How many newly-hired TT ecology asst. profs had really famous PhD supervisors? (includes poll at the end)

Do you have to have to do your PhD with a really famous ecologist to get hired into a TT asst. professor position? Or maybe you don’t have to have a famous PhD supervisor to land an ecology faculty position, but many newly-hired ecology faculty did? And do the answers to those questions differ for newly-hired ecologists at R1 universities vs. other places?

To answer those questions, I went back to my pretty-comprehensive list of people who were hired into TT asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields during the 2017-18 job season. I tried to identify the PhD supervisor(s) of every new hire at an R1 university, and every new hire at a bachelor’s college. The bachelor’s colleges give me a comparison group for the R1s; R1s are the most research-intensive institutions on average, while bachelor’s colleges are the least research-intensive on average. Then I looked up a few crude indicators of how “famous” those PhD supervisors are.* I looked up their ranks (last rank obtained for supervisors who are now retired or deceased), their Google Scholar h-indices, if they had 0, 1, or >1 papers in Science and/or Nature (counting both first- and co-authored papers), and if they were members of the US National Academy of Sciences. I also noted if the supervisor in question was Dave Tilman, because, duh, he’s famous. 🙂

Some data are missing for some new hires, and for some PhD supervisors. In particular, some supervisors don’t have Google Scholar pages. I got observations on at least some of the variables for 39 new R1 hires and 20 bachelor’s college hires.

Here’s what I found:

  • Every newly-hired ecologist did a PhD with someone who is currently at least as senior as an associate professor. To which, duh. 🙂 Most people only spend 5-6 years as asst. profs before coming up for tenure and promotion to associate. By the time the first PhD student you took on as an asst. prof graduates and then obtains a TT faculty position, you’ll almost certainly have already been promoted to associate.
  • Most newly-hired ecologists did their PhDs with at least one supervisor who holds or once held the full professor rank. 85% of new hires at bachelor’s colleges did their PhDs with at least one person who holds or once held that rank. So did 71% of new hires at R1s. I say “at least one supervisor” because some new hires were co-supervised.**
  • The Google Scholar h indices of PhD supervisors of newly-hired ecology faculty vary widely, and don’t differ between new hires at R1s and bachelor’s colleges. PhD supervisors of newly-hired TT ecologists at bachelor’s colleges had a mean h-index of 46 (median 44, middle 50% 33-55.5, range 29-77). PhD supervisors of new hires at R1 unis were very similar: mean h-index 47, median 42, middle 50% 29-57, range 7-153. No prizes for guessing the supervisor with an h index of 153. 🙂
  • Few newly-hired ecology faculty were supervised by someone with a really high h index. Ok, it’s pretty silly to set some arbitrary h index cutoff for “famous”. But for what little it’s worth, only 7/59 new hires in this dataset (5 at R1s, 2 at bachelor’s colleges) had at least one PhD supervisor with an h index of 70 or more.
  • Around half of supervisors of newly-hired ecology faculty have at least one Nature or Science paper, and many of those have more than one. 50% of PhD supervisors of new hires at bachelor’s colleges have at least one Science or Nature paper, and 28% have more than one. The numbers are a bit higher for PhD supervisors of new hires at R1s, although given the small sample sizes that could be a blip: 63% have at least one Science or Nature paper, and 47% have more than one.
  • Hardly any newly-hired ecology faculty got their PhDs with National Academy members. Only 7% of new hires at R1s did, and no new hires at bachelor’s colleges did. I’m sure this proportion varies from year to year, but I’m also sure it’s always going to be low. Because, come on: something like 200ish TT ecologists get hired in N. America every year. They can’t all have done PhDs with National Academy members!

My interpretation of these data is that they look more or less as you’d expect them to look, given that 80% of TT ecologists hired in 2017-18 got their PhDs at R1 universities or their Canadian equivalents. Pretty much every single associate or full professor at an R1 university is a well-established researcher. Every well-established researcher has written or co-authored numerous papers that have been cited more than a few times. Among those well-established researchers are a substantial fraction with at least one paper in one of the highest-profile journals. (Remember, ~40% of newly-hired ecologists at R1 unis already have Nature, Science, or PNAS papers at the time of their hiring.) And a small fraction of well-established researchers are “famous” by some reasonable standard–they have a bunch of high-profile papers, a sky-high h-index, National Academy membership, etc. Ok, there are nuances I’m glossing over. But basically, these data look more or less like what you’d expect if newly-hired TT ecology faculty at all types of institutions got their PhDs from a representative mix of people who are now tenured research university ecologists.

For instance, I got my PhD at Rutgers, from the Dept. of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources. Rutgers is an R1 university, but DEENR is not a top-ranked dept. in ecology or any allied field, by any ranking system or metric you care to name, and it doesn’t employ any National Academy members. Yet, by various metrics the associate and full profs of DEENR are almost as “famous” on average as the PhD supervisors of newly-hired TT ecologists at R1s (or bachelor’s colleges). For instance, they have a mean and median h index of 37, middle 50% 27-45, range 19-61.

These data do not look like what you’d expect if R1 unis were all just hiring the scientific “descendants” of famous PIs. Well, unless you define “famous” as “tenured ecologist employed at a research university”. In which case most every recently-hired TT ecologist got their PhD with someone “famous”–because most ecologists with PhDs got them with someone “famous” by that expansive definition of “famous”!

Obviously, you can’t tell from these data if having a super-famous PhD supervisor gives you a leg up on the faculty job market, all else being equal (which it never is…). And you definitely should not assume that a new hire who did a PhD with a super-famous supervisor was hired because of their supervisor’s fame. In my experience, N. American ecology faculty search committees evaluate the applicants, not the applicants’ PhD supervisors.

Before anyone asks, no, I didn’t also check the “fame” of everybody’s postdoc advisors. I have a life, despite appearances to the contrary. 🙂 But I highly doubt it would change the picture.

I hope these data are reassuring to those of you who are on the ecology faculty job market and didn’t do a PhD with a famous supervisor.

Do these data surprise you? Take the poll below!

*But I would bet a lot of money that the take-home message wouldn’t change no matter what indicators of “fame” you used.

**People who were co-supervised as PhD students were much more common among new hires at R1s than among new hires at bachelor’s colleges. I guess that’s just a weird blip?

9 thoughts on “How many newly-hired TT ecology asst. profs had really famous PhD supervisors? (includes poll at the end)

  1. In early voting, something like 75-80% of respondents are unsurprised by these results, with the remainder being only a bit surprised. Which I guess is about what I expected. On, I don’t often see speculation to the effect that all the ecology faculty jobs are going to candidates with famous “pedigrees”. Speculation about favored “internal” candidates is much more common.

  2. Hey, Jeremy, its really great that you assembled this data and wrote about it. I’m sure tons if grad students will read this and feel better about their chances. It’s a really great service to ecology and to science. Thanks.

    • Thanks! Although judging by the poll results, and the lack of traffic, and the lack of Twitter interest in this particular bit of data, hardly anybody was worried that you need a “famous” PhD supervisor to land a TT job in ecology…

      • Well I dont know, seems like something alot of people I knew worried about. But more broadly I think there just wasn’t much data or discussion of any kind. So I think its great that you pull this together and put it out there.

  3. Interesting stuff Jeremy. Wonder how this plays out in the UK….?

    With regard to “Few newly-hired ecology faculty were supervised by someone with a really high h index” – h-index accrues with age, so people with really high h-indices are often (but not always) very late career, perhaps even emeritus/a. At this stage of their career perhaps they are less likely to want to supervise PhD students? Just a thought.

    • You’d know how this plays out in the UK better than I would!

      There were several emeritus supervisors in the dataset. Don’t know how long they’d been emeritus. Perhaps some only retired after they finished supervising the new TT hires in question.

      • You’d think so, but really I don’t! Plenty of rumours of course, but no hard data of the kind that you’re able to marshal. We need a Jeremy Fox over here to pull it all together.

      • Go for it! You could be the British me. Like me, but with a cooler accent and less interest in baseball. 🙂

        Key thing you’d ideally need to duplicate what I did would be a reasonably comprehensive list of British ecology faculty jobs that you didn’t have to compile yourself. I could never do what I do if didn’t exist.

        OTOH, Britain’s a much smaller place than N. America. So maybe it wouldn’t be too much work to compile your own list of ecology faculty jobs from Nature adverts or wherever else it is that British unis advertise faculty positions? Dunno.

      • Yeah, my accent retains traces of its north-east England origin, so now sure how cool that is…. is a pretty comprehensive site for academic jobs in the UK so it’s not such a formidable task but………time…… I’ll give it some thought.

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