In which I teach myself some history of the field that I perhaps should’ve known already…
Everybody knows the market for N. American tenure-track faculty positions in ecology and allied fields is very competitive, in the sense that at any moment in time there are many more people looking for TT positions than there are TT positions. (note: throughout I’m going to focus on the subset of the faculty job market comprised of research positions.) The TT ecology faculty job market also is competitive in the sense that you have to have a substantial record of professional achievement before you’re likely to be hired. Most recent hires spent at least a couple of years as a postdoc or in some other non-TT post-PhD employment. And recent hires at the most research-intensive universities typically have at least a couple of first-authored papers. All this has been true for a while.
But exactly how long is “a while”? For how long has the ecology faculty job been as competitive as it is currently? Conversely, how far back do you have to go to find a time when it wasn’t competitive? That is, how long has it been since you could reasonably expect to get a TT faculty position in ecology without a postdoc, or any first-authored papers, or even any papers at all? And did the competitiveness of the ecology faculty job market just increase gradually and steadily over time? Or did the ecology faculty job market become competitive in some more nonlinear fashion? Finally, what factors drove the increase in competitiveness?
I ask these questions mostly out of curiosity.* I decided to compile some data addressing those questions, inspired by a recent paper addressing similar questions in sociology. It turned out to be a very interesting exercise! Before I did this, I had the vague sense that back in the 1950s you could get hired as a TT prof without a postdoc or any publications. And that the ecology faculty job market just slowly and gradually got more competitive since then.
I was more or less right about the 1950s, but I was wrong about how things have changed since then. The ecology faculty job market gradually started becoming more competitive in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Then, as best I can tell, it suddenly became about as competitive as it is today within the space of a few years in the early 80s. In large part because of this man:
Yes, that last sentence is deliberate clickbait. So read on already–you know you want to! 🙂
To get data on this, I googled for the cv’s of a bunch of academic ecologists who are very successful/prominent researchers for their current career stage (or who were very successful/prominent before they retired), from as far back in time as I could go up until a couple of years ago. I noted when they got their PhDs, when they started as N. American TT asst. profs, how many peer-reviewed papers they’d published when they started as asst. profs (counting all papers published the same calendar year as when they started as asst. profs, but not counting book chapters, government technical reports, etc.), and how many of those papers were first-authored. Focusing on outstanding researchers was much easier than trying to randomly sample all academic ecologists (how would you even do that?). And the publication records and postdoctoral experiences of the most successful researchers should put a rough upper bound on the publication records and postdoctoral experiences of all ecologists. If ecologists who went on to become prominent researchers were getting hired as asst. profs with on-paper qualifications X and achievements Y, well, probably other ecologists who didn’t go on to become as prominent also were getting hired with on-paper qualifications X and achievements Y, or with lesser on-paper qualifications and achievements. Obviously, the data I’m looking at are very crude measures of “qualifications” or “achievements”. Ecology faculty search committees don’t do anything so crude as just count publications or years of experience, and they never have. But as you’ll see, these crude measures are good enough to detect some big changes in the ecology faculty job market.
My approach to identifying ecologists who were or are very successful researchers was totally haphazard, but it should be ok for my purposes. I googled the cv’s of:
- A bunch of people whose famous work now features in textbooks.
- A bunch of people who went on to do things like become ESA President, win mid- and late-career awards like the ESA’s MacArthur Award and Eminent Ecologist Award, write influential textbooks, etc.
- A bunch of my rough contemporaries who now serve as EiCs or editorial board members at leading journals, won the ASN Young Investigator Award, publish often in leading journals, etc.
- A bunch ESA Fellows and Early Career Fellows.
I ended up with data for 130 people who started N. American TT asst. prof positions from 1953 through 2016. I also looked up some data on the broader economic and higher education context, and I talked with some colleagues with first hand experiences of the ecology faculty job market from before my time. This is going to be mostly a US story, since almost all of those 130 people were first hired in the US, and because Canada is a small country compared to the US.
Here’s what I found (text first, scroll down for the figures).
Our story begins with the post-WW II boom in undergraduate enrollment, driven first by returning soldiers going to college, and then later by the baby boom. US Baby Boomers started going to college in 1964. US and Canadian colleges and universities hired a lot of faculty to deal with increasing enrollments. Many new institutions were founded as well, and grew rapidly. For instance, UC-Santa Cruz and UC-Irvine were both founded in 1965, and the University of Calgary became an independent entity and began expanding rapidly in 1966 (many other examples could be given).
But those new hires often weren’t postdocs, or even people with publications, simply because there weren’t that many people with those qualifications, at least not in ecology. Large-scale federally funded basic scientific research had only existed for a generation or less. NSF was founded in 1950, and its budget wasn’t very big in the early years. NSF-funded postdocs weren’t really a thing in ecology in the 1950s and 60s, and postdocs and postdoc-like positions funded by research universities or foundations weren’t that common (e.g., the Michigan Society of Fellows only dates back to 1970). Indeed, Wikipedia informs us (based on what I have to say is slightly thin citation support) that demand for profs in the 1950s was so high relative to the supply of PhD holders in many fields that conferences were held on the issue. The professorial labor shortage apparently was one factor prompting many institutions to adopt the tenure system, in the hopes that the job security would attract more people to become profs. So in the 1950s and into the 60s it was quite possible to get a faculty position in ecology straight out of grad school, or even before you’d officially finished, without having yet published any of your dissertation research. Joe Connell is an example. He was first hired as an asst. prof in 1956, the same year he finished his PhD, without any publications (his first paper wasn’t until 1961). Same for Gordon Orians–started as an asst. prof in 1960, the same year he finished his PhD, without any publications. And those who did do a postdoc typically did so for only a year or two, and didn’t necessarily publish any papers during that time. Lawrence Slobodkin, E. O. Wilson, Robert MacArthur, Bob Paine, and Bill Murdoch were all postdocs of some sort for just 1-2 years, and only Wilson and MacArthur published any papers before starting as asst. profs.
All that started to change a bit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. US undergrad enrollment growth slowed dramatically in the mid-70s, as the baby boom bulge tailed off. And by the mid-70s, ecology profs hired at PhD-granting universities in the 1950s and 60s were graduating PhD students in increasing numbers. Meaning there was a growing supply of candidates to fill TT ecology positions. So starting in the late 60s and early 70s, you suddenly start seeing more newly-hired, soon-to-become-prominent ecologists with a few publications, including first-authored publications in some cases. Examples include Jim Brown, Eric Pianka, John Vandermeer, Dan Simberloff, and Robert Colwell. I didn’t find any ecologists who went on to become prominent researchers who were hired after 1973 without any publications at the time of hiring. Which doesn’t mean there weren’t any, but does mean they were rare, I think. But all through the 70s, it was still pretty common for future leaders in academic ecological research be hired as asst. profs without a postdoc, or with only a single 1-2 year postdoc.
That all changed very fast starting in 1980. In January of 1980, the US entered a severe “double dip” recession from which didn’t emerge for good until November 1982 (reference). It was brought on by Paul Volcker, Chair of the US Federal Reserve at the time and pictured up above, who raised the interest rate to bring down very high inflation. There also was an oil price spike in 1979. US unemployment peaked at 10.8% in Nov. 1982; it was a terrible recession. Canada had a recession around the same time.
With undergrad enrollments no longer growing much if at all, and the economy in free fall, faculty hiring dropped sharply. So all of a sudden starting around 1980, some people who would otherwise have gone straight from grad school to faculty positions started taking postdoctoral positions. And ecology faculty job seekers at the time started putting a lot more effort into writing papers. Presumably at least in part because everyone knew that faculty jobs had suddenly become scarce and the competition for the remaining jobs was about to get much fiercer. And so once the economy, and faculty hiring, picked up again in the mid-80s, all of a sudden you had a non-trivial number of candidates with several years of postdoctoral experience, and publication records that would fit right in with the publication records of TT ecology hires at R1 unis last year. After 1982, getting hired without a postdoc, or with only 1-2 publications, suddenly became almost unheard of among future leaders in ecological research. And in 1985, the typical cv for newly-hired ecology faculty who went on to become leaders in the field suddenly started to look like it typically does today: 2-4 years of postdoctoral or other post-PhD experience (sometimes more, rarely less), and 5+ papers (10+ in many cases) including several first-authored papers. This was the new normal–the ecology faculty job market never went back to its pre-1980 state.
Here are the graphs. Each circle is one or more very successful ecologists; circle size is proportional to the number of identical people:
This data-based story jives with the anecdotes I’ve heard from reading about or speaking to ecologists who experienced the early-80s ecology faculty job market. See, e.g., the anecdote in this article about then-ESA President Kay Gross, hired for her first faculty position in 1980. It’s been eye-opening to me to hear what it was like to have started grad school in ecology in the late 70s and seen the faculty job market change so fast just as you were about to enter it!
Of course, this post doesn’t give a complete picture of ecology faculty job market. In particular, by focusing as I have on people who are likely in one tail of the distribution (in terms of the admittedly-crude variables I considered), I may be missing shifts in the rest of the distribution. I haven’t looked at other variables, such as teaching experience. Nor have I looked at at hiring for the many TT faculty positions with modest or no research expectations. And I haven’t looked at other measures of the competitiveness of the faculty job market, such as the total number of faculty job seekers relative to the total number of open faculty positions. I think the picture painted above captures broader trends, but I’d welcome comments on this.
These results make for an interesting contrast to sociology. Warren (2019) finds that newly-hired TT sociology faculty at top sociology departments these days have twice as many publications on average at the time of hiring as new hires at those same departments did in the early 90s. In contrast, there’s been little or no change over that time period in how many papers top ecological researchers had at the time they started their first faculty positions. A reminder, if one were needed, that scholarly fields differ radically from one another in all sorts of ways. You should be very hesitant to generalize across fields about, well, pretty much anything (for instance).
One take-home lesson from this little exercise for current faculty job seekers: don’t assume that just because many ecology faculty were hired decades ago, that they have no personal experience with a competitive faculty job market. As best I can tell, almost everyone who currently holds a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in ecology experienced a very competitive job market back then were looking for their first faculty jobs. There may be more people around you than you realize whose own experiences could help them appreciate what you’re going through as a current ecology faculty job seeker.
A final thought: why don’t you see any signal of the Great Recession (Dec. 2007-June 2009) in these data? Why don’t very successful ecological researchers hired since, say, 2012 have on-paper qualifications much higher than those of very successful ecological researchers hired just a few years before that? I don’t know, but my hypothesis is that ecology faculty job seekers are “maxed out”. Many have long been publishing as much as it’s possible to publish under the current research funding and publishing system. And there’s not necessarily much advantage to job seekers to doing several postdocs, because additional experience beyond your first few postdoctoral years doesn’t necessarily make you better able to do what’s expected of profs, at least in the eyes of search committees (see here for a bit of discussion).**
p.s. One last tidbit, only tangentially related to the post topic: newly-hired TT ecology faculty who only have first authored papers seem to be a thing of the past as best I can tell, at least among ecologists who’ve gone on to become very successful researchers for their current career stage. The last person my dataset who was hired with nothing but first-authored papers was in 2003, and I only found two since the early 90s:
And if you squint, the mean proportion of first-authored papers seems to have started declining in about the mid-90s (albeit with lots of variation around the declining mean). 1995 is of course when NCEAS was founded. Yes, I’m telling a just-so story here, that may be overfit to the data. But I think I buy it. The founding of NCEAS marked a shift towards a more collaborative model of doing ecology, and possibly also accelerated the long-standing trend of relaxing authorship standards. You can see the signal of it in the cv’s of outstanding young ecological researchers at the time they started their first faculty positions. Their mean publication counts may be slowly growing, because they have more co-authored papers. But they’re publishing no more first-authored papers than outstanding young ecological researchers did in the late 80s. I don’t think this post-NCEAS shift is a good thing or bad thing; I just think it’s an interesting thing.
Looking forward to your comments, as always.
*I don’t think the answers to these questions have any practical implications for current faculty job seekers. I mean, it’s not as if anyone should feel happier (or unhappier) about the currently-competitive ecology faculty job market based on whether or not the ecology faculty job market was similarly-competitive X years ago.
** That doesn’t mean that the Great Recession didn’t affect the competitiveness of the ecology faculty job market at all, of course. For instance, it may have increased the ratio of TT ecology faculty job seekers to TT ecology faculty jobs; I don’t know. There are many features of the ecology faculty job market and ecology faculty job seekers that could be considered measures of the “competitiveness” of the ecology faculty job market in some sense or other.
Personally, I’d discourage ecology faculty job seekers from comparing their cv’s to those of the top people in the field. The cv’s of recently-hired TT ecologists vary *hugely*, even among new hires within the same department. And the number of interviews or offers you get is not predicted by crude quantitative metrics like how many papers you’ve published. See here: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/you-cant-tell-much-about-your-odds-of-getting-an-interview-for-a-faculty-position-from-common-quantitative-metrics/
So if you haven’t published as many papers as the people in this dataset, I wouldn’t worry about it. By which I don’t mean “be confident in your chances of landing a TT job”! I just mean “counting your publications, and comparing that count to the publication counts of star ecologists at the time they were hired, is not a good way to estimate your own personal chances of landing a TT job”.
I tried and failed to work in a Back to the Future joke, given that 1985 is a key year in this post. Maybe something about how Scott Collins, hired in 1985, had a cv that looked like it had time-traveled back to 1985 from 2015. Or else something about how one of the things Marty McFly accidentally changed about 1985 was how many papers the most outstanding young ecological researchers were publishing. But I couldn’t quite make it work. 🙂
It would be a fun exercise (well, for some value of “fun”) to rewrite this entire post with a bunch more 80s jokes.
Like, what if you rewrote “Video Killed the Radio Star” as “Volcker Made the Ecology Star”?
I’ll get my coat. 🙂
Interesting as slmost always 😉 Just thinking loud without an in-depth assessment about the answer nor mathematical correctness for a moment. What about the impact of the work of those hired scientist? There should be a way to correct for time lag effects, general increase of publications and citations (due to more researchers?) to see whether the work of ppl hired more in the past was differently impactful. Impact comes with quality. With time but also I guess with quantity. Do we hire nowadays more or less or unchanged amounts (in rel numbers of course) of great (here with impactful -> maybe corrected/weighted no of citations) researchers ? Thoughts?
Sorry have to leave the train…
Funny, Brian, Meghan, and I were just emailing each other about that! Well, we were mulling over the related question of whether it’s still possible today for *anyone* to become a “giant of the field of ecology”. Is it possible for any ecologist today to become as well-known and influential as a Bob Paine, Joe Connell, Robert MacArthur, Bob Holt, Dave Tilman, etc.? And if not, why not? Is it just because there are more ecologists today? Or because ecology as a field is more focused on applied topics (especially global change) than it was in the 60s and 70s? Or because ecology is a broader and less coherent discipline than it used to be–that these days there’s lots of only loosely-related research being done under the banner of “ecology”?
This was Brian’s question originally, I really hope he’ll write a post on it!
IMPACT: Yeah my feeling is you have to be super productive to be visible and have an impact. Just like constant dripping wears away the stone (do you use this in English language?) to be seen as influential (e.g. W. Thuiller, M. Araujo, M. Cadotte – all still rel young). Many related publications built a legacy in science. And much less so few super influential papers makes you known and known as leader of the field. Just too many papers, and even nowadays (though its actually a good thing) too many Nature papers, which was 10 yrs ago sometimes a game changer in the career and hiring trajectory of ECR’s. Nowadays there is no guarantee (at least in Northern hemisphere I guess) that you get hired with these publications. But how do you define an impact of a researcher? Moving the field. Yes. But how is this possible with so many small steps covered by 1000s of publications and so many supersmart and great scientists. I think hiring is more and more complicated and moves back to some more general aspects like few influential work packages, inspirational teaching, research philosophy, community services and much more I guess personality.
“too many Nature papers, which was 10 yrs ago sometimes a game changer in the career and hiring trajectory of ECR’s. ”
Hmm, I’d want to see some data before I believe that, up until 10 years ago, having a Nature or Science paper was a guarantee of getting a faculty job in short order.
That’s a quibble; I agree with your broader point that it’s harder for any one person to move the field today.
maybe I was exaggerating 🙂 Surely not a guarantee. But it was definitely “a thing” and “an achievement” which it is still but due to the higher amount of productive researchers and more high impact journals it might be a bit diluted. I remember speaking with an 1st author of a Nature paper in 2002 who said his career got a huge boost because of it.
Thanks for the interesting post. This particular comment made me think of a recent paper (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40656-018-0209-y), because it describes 3 of the ecologists on your list corresponding with each other. Possibly just an interesting coincidence.
Thanks for the interesting link!
It is true that many of the people who went on to become “giants of the field” in the 60s and 70s interacted with one another a lot, whether as collaborators, mentors and students, or just chatting a lot. MacArthur and Wilson and Levins of course. John Vandermeer and evolutionary giant Doug Futuyma were students taking classes with Nelson Hairston Sr. at the same time. Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco were partners, and both students of Bob Paine. Across the pond, think of the “Silwood Circle”, Dick Southwood, Bob May, Mike Hassell, Mick Crawley, et al.: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/book-review-the-silwood-circle/. I don’t see anything particularly untoward about this–academic ecology was a small world back then.
Same reason there are no .400 hitters: training if ecologists, like training of hitters, is better across the board, so there are fewer standouts. There are also more ecologists, so more people swarming around every potential idea, making it harder to keep the Mother Lode to yourself even if you do find it; communication is good, so your institutions library wont hold you back; and institutions want your overhead, so they’re all pushing their faculty to publish
Just want to point out that the stability of the data through the 07-09 (really longer) hiring slowdown is consistent with the Fit Matters Hypothesis, and inconsistent with the Hiring Committees Just Count Papers Hypothesis (and its derivatives). The pool of applicants likely grew during this period (although it would be nice to have that data), so the pool of high-publishing applicants should also have grown. Absence of that effect suggests that committees are selecting on other criteria (among candidates who clear some productivity bar).
Yes, I have other posts debunking the idea that hiring committees just count publications (or base their decisions on any crude quantitative metrics, or anything tightly correlated with crude quantitative metrics):
“The pool of applicants likely grew during this period (although it would be nice to have that data), so the pool of high-publishing applicants should also have grown. ”
As I just wrote in another comment, that’s possible but not necessarily the case. It could be that many/most ecology faculty job seekers have long been “maxing out” in terms of how many papers they publish. So that when the ratio of job seekers to jobs increases sharply during a recession, there’s no effect on the on-paper research productivity of the job seekers.
My answer to Joels’ good question is just to repeat/expand on what I said in the post: you might see a signal of the Great Recession if you looked at different variables.
For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the mean or median # of applicants per position jumped during or shortly after the Great Recession (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t). But even if it did, I’d wonder how much of that jump was because of the average candidate submitting more applications, and how much of the jump was because of a higher ratio of candidates to jobs. Only the latter would really indicate a more competitive job market in my mind. I suspect that, during and shortly after the Great Recession, there were fewer TT jobs advertised, and so the ecology faculty job market was more competitive in the sense that there was a higher ratio of candidates to jobs. And frankly, that’s probably the single best measure of how “competitive” a job market is–the ratio of job seekers to jobs.
But would you expect to see the signal of the Great Recession in any other variables besides the ratio of ecology faculty job seekers to ecology faculty jobs? I dunno, but for many variables I kinda doubt it.
For instance, it’s possible that the bulk of the distribution of publications shifted upwards after the Great Recession, without the upper tail moving. That is, maybe since the Great Recession there are now many more ecology faculty job seekers with publication records that would’ve looked like like superstar-level records pre-Great Recession. But it’s also quite possible that that’s *not* the case! Honestly, I kind of doubt it is the case. I suspect that many/most ecology faculty job seekers–*not* just those in the upper tail of the publication distribution–have been publishing as much as they can for many years. Quite possibly since the mid-80s!
Another example, for which we have data: years of post-PhD experience. The Great Recession did *not* affect this variable. If you click the links in the post and look at my nearly-comprehensive data on recently-hired TT ecology faculty, you’ll find that they look identical with the non-random sample of post-1985 hires reported in this post. In particular, recently-hired TT ecologists–all of them–typically are 3-4 years post-PhD, with anything from 2-6 years being fairly common. In other words, *exactly* like the people in this post’s dataset who were hired after 1985 but before the Great Recession. Ok, I suppose you might wonder if, before the Great Recession, there were lots of non-superstar ecologists getting hired straight out of grad school, and it’s only since the Great Recession that most new TT ecology faculty have had at least a couple of years of post-PhD experience. But I really doubt that’s true, it’s totally out of line with everything I’ve seen myself from the mid-90s onward and everything I heard from talking to people more senior than me. I really don’t think the Great Recession had any effect on how long people spend post-PhD before landing TT faculty positions in ecology. (It might of course have affected how long people spend as postdocs *without* ever landing a TT faculty position; I don’t know.)
Yes, I didn’t mention this in the post, but a colleague who landed his first TT ecology faculty position via an interview in 1982 (and felt *very* lucky to do so given how rapidly the competition for jobs was ramping up) told me that just a few years earlier his department had hired somebody without a formal interview, just based on a phone conversation.
When researching this post, I heard several anecdotes along those lines. How even within the same department (so, almost all the same people doing the hiring), you went from a situation in the late 70s in which people were getting hired straight out of grad school, sometimes without even a formal interview, to a situation in the early-to-mid 80s in which formal interviews are suddenly the norm and the best applicants often are postdocs with 10+ papers.
To be clear, it is *not* the case that *most* or *all* TT faculty jobs back in the 1970s were handed out based on personal connections, without interviews (and I know Terry wasn’t claiming otherwise). See for instance Hal Caswell’s comment below, where he reports having several offers when he was hired in the mid-70s, all of them arising from interviews.
Via Twitter, our very own Meghan Duffy! (click through for her whole thread and some replies from others)
So if knowing Joe Connell’s publication history makes Meghan keel over, I wonder what’ll happen when I tell her that G. E. Hutchinson was hired to teach zoology at Yale in 1928 with *only a bachelor’s degree* and that he never earned a PhD. 🙂
Times have changed. #understatement
Jeremy, G.E. Hutchinson’s appointment at Yale is even more amazing considering that he had just been fired from the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa for apparently being an incompetent teacher (these excerpts are from a historical paper about his time in South Africa; well worth a read):
“According to his own – perhaps rather youthful and precocious – account, at Wits Hutchinson soon realised that ‘my function was largely to give prestige to a department which was quite well supplied with additional outlets for the professor’s words’ and it did not take long for Fantham and Hutchinson to cross swords. Hutchinson recognised that his course ‘at first was not good’. It was attended by Fantham who immediately accused the neophyte of incompetence in teaching.”
“Hutchinson quickly appreciated that ‘I was not wanted, and during my second year this was made clear by my being suspended from all teaching duties’.”
Wow, I didn’t know that!
What puzzles me about this comment (and the many like it that I’ve seen from others) is that, as my posts shows (or at least suggests), almost everybody who currently holds a tenured faculty position in ecology went through a tough job market at the time they were first applying for jobs! As best I can tell, there *aren’t* any ecology profs whose experience of the ecology faculty job market is badly out of date!
So I have questions. How many tenured ecology faculty give incorrect, 50-years-outdated, or otherwise bad advice to their mentees about the current ecology faculty job market? And how many mentees receive such bad advice? Obviously, if bad advice is rare that doesn’t make it any less bad for those who receive it, and my heart goes out to anybody who’s been on the receiving end of bad advice about the faculty job market. But how much of the impression that 50-years-outdated advice is common is because social media provides a statistically-biased sample of all the advice all current faculty job seekers have received?
And exactly what advice are ecology faculty job seekers getting, and how exactly is it bad (when it’s bad)? For instance, I have the anecdotal-and-possibly-wrong impression that many faculty job seekers get correct–but unclear or easily-misinterpreted–advice about how “well-qualified” they are or how “strong” their cv’s are. In an *absolute* sense, many/most ecology faculty job seekers are well-qualified for the positions for which they’re applying. Meaning that they fit the job ad and, if hired, could do the job at least competently. And many/most have “strong” cv’s in the sense of having substantial professional achievements. But those *absolute* evaluations are basically irrelevant to faculty search committee decision making, which is all about *relative* evaluations. All about comparing applicants *relative to one another* rather than relative to some absolute standard. As an earlier commenter noted, those relative evaluations often come down to fit to the position. I talked about this common misinterpretation in the context of interpreting an email inviting you to apply for a faculty position: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/so-you-got-an-email-inviting-you-to-apply-for-a-tenure-track-ecology-faculty-position-how-should-you-interpret-it/
Via Twitter, Joel McGlothlin shares his recollections of the Great Recession and post-Great Recession ecology faculty job market: (thread, click through for the whole thing)
Interesting post, thanks for sharing! I will be sure to pass this along to people I know who are in or are about to enter the job market.
I wonder, if the publication and experience criteria for faculty hiring exhibits such marked variation, what are the other factors that may better predict “hireability”? Although publications and presentations and experience are critical, most people in the market have these in abundance; I’ve long contended that you can almost think of these as being the bare minimum requirements necessary to even be considered for a faculty gig. So, what can an academically-oriented early-career researcher do to increase their marketability for tenure-track positions? Clearly this will vary from position to position, but are there any general characteristics that make for a competitive applicant?
I have my own suspicions here, but I’d love to get your take on these things.
“Although publications and presentations and experience are critical, most people in the market have these in abundance; I’ve long contended that you can almost think of these as being the bare minimum requirements necessary to even be considered for a faculty gig.”
I agree. I call them “table stakes”.
“what are the other factors that may better predict “hireability”?”
They don’t exist, at least not in ecology and not to any appreciable extent. For the reason you gave: “Clearly this will vary from position to position”.
Ok, I do think there are some minor things you can do as an applicant that may affect your chances a little bit, at least for certain types of positions. For instance: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/how-much-do-you-and-should-you-tailor-your-ecology-faculty-job-application-to-the-hiring-institution-poll-results-and-commentary/. But mostly, I think all you can do is what you’re presumably already doing: the best you can.
You need the papers and track record to get to the skype interview stage. From there it is increasingly about fit and collegiality. “fit” is admittedly hard to describe (and probably not entirely known to the search committee when they start the process) but becomes increasingly clear and tangible if you have ever sat on a search committee. Every search committee member thinks a lot about do I want this person in my department for the next 20 years? Are they going to lift their load of the non-glorious parts of departmental life, are they going to be somebody my students want on their search committee (which also gets back to fit), are they going to make meetings more fun or less fun. Do they sound excited to be here.
Candidates certainly don’t have total control over fit or even their collegiality. But I worry people get so focused on publications they don’t prepare for the shift in criteria after you make the first cut. I am amazed that every time I sit on 10 skype interviews, 2-3 people completely eliminate themselves by being rude, arrogant, manifestly not understanding the job, etc. And if you’re really good you start to learn to scope out what fit means (its OK to ask the search committee questions) and can sell yourself to it. And if you ever make it to an on campus interview, ask the graduate students what they think the search committee is looking for. They know the dirt and they will tell you!
I think that’s a really good point. Collegiality is an often overlooked aspect of the interview. It may seem a bit unfair to say that you need to be “likable”, but that has been a major selling point for pretty much ever faculty hire we’ve done in my program. But I wonder if there isn’t more to it still. Above, Jeremy says that there are no other general factors because requirements vary from position to position, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. One of the thing I impress upon my students is the need to stand out, to somehow make your CV “pop” in the stack of possibly hundreds of applications. Everyone has publications, everyone has presentations, everyone has experience… but not everyone has a varied set of skills. You have to somehow show that you have a particular set of skills that others lack, and you have to be able to relate those skills to the job in question.
I wonder, are there general skills that students and early-career professionals could and should develop to make them stand out? I preach the value of “creative analysis” in my lab–gaining sufficient proficiency in stats and maths to critically interpret and apply them in interesting or unexpected ways–as one way to differentiate yourself from the crowd (“Anyone can do a multiple regression in R, but few can actually calibrate and validate that model with respect to anything except P and R-squared.”), but are there other skills? GIS proficiency beyond simple mapping? General programming? Demonstrable interdisciplinarity?
I don’t know exactly where I’m going here, but I do think there needs to be a broader discussion in our field (and increased education and training) about skill development, particularly with regard to maths, programming, and technical writing.
Yes I agree that skills are underrated. They go back to “would it be helpful to my graduate students to have that person in the department?” Rarely is their research field going to be so similar as to be yes. Its usually that they bring skills that I don’t have that would be useful. They know molecular population genetics. They know phylogenetic methods. They do blood hormones. They are going to have a fancy respirometer in their lab (or sequencer or isotope analysis or ….). In my case it was “he can teach advanced statistics courses and help my students with stats”. Didn’t sell well in every department. But sold well in several of the departments where I got jobs.
I was wondering when I would get this question.
I hesitate to comment on this, because while it’s an important issue it’s also an issue on which many people understandably have very strong opinions that tend to…color their reactions to whatever I say (and presumably to what others say). Which tends to lead to misunderstandings and…unproductive conversations. When I’ve commented on gender and equity in ecology in other contexts (for instance: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/newly-hired-n-american-tenure-track-asst-professors-of-ecology-are-59-women-thats-good-news-but-most-ecologists-still-dont-know-it-or-cant-quite-believe-it-now-please-read-the-whole-post/), I’ve worked very hard to try to anticipate and address possible questions and misunderstandings. I don’t have time right now to do that with respect to this dataset. But I’ll try to briefly address these questions. If anything about my answer is unclear, please do ask me to clarify. Please don’t leap to conclusions about my interpretations of these data, or about my views on gender and equity more broadly.
I can’t address race or ethnicity. It’s a hugely important issue, but I just can’t say anything about it based on this dataset (and anything else I could say would be obvious and familiar, and so wouldn’t add value to the conversation). I don’t know the racial or ethnic background or identification of the people in my dataset, and it would be a *very* bad idea to try to guess from names, photos, and other public information. FWIW, the large majority of people in my dataset probably identify as white, but I wouldn’t venture to be more precise than that.
Re: gender: Obviously, women looking to make a career in academic ecology have long had to overcome all sorts of overt and systemic barriers. Obviously, those barriers were a lot worse back in, say, the 1950s than they are now. Obviously, that doesn’t mean everything now is perfect, or that we shouldn’t all continue working to make things better! The question is, can breaking this dataset down by gender tell you anything further that goes beyond those important-but-obvious points?
Which immediately leads to the question: how do you measure gender? My understanding from the literature I’ve read is that a gender binary can be judged from names, photos, and other public information (e.g., pronoun use in social media profiles) without *too* many errors. And so as with my past efforts to compile data on recently-hired TT ecologists, yes, I did record a gender binary for everyone in this dataset (man or woman, as judged from names, photos, and my personal knowledge in some cases). That is *not* a perfect approach–gender isn’t a binary, and even a binary can’t always be judged correctly from names and photos–but I have yet to hear of a better approach (I’d welcome ideas if anyone has any).
It’s important to note that I googled for the cv’s of haphazardly-selected people–often just the first people who came to mind when I tried to think of “famous ecologists”. As anyone can tell you, that’s the kind of selection procedure that is going to be most subject to subconscious biases. Any dataset of “famous ecologists” that goes back decades is going to be male-skewed, reflecting the male skew of the field decades ago. My dataset has 42 women and 89 men. It’s exclusively male in the early years; the first woman in the dataset is Jane Lubchenco, who started as an asst. prof in 1975. It’s gender balanced in recent-ish years (e.g., 15 women and 14 men who started asst prof positions in 2005-2016). But I don’t know whether my dataset is more male-skewed than one would expect due to the historical male skew of academic ecology, because of subconscious bias in who happened to come to mind when I was thinking of whose cv’s to google. Had I been setting out to address questions related to gender and equity, I’d have chosen a different, more systematic sampling procedure.
Please keep all those caveats in mind when you read the rest of what I have to say.
If you break these data down by gender, there is no obvious difference in years of post-PhD experience between men and women, at any point in time. No difference in the mean, no difference in the tails, just nothing.
When you look at number of publications, in the late 70s and early 80s the men in this dataset have many more publications than the women on average at the time of hiring, but after about 1985ish that ceases to be the case. But I don’t know that I would make too much of that. We’re talking small numbers of people here: just 7 women hired from 1975-1985, and just 20 men. I don’t know that I’d draw any broad conclusions about gender and equity in academic ecology in the late 70s and early 80s from the fact that none of the 7 women in my dataset who were hired from 1975-1985 had more than 4 papers when they were hired, a total exceeded by 9 of the 20 men. At some point, sample sizes become small enough that data turn into anecdotes.
I think to really say something worth saying about gender and equity in academic ecology faculty hiring many decades ago, you wouldn’t want to look at this dataset. You’d want to compile much more systematic data. And you’d want to speak to the women (and men) who entered academic ecology in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, to learn how they experienced the ecology faculty job market at that time.
As a piece of anecdata, I got my PhD in 1974 and was hired directly from that as an assistant prof by the University of Connecticut in 1975. A thing that might be interesting, but doesn’t show up on CVs, is that I had invitations to six interviews, and several offers to choose among, all without postdoctoral experience. Different times indeed. As I recall, among my peers at the time postdoc positions were viewed with a bit of derision. Sort of something you would do as a plan B if you failed to land a TT faculty position.
As a current expat prof, I can say that the procedures for hiring in Europe are mind-bogglingly different from those I know in the US.
Thanks for sharing this Hal–very interesting about postdocs being looked down on as a plan B back in the mid-70s!
Via Twitter, a reminder that the timing of some key events was a bit different in Canada:
Hi Jeremy, thanks for this post, really interesting. Not looking to draw strong conclusions from this given the small sample size, but I’m curious about the scientists in the upper tail of time-since-PhD at time of hiring (say, >=6 years). For these folks, was their position at time of hiring to a TT job a postdoc/VAP type position, or had they advanced their career in a different type of position, e.g. as research faculty or a scientist position with a government agency or NGO before getting hired to a TT position?
Most of the folks in the upper tail of years post-PhD experience were government or NGO ecologists for many years, and so arguably shouldn’t be included in this dataset. But I wasn’t sure how to handle such cases. Do I include you in the dataset if you were only a government/NGO scientist for 5 years or less post-PhD, but not if you were a government/NGO scientist for longer?
Via Twitter, on a different topic:
I think this is right, and that it’s been true since long before the Great Recession. But I don’t have data to back me up on that.
That’s interesting. Is this because NSERC grants being smaller (but more of them) means that grants in Canada typically aren’t large enough to hire a postdoc on?
Yes, that’s a big part of it. Only a very very few “high fliers” (as they’re colloquially known) have NSERC grants big enough to pay a postdoc. The very biggest NSERC Discovery Grants are worth maybe $130K CAD annually. Plus, if you’re one of the very few people with an NSERC grant that big, you probably don’t need to pay postdocs from your grant, because postdocs who have their own fellowships will want to work with you. Those postdoctoral fellowship programs are *extremely* competitive. The net result is that postdocs are very thin on the ground in Canada compared to the US, even at the biggest research unis.
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