Ask Jeremy anything (about the ecology faculty job market)

As I continue to identify newly-hired N. American tenure-track ecology asst. professors and compile publicly-available data about them, I thought I’d ask: what data would you like me to compile? What questions do you have about the ecology faculty job market, that could be addressed with data about new hires?

I can’t make any promises I’ll be able to compile the data you want, for instance if it would be too much work or would involve me seeking out confidential information. But if it’s feasible I’ll do my best.

And if you have any other ecology faculty job market-related questions, feel free to ask away and I and our fine commenters will do our best to answer.

How many newly hired N. American TT asst. profs of ecologists have a pre-existing collaboration with someone in the hiring dept.?

tl;dr: Almost none. For the details, read on.

As most of you know, every year for three years now I’ve tried to identify everyone hired into a N. American tenure-track asst. professor position in ecology or an allied field such as fish & wildlife. One reason I do this is to provide information and context to faculty job seekers. Faculty job seeking is stressful enough already, for good reason: there’s a lot of competition for tenure-track faculty jobs. I think it’s a shame for faculty job seekers to also get stressed about job market rumors and speculation, which tend to flourish in the absence of good information.

Today: the worry that someone who applied for the same faculty position as you might have the inside track by virtue of already being a collaborator with someone in the hiring department. How common is it for tenure-track asst. professor positions in ecology to be filled by someone with a pre-existing collaboration with someone in the hiring department?

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Things I learned from my undergraduate advisor, David Smith

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege to attend a celebration of my undergraduate honors thesis supervisor, David Smith, on the occasion of his retirement from the Dept. of Biology at Williams College. During his time at Williams, David mentored dozens of undergraduates, most of whom assisted him in his field work on the chorus frogs and spring peepers that breed in rock pools on the shore of little North Government Island in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Like me, many of those students went on to become ecologists and evolutionary biologists. David’s “academic fitness” is impressively high given that he exclusively mentored undergrads, even allowing for the fact that Williams students are more likely than most undergrads to go on to PhDs. David steered me down a scientific path I wouldn’t otherwise have gone down, and taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. Often without even realizing he was doing it, and in one case without even being in the same place as me. So here are some things I learned about science, and life, from David Smith.

David Smith, now happily retired.

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The trouble with citing “recent calls” for more work on X as a reason for working on X

One of your most important tasks as an author of an ecology paper or grant is to explain why your work (or your proposed work, in the case of a grant) is interesting and important. Why should others pay attention to/fund/emulate/etc. whatever it is you’re doing, as opposed to paying attention to/fund/emulating something else?

One common way ecologists make the case that their work is interesting and important is to cite others who’ve recently called for more of that sort of work. You can see why ecologists do this. We’d all like to be able to say that we’re doing the sort of work that everyone agrees most needs doing right now.

The trouble is, we all can say that–and all of us are equally right. Meaning we’re all equally wrong. Because the recent literature includes calls for every sort of work ecologists do, on every topic ecologists study.

I’m too lazy to look up and link to all the citations, but just off the top of my head I can think of recent calls that ecology needs more place-based observational natural history, more field experiments, more microcosm and mesocosm experiments, more long-term data, more remotely-sensed data, more theoretical work, more applied work, more math, less math, more sophisticated statistics, less sophisticated statistics, more synthesis of existing data, more emphasis on collecting new data, and last but not least more work on [name of your favorite ecological topic] and more work on [name of your least-favorite ecological topic].

This isn’t to say that every topic is equally interesting and important, and that every approach to studying topic X is equally valid and informative. It’s just to say that ecologists disagree with one another on those matters. Part of why we disagree is that deciding what research is “interesting” or “important” isn’t a purely objective decision, but isn’t purely subjective either. It’s possible but difficult to make a case for the value of your work that resonates with other people. But there’s no alternative except to make your case as best you can. Citing someone else who’s made the same case isn’t a bad thing–I’ve probably done it myself, though I haven’t gone back and checked. But it doesn’t really help your case much, because anybody can do that.

There’s an old joke the economists have correctly predicted seven of the last four recessions. Well, ecologists have called for more work on seven of the four topics that most need more work, using seven of the four most promising approaches. So when making the case for your own work, try to keep the focus on ecology, not on what other ecologists have said about ecology.

Related:

What should ecology students learn less of?

Bonus Friday link: controversial ideas in evolutionary biology

Andrew Hendry just posted the first batch of results from his super-interesting and very fun poll on controversial ideas in evolutionary biology.

Related: results of our poll on controversial ideas in ecology.

Some quick takes on Andrew’s results:

  • I bow to Andrew’s superior sample size. 532 responses–wow!
  • The most controversial ideas in evolution are just as controversial as the most controversial ideas in ecology. So if you were depressed that there’s still wide variance of opinion about ideas ecologists have been researching and discussing for decades, well, now you have a choice. You can be even more depressed that the same phenomenon occurs in evolutionary biology–or cheered because they’re even worse at resolving controversies than we are (many of their controversies are longer-standing than ours).
  • A plurality of evolutionary biologists think sympatric speciation isn’t rare?!
  • I didn’t expect so much support for the idea (which I agree with myself) that most adaptation is based on genes of small effect
  • A bimodal distribution of opinion on the idea that neutral processes can be ignored as an explanation for trait evolution! Interesting. We only found one idea about which ecologists have a bimodal distribution of opinion, so I wasn’t sure if Andrew would find any.
  • Looking forward to future posts, particularly a breakdown of expert vs. non-expert opinion on each idea. Contrasting expert vs. non-expert opinion was the most eye-opening aspect of our poll results. I’m betting that the experts on controversial evolutionary ideas will be more divided in their views than non-experts, just like in ecology.

Novelty and conceptual fragmentation in ecology: A self-reinforcing spiral?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Peter Adler.

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In my view, the current culture of ecology suffers from an unhealthy obsession with novelty and a problem with conceptual fragmentation. I suspect these are related problems linked in a positive feedback cycle.

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