Poll results: are EEB faculty job seekers receiving good advice about the EEB faculty job market?

Recently I polled y’all on the advice you received about the EEB faculty job market, focusing on the prevalence, sources, and nature of bad advice (or what respondents perceived to be bad advice). Thanks very much to everyone who took the poll! Here are the results, with some commentary.

tl;dr: A substantial majority of respondents reported receiving mostly or entirely good advice, though there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how to distinguish good advice from bad. And the very worst advice is…😬. I conclude with some advice on giving advice.

Demographics

We got 118 respondents, very few of whom skipped any of the questions. They’re not a random sample of current/former/potential EEB faculty job seekers. But they’re a large and diverse enough group to improve on anecdotes, and so their responses are worth talking about.

54% currently hold a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in EEB, or held one in the past. 21% are currently applying for one. 13% are not currently applying for one but have done so in the past. 11% have never applied for one; presumably they’re mostly current grad students.

Where do people get advice about EEB faculty job seeking?

Most commonly from their PhD supervisors (80% of respondents) and postdoctoral supervisors (71%). Don’t leap to the conclusion that respondents are more likely to consult their PhD supervisors than postdoctoral supervisors for job seeking advice. Remember, 11% of respondents have never applied for a tenure-track job and so presumably are mostly grad students who haven’t yet done postdocs. I confess I’m surprised that those numbers are appreciably less than 100%. I would’ve thought that almost everyone would’ve gotten faculty job seeking advice from their PhD supervisor! 70% of respondents got advice from blogs not associated with journals or publishers, such as this blog. Which shows that blog readers read blogs. 🙂 I’m sure that’s a big overestimate of the fraction of all EEB faculty job seekers who get job seeking advice from blogs like this one. 54% got advice from journal articles and/or journal-associated blogs like Science Careers and Chronicle of Higher Education. Then there were several sources of advice used by 40-something percent of respondents: workshops and information sessions, ecoevojobs.net comment threads, social media, and “other”. I’m curious what “other” is. I’m guessing it probably includes talking with friends who are also on the job market? Only 3% of respondents said they received no advice at all–and surprisingly to me, the majority of those respondents hold or have held TT faculty positions!

Most people got advice from multiple sources. Of those who received advice, only 6% got advice from just one source. That most respondents seek out multiple sources of advice is surely a good thing.

Social media and ecoevojobs.net are the new kids on the block. People who don’t hold and haven’t ever held a TT faculty position were much more likely to report receiving advice from ecoevojobs.net than were others (56% vs. 34%). Same for social media–consulted for advice by 63% of people who don’t hold and haven’t ever held a TT faculty position, vs. only 33% of current/former TT faculty. Presumably that mostly reflects the fact that ecoevojobs.net didn’t exist until 2009, and that Twitter only really started to take off around 2009. There were no other really big differences between current/former faculty job holders and others in terms of where they got advice.

I wonder a little if our poll overestimates the fraction of people using any online source for advice about the EEB faculty job market. I suspect blog readers are more likely than randomly-chosen EEB folks to be active online in other ways.

What overall quality of advice are people receiving about the EEB faculty job market?

59% of respondents reported receiving mostly or entirely good advice. Most of those 59% received nothing but good advice: 46% of all respondents said they received no bad advice at all. 24% of respondents reported receiving a mixture of good and bad advice. 11% said not sure/too soon to tell. Only 2% of respondents reported receiving mostly/entirely bad advice.

Whether you consider those numbers good or bad news is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. I think they’re pretty good, especially once you allow for the fact that it’s difficult to evaluate advice quality (see next section for discussion of this point). But I also think there’s room for improvement.

What predicts the quality of advice people receive?

Current and former TT faculty report receiving better advice about the EEB faculty job market than others. 73% of current/former TT faculty reported receiving mostly or entirely good advice, vs. only 41% of others. Which raises an important question: does the quality of advice you receive determine the outcome of your faculty job search? Or does the outcome of your faculty job search determine (your opinion of) the quality of advice you receive? I don’t know, and obviously it could be some of both. But frankly I bet it’s more the latter.

Which if so is totally understandable–I’m definitely not criticizing anyone here! After all, as a faculty job seeker you ordinarily have no idea if any of the advice you followed made any difference to the fate of your applications, or would’ve made a difference had you followed it. How could you? You didn’t get to attend the search committee meetings! And if you, say, got some advice in year X that caused you to change something about your application materials in year X+1, and you got more interviews in year X+1 than in year X, well, how do you know you got more interviews because of the advice you followed, rather than because of something else that changed in the interim? Faculty job seeking, like life, is a series of unreplicated, uncontrolled experiments, in which you don’t get to collect most of the data you’d need to collect to reliably infer causality. So consciously or unconsciously, you end up falling back on hindsight bias: if you get a job, you infer the advice you got was good. And if you don’t get a job, you infer the advice you got was bad. And maybe sometimes those inferences are right! But sometimes not, presumably.

Here’s one small illustration of how difficult it can be to objectively determine if faculty job seeking advice is good or bad: 15% of respondents reported receiving advice that they thought was bad, but later decided was actually good.

Or maybe if you get a faculty job you tend to forget about any bad advice you got, whereas if you don’t bad advice tends to stick in your mind?

The other, weaker predictor of the (perceived) quality of advice EEB faculty job seekers receive is the source(s) of advice they consult. I asked poll respondents to indicate the sources from which they received any bad advice about EEB faculty job seeking. You of course have to scale the responses relative to the number of respondents who consulted each source. 33% of respondents who received faculty job market advice from social media reported receiving what they considered to be bad advice from that source (they might also have received good advice from social media, of course). The numbers for other sources: 32% for journal articles and publisher-associated blogs, 31% for ecoevojobs.net comment threads, 30% for information sessions and workshops, 27% for PhD supervisors and “other”, and 22% for postdoctoral supervisors. Just 15% of respondents who consulted independent blogs for advice about the ecology faculty job market reported receiving any bad advice from this source, which confirms the infallible wisdom of Brian, Meghan, and I shows that blog readers like blogs. 🙂 The differences here aren’t huge, so I wouldn’t make too much of them. They might just reflect sampling error.

But since it’s fun to speculate: it’s possible that one reason why people who haven’t yet gotten tenure-track ecology faculty positions are more likely than others to encounter bad advice (or what they consider to be bad advice) is because they’re more likely to consult slightly poorer sources of advice: social media and ecoevojobs.net. Maybe those two sources throw up bad advice a bit more often than others because those are the sources where it’s most common for job seekers to give advice to one another. There could be a bit of a blind-leading-the-blind dynamic going on. Conversely, maybe PhD and postdoctoral supervisors are a bit less likely than other sources to provide bad advice because they’re better able than other sources to give personally-tailored advice. As discussed further below, one common source of bad advice is “advice that is good for some people, but bad for others.”

On the other hand, perhaps causality runs the other way: perhaps ecoevojobs.net and social media are more commonly-cited sources of bad advice because they’re most often consulted for advice by people who don’t yet have faculty positions and so are less positive about whatever advice they’ve received. That possibility might explain why postdoctoral supervisors were cited slightly less often than PhD supervisors as sources of bad advice. Some faculty job seekers and prospective job seekers don’t yet have postdoctoral supervisors to consult. Meaning that postdoctoral supervisors are a bit less likely than PhD supervisors to have been consulted for job market advice by people who tend to be less positive about any job market advice they receive. Again, just speculating here, I wouldn’t put too much weight on these speculations.

How common is outdated advice?

Anecdotally, one common reason for bad advice is outdated advice: advice that once was good, but isn’t any more due to changes in the ecology faculty job market. The poll confirms that receiving outdated advice (or what’s seen as outdated advice) is fairly common. 39% of respondents reported receiving outdated advice. Which means that a large majority of respondents who received any bad advice at all received advice that was bad for this reason (recall that only 54% of respondents received any bad advice at all).

24% of respondents who hold or have held a TT faculty position reported receiving outdated advice, vs. 57% of others. Possibly, that’s because the EEB faculty job market has changed in the last decade or so in ways that many current faculty are unaware of, so that outdated advice is more common than it used to be. Possibly, it’s because receiving outdated advice makes it harder to land a TT faculty position. (Though if job seekers recognize advice as outdated, presumably they won’t follow it.) And possibly, people who don’t yet have faculty positions are more likely to recall outdated advice they received, and/or more likely to regard advice they receive as outdated even if it really isn’t.

How common is overgeneralized advice?

Anecdotally, another common reason for bad advice is overgeneralization: giving advice that would be good advice for one person or situation, but that’s bad for another person or situation. The poll confirms that overgeneralized advice is a pretty common reason for bad advice, or what’s seen as bad advice: 35% of respondents reported receiving advice that might’ve been good for others but was bad for them. Which means that a large majority of respondents who received any bad advice at all received advice that was bad for this reason.

29% of respondents who hold or held a TT faculty position reported receiving overgeneralized advice, vs. 43% of others. As with outdated advice, there are several possible reasons for this, which aren’t mutually exclusive.

Without necessarily intending to do so, poll respondents provided some interesting anecdotal illustrations of overgeneralized advice. I asked poll respondents to provide examples of bad advice they received. A few respondents gave “apply narrowly”, or variations thereon, as bad advice (e.g., “only apply for jobs for which you’re a perfect fit”, “only apply for jobs you really want”). But others gave “apply broadly”, or variations thereon, as bad advice (e.g., “apply to 30-100+ jobs/year”, “apply to every possible job without filtering on geographic constraints”). Clearly, “apply narrowly” and “apply broadly” can’t both be bad advice! Rather, each is good advice for some people and bad advice for others. As another example, a couple of respondents cited “give up on a tenure-track job”, or words to that effect, as bad advice. But a couple of other respondents cited “don’t give up”, or words to that effect, as bad advice. Clearly, it can’t be bad advice to both give up and not give up! But each might be good advice for one person and bad for another.

How common do ecologists think it is for faculty job seekers to be very badly advised (or to feel they’ve been very badly advised)?

They mostly think it’s common, or at least not rare–and they’re wrong, as best one can tell from these data. I asked poll respondents to guess what fraction of EEB faculty job seekers would say they received mostly/entirely bad job market advice. The guesses were all over the map, with a mean of 23% (median 20%, range 0-100%), but they were mostly way too high. In reality, only 2/41 respondents (5%) who are currently applying for EEB faculty positions, or have done so in the past, said they received mostly/entirely bad advice. 75% of poll respondents guessed higher than 5%. Even if we define EEB faculty job seekers as only those people who are currently applying, only 8% (2/25) reported receiving mostly/entirely bad advice; well over half of poll respondents guessed higher than that. So unless this poll drastically undersampled EEB faculty job seekers who feel themselves to have been very badly advised, those people aren’t nearly as common as they’re widely perceived to be. That doesn’t in any way excuse bad advice of course!

What are some examples of bad advice EEB faculty job seekers have received?

Glad as I am that the majority of people reported receiving mostly or entirely good advice, and that almost half received no bad advice at all, that doesn’t make it ok that some people received some shockingly bad advice. “It’ll be easy for you to get a job because you’re a woman”?! That is utter bullshit, even if it was intended to be encouraging (and if you think this post or this one justifies that advice, then with respect you need to reread those posts and think again). “Cold call department chairs for job opportunities”?! Um, that hasn’t been a viable strategy to get a N. American ecology faculty job since the mid-70s at the latest. “Don’t bother applying for any tenure-track job until you have at least five good first-authored papers”?! Um, the average recent R1 university TT ecology hire only has 4.5 first-authored papers in leading journals, and some have zero. So if you think five first authored papers in good journals is some kind of bare minimum, you are extremely wrong. (Plus, how is not applying for jobs supposed to get someone a job?) “You aren’t ready for a tenure-track position”?! Told to someone about to fly out for a tenure-track interview?! Jeebus, that is one of the worst stories I’ve ever heard in academic ecology. (At least it had a happy ending–the person who received that “advice” got the job!) We live in an imperfect world, so I’m sure some non-zero amount of terrible advice will always be with us, unfortunately. But man, that doesn’t make examples like these any less terrible.

Reading over the 40-ish examples of bad advice respondents shared, I found a few common themes:

  • Overgeneralization. Many examples of advice that would’ve been good advice for some people, but was bad advice for the recipient. For instance, good advice for someone seeking a research university job, given to someone seeking a job at a teaching-intensive institution.
  • Intended encouragement that came off badly. Several examples of advice that clearly was intended to be encouraging, and that might well have come off that way to many people, but that didn’t come off that way to the recipient. Examples included “Don’t worry, you have an excellent record, you’ll get a job eventually”, and “Don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end”.
  • Vague or easily-misinterpreted advice. Several examples of this. For instance, “It doesn’t matter how many publications you have.” That’s open to multiple interpretations, some of which would make it very bad advice (e.g., “You can get a tenure-track position anywhere without any publications”), and some of which would make it very good advice (e.g., “Among EEB faculty job seekers, publication count does not predict number of interviews or offers received“). I wonder if this is part of why respondents who don’t yet have faculty positions more commonly reported receiving bad advice than did other respondents. Maybe people who got ambiguous advice, but who got faculty positions anyway, tend in retrospect to interpret that advice in a way that would make it good advice? Whereas people who haven’t ever held a faculty position tend in retrospect to interpret ambiguous advice in a way that would make it bad advice? Just spitballin’.
  • Over-confident advice on matters that it’s hard to give advice about. Example: how much to customize your application to the hiring institution. One respondent gave “don’t customize your applications” as an example of bad advice–but another gave “heavily customize every application” as an example of bad advice! Which I think just shows that this is a topic on which it’s very hard to give good advice. Ecology faculty job applicants vary widely in how much customization they do. How much customization they do isn’t tightly associated with how many interviews they get. Different ecology faculty search committee members prefer different levels of customization. And only a fairly small minority of search committee members report ever having seen an application for which the level of customization made a difference to the fate of the application. (For the data to back up those last four assertions, see here.) In other words, like William Goldman said about Hollywood, “nobody knows anything” when it comes to how much you should customize your application to the hiring institution. Ok, that’s not literally true, but you get the idea. It’s hard to give good advice on something that doesn’t often matter much, and that varies idiosyncratically when it does matter. Same goes for advice on exactly how to dress for an ecology faculty job interview, nitty gritty details of cv formatting, and how to prepare for a “chalk talk”.

Conclusion: advice for advice-givers

Here’s some advice for anyone giving advice to others about how to get a faculty position in EEB. I try to follow this advice myself, though I’m sure I have room for improvement on that front.

  • Familiarize yourself with the current job market. By which I mean: familiarize yourself with the data. 🙂 It helps to sit on search committees too.
  • Make the scope of your advice clear. Are you only talking about the N. American ecology faculty job market, as opposed to the European one? Only about research-intensive universities in N. America? Etc.
  • Ask about goals and constraints. If you’re giving advice to an individual faculty job seeker, ask: What kind of job do you want? Are there geographic locations you won’t consider, and if so why? Etc. The more you know about what someone wants, the better you can help them attain it.
  • Don’t overgeneralize from your own experience. The phrase “your mileage may vary” is your friend; use it whenever you’re speaking from your own experience. Remember, your own experience, and that of the people you happen to know, is both a small sample size, and probably a statistically-biased and therefore unrepresentative sample. Heck, maybe don’t give advice based on your own experience, or do so only very cautiously. Just share your own experiences, and let others decide for themselves what lessons to draw, if any. (Unfortunately, others may overgeneralize from your experiences too. But I’m not sure there’s much you can do to prevent that besides saying “Your mileage may vary”. Also unfortunately, the experiences that get shared on social media are surely a non-random sample of everybody’s experiences with ecology faculty job seeking. But I’m not sure there’s much anyone can do about that either.)
  • Be very hesitant to tell anyone that they will definitely/likely/eventually get a tenure-track job. The EEB faculty job market is (and has long been) too competitive for such a confident, precise assessment of anyone’s chances. No matter how strong someone’s cv looks to you, or how highly you think of them and their work, you can’t estimate their odds of landing a tenure-track job with any precision. So don’t try; there’s too much risk of setting someone up for disappointment. If you just want to offer encouragement or reassurance, better to say something like “you’re getting interviews, that means you’re competitive for the sorts of jobs for which you’re applying,” or “you’re doing the right things, that’s all you can do.”
  • Be very hesitant to tell anyone that they definitely/likely won’t get a tenure-track job. Ok, if someone’s more than a year from finishing their PhD and has no publications, no teaching experience except for that one TAship, no formal pedagogical training, etc., but yet wants to start applying for tenure-track faculty positions, sure, you can tell them that they currently have almost no shot anywhere in N. America. But such rare and obvious cases aside, the truth is that EEB faculty job applicants who get interviews and offers vary hugely on every measurable dimension. Further, if you’re like most ecology faculty (and ecology faculty job seekers), you probably overestimate how many publications, and how many first-authored publications in leading journals, it takes to be competitive for TT ecology faculty positions at research-intensive N. American universities. So don’t be so confident that you know who’s so uncompetitive that it’s not worth their while to apply. (Aside: see also this old post from Brian and I on how to think through the very personal decision on when to stop seeking a tenure-track job.)
  • Be careful about encouragement. What’s encouraging to one person can be discouraging to another. So to offer effective encouragement, I think you have to know the recipient of the encouragement well. (Not that you should aim for blanket discouragement either, of course!)
  • Don’t confuse relative and absolute “fitness”. Based on these poll results and my own anecdotal experience, some job seekers may misinterpret statements like “you have a strong cv”, “you’re an excellent ecologist,” and “you’re well-qualified for that position” as being more encouraging than they are (or are intended to be, in some cases). I think of those sorts of statements as statements of “absolute fitness”. They’re evaluations on some absolute scale. But getting an ecology faculty job is all about “relative fitness”. It’s about how good you are and how well you fit the position, compared to the other applicants for the same position. Most everybody on the ecology faculty job market is good at what they do in an absolute sense! So telling someone that they’re a good ecologist (or words to that effect) is true, but not helpful as an assessment of their odds of landing a tenure-track job. Being a good ecologist is “table stakes”, as poker players say. (Aside: here’s an old post on this in the context of interpreting emails inviting you to apply for faculty positions.)
  • Don’t give overconfident advice about little things. There are many small details of the EEB faculty job application process that probably don’t matter that much, and on which practices and opinions vary idiosyncratically. Don’t give overconfident advice on such details (e.g., “here’s the One Correct Way to order the sections of your cv”; “your research statement should definitely be two pages long, not three”), and don’t overemphasize the importance of such details.

2 thoughts on “Poll results: are EEB faculty job seekers receiving good advice about the EEB faculty job market?

  1. “As another example, a couple of respondents cited “give up on a tenure-track job”, or words to that effect, as bad advice. But a couple of other respondents cited “don’t give up”, or words to that effect, as bad advice. Clearly, it can’t be bad advice to both give up and not give up!”

    I think, in most of the cases, they are indeed both bad advice. Except in an extreme situation, this is a too personal choice to give a definitive advice as “give up” or “don’t give up”. Most often it will be a case of over-confident advice on matters that it’s hard to give advice about and/or overgeneralization from one own experience. Presenting alternatives, sharing experience and information that helps the person to predict the outcome of each option or even just supporting seems wiser and more useful.

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