Ask us anything: what will the short- and long-term academic job market in EEB look like?

A while back we invited our readers to ask us anything. Here’s the next question, from an anonymous postdoc, and our answers:

How do you think the Ecology and Evolution job market will fare in the near and long term? In what ways might it resemble and differ from the 2008 recession?
I am particularly concerned about the disproportionate toll of the pandemic/protests on those of us who are parents, POC, etc, who may not have the same productivity during this time to remain competitive after the jobs come back (to a saturated field of PhDs).

Jeremy’s answer:

Oh man. In the short term I think the academic job market in all fields, not just EEB, is going to look like it did in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, or worse. There are going to be hardly any tenure-track jobs, and so the average number of applicants per job is going to go through the roof. My heart goes out to anyone on the academic job market right now.

Re: possible disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and associated recession on faculty hiring of people from certain groups, the first thing I’d emphasize is that by far the biggest factor that’s going to prevent hiring of tenure-track ecologists from historically-underrepresented groups (or ecologists who are parents of young children, or etc.) is the fact that there are going very few tenure-track jobs relative to the number of job seekers. It’s going to be very hard out there for all faculty job seekers, and I think it’s important for everyone to remember that and be kind to everyone else. That’s not to deny that there might be systemic differential impacts, of course, and that possibility is something we should be concerned about.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the possibility of differential impacts of the pandemic on faculty hiring in EEB in the short term (defined as the next 1-2 years), for a few reasons:

  • As far as I know, the Great Recession didn’t lead to a disproportionate drop in hiring of tenure-track faculty from historically-underrepresented groups.
  • The data I’ve looked at indicate that, at a systemic level, search committees for tenure-track ecology jobs in the US and Canada care about diversity. They’re not going to stop caring because of the pandemic. (Note that the data I’ve looked at most focus on just one dimension of diversity: hiring of women.)
  • In the early months of the pandemic, leading ecology journals didn’t see a drop in the proportion of submissions from women, or a change in the geographic mix of submitting authors (see here). (We’ll see if that will remain the case, of course…)
  • Tenure-track faculty job applicants in the US and Canada are evaluated holistically on many dimensions, many of which cannot be quantified and aren’t correlated with crude quantitative measures of research productivity such as publication count or h-index. Which is why crude quantitative measures of research productivity (i) don’t predict the number of interviews and offers ecology faculty job applicants will receive, and (ii) vary hugely even among recent hires into the same department (see here). Now, obviously I can’t tell you how any particular search committee will evaluate any particular job applicant. But in general, I don’t think search committee evaluations of applicants in 2020-2021 are going to be affected by the fact that some applicants have submitted fewer papers since Feb. 2020 than they would have in the absence of a pandemic.
  • Many institutions and organizations have policies in place to make allowances for pandemic impacts on academics. Many colleges and universities in the US and Canada have automatically extended all tenure clocks by one year. Here in Canada, NSERC (the Canadian equivalent of NSF) is giving automatic one-year extensions on grant funding to everyone whose research was disrupted by the pandemic, sending out lots of additional funding to support graduate students, etc. The NSERC Discovery Grant application form has long had a section for applicants to describe interruptions to their research. And anecdotally, I feel like pretty much everyone knows how difficult and stressful this pandemic has been for everyone else. Especially how difficult and stressful it’s been for people who’ve lost loved ones, who have to care for children, etc. So I’m cautiously optimistic that most search committees will make appropriate allowances when evaluating applicants.

I worry more about differential impacts in the longer term, if many people start to leave the field because the pandemic and its knock-on economic effects drag on. (I especially worry about longer-term impacts on faculty job seekers who have to parent young children through school closures.) But even in that case, the differential impacts might not show up that much in aggregated national-level faculty hiring data. Which if so, just goes to show that those data provide only a very narrow window on the impacts of this terrible pandemic.

But I don’t know, it’s hard to say what will happen in the longer term. I guess my money would be on some sort of mean reversion–that in the long term the academic job market will revert to the long-term trend lines.

Brian’s answer:

I agree with Jeremy. Short term (defined as 1-2 years) it is going to be bad. Especially in the US where many jobs are at state-funded universities and states in the US are not allowed to have deficit budgets (expenses have to be cut to match revenues). Its already clear there are many more jobs in continental Europe this year where COVID was better managed and universities are funded by federal governments which have budgets that are less whiplashed. Of course applicants on the job market shouldn’t feel singled out. Its also a terrible time for faculty who are taking furloughs (temporary pay cuts) and faculty who are being laid off (made redundant in British English). There’s no getting around this is a bad time for the world as a whole intersecting with some downward long term trends in higher education.

But I think the more pressing question for most on the job market is how long will this last? Is this a question of one more two year postdoc (bad but not dream crushing) or creating a glut that this cohort of job seekers never recovers from? I don’t know. It could be bad. But since I was asked to speculate, I am actually optimistic. Certainly with the Great Recession hires came back fairly quickly to even a slightly elevated level and back onto long term trend. We went from rescinding offers to candidates who had not yet signed or cancelling active searches in 2009 to full (even pent up) hiring by 2011 or 2012 (at least in the sciences generally and in our fields of ecology and evolution particularly – I don’t think the humanities bounced back as quickly). So my prior is that the same will happen this time again. Of course the economy could behave very differently this time so there are a lot of unknowns. But if I were in my first postdoc, I personally would not be just giving up and leaving the field. One good piece of news is that I don’t expect funding for postdocs to disappear – these mostly come out of pots of money that historically have maintained through recessions (including the Great Recession) – namely federal grant dollars.

As far as disproportionate effects on certain groups. It’s just a giant it depends. First off I am just going to acknowledge that what follows is necessarily anecdotal (not much data on an event still happening), but moderately informed in the sense of serving on many search committees and guiding many students towards getting jobs, but also I have to acknowledge an opinion come from a place of privilege so discount it as you think appropriate. I do think search committees, even hiring for starting positions, look at more factors than 3-6 months of decreased productivity could possibly impact. One to two years of decreased productivity could start to have some consequences, but I do think search committees are going to be highly aware of and actively adjusting for COVID*. As for which groups are impacted? I think that is really complicated. COVID impacts are so variable. Some people are more productive right now. Some people less. So it is a restructuring force but its not clear that there are major broad brush trends. I don’t know about POC – I guess the main connection to EEB jobs and productivity is that these communities are being hit by COVID much harder so greater likelihood of losing a loved one which certainly impacts productivity? I know poverty gives fewer resources to bridge lean times and also probably involves a lot more caring for young siblings, elderly (grand)parents,  being the only person able to get a job to put food on the table, etc. That seems like it could be a large impact. Like Jeremy, I’ve seen speculation (quite sensible) of greater impacts on women, but data hasn’t really supported that in the short term. Longer term impacts are as yet unknown. I would not be at all surprised to see parents of young kids be more impacted. So in my random, admittedly almost anecdotal (lacking better data) speculation, people coming from poor backgrounds and parents might be hardest hit. But mostly I think there are so many variables (e.g. do parents live near grandparents who can help with child care) that it is going to be really hard to make sweeping generalizations, even if there is some individual level change in who is advantaged. Whether this has long term impacts on trends in diversity of hiring is going to also depend on how long this goes on. As long as it stays in the 12-18 months duration, I don’t think it is going to have a really observable long term impact. More just individual variability that is real (and of course extremely unfair to those individuals) but going to be really hard to pin down. And I hope rarely decisive in most cases – getting a job is such a complex mix of which productivity is only one factor (and note that graduate students without financial resources or who are parents are already among those facing the most challenges before COVID).

And I think its really important to note (and I’m sure I speak for Jeremy) that our answers are limited to the narrow scope of getting jobs at the broad brush trend level. None of this denies individual narratives that can be very heartbreaking (and unfair). Nor does it deny that on average the whole world including the whole academic world is having a really hard time right now. (Jeremy adds: agreed; well said Brian.)

*If you are one of those people who sees 1-2 years of impact on productivity due to circumstances outside of your control my advice is to mention it very briefly and simply in your cover letter and/or have a trusted letter writer explain it in their letter. Don’t hide it. Every search committee is unique, but in the vast majority of search committees such circumstances will be incorporated favorably to the candidate.

6 thoughts on “Ask us anything: what will the short- and long-term academic job market in EEB look like?

  1. I agree, in the short-term permanent positions across academia are going to be in very limited supply. What’s interesting about the Guardian article that Brian linked to is that it’s from April and focused on hourly-paid academic staff on short-term contracts. Now that they have been dealt with (so to speak) UK universities are finding that they still have big holes in their budgets and are looking to cut staff on permanent contracts. This process has already started in at least half a dozen universities to my certain knowledge, and I’m sure that most are undergoing some kind of staff restructuring. If I was an early career researcher at the moment I would be looking for more postdoc positions to keep me going until things pick up again. Or moving out of academia into related private/government/NGO work.

  2. The thing to add is Trump’s rhetoric about foreigners and China and the ongoing coronavirus situation in the USA. I think the current large number of foreign, especially Chinese, students in the US that pay full tuition, will permanently decline, which will put even more stress on University budgets.

    • Definitely a possibility. The rhetoric (and executive actions) have been very bad. I’m not totally convinced we saw much trend of declining international students over the first 3 years and think everybody is waiting to see who is elected in November. But you could be right. Certainly if it happens it will be bad for university finances.

  3. Just wanted to quickly note that Megan Frederickson has also done an analysis of publication/submission rate by gender during covid-19 and she has found a small but significant difference. I haven’t read either study so I’m not sure what could explain the difference from the Fox manuscript, but I thought I should note that the result is not universal across (two!) studies. Here’s an article describing Dr. Frederickson’s work:

    • Thank you for this. For sure data is still sparse and it wouldn’t even be possible to measure total impact because nothing is over yet. Everything remains uncertain and tentative at this stage. I only take comfort that there is not evidence of gigantic glaring gaps. But small gaps are very important too (especially in their cumulative impact) and may well be the finding when this is all said and done.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: the knowledge machine, Fat Bear Week, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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