Tenure track N. American ecology faculty searches rarely hire someone with a current or past connection to the hiring institution

If our admittedly-unscientific polls are anything to go by, substantial numbers of ecologists worry that a sizable fraction of tenure-track N. American ecology faculty positions go to people with connections. People who currently work at the hiring institution, or who worked there in the past, or who did a degree there, or who have co-authored a paper with someone there. I’ve compiled data showing that some of those worries are misplaced. For instance, it’s extremely rare for tenure-track ecology faculty positions in N. America to be filled by someone currently employed in the hiring department, or who got their PhD in the hiring department, or who has coauthored a paper with someone in the hiring department. But I haven’t addressed all such worries. This year, I tried to do so.

This year, I tried to determine the educational and employment history of everyone hired as a tenure-track asst. professor of ecology or an allied field at a N. American college or university during the 2017-18 job season. Bottom line: Only 9% of newly hired TT N. American ecology faculty had any current or previous employment or educational connection to the hiring institution. For the details, read on.

That 9% breaks down as follows:

  • Only 3% of new hires got their undergraduate degree at the hiring institution. Sample size: 77 people in total (23 new hires at bachelor’s colleges, 52 at other types of institution). I only started checking for undergrad degree location after I’d already ID’d some new hires, and I was too lazy busy to go back and do it for people I’d already ID’d. That’s why the sample size is smaller for this one. Further, that 3% number doesn’t change if you restrict attention to new hires at bachelor’s colleges. I know a few folks think that bachelor’s colleges often hire their own alumni. But they don’t, at least not these days (I don’t have data from years ago…). Only 1/23 (4%) of new hires at bachelor’s colleges got their undergraduate degree at the hiring institution.
  • Only 2% of new hires got their PhD (and in some cases, also an MSc) from the hiring institution. Sample size: 150 people. Note that last year, I identified where 157 new ecology hires got their PhDs, and none got them at the hiring institution. So over the last two years, less than 1% of newly hired N. American TT ecology faculty have been hired where they got their PhDs.
  • Only 5% of new hires were currently employed in any capacity at the hiring institution. Sample size: 153 people. Last year, I identified 4/173 new hires who were employed by the hiring institution at the time of hiring. So over the last two years, 4% of new TT ecology faculty hires were employed by the hiring institution at the time of hiring.
  • I didn’t find anyone who was hired at an institution that previously but not currently employed them. I didn’t always remember to check this closely, so I suppose I might’ve missed someone. But there’s no way I missed enough people to change the take-home message of this post.
  • Those percentages don’t add up to 9% because there were one or two cases of people with multiple current/previous connections to the hiring institution.

Finally, new hires with some current or previous connection to the hiring institution weren’t especially common at any particular type of institution, at least as far as one can tell given the rarity of such hires. Such hires occurred at the full range of institutions, from bachelor’s colleges to big research universities.

These data of course don’t tell you whether people with some current or previous connection to the hiring institution have an advantage (or disadvantage) compared to otherwise-identical candidates lacking any such connection. In general, you should not infer that someone hired at an institution to which they have some current or previous connection was hired solely or even partially because of that connection. Based on my own admittedly-anecdotal-but-not-inconsiderable experience* and the experience of others to whom I’ve spoken, I think TT faculty job applicants in ecology mostly get evaluated on a level playing field regardless of their current or previous connections to the hiring department. See this guest post and associated comment thread for some discussion. Nor should you infer that, if a new hire has some current or previous connection to the hiring institution, that the search wasn’t truly open and the position was intended for the hired candidate all along. Faculty searches intended for a specific candidate do happen, but they are extremely rare. Take my word for it, most new ecology hires with a current or previous connection to the hiring institution were not hired in such “directed” searches.

I recognize that these data won’t completely reassure those of you who may be concerned about more nebulous connections between new hires and the hiring department. Maybe you get a significant leg up in hiring if you once met someone in the hiring department at a conference, or your PhD supervisor knows someone in the hiring department, or, um, whatever. šŸ˜‰ To which, all I can say is that in my experience, and in the experience of the people with whom I’ve spoken who’ve sat on search committees, those kinds of nebulous and indirect connections don’t count for much if anything.**

I hope those of you on the faculty job market who are anxious about this issue will find these data at least somewhat reassuring.

*For instance, I have applied for three faculty positions for which I had a current or previous employment or educational connection to the hiring institution. I wasn’t offered any of them. I applied to a few others for which I had met someone in the hiring department at conferences. I wasn’t offered any of them. And my letter writers were all well-known, experienced people whom I’m sure knew people at many of the institutions to which I applied, but despite that I’ve only ever been offered the position I currently hold. Again, just sharing my own anecdotal experience for what little it’s worth.

**Sociologist Kieran Healy has good comments on the irrelevance of brief interactions at conferences to the faculty job market; his comments generalize to ecology (scroll down to his final bullet).

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