How many times should you expect to move before obtaining a TT asst. professor position in ecology?

One of the hardest parts of the academic career path is having to move. It certainly is possible to have an academic career while remaining in, or eventually returning to, a specific geographic area. But even if you manage to do that, you’re likely to have to move around within that geographic area.

But how many times, exactly? I decided to compile some data.

I searched for the publicly-available CVs and LinkedIn profiles of people hired into TT asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields (e.g., fish & wildlife) during the 2018-19 job season. I tallied up how many times each person moved from a position in one city/town to a different city/town in between their bachelor’s degree and their current TT position. Meaning that I didn’t count it as a move if, say, someone went from an MSc program to a PhD program at the same university, or went from, say, a postdoc at one institution to a visiting professor position at another institution in the same city. I had to make occasional educated guesses, for instance when someone was a postdoc in one place but simultaneously an adjunct in another place. I obtained data for 50 randomly chosen people from my pretty comprehensive list of 183 new TT hires from 2018-19, before I got bored and decided to stop. πŸ™‚ 50 is a reasonable sample size for this purpose.

Obviously, the count for any individual could be off on either the high or low side, for various reasons. I’m missing any moves within the same city or town. And if someone did a “ghost doc” by working remotely, without moving, my approach would mistakenly count that as a move. But in aggregate, this dataset should give a pretty accurate picture of the typical number of moves from one town/city to another, which are probably the most onerous moves.

The modal number of post-bachelor’s moves was 3, though 4 was almost as common. 26 out of 50 people moved 3-4 times. The median was 4. The range was 0-8.

The most common trajectory turned out to be the one I took myself back in the day: a move from your bachelor’s institution to your doctoral institution, a second move for a postdoc, and a third move for a TT asst. professor position. Some people also do a master’s degree, but it’s pretty common to do that either at your bachelor’s institution, or at your PhD institution, so doing a master’s doesn’t always involve an additional move. Four moves is also a pretty common number, usually either because someone moved for their master’s and then again for their PhD, or else because they did a second postdoc.

These results are consistent with my much more comprehensive data showing that TT ecology faculty hires are most commonly 3-4 years post-PhD, with anything from 2-6 years being fairly common. 2-6 years post-PhD is enough time for 1-2 typical postdocs, and someone who does 1-2 postdocs often does 3-4 post-bachelor’s moves in total.

It’s very rare to need to do less than two moves, though I did find one person who seems to have managed it (as best one can tell from public information). It’s very rare for anyone to do all their degrees in one place, very rare to do a postdoc (or other post-PhD academic employment) in the same place you got your PhD, and very rare for anyone to get hired into a TT ecology faculty position without a postdoc or other post-PhD academic employment. And you need to do at least two of those things if you want to obtain a TT faculty position while moving less than twice after your bachelor’s degree.

Also, I have discovered a new ecological law: conservation of total distance moved. πŸ™‚ Just eyeballing these 50 CVs, the folks who moved 6+ times often made several moves within the same big state (often California). Whereas some of the folks who only moved a couple of times made two very long distance moves. Ok, I’m half-kidding about this conservation law–it might just be a blip. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something to it. If you want or need to remain in the same state or small-ish geographic area, you’re probably going to have to wait longer to land a TT position than you otherwise would. Meaning that you might well have to make several post-PhD moves in the interim, and that all of those moves will be fairly short distance.

I can’t tell you how to feel about these data; I’m sure different people will have different feelings. As always, I merely hope this information provides some useful context to those of you who are on the ecology faculty job market, or advising people who are on the job market. If you were wondering “How often should I expect to move if I want to become an ecology prof?”, now you have a good answer.

2 thoughts on “How many times should you expect to move before obtaining a TT asst. professor position in ecology?

  1. Somewhat surprised by “very rare to do a postdoc in the same place you got your PhD”. I assumed it was not uncommon that someone spend an extra year, say, after their PhD at the same institution in a post doc role, albeit perhaps working on the same/similar research. Then again, perhaps such a role is not as conducive to landing a TT position and isn’t in your dataset? (Also, I’m an oceanographer, not an ecologist, so maybe some variance there.)

    • Yeah, it’s definitely rare among people who eventually go on to a TT ecology faculty position. I’ve never tallied up exactly how many people have done it. But over the years I’ve looked at hundreds of cv’s of new TT ecology hires (including a few who’d probably count as biological oceanographers as well as ecologists), and it’s definitely rare. Like, not *vanishingly* rare; I’ve seen more than one or two people who’ve done it. But rare.

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