tl;dr: 65% were employed as postdocs, and hardly any were in non-academic employment. For the details, read on.
I have compiled various bits of data on ecologists (broadly defined) hired into tenure-track asst. professor positions at N. American colleges and universities during the 2017-18 job season (click the link for details on what I did and how I did it). Here are the data on how newly hired ecology asst. profs were employed at the time of hiring.
I have data on employment at time of hiring for 144 people. It breaks down as follows:
- 65% were postdocs. By far the largest category, presumably because “postdoc” is the most common form of employment among people who want but don’t yet have TT faculty positions in ecology in N. America.
- 11% were tenure-track asst. profs someplace else. As noted in another post, and contrary to speculation you may have heard, the TT ecology faculty job market is not dominated by existing TT profs playing musical chairs.
- 8% were “research professors”, “research associates”, “scientists”, or similar research-oriented titles. Note that some of these positions could be considered postdocs, depending on how broadly you want to define “postdoc”. But they’re typically more senior positions than a garden-variety postdoc. As illustrated by the fact that all but one of the people in my dataset who held one of these positions got a PhD more than 5 years ago.
- 4% were “instructors”, “teaching fellows”, “lecturers”, or similar teaching-oriented titles. Note that the “lecturers” all were based at US institutions. They weren’t “lecturers” in the UK, where that title is roughly equivalent to “asst. professor” in N. America.
- 3% were visiting asst. profs (some at the hiring institution, some elsewhere)
- 2% were PhD students. Yes, there are people who are hired into TT ecology faculty positions before finishing their PhDs, but they’re rare.
- Two were government scientists; they were both also adjunct profs
- Two were associate profs. Yes, faculty do sometimes move down in rank and even give up tenure to change jobs, but it’s very rarely done.
- One was in the Army Corps of Engineers
- One was an agricultural extension educator
- One was an environmental consultant
- One was a postdoc and/or visiting asst. prof; I couldn’t tell which
I can also tell you that there are some statistical correlations between people’s employment at time of hiring and the type of hiring institution. In particular, all 11 people who weren’t already tenure-track profs but whose previous employment emphasized teaching duties (i.e. visiting asst. profs, instructors, etc.) were hired at bachelor’s colleges or master’s universities, not research universities. And people in non-TT, teaching-focused positions comprised 27% of all newly hired ecology asst. profs at bachelor’s colleges, well above their frequency among all 144 people in this dataset.* Presumably that’s due to some combination of (i) what previous experience search committees at different types of institution tend to look for, and (ii) where people with teaching-oriented jobs tend to apply for TT faculty positions. For instance, the difficulty of continuing to do research and write papers when you have heavy teaching duties might be one contributing factor here. And people who want teaching-focused TT faculty jobs probably are more likely to take teaching fellow positions, visiting asst. prof positions, etc.
Obviously, you can’t infer from these data if people currently employed as X are favored or disfavored in faculty searches compared to otherwise-identical candidates employed as not-X. And I don’t think that’s a particularly useful thing for a prospective faculty job applicant to worry about anyway. Faculty job applicants vary on many dimensions, no one of which is likely to be overwhelmingly important to the outcome of any given search.
These data are consistent with the widespread impression that you can’t leave academic ecology and expect to come back later. Except in rare cases, you need to have post-PhD academic employment involving teaching and/or research to get hired into a tenure-track faculty position in ecology. And merely serving as an adjunct probably won’t cut it, perhaps unless you also hold a full time non-academic position that lets you do some research and maintain some connections to academia.
*It’s worth emphasizing that people who held teaching-focused, non-TT positions at the time of hiring into a TT position at a bachelor’s college were a clear minority among all newly hired tenure-track ecologists at bachelor’s colleges (again, just 27%). It is absolutely not true that you “have” to currently hold a teaching-focused job in order to get a tenure-track faculty position at a bachelor’s college. The single most common form of employment at time of hiring among newly hired tenure track ecology faculty at bachelor’s colleges was “postdoc”. Just like at every other type of institution and just like last year. Presumably, part of the reason for that is that there are many ways to acquire the teaching experience that many bachelor’s colleges like to see. Holding a visiting assistant professorship or other teaching-focused position at the time of hiring is one form of teaching experience, but far from the only one. The data in this post are not a complete summary of the teaching experience of all newly-hired TT ecology faculty.