Was the 2020-21 N. American ecology faculty job market different from the pre-pandemic job market? Yes and no. (updatedx2)

As most of you know, I compiled a lot of data on the pre-pandemic job market for tenure-track (TT) ecologists in the US and Canada. Obviously, the pandemic changed things. #understatement But what exactly did it change?

Some changes are obvious–no on-campus interviews during a pandemic, for instance. But it’s not so obvious if other things changed. In particular, did the pandemic make the TT ecology faculty job market more competitive?

Yes and no. The answer depends on how you define “competitive”. For the details, read on.

To get data, I started with the 2020-21 ecoevojobs.net spreadsheet. This is a nearly comprehensive listing of every TT ecology faculty position advertised in the US and Canada from midsummer 2020 through the spring of 2021. Plus a bunch of other jobs advertised during that time. I looked at 2020-21 because a lot of 2019-2020 searches were canceled in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic kicked off. I decided to focus on what happened after that.

As I’ve done in the past, I first stripped the list down to TT jobs in the US and Canada that could potentially be filled at the assistant professor level by an ecologist. So for instance, that includes jobs in subject areas like “ecology”, “biology”, “botany”, “wildlife biology”, “conservation”, “data science”, “marine science”, “forestry”, “entomology”, “biology education research”, etc., but not jobs in areas like “cell biology”, “systems biology”, “anatomy and physiology”, “genomics”, “earth science”, “water science”, “turfgrass pathology”, etc. It includes jobs advertised at the assistant professor, assistant/associate, and open rank levels, but not, e.g., ads for full professors, department chairs, deans, etc. That gave me a list of 255 positions, which is the first difference from pre-pandemic years. Back in 2015-16 to 2017-18, the annual list comprised about 300 positions. So that’s the first notable difference between the 2020-21 ecology faculty job market and the pre-pandemic market: somewhat fewer advertised positions that could potentially be filled by ecologists, insofar as one can judge that from ecoevojobs.net subject area listings. Presumably, that reflects hiring freezes that were implemented by some institutions in the spring of 2020, and carried over into the 2020-21 job season.

Then I looked at hiring department websites to determine who, if anyone, had filled those 255 positions, and if the person who filled the position was an ecologist hired at the assistant professor level. Well, except that this year I got lazy after checking the first 200 (in random order), so I stopped. As usual, I only had to make a few borderline judgment calls as to whether the person who filled the position was an “ecologist”–most people who filled the positions I checked are clearly ecologists by any reasonable definition, or clearly not ecologists by any reasonable definition. None of the results would change appreciably if I were to change the few borderline calls as to who counts as an “ecologist”.

If the position was filled by an ecologist at the asst professor level, I did some quick googling for public information on a few simple variables–when and where they got their PhDs, where and how they were employed before taking up their new TT asst prof positions, and their Google Scholar h-indexes. I also recorded whether or not the position was at an R1 university or the Canadian equivalent (the most research-intensive Carnegie category; think places like Yale, University of Florida, Michigan State, University of British Columbia, McGill, etc.). I didn’t collect information on quite as many variables as I have in the past, sorry. The variables on which I compiled data are very crude, and as I’ve shown in the past they don’t predict who gets hired and who doesn’t. But they’re sufficient to check whether the 2020-21 ecology faculty job market was very different from the pre-pandemic market in terms of who got hired. For instance, anonymous commenters on ecoevojobs.net have speculated that many more post-pandemic jobs might be filled by assistant professors moving from one TT position to another, because of pent-up demand to change jobs. Or that increased competition for TT positions post-pandemic will mean that new hires will tend to be more experienced and have more publications than was the case pre-pandemic.

In one respect, the 2020-21 ecology faculty job market does seem to have been very different than the pre-pandemic market. That’s that many fewer TT ecology asst profs were hired. Pre-pandemic, there were about 300 TT positions per year that seemed like they could be filled by ecologists at the asst professor level. Of those, I was able to identify 170-190 per year that were in fact filled by ecologists at the asst professor level. In 2020-21, of the 200 positions I checked, only 56 were filled by ecologists at the asst professor level. So, a much lower fraction of the candidate positions were filled by ecologists than was the case pre-pandemic. That’s because a much larger fraction of the positions weren’t filled by anyone, as far as I can tell. Now, it’s possible that, post-pandemic, hiring departments are now slower to update their websites (perhaps because of support staff cuts at some institutions). And it’s possible that, post-pandemic, more new hires are delaying their start dates and so aren’t yet listed on departmental websites. And it’s also possible that I missed a few new hires I would’ve found in the past, because in the past I did additional googling beyond just looking at department websites (e.g., googling for press releases from colleges and universities, announcing their new faculty hires). But I find it hard to imagine that any of those possibilities would cause me to overlook more than a handful of newly hired TT ecology asst profs. Based on pre-pandemic experience, checking 200 positions should’ve led me to identify about 120 newly-hired TT ecology asst profs, not 56! This result surprises me, and I don’t want to leap to conclusions as to what caused it. But if I had to guess, I’d guess that many 2020-21 searches are either moving extremely slowly and are still ongoing, or were canceled, or weren’t offered, or were offered but declined. Could be some of all four, of course.

Now, I don’t have data on the number of ecology faculty job seekers in 2020-21. I can imagine reasons why it might’ve been a bit lower, or a bit higher, than in pre-pandemic years. But I’d be very surprised if it was much lower or much higher than in a typical pre-pandemic year. If that’s right, then I’d tentatively infer that the ratio of ecology faculty job seekers to fillable TT ecology asst prof positions was higher in 2020-21 than in pre-pandemic years. Perhaps a lot higher. In that sense, the ecology faculty job market apparently was more competitive in 2020-21 than in pre-pandemic years–a higher ratio of job seekers to jobs. Personally, I think that’s the best definition of job market “competitiveness”, but YMMV.

But in another sense, the 2020-21 ecology faculty job market was not any more competitive than it was pre-pandemic. Because the 2020-21 hires don’t differ in any easily measurable way from pre-pandemic hires:

  • 35% of 2020-21 TT ecology asst prof hires were hired at R1 institutions, bang-on the same as pre-pandemic.
  • The median 2020-21 hire got a PhD in 2017 (mean PhD year 2016.3; range of PhD years was 2006-2021). So, median years of post-PhD experience was bang-on the same as pre-pandemic.
  • Median Google Scholar h-index of 2020-21 hires was 7 (mean 8.1, range 1-21). That’s almost bang-on the same as pre-pandemic (pre-pandmic median was 8, mean was 8.6, range 1-24).
  • The median h-index of the 2020-21 R1 hires was 11 (mean 11.2), only a touch higher than pre-pandemic. And there’s no reason to think that modest increase is anything other than a meaningless blip, because we’re only talking about 20 R1 hires in 2020-21. That’s a tiny sample.
  • 14% of 2020-21 hires were moving from one TT position to another. That’s almost bang-on the same same as pre-pandemic (13%).
  • 25% of 2020-21 hires at R1s were moving from one TT position to another. Not appreciably higher than pre-pandemic.
  • 13% of 2020-21 hires were employed by the hiring institution at the time of hiring. That’s a bit higher than pre-pandemic (4%). I suppose that could represent a small but real change in the job market. Perhaps a few institutions decided to hire someone who was already there, rather than try to hire someone whom they’ve never met in person. But it could also easily be a meaningless blip due to small sample size–we’re only talking about 6 hires here. And one of those may actually have been hired from elsewhere, but then given a very short-term postdoc at the hiring institution before officially starting as an asst prof. So it might really be only 9% of 2020-21 hires employed at the hiring institution at the time of hiring.
  • No difference compared to pre-pandemic in the gender balance of new hires, as judged by pronoun use on department websites and personal websites.
  • UPDATE: forgot to tally up these data when I posted originally. The 50 new hires whose PhD institutions I could identify got their PhDs from 42 different institutions. No more than 2 got their PhDs from any one institution. The fractions who got their PhDs from R1 institutions, and from N. American institutions, aren’t appreciably different from pre-pandemic years. And the list of institutions from which they got their PhDs includes plenty of places that probably aren’t on anyone’s mental list of “top” or “elite” institutions (e.g, UTEP, 2 from Wyoming, Montana, Illinois-Chicago, Ball State, Arkansas State, New Hampshire, Washington State, Texas Tech, Southern Mississippi, 2 from Southern Illinois, Macquarie in Australia, etc.). In other words, people hired in 2020-21 got their PhDs from a very diverse range of places, just as in the past. It is emphatically not the case that the pandemic skewed hiring towards ecologists who got their PhDs from “top” institutions. /end update UPDATE #2: Don’t forget about base rates here. A substantial majority of US PhD recipients in ecology get their PhDs from R1 universities. So the fact that the majority of newly hired TT ecology asst profs got their PhDs from R1 universities does not indicate that search committees are biased in favor of people with PhDs from R1s. I pointed this out in previous posts, but judging from a comment thread I just saw on ecoevojobs.net, I need to point it out again. /end update #2.

Will the current (2021-22) N. American ecology faculty job market be any different from the 2020-21 market? In some ways it won’t be any different, in other ways I think it’s hard to say. Like all faculty job seekers, I hope that faculty hiring will at least recover to pre-pandemic levels, but I have little idea if it will or not. But however many jobs there are in 2021-22, I’m confident that they’ll be filled by people who, in aggregate, look the the people who were hired in 2020-21 or pre-pandemic. There was one time when a major economic shock created a big step change in the ecology faculty job market in terms of who gets hired (as opposed to how many people get hired). It was back in the early 1980s, and it hasn’t happened again since.

Being on the ecology faculty job market can be very stressful even in normal times, never mind during a pandemic. If you’re on the ecology faculty job market, I wish you all the best. I hope you find this information useful. I can’t promise that it will make you less stressed or anxious. But I hope that it will help keep you from feeling stressed about the wrong things. In particular, try not to worry that expectations have been raised in terms of years of post-PhD experience, or number of publications, or etc. Because they haven’t been, at all. And try not to worry about being beaten out by an “inside” candidate or someone who’s already an asst prof elsewhere. Because those things are rare, and they’re not any more common now than they were pre-pandemic (at least not much).

4 thoughts on “Was the 2020-21 N. American ecology faculty job market different from the pre-pandemic job market? Yes and no. (updatedx2)

  1. I wonder if the differences in the evolutionary ecology job market in terms of fewer positions being offered but applicants seeming essentially of similar “quality” insofar as we can measure these things comes down to many people also just straight up leaving academic pipelines. I have seen a lot of people lose a lot of will to participate in academic pipelines as universities grimly force in-person classes through this fall, and I see people at my stage expressing exhaustion and frustration with the system quite a lot. In general, I expect people who leave under stress to be people who are more vulnerable members of the pipeline–marginalized people, women, disabled people, people who don’t have wealthier family or spouses to shelter them while they job hunt. It’s heartening that there doesn’t seem to be much gender difference right now, at least.

    I can say that as a new EEB PhD grad in December 2020 and current postdoc, I had quite a bit of difficulty finding postdocs in behavioral ecology: it felt like everyone I contacted was apologizing because a current postdoc was staying an extra year, or the pandemic had restricted their mentoring abilities, or the funding supply they hoped to apply for my salary with had dried up. I wound up shifting my career aspirations slightly and moving into a more neuroscience-focused area than I had initially anticipated. I’m happy here, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hard hunting for opportunities when everyone is battening down to try and wait out the pandemic!

    • Good comments Erin, you raise an important issue. I wish I could say more to address it. But obviously, from limited the information I’ve collected, I have no way to tell if more people than usual left the ecology faculty job market in 2020-21, or if the people who left in 2020-21 were disproportionately concentrated among certain groups of people. Possibly–or possibly not.

      Personally, I wouldn’t assume anything one way or the other. We know from past polling data that ecologists (at least, the ones who took our old polls) systematically tend to be over-pessimistic about many aspects of the ecology faculty job market. They underestimate the proportion of women among new hires, they overestimate how many publications new hires typically have, they overestimate the fraction of TT jobs that go to “insiders”, they overestimate the fraction of TT jobs that go to people with PhDs from “top” institutions, etc. So on the one hand, I totally agree with you that it’s very possible that the pandemic has disproportionately driven certain groups of vulnerable people out of the ecology faculty job pipeline. It’s easy to imagine how that could happen. On the other hand, there are many other issues on which the data on the ecology faculty job market turned out to be pleasantly surprising. Which perhaps gives some reason to hope that the issue you raise is also one on which things aren’t as bad as we might fear.

      Good luck with your own search. I’m glad to hear you’re happy in your current position even though it’s one you hadn’t initially planned to pursue. I don’t envy anyone who’s on the market at the moment. Heck, I don’t envy folks who’ve just started new TT positions, either! I mean, ok, I’m sure new TT hires are glad to have those positions. But it’s even harder and more stressful to move to a new place and start a new lab during a pandemic than it would be in normal times.

  2. Jeremy I enjoy your job market analyses!

    One of the things I’m often thinking about is how difficult it is to move mid-career. Have you ever looked at availability of Associate level positions, coupled with dynamic of people staving off retirement? Seems like hardly anyone has left their positions since the 1990s ๐Ÿ˜† leaving the next academic generation(s) scrambling…

    -Kara

    – 14% of 2020-21 hires were moving from one TT position to another. Thatโ€™s almost bang-on the same same as pre-pandemic (13%). – 25% of 2020-21 hires at R1s were moving from one TT position to another. Not appreciably higher than pre-pandemic

    On Wed, Oct 13, 2021 at 12:16 PM Dynamic Ecology wrote:

    > Jeremy Fox posted: ” As most of you know, I compiled a lot of data on the > pre-pandemic job market for tenure-track (TT) ecologists in the US and > Canada. Obviously, the pandemic changed things. #understatement But what > exactly did it change? Some changes are obvious–no o” >

    • I haven’t compiled data specifically on the availability of positions open to, or restricted to, associate prof level or higher.

      I have shown in the past that TT N. Anerican ecology faculty positions advertised as “asst/assoc” or “open rank” almost always are filled at the asst level.

      You’re right that it’s rare for people to move after they’re promoted to associate, though I haven’t compiled the numbers.

      “Seems like hardly anyone has left their positions since the 1990s ๐Ÿ˜† leaving the next academic generation(s) scramblingโ€ฆ ”

      It’s interesting that you say this. Because on ecoevojobs.net, one sometimes sees almost the opposite complaint–that too many open faculty positions are being taken by existing faculty playing “musical chairs”. The problem can’t be *both* that “existing faculty never leave their current jobs” *and* “existing faculty leave their current jobs for other jobs too often”! I think the reality is that *neither* is a problem for overall job availability. Because, if you move from one faculty position to another, you’ve taken up one position and opened one up. Nobody can hold more than one faculty position at a time.

      Of course, someone who retires opens up a position without taking one up. Are faculty retiring less often nowadays? I dunno. I haven’t compiled data on whether average career length of academic ecologists has changed over time. Possibly, it’s lengthened in jurisdictions that did away with mandatory retirement age. But other than that, I suspect that length of academic careers hasn’t really changed since the 1990s or even earlier. But again, I don’t have data on that. AAUP might, for fields that are more broadly-defined than “ecology” (which would be fine, because I’m sure the career lengths of ecologists are broadly similar to those of other academics).

      I do wonder if the pandemic might prompt a few more early retirements than would’ve occurred in normal times. I doubt we’ll see some massive wave of early retirements. But there might be at least a few more than there would’ve been in the absence of a pandemic. Whether we’ll see enough early retirements to make a detectable difference to the overall availability of TT ecology faculty positions, I don’t know. I’d guess not, but that’s just a guess.

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