–which is why I completely abandoned them when they were contradicted by data.

      Yes, absolutely, ecology faculty job searches regularly include some applicants with more publications, and more years of experience, than whoever gets hired. Which just shows that publication counts and years of experience aren’t everything. Search committees are forward-looking; they (quite rightly!) are trying to project what you’ll be like as a researcher, teacher, and colleague in future. Not just evaluate what you’ve done as a researcher, teacher, and colleague in the past.

  3. I’m curious how many ecology faculty job seekers will see this post as good news, and how many will see it as bad news.

    The “good news” point of view might be something like “Hooray! I thought I didn’t have enough first-authored papers to be competitive, but actually I do! I’m so glad that my fate isn’t going to be determined solely or even mainly by some crude quantitative metric like publication count!”

    The “bad news” point of view might be something like “Crap! How am I supposed to know exactly what it takes to be competitive? It is really frustrating that somebody with many fewer papers than me could well be hired over me based on subjective, opaque criteria like ‘fit’ and ‘potential’.”

    Those two extremes are more like two ends of a gradient, really. And where anyone falls along the gradient obviously is a personal thing. I’m just curious what the distribution of ecology faculty job seekers is along the gradient. The one time we polled on something like this in the past, we got a pretty wide spread of responses, with “good news” slightly outnumbering “bad news”…

  4. I was a bit too high on the first question but very close on the second (if memory serves me well). I suppose i should have done better for the first, realizing that with a decent sample size there should at least be one or so with 0 papers….. however, that doesn’t mean that your odds are high if you are in this position. Still, it does indeed signal that there’s more than papers that determine your faith, which is a very encouraging thing.

    • “that doesn’t mean that your odds are high if you are in this position.”

      Nobody should try to use the data I’ve compiled to estimate their own personal odds of obtaining a faculty position!

      I know you weren’t suggesting that they should, but I never miss a chance to remind readers of this. Faculty job seekers are understandably eager for any information that would reduce uncertainty. But I’d hate to see them misinterpreting this post.

  5. Not sure about other demographics, but I have a hypothesis for why job-seekers may have guessed too high: number of “good” publications is the main thing within our direct control. I can work hard and write good papers to get myself in a good position to be competitive for jobs, but I cannot adjust (to a meaningful degree) my fit for a particular position. So, guessing high reflects a benchmark that is within a person’s control, which is comforting. Just musing…

    • Hmm…except number of “good” publications isn’t entirely under your control. It’s also under the control of reviewers and editors. But yes, it is more under your control than your fit to a particular position.

  6. Via Twitter.

    I’ve no idea why this person considers the question in the post title “misleading”. Perhaps because they think faculty hiring at R1s is all about having one “seminal” paper? If so, perhaps this person would be interested in this post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/what-proportion-of-recently-hired-tenure-track-n-american-asst-professors-of-ecology-have-nature-science-pnas-papers/

  7. Via Twitter:

    To which the answer is: nothing obvious. But the sample sizes are small: 16 men and 24 women among these 40 new R1 hires.

  8. I think I might have been the only under-guesser: 0 for min number and 1 for mean number of first author papers in leading journals. My guesses were based on bird journals having very low impact factors and guessing someone could get a pretty good TT job with just a bunch of bird papers. Also I know searches that had a hard cap on number of papers but don’t know any that had hard caps on how ‘good’ the journals were.

    • There were indeed few underguessers!
      It’s funny; I overguessed because I didn’t allow sufficiently for the fact that some fields lack journals with IF>3. You underguessed because you didn’t allow sufficiently for the fact that some fields have journals with IF>3. 🙂
      I’ve never heard of a search that had a hard cap on number of papers. Can you elaborate? Do you mean searches in which applicants are allowed to include up to X reprints as part of their application, where X is some small number (often 3 in my experience)? Never having sat on a search committee for a search that invited applicants to submit up to X reprints, I don’t know how they operate. I hadn’t thought that in such searches the search committee would *only* look at the X reprints to evaluate your research, not at any other measure of your research output such as the publication list on your cv.

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

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