Ask us anything: how can ecologists from developing countries be competitive on the international academic job market?

Every year we invite you to ask us anything! Here’s today’s question, from Falko Buschke (paraphrased; click that last link for the original):

How can ecologists from developing countries can be competitive on the international academic job market? Specifically, do prolonged career stays at less prestigious institutions in poorer countries help or harm long-term job prospects? I suppose the broader question is whether search committees compare applications equally based only on CVs, or do they use mental correction-factors that accommodate the specific context of each applicant?

Jeremy’s answer:

I confess I’m a little nervous about answering this one, because I feel like it’s a question I should be asking Falko rather than the other way around!

My first instinct whenever someone asks me a question about the ecology faculty job market is to look at the data. Ok, I can’t tell where anyone’s “from” with the data I’ve compiled–cv’s rarely list birthplace or citizenship. But I do have data on where people got their degrees. So one way to answer this question is to look at the cv’s of ecologists who got one or more degrees in developing countries, who’ve gone on to faculty positions in wealthy countries.

Very few ecologists from developing countries go on to faculty positions in N. America (I don’t have data from anywhere outside N. America, sorry). Among 176 ecologists hired into TT asst. professor positions in ecology or an allied field in N. America during the 2017-18 job season, I only found 7 who have a bachelor’s degree from a developing country: two from Colombia, two from China (one mainland China, one Hong Kong), one from India, one from Ghana, one from Iran. All 7 of them went on to PhDs in the US. And I only found 1 of those 176 hires who had a PhD from a developing country (India; I couldn’t tell where that person got his undergraduate degree). And I didn’t find anyone among those 176 who spent significant time post-PhD employed at institutions in developing countries. So there’s your answer: few people who got their bachelor’s degrees in developing countries go on to ecology faculty positions in N. America, and they mostly do so by going to wealthy countries for grad school and postdocs. Which doesn’t mean any other path is impossible to trod. But the rarity with which other paths are trod suggests that they might be hard to trod, unfortunately. (Note that I’m not suggesting that US ecology search committees view degrees from developing countries negatively. In my experience US ecology search committees don’t care where you got your degrees. They care about your achievements, future plans, fit to the position, etc.)

I don’t have data on senior-level hires. But senior-level faculty hires are a small fraction of all N. American faculty hires. And as far as I know senior-level ecology faculty positions in N. America rarely are filled by senior ecologists moving from faculty positions in developing countries.

Presumably, the rarity with which N. American TT ecology faculty positions are filled by people who’ve previously spent a long time at institutions in developing countries reflects several factors. I wouldn’t venture to guess the relative importance of these factors, because I’m sure there are cases in which each is important, alone or in combination:

  • Rarity of applicants. Having served on search committees for two widely-advertised faculty positions here at Calgary, I can only recall seeing one or two applications from people who’d spent several years at institutions in developing countries, and who were possible fits. That’s out of a total of about 100 applications across both searches. (Note that I’m not counting the more numerous applications from people who’d spent many years in developing countries but who obviously didn’t fit the positions, such as medical doctors applying for ecology faculty positions.)
  • Laws requiring that hiring preference be given to citizens or permanent residents of the country in which the hiring institution is located.
  • The difficulty of attaining the experience and achievements required to be competitive for an ecology faculty position in a wealthy country while working in a developing country. This gets to your broader question. The short answer to your broader question is that N. American search committees can and do make allowances for circumstances beyond the applicant’s control. But in order for them to do that, they still need to see some evidence that the applicant would be excellent at the job they’d be expected to do. Brian (below) suggests that, if you want a job at a N. American research uni, you need to publish a sufficient number of good papers in internationally competitive journals, as opposed to “local” journals. I agree with that. I wouldn’t give a specific number how many–ecology profs at research unis vary hugely in their publication rates, even within the same department. But it’s probably going to need to be more than one or two if you’ve already been in a faculty position for several years. Unfortunately, I can imagine that in some circumstances it might be difficult for someone based in a developing country to acquire enough achievements to be competitive for a faculty position in a wealthy country. Developing connections and collaborations with researchers from the wealthy country to which you might want to move might help. These days hopefully the internet and social media make it easier for those connections and collaborations to develop. But honestly I’m not well-placed to give advice on how an ecologist based in a developing country can best acquire the experience and achievements needed to be competitive for N. American ecology faculty positions. In part because I think to give really concrete useful advice one would have to be familiar with the unique local circumstances. Good advice for one developing country might be bad advice for another. So I’ll punt to our excellent old guest posts on doing ecology in developing countries–one of which is by Falko himself! See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Brian’s answer:

Short answer yes. Published papers are an international currency. If your CV is competitive on that front, everything else (recommendation letters and time at a smaller, lesser known university) doesn’t matter that much. When I was in grad school I was told that search committees didn’t always want to pay to fly somebody in from another country for an interview, but if that was ever true it is not true now. (Jeremy adds: I doubt that was ever true and it certainly hasn’t been true for a long time. I got flown in for a bunch of interviews in N. America while I was a postdoc in the UK.) A typical R1 position has $1,000,000 invested in a faculty member by the time they get tenure, saving $1000 on a plane ticket is not a good investment. Some other academic fields (e.g. economics) are very much credential based (it really matters where you did your PhD and who your adviser was). But in ecology, if you’re publishing a good number of papers in internationally competitive journals, you will be competitive for a job. If you’re publishing those papers, you’re also probably getting invites to working groups, workshops, speaking engagements etc and able to build international connections which can help.

Of course how feasible it is to publish regularly in international journals at a school with less resources and possibly other demands on your time may vary, for which see the series of 6 blog posts linked to in Jeremy’s last sentence.

18 thoughts on “Ask us anything: how can ecologists from developing countries be competitive on the international academic job market?

  1. Just to give a bit of a perspective outside North America (I haven’t been on enough search committees or such to be any sort of expert).
    I have found that here in Germany distance can be an obstacle (if a small one) as we usually can not reimburse the candidate for travel expenses. So outlining an alternative (skype interview etc.) or already making clear that you would be able to come (maybe you are traveling anyway) might help.
    Most important I think is getting information on what your application should look like. Apart from the numerous non-fit applications mentioned by Jeremy (veterinarian applying for ecology job) there are always differences in what a regular application looks like for each country and it pays to find out what that should be. Btw this goes for anyone not just developing countries, of course. I think most search committees will consider that you do not know the norm but it is hard to stand out if you are missing an important part of your application and 30 other applicants have it.
    For example a cover letter is important (only CV does not suffice in Germany) and you need to use this to explain how and why you are a good fit for the job (fyi that means checking the website and seeing what the department does but also who to address). I am sure this seems to be obvious stuff to most of us but I can also imagine that it might be different in other countries. So I second the idea to find collaborators/friends/colleagues who are probably also happy to help with how things are done in the country of your choice.

    • In Australia, this varies from institution to institution. Most top universities will fly people out, and wouldn’t be hesitant about covering that cost for someone who was a top candidate. But other universities might be less willing.

      I was told to deliver a skype interview, and skype seminar, at a research-intensive university when all of the other shortlisted candidates got asked to give an in-person interview (the shortlist all lived within a 400 km radius from the uni other than me). I actually ended up being offered that job but turned it down in favour of an independent fixed-term position, partially because I thought a uni/department not willing to spend $400 extra to make sure all candidates had an equal opportunity was a red flag – a department/uni that was peni-wise dollar-foolish. There were other reasons for turning the job down, but this didn’t help. In my opinion they should have flew me out. But from an equity standpoint, they should have at least made all of the locals also give skype seminars/interviews (I feel like the other 3 candidates got an unfair advantage). I also viewed this interview process as a red flag, signalling that this university may not have thought as deeply about equity, inclusion and fairness as I would like.

      • In the US the situation you described would not be allowed by the human resource department that oversees searches as it clearly flies in the face of equity. And I agree the penny pinching would be a red flag for me too.

  2. Another barrier to anyone applying to positions on the global market, in general, (but probably even more difficult for those from developing countries, due to fewer opportunities to make global connections) is that many countries have totally different application material structure. Learning the norms and requirements for each country is not trivial, and especially hard if you know no one from that country. North America is all largely the same. But, for example, in Australia, you don’t have teaching, research, nor equity and inclusion statements. Instead, you are provided with 5-10 essay questions, which are unique to each job. You then respond to them with 1-3 paragraphs each. Most of the material can be cut, pasted, and massaged from your statements from North American jobs, but that will still take a couple of days to do well.

    • Interesting. I didn’t know Aussie applications worked that way. Do you think one application format is better than another? Or is each best suited to the settings in which it is used?

      • I think the US format is better for the US job market – there are just too many jobs to have to write answers to unique essay questions to all the ones you’d be qualified for.

        Australia only has about 30 Universities, and they are all big, and they are all probably ranked in the global top 1,000 (Basically all R1s or close to it). This means if you were restricted to Australia, there might only be 5 advertisements per year that you could realistically apply for. So, you have more time to spend on each individual application, and the essay question format signals that one needs to tailor the application to increase one’s chances. I do wonder though if the Aussie system discourages applicants from the USA/Canada. That might be a bad thing.

        I’m also not really sure what would happen if someone just submitted their teaching and research statement at the bottom of all the essay questions. I suspect if they were by far the best candidate, they would make the short list regardless. So it probably only matters for close calls. Not sure.

  3. The bottom line is that if you want to be competitive on the international academic job market you need to do international competitive science.

    Most developing countries don’t have many ecologists and have cool understudied species or habitats, often with serious conservation problems. Use this to do high-level work, get published in high-level journals, get known and then move on if you want (which would be a pity but understandable).

    • “…if you want to be competitive on the international academic job market you need to do international competitive science”.

      I agree with this completely! However, what is unclear to me is how one defines ‘internationally competitive science’? Like Jeremy wrote: “ecology profs at research unis vary hugely in their publication rates, even within the same department”.

      I think a lot of my impostor syndrome comes from the fact that I tend to compare my own track record to the *best* international researchers at a similar career stage, rather than the *average* researcher at a similar career stage. This is likely because these super-productive scientists are more visible and give a skewed perspective of what it means to be internationally competitive. But I think this is probably a common issue for lots of young ecologists, not just those of us from developing countries.

      • ” think a lot of my impostor syndrome comes from the fact that I tend to compare my own track record to the *best* international researchers at a similar career stage, rather than the *average* researcher at a similar career stage. ”

        I think that’s fairly common. I do it myself sometimes. And I’m sure that’s part of why N. American academic ecologists (faculty, postdocs, and grad students) greatly overestimate how many publications the typical newly-hired tenure-track N. American ecology prof has.

  4. Thanks for answering Jeremy and Brian (and everyone else in the comments).

    Your answers echo much of what I tell my own students (that good papers in reputable journals are a universal currency in science), but deep down I always wondered if things are indeed this simple.

    Jeremy’s data confirms my own anecdotal experience: I know of one South African recently hired as professor at an Ivy League University, but he did a post-doc in the US after a PhD here in South Africa. Also, Australia and the UK has several ecologists who started their careers in South Africa, but many of them were more senior and moved from a fixed position at a South African university to a higher position somewhere else.

    I suppose the take-home message is that, yes, a researcher from a developing country can get a position at top international university but (a) they need to have a track-record that puts them on par with other applicants and (b) they need to know the subtle differences in convention when applying in different countries.

    • I would say your last paragraph nailed it.

      The cultural differences are subtle but real – they’re not at all insurmountable but its important to know they’re there and research them.

  5. Dear Jeremy Fox, dear Brian McGill,
    I just discussed this topic with a colleague, David Hunt, yesterday, and then we found this post. Thanks a lot for providing some empirical insights, which mostly support what we assumed.

    We recently published a commentary in Nature discussing some of the challenges that academics trained in African countries face, and which might also provide some insights why so few are able to get faculty positions in North America and (probably) high-income countries (HIC) in general: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01885-1
    As part of this commentary, we summarized data from the UNESCO and the Worldbank, which clearly shows that African countries invest much less of their GDP (which is already low on average) into tertiary education than HIC. As a consequence, there are, for example, more students per teacher/professor. It also affects the quality of education in general (e.g. equipment, training of teachers), which we line out with several examples. More importantly, however, we make some suggestions in this commentary how this could be changed. For example, universities in HIC could sometimes do more to encourage collaboration with scientists from low-income countries, for instance, by supporting intensive mentorships. It will also be necessary that more foundations and other granting bodies provide long-term support for science in low-income countries so that scientists can remain competitive if they want to conduct research in their home countries. Of course, the general goal is not that more academics from low-income countries get a faculty position in North America (that would be a side-effect) but that scientific training and therefore science in general improves in these countries. This, in my opinion, will be necessary to tackle many of the current and future global challenges.

    I also would like to point to this excellent article, which provides some encouraging examples of African scientists working in Africa and encourage others to do the same:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02311-2

    Finally, I would like to make another point (without having data to support it): I got all my degrees in Germany, then went on to hold a postdoc position at the University of Calgary (Anthropology) and I am currently a postdoc at McGill. From my experience in Germany and Canada, I think that even academics who got their training in Europe (maybe except the UK) have a slight disadvantage when applying for faculty positions in North America. The German academic system is pretty different, and there are a lot of things I had to learn here. For example, TA-ships are not as common as here, and it’s generally more complicated to obtain teaching experience. Of course, there are a lot of Europeans with faculty positions in North America, but the people I know with such positions either got part of their education in North America (PhD, postdoc) or are from the UK. If there are two academics with a similar publication record and a similar fit, I believe the North American applicant would often have an advantage because they know the academic culture here much better, and this might be reflected in job applications (e.g., the teaching statement).

    Thanks a lot for this great blog!
    Urs

  6. Thank Jeremy for bring up this topic. I can add some personal observation. I got my PhD degree in the US and worked as a tenure-track assistant professor in a tier-2 university for four years before moving back to China for personal reasons. I know quite a few people from China who have become tenured professors in the US. Two of them have been elected as fellows of ESA. I agree with Jeremy and Brian that the quantity and quality of publications is the determining factor. Besides, studying in a prestigious university or a famous lab (at least do your postdoc there) is a big plus. It will make up for connections and networks that are commonly a disadvantage for students from developing countries.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience Jun Yang.

      I have a question for you: it’s my understanding that many Chinese universities also look favorably on faculty job applicants who have experience abroad. Is that correct?

      • That is correct. However, things have changed a lot. Fifteen years ago, a new PhD from abroad could land an associate professor position in most Chinese universites. Now they can still try their luck in less known universities or colleges. In most top universities, a new PhD will be offered a postdoc position, no matter where they came from. The competition for tenured positions is as intense as in the US if not higher.

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