Ask us anything: good advice for today’s ecology faculty job seekers

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question (paraphrased, click that link for the original) comes from Liz:

What’s some good advice for ecology faculty job seekers today? How, if at all, does it differ from when their advisors were on the market?

From Jeremy:

Here’s a lot of good advice!

As to whether good advice today differs from when most of today’s N. American associate and full profs were on the faculty job market, I don’t know but I doubt it. By many measures, the N. American ecology faculty job market has been about as competitive as it is today since the early 1980s. Namely, very competitive! It’s not uncommon for ecology faculty job seekers to feel that some of the job-seeking advice they’ve received is outdated. But there’s also evidence that a lot of faculty job-seeking advice that’s seen as outdated actually is bad for other reasons, or isn’t even bad at all.

Totally speculating, but one thing that may have changed since the early ’80s is expectations for teaching experience. Currently, ecology faculty search committees at teaching-intensive institutions expect whoever they hire to have experience as an instructor of record. I would be curious to hear from senior ecology faculty at teaching-intensive institutions as to how long that’s been the expectation. Since the early ’80s? Or more recently? And while formal pedagogical training is still rare, even among recent hires at teaching-intensive institutions, I’m guessing it was pretty much non-existent a couple of decades ago? Again, would welcome comments from senior faculty on this. Am I totally off base here? (It’s possible!)

From Brian:

Jeremy has done all the hard work collecting data which he shares above, but to take your questions in reverse. It depends how senior your adviser is. Unless your adviser is within 10 years of retirement they have experienced a job market very similar to what you are experiencing. There are a few rare big swings beyond that (there were almost no hires in 2009 due to the rolling effects of the Great Recession and it took a couple of years to unclog after that), but by and large really the market is what it is and hasn’t and isn’t changing.

So given the competitive market, how to compete:

  • At an R1 it’s mostly about papers so devote your time accordingly. Both the number of papers and the quality of papers (roughly equally weighted – you can’t win by putting 6 papers in a regional naturalist journal, but nor can you win by getting one paper in Science or Nature). Having 2-4 papers actually accepted by the time your application goes in and placed in solid but not necessarily spectacular journals is the key. A little success in small grants (e.g. travel grants) and sounding enthusiastic and thoughtful about teaching are also important, but major credentials in these areas are not. See Jeremy’s post above about how this changes for a small liberal arts college (SLAC) or other teaching focused college (primarily real experience as instructor of record becomes very important).
  • Spend some time on your application materials and do get feedback from peers and mentors. You should tweak just the cover letter for each job, but you probably only need one teaching statement for R1 and a separate one for SLAC (if applying to both). Similarly one research statement is probably enough early on, but as you mature as a scientist (e.g after a couple of postdocs), you might tweak them (e.g. I had one for theoretical ecology positions, one for community ecology, and one for macroecology, although they had 80% overlap, mostly just the intro that changed).
  • Send out one or two job applications your last year in grad school to get warmed up, send out 5-10 your first year as a postdoc (you are unlikely to get a job that year but you might get an interview which is good practice), and send out 20-30ish your 2nd year as a postdoc and every year after that – 2nd year postdoc is the first time you’re really competitive and playing the numbers game is important.
  • Be resilient – if getting rejected occasionally on a paper is hard, be prepared to be rejected (often by silence rather than a letter) dozens of times. I don’t know anybody (even superstars) who haven’t seen tons of rejections before they get an offer. Its not personal. And its not a reflection of your future success. Every year from 1-4 in a postdoc you are likely getting more and more competitive each year. In my first job search I didn’t get the job on my first three invites for interviews and overall was rejected over 20 times to get one offer. Personally, I learned quickly to not start researching a town and the housing market in a city at least until I got an interview and often not until I got an offer. Its too much wasted time and emotional roller coaster otherwise. Be Zen – send your application in and then let it go until they get back to you (which is easier when you are sending a bunch in).
  • Use summer meetings to connect with people who have already advertised positions. Often they will explicitly offer to meet, but if they don’t its OK to email somebody and ask to meet. Ask them directly what they are looking for (but make it clear you have read the job ad as that is the first cut of what they are looking for). “I’ve read the job ad but I was wondering if you could expand on what you’re looking for” is a fine conversation opener.  And then obviously tailor your cover letter to communicate what you hear. You can also ask what career stage they are looking to hire. This step is icing on the cake – not make or break – but in a competitive market why not use it?
  • If you actually get a skype or on campus interview, be enthusiastic, be collegial and be yourself. Convince faculty members you have skills that you can bring to their PhD students’ advisory committees. If you have any energy left over after all of that, try to figure out what they are looking for and sell yourself in that direction. But mostly the first sentence.

That’s really about all there is to say or all you can do to influence things. Of course this is all from a North American perspective. It probably works pretty well in northern Europe and Australia/New Zealand as well. In other places your mileage may vary. There are countries where kissing up to the most senior professor in your home town university where you did your bachelors and not outshining him/her is your best strategy. So always ask your mentors.

If you’re earlier in your PhD and not yet searching and thus are primarily focused on the first bullet point and how to be productive, my advice is two-fold:

  • Have fun and follow your passions – that is the real path to productivity.
  • Recognize that much of grad school is about emotional hurdles rather than intellectual. Use appropriate tools to get through these (talking to friends both in and out of grad school – friends and activities out of grad school are important, talking to a therapist, taking appropriate amounts of vacation, going easy on yourself, and occasionally just powering through a rough spot because I really want the end goal are all tools I have used as have many, many other graduate students).

4 thoughts on “Ask us anything: good advice for today’s ecology faculty job seekers

  1. I teach at a small (2000 students) Catholic college in Indiana. We do NOT get many applications for any of our science teaching positions, and I suspect other small private colleges in the area don’t either. Besides the misperception that biology faculty positions, particularly in ecology, are competitive, I hear other misperceptions from candidates when we have openings. For example, candidates think the salary is too low in the Midwest. What they don’t realize is that the cost of living is also extremely low, among the lowest in the nation for my town in particular, and no it’s not run down. It’s extremely family-oriented, friendly, and healthy here, with good health care, schools, housing options, greenways, and hospitals. it’s wholesome. Life is genuine, and Mother Nature reminds us often of who is in charge. I’ve also been shocked at some of the rude comments made outright by some of the candidates during our last ecology search. Misperceptions abound regarding the farm culture in the Midwest, coupled with a bias against flatlands. What people don’t see are the boundless possibilities in aquatic ecology, prairie ecology, forest ecology, not to mention work in state, county, and city parks which tend to be large in flatlands. Also discounted is the hunting, fishing, outdoorsy culture already prevalent. As for our search image, we want evidence of excellence in teaching, integrity, kindness, gratitude, concern for students first, generosity, honesty, humbleness, and teamwork. We would like to see experience in teaching for at least one or two lecture courses, with written evidence of good teaching evaluations. The teaching demonstration during the interview is the most important component, and no you don’t need to show us you can teach a particular teaching style. We just want to see you teach in a way that is effective, no matter the style. It helps if you are a little funny. Written teaching evaluations and written summaries of peer-review analysis are extremely important. I’m shocked that some candidates have never bothered to collect teaching evaluations. I sometimes have to hunt them down myself as chair of the search committee. Some candidates have not read their own teaching evaluations until I read them out loud during the interview – more shock.

  2. Pingback: Timely posts for the start of the academic year | Dynamic Ecology

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