You can’t estimate your odds of getting a faculty job from common quantitative metrics

The 2016-17 ecology & evolution jobs compilation includes a spreadsheet on which anonymous job seekers can list some common quantitative metrics summarizing their qualifications. Year of PhD, number of years as a postdoc, number of peer-reviewed publications (first-authored and total), h-index, number of major grants held, and number of courses taught (not counting TA positions). Job seekers also can list the number of positions for which they’ve applied this year, the number of interviews they’ve received (phone/skype and on-campus), some personal attributes such as gender, and other information. The purpose presumably is to allow job seekers to determine how competitive they are for faculty positions.

As of Dec. 19, 2016, 73 people had listed their information. Not a massive sample of current ecology & evolution job seekers. Also surely a statistically-biased sample in various ways. But it’s many more current job seekers than anyone not currently sitting on a search committee is likely to have personal knowledge of. So I checked how well quantitative metrics like number of publications and h-index predict the number of interviews job seekers receive. For comparison, I also compiled data on the h-indices of 83 North American ecologists recently hired as assistant professors.

Faculty job seekers understandably want any information they can get on how competitive they are. But how competitive any given individual is for any given position depends on many factors, many of which are only captured coarsely or not at all by common quantitative metrics. You can’t put numbers on fit to the position, quality of your science, strength of your reference letters, and so on. So I suspect that many job seekers tend to overrate the importance to search committees of things you can put numbers on: publication count, h-index, etc. It’s an instance of “looking under the streetlight”. Hence my question: Can you estimate your odds of being interviewed for, or obtaining, a faculty position in ecology and evolution just from common quantitative metrics?

Short answer: No. For the details, read on.

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The teaching job that slipped through my fingers, and what I learned from that experience

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my friend, biologist Greg Crowther. Thanks very much to Greg for being brave enough to share some personal experiences and advice that I’m sure will resonate with many readers. Thanks as well to Greg for only sharing non-embarrassing anecdotes about our time together as undergrads. 🙂

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This blog has featured fascinating personal stories (from Jeremy and Carla) on the often-long, sometimes-quixotic quest for a traditional faculty job.

Today I’d like to add another job-search saga to the pile – this one focused on teaching-focused positions – and to extract some lessons, if possible.

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Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook

I recently attended a “lunch and learn” session at my university on how to talk to graduate students about non-academic careers. The session was led by Anne Krook, who spent seven years as a professor at Michigan before moving on to a successful career at Amazon and other companies. What follows are my edited notes from the session. Any errors, omissions, etc. are mine.

We also have a series of guest posts from ecologists who’ve gone on to non-academic careers, the first of which is here (and as an aside, if today’s post is at all of interest to you–and frankly, even if it’s not–you should do yourself a favor and read that old post as well. Seriously. Read it. Leading candidate for best post we’ve ever published.)

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Formatting a CV for a faculty job application

One thing I think blogs can be useful for is providing information that ideally a mentor would provide, but that, for whatever reason, doesn’t always end up being provided. Some examples from our blog include how to suggest reviewers, how to respond to reviewers, and how to review a manuscript for a journal. Here, I will focus on how to format one’s CV when applying for a faculty position. Update 8/26/16: To be clear: I write this from the perspective of a scientist at an American research university. All of my search committee experience is on searches related to ecology and evolutionary biology.

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#UMichEEB is doing a search for three new ecology faculty!

Come join Meg at UMich! We’re searching for three tenure track assistant professors in ecology (specifically ecosystem ecology, population & community ecology, and theoretical ecology). To answer one common question: yes, you can apply for more than one of the positions. The formal ad and the link for application is below the break.

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Tenure track teaching faculty position in invertebrate biology at University of Calgary

The Dept. of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary is hiring a full-time tenure track Instructor in invertebrate biology. Instructors at Calgary are faculty whose primary duty is undergraduate teaching (as distinct from what Calgary calls “professorial-stream” faculty like me, who have heavier research duties). We’re looking for someone with broad training, who can teach both field- and lab-based courses integrating systematics, behavior, ecology, and physiology. Expertise in aquatic inverts would be a plus. The successful candidate would teach a range of courses at both introductory and advanced levels.

You need a Ph.D. in zoology. The ideal candidate would also have post-doctoral experience, teaching experience, and broad knowledge of biological pedagogy.

Application deadline is Apr. 30, 2016. Here’s the full ad, with details of how to apply.

A bit more background info and some personal commentary:

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Why I recommend doing your first interview on 2 days’ notice

Okay, so maybe I don’t really recommend interviewing on very short notice. But this post is the story of my first job interview – done on about 2 days’ notice – and how that ended up being great for me.

During Fall 2006, I applied to an ADVANCE-sponsored* workshop that was being held at Rice University. I was really excited when I heard that I’d been selected for the workshop, and about the added bonus of getting to see a good friend of mine from grad school. My friend was doing a postdoc there, and I decided to extend my stay in Houston a little bit so that we could see each other.

Around the same time as I applied for the Rice workshop, I was also applying for faculty positions. I had put in several applications, including one to Rice. I hadn’t heard anything from Rice before my trip, but, a bit before going to Rice for the workshop, I heard that I had an interview at another school. That interview was scheduled for about a month later.

Upon hearing that I had an interview, I immediately became nervous. It was a month away, but I was already having a hard time sleeping because I was anxious about the interview. I knew I needed to change something, since not sleeping for a month before an interview would not be a good plan, but I hadn’t come up with a good strategy yet.

The time came for the workshop, and off I went to Houston. The workshop was great, in part because of the women I got to meet there (both the other participants and the faculty who were involved). While there, in talking with someone from Rice’s EEB Department, I learned that they had recently decided on the four candidates they were going to interview for the search I’d applied for. I was not on that list of four, but had apparently been fifth on their list.

At that point, I was asked: “Since you’re here anyway, can you interview while you’re here?” I was surprised, but inclined to say yes. But there was the major logistical issue of me not having a job talk prepared and, more than that, not having access to most of my computer files. I hadn’t brought my laptop with me, and didn’t have access to my files (this was before I had everything backed up on the cloud!) Part of the workshop involved practicing the intro of a job talk (we had been told to prepare this ahead of time), so I had that with me on a flash drive. But I didn’t have much else.

So, I called my officemate and asked him to log in to my computer and email me files from my computer. He did, and also went and told my postdoc advisor what was up. I immediately got a call from my postdoc advisor, who wanted to talk through the pros and cons of doing the interview. I also emailed a few other mentors at that point, to get their opinions. Opinions were mixed: some felt that I might as well, since I was there and wasn’t going to get an interview at Rice otherwise. Others felt that there was no way that I could adequately prepare in time, and that I risked looking bad for being unprepared if people didn’t know that I had had only two days’ notice.

After waffling for a bit, I decided to go ahead and do the interview. I spent the evening before the interview at my friend’s house working on a talk. I pieced together the intro I had come up with for the workshop, plus a few recent 12 minute talks from meetings, plus the conclusions from my dissertation seminar. I ended up with a talk that I think was reasonably good (if not completely polished). Another logistical issue was that I didn’t have any interview clothes with me. So, my friend (have I mentioned that she’s a really good friend?) drove me to Target, and helped me find slacks and a shirt that I could wear.

Then I interviewed. And it was great. I realized that it was a long shot that I would get the job, given the circumstances, and so I tried to view it as a chance to interact with people who were doing interesting work and to talk about science. And, with that view, the interview was actually pretty enjoyable.

I went home, feeling like I had done well and glad that I had done the interview. Once I got home, I discovered that I was much less nervous about the other interview that I had scheduled. In the end, I think doing the interview at Rice on very short notice really reduced my anxiety leading up to my other interviews, which presumably made it so that I did better at those interviews.

In the end, I didn’t get the job at Rice. But, in talking with people there after, it sounds like the folks at Rice thought it went well, too.

So, as I said at the beginning of the post, I don’t really recommend interviewing on two days’ notice. But, for me, it ended up being great at reducing interview anxiety, and so I’m glad it worked out that way for me.

*ADVANCE is a really great program run by the US National Science Foundation that aims to increase the participation and advancement of women in science and engineering.

Tenure track position at UMich in ecology or evolutionary biology of fishes or birds

Come join me at Michigan! We’re looking for someone working on the ecology and/or evolutionary biology of fishes or birds. Here’s the official ad:

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan seek applicants for an assistant professor (tenure-track) position in the ecology or evolutionary biology of fishes or birds. While we expect to make a junior hire, outstanding senior applicants will also be considered. This is a university-year appointment with an expected start date of September 1, 2016. We seek outstanding individuals who use comparative fish or bird systems to study any area of ecology or evolutionary biology, and who would offer exceptional courses in the ecology or evolution of either taxon. Also strongly encouraged are research programs that could take advantage of the world-class biodiversity collections of the Museum of Zoology and/ or utilize the EEB Department’s biological field stations. Museum curatorial activities may replace some teaching duties for appropriate candidates.

To apply, use this link and arrange to have three letters of recommendation submitted through the same website. Review of applications will begin on October 1st 2015 and will continue until the position is filled. Women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. The University of Michigan is supportive of the needs of dual career couples and is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.

Applicants sought for postdoc position in Jeremy Fox’s lab

I am seeking applicants for the University of Calgary’s “Eyes High” postdoctoral fellowship program. These are competitive awards intended to attract and train young leaders in all areas of scholarship. Ten fellowships will be awarded.*

These are two year positions with a salary of $50,000 CAD/year, plus benefits. Successful applicants will receive professional development training, and will be expected to do a bit of teaching at the graduate or senior undergraduate level.

It’s a multi-stage application process. The first stage deadline is July 10, and basically involves a three page research proposal, including a description of new funding that will be sought.

Research in my lab addresses fundamental questions in population, community, and eco-evolutionary dynamics using both theory and experiments in model systems like protist microcosms. An ideal applicant would have strong mathematical and/or programming skills and would be interested in pursuing modeling and/or microcosm work, or else would have some other research ideas that could be pursued successfully within two years.

Interested prospective applicants should email me ASAP to start discussing potential project ideas (jefox@ucalgary.ca). Please include a cv with your email.

Just to let you know, this is a quite competitive program; it’s aimed at people who are competitive for major national or international fellowships, or who will soon be competitive for them.

*Actually, fifty fellowships will be awarded, but the other forty are reserved for new faculty or faculty working on different research topics than me.

Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.


Having children is a critical issue for many early career researchers in academia. Whether grad students, postdocs, or new faculty, having a child can create a lot of stress and difficulties in the workplace for women as well as men who want to be involved dads. Parental leave policies can make or break a parent’s decision to stay in academia, as it can literally cost upwards of $10,000 — or one’s job — if there are no paid leave policies in place.

Putting the squeeze on early career parents forces out many bright young scientists. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how you can help:

1. Help put parental leave policies in public view. Institutions with terrible policies need to be known – not just so that you can avoid them if you plan to become a parent, but also so that there is competitive pressure from other institutions for change. I was only able to examine policies at a fraction of universities that offer ecology programs, and I probably made some errors. Look up the parental leave policies for postdocs at your university – or even better, get an interpretation of them from your HR rep – and put them in the comments. I’ll update my charts with the new info. Make sure your PI, your department head, and your dean see how your institution stacks up. Email them, forward them the statistics, show up in their offices. Don’t assume they already know — they probably don’t.

2. If you are a faculty member who has grad students or postdocs, find out what the parental leave policies are at your institution. I am constantly amazed that so few faculty know what their employees’ benefits are. And I’ve heard story after story about PIs being horrified when they discover what the benefits actually are for those they supervise (usually too late to be very helpful). Be a responsible PI; know what your employees’ benefits are, including parental benefits.

3. If you’re a PI who hires postdocs, think ahead of time about how you could run your project if your postdoc were to be gone for three months. Could someone else keep the project moving in the meantime? Could it be put on hold? Letting a newly hired postdoc know that there’s a plan in case she or he needs to take a few months of leave will reduce the stress and conflict the postdoc might feel about the decision to start a family. (Believe me, telling your PI that “hey, you know that project we’re both excited about and working on? Yeah, I’m going to take off and leave you in the lurch for three months,” is not something to look forward to.)

4. If you’re in a position of power (tenure-track faculty, especially), lobby your institution for better parent-oriented policies and leave:

  • At a minimum, make it a written policy that postdocs can take three months of unpaid job-protected leave. Better: six months.
  • Next, encourage the institution to offer employee postdocs short-term disability insurance; it shouldn’t cost the institution much, if anything, to offer such a policy if postdocs pay the premiums. Better would be for the institution to automatically cover all postdocs with short-term disability insurance at the university’s expense.
  • Third, lobby for a policy in which both mothers AND fathers can take sick leave to care for healthy newborns and newly adopted children. Better: the same, without restrictions.
  • Next, lobby for a sick-leave policy that allows postdocs to take sick leave when it’s needed, within reason, without regard to number of days.
  • Finally, lobby for paid parental leave; while universities might balk at the expense, it’s worth pointing out that many new mothers leave the workforce all together because they’re forced back to paid work before they’re ready. Having to rehire for a postdoc position mid-project is disruptive at best and possibly fatal to the project; many projects can better withstand a 3-month pause.

5. Lobby funding organizations for better parent-oriented policies. Both NSF and NIH (and others) have begun making steps to make sure their grants are “family friendly.” But both typically still defer to the awardee institution, which does not guarantee any protection to postdocs with regard to family leave policies. Funding organizations have a lot of power in determining how their money gets used, and they have the leverage to even the playing field among institutions when it comes to parental leave. They also have a mandate to ensure that the system they fund doesn’t disproportionately force out women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences. A lack of strong policies by funding organizations isn’t just lazy, it can waste funding dollars. In addition to explicit parental leave policies for postdocs, funding organizations should adopt comprehensive policies that provide bridge funding while postdocs are on parental leave. These will reduce disruption to funded projects, as well as reduce potential conflict between postdocs and PIs. They should also ensure that no-cost extensions are available for projects in which a postdoc has taken time off for family reasons.

Do you have more ideas for bettering university family leave policies? Horror stories? Happy stories? Do tell.