Ask us anything: What’s your motivation? What keeps you going as an academic researcher?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our final question is from Bruno Garcia Luiz. Paraphrasing from and summarizing the original: What’s the principal motivation for people to do another [piece of] new research, paper, blog post, and so on? Especially given the many reasons for stopping–mental health issues in academia, many people chasing few tenure-track jobs, limited and difficult-to-obtain research funding, etc.

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Friday links: caption contest!, nuance vs. social sciences, when relevant research isn’t relevant, and more

Also this week: bringing sexy everything back in sociology, times are changing and so are tenure and promotion criteria, Bitcoin vs. university finances vs. bushels of wheat, statistics vs. the Millennium Village Project, and more.

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The pluses of seeing science as a job, not a calling

I subscribe to a financial newsletter from Matt Levine. He explains and comments on the business and financial news of the day in a wry style. It’s great stuff; he’s funny, he’s an outstanding explainer, and his general worldview puts him very much on my wavelength. Anyway, I really liked his comments on a blog post by a Facebook executive, in which the executive wrote

Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people. Not about selling devices. Not about delivering goods with less friction. Not about entertaining you. Not about helping you find information. Just about people…[C]onnecting people is a noble mission…

To which Matt responded by pointing out that there are some serious downsides to seeing your job or your company as some all-encompassing noble mission rather than as just, like, a job or a company:

If you come to work and focus on maximizing the profits of your company, that probably doesn’t mean that you’re a psychopath [who will do anything to maximize profit]. It probably just means that you have a job. You compartmentalize things a bit; your work does not contain the entirety of your personhood; it’s a thing that you do because you need to make a living. In this sense, a company whose philosophy is “we will sell products that people want for more than it costs us to make them so that we can make a profit and increase our share price” is rather psychologically healthy. That is a good goal to work on during business hours Monday through Friday, and then leave. It is a modest, reasonable, businesslike goal. Obviously there are large contested margins, and you shouldn’t do psychopathic things to pursue that goal, and some people do and that’s bad, but for the most part “shareholder value” is the sort of mission that inspires people more or less the right amount

I think this generalizes to science and scientists. I’m an academic scientist. I love my job, I’m pretty good at it, and I think it makes the world a better place. But that’s not all I am, or all I do, or all I could do. I’m also a husband, a dad, a son, a Canadian, an American, and so on. And I read books and coach baseball and cook and garden and drink beer. And if tomorrow I lost or quit my job and had to find another job that didn’t involve doing science (as I once thought I’d have to do), well, it’s just a job. Science would carry on perfectly well without me*, and I’d carry on perfectly well as someone who once was a scientist but isn’t any more.** Leaving science wouldn’t mean that I’d failed, or that I was wasting my PhD, or that I was letting anyone down, or that I was settling for second best, or that I was selling myself short, or whatever.*** It’d just mean I was doing something different with (part of) my life, which is something people in all walks of life decide to do (or are obliged to do) all the time for all sorts of reasons. Science isn’t some higher calling. It’s just one among many things that some people like to do and that are worth doing if you want to do them.**** It should inspire you the right amount.

*Arguably, science would carry on perfectly well without any one person, even a genius like Charles Darwin.

**I mean, depending on the circumstances leaving science might be hard for me financially and for other reasons, just as leaving any job might be for anyone. I’m just saying it wouldn’t be extra hard because it was a science job.

***Well, you could say I failed and let people down if lost my job because I faked a bunch of data or something. But leave such cases aside.

****p.s. click that last link, it’s almost certainly the best thing you’ll read this week.

Related old post:

Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook. Practical career advice from an ex-academic, that springs from the same point of view expressed in this post.

Would you be interested in an Inspire session or lunchtime workshop at #ESA2019 on the ecology faculty job market?

Proposals for workshops and Inspire sessions for #ESA2019 are due Nov. 15. I’m toying with the idea of organizing either a lunchtime workshop session (maybe panel discussion format) or an Inspire session on the ecology faculty job market. My vague vision is a session of advice for people seeking ecology faculty positions, including but not limited to data addressing common anxieties and widespread myths about the faculty job market. My big compilation of data on recently-hired N. American TT asst. profs in ecology and allied fields would feature somehow, maybe along with other data yet to be collected. Maybe complement that with some presenters who’ve recently sat on ecology search committees at a range of different types of institutions.

But is that too redundant with my blog posts, or with other recent ESA workshops?

I’m also unsure about session structure. Having never run or attended an ESA workshop, and only attended a few Inspire sessions, I don’t have much feel for what makes a good one. And I’m entirely ignorant of recent ESA workshops and Inspire sessions that have covered this topic.

So the floor is open. You tell me: what sort of session would most interest you? What would you like to see covered? Have you organized or attended workshops or Ignite sessions on this topic before? If so, what aspects of those sessions worked and what didn’t?

Newly hired N. American tenure track asst. professors of ecology are 59% women. That’s good news–but most ecologists still don’t know it or can’t quite believe it. Now, please read the whole post. (UPDATED)

Like last year and the year before that, this year I once again quantified the gender balance of newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities. I also conducted a poll asking readers what they expected me to find. See here for details on how I compiled the data, and why I went with a gender binary even though that’s not ideal.

This is a long post; grab a coffee and get comfortable! Diversity and equity are important issues on which people have strongly-held views. That’s why I’ve tried to discuss the results thoroughly and carefully, and to anticipate and address questions that readers are likely to have. I urge you to read the whole post rather than just reading the headline results. But if you insist on skimming, I’ve broken the post up into bold-headed subsections, which are listed below. Pick the ones that interest you.

  • Headline results: 59% of tenure-track asst. professors of ecology hired in N. America during the 2017-18 job season are women. It’s 57% women over the last three years.
  • The 95% confidence interval is 55-59% women over the last three years.
  • No, the headline results are not a product of biased sampling.
  • The gender balance of recently-hired ecology faculty varies a bit with the research intensiveness of the institution.
  • Ecologists as a group remain largely unaware of the headline result, or else can’t quite believe it.
  • When placed in the context of other data, particularly on gender balance at other career stages, these results tell a different and more complicated story about gender diversity and equity in N. American academic ecology than you probably realize.
  • No, the headline results don’t indicate “reverse discrimination”
  • Bottom line: these results are good news. They represent real, systemic progress for N. American academic ecology in one specific but important area. (UPDATE: As I said in the post but which I’ll now say up top here: no, these results do not mean that everything is great for women in ecology now [it’s not], or that women in ecology should all be happy [it’s obviously not my place to tell anyone how to feel], or that people should stop working to improve diversity and equity in ecology [because we should keep working].)

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How many newly-hired TT ecology asst. profs had really famous PhD supervisors? (includes poll at the end)

Do you have to have to do your PhD with a really famous ecologist to get hired into a TT asst. professor position? Or maybe you don’t have to have a famous PhD supervisor to land an ecology faculty position, but many newly-hired ecology faculty did? And do the answers to those questions differ for newly-hired ecologists at R1 universities vs. other places?

To answer those questions, I went back to my pretty-comprehensive list of people who were hired into TT asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields during the 2017-18 job season. I tried to identify the PhD supervisor(s) of every new hire at an R1 university, and every new hire at a bachelor’s college. The bachelor’s colleges give me a comparison group for the R1s; R1s are the most research-intensive institutions on average, while bachelor’s colleges are the least research-intensive on average. Then I looked up a few crude indicators of how “famous” those PhD supervisors are.* I looked up their ranks (last rank obtained for supervisors who are now retired or deceased), their Google Scholar h-indices, if they had 0, 1, or >1 papers in Science and/or Nature (counting both first- and co-authored papers), and if they were members of the US National Academy of Sciences. I also noted if the supervisor in question was Dave Tilman, because, duh, he’s famous. 🙂

Some data are missing for some new hires, and for some PhD supervisors. In particular, some supervisors don’t have Google Scholar pages. I got observations on at least some of the variables for 39 new R1 hires and 20 bachelor’s college hires.

Here’s what I found:

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Tenure track N. American ecology faculty searches rarely hire someone with a current or past connection to the hiring institution

If our admittedly-unscientific polls are anything to go by, substantial numbers of ecologists worry that a sizable fraction of tenure-track N. American ecology faculty positions go to people with connections. People who currently work at the hiring institution, or who worked there in the past, or who did a degree there, or who have co-authored a paper with someone there. I’ve compiled data showing that some of those worries are misplaced. For instance, it’s extremely rare for tenure-track ecology faculty positions in N. America to be filled by someone currently employed in the hiring department, or who got their PhD in the hiring department, or who has coauthored a paper with someone in the hiring department. But I haven’t addressed all such worries. This year, I tried to do so.

This year, I tried to determine the educational and employment history of everyone hired as a tenure-track asst. professor of ecology or an allied field at a N. American college or university during the 2017-18 job season. Bottom line: Only 9% of newly hired TT N. American ecology faculty had any current or previous employment or educational connection to the hiring institution. For the details, read on.

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What papers should be considered for the 2019 George Mercer Award? Nominations are due Oct. 18!

Nominations for ESA awards are due Oct. 18. Details here.

One of my favorite ESA awards is the The George Mercer Award. It is given annually to an outstanding research paper published in the previous two years (so, 2017 or 2018 for this year’s award) with a lead author age 40 or younger at the time of publication. The age limit is in memory of George Mercer, a promising young ecologist who was killed in WW II.

I love the Mercer Award. It’s great that the ESA recognizes outstanding work being done by up-and-coming ecologists. And thinking about potential nominees is a fun excuse to think about what makes for truly outstanding ecological research today. This would be a great topic for your lab meeting this week: ask everyone suggest a nominee for the Mercer Award and then talk about them.

I have an old post looking back on past Mercer Award winners to look for common threads (more specific than, you know, “being a great paper”). So have a look at that post, and the list of past winners, if you want help forming a “search image”. Broadly speaking, Mercer Award winning papers tend to be those that powerfully combine multiple lines of evidence (often including both theory and data) to really nail what’s going on in some particular system, but in such a way as to also have much broader implications (e.g.). But there are exceptions, plus there’s no rule that says future winners have to be the same sorts of papers as past winners. In particular, it’s notable that only one review/synthesis/meta-analysis paper has ever won as far as I know. One of these years, surely we’ll see the award go to an outstanding working group paper led by a young author, or to a paper from an outstanding large collaboration like NutNet. Maybe this is the year?

So, what papers do you think should be in the conversation for the Mercer award this year? Please add your favorites in the comments. And then follow through and nominate them! I already have. 🙂