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.