I’m not an ecologist, but sometimes I play one on the Internet

December 2, 2016

This fall, I’ve been teaching introductory ecology & evolution labs for BBio 180 at UW-Bothell. It had been quite a while since I had worked directly with eco-evo material, so it was interesting to look at it with fresh eyes, sort of as my students were doing.

As the quarter progressed, I got the urge to contribute something to the excellent Dynamic Ecology blog run by bona fide ecologists, including my friend Jeremy Fox. So I pitched Jeremy a post on teaching with imperfect analogies, featuring eco-evo examples, which he liked and published.

With eco-evo analogies on my brain, I then started applying them to the realm of academic job searches, which led me to write another piece, which is posted below.

Ecology analogies for the academic job market

Dear Tenured People:

The academic job market continues to suck. Most of your students will be unable to land stable faculty jobs. Please discuss this fact, repeatedly, with your students and trainees. Explicitly acknowledging the extreme difficulty of getting a prized professorship is a vaccine against complacency and self-delusion, both in them and in you, the mentors who send them forth into the world. Since these discussions can be boring and/or dreary, you might consider enlivening them with the analogies below.


Aging Adjunct

* * * * * * *

Analogy #1: Net reproductive rate R0

I began a recent UW-BERG seminar on job searches with an odd “hook”: a worksheet on net reproductive rate, R0, defined as the average number of female offspring produced by each female parent. (Females are the focus here because males are usually not limiting to reproduction.)

From the definition of R0, it follows that, in the absence of other changes (e.g., in lifespan), the population declines if R0 is less than 1, holds steady if R0 equals 1, and grows if R0 is greater than 1.

We can then move, as the worksheet does, to the concept of the academic reproductive rate as defined by Larson et al. (2014) and Gaffarzadegan et al. (2015). The academic R0 can be considered to be the average number of PhD students graduated by a tenure-track faculty member.

Gaffarzadegan et al. have a nice graph showing that, since 1980, the number of biology PhDs has increased dramatically while the number of tenure-track faculty positions has barely changed, causing the biologist R0 to rise from 2.4 (1980-90) to 6.3 (2010-2015).

With this additional information, discussions of academic job prospects can proceed in any of several directions. At my seminar, for example, I asked attendees to use the R0 model to make predictions about the quantity and experience of applicants for teaching-centric faculty positions. We then compared the predictions to actual job search data.

For me, those data are a mixed bag. The number of applicants per position was lower than I would have guessed. However, it is sobering that even the ad-hoc temporary openings attracted many experienced candidates.

Anyway, I find the R0 analogy useful in several ways.

(A) The R0 analogy underscores that mentors’ trainees are, in some sense, their “children,” i.e., people for whom they bear some responsibility. And that professors, departments, universities, and countries should not take on more children than they can reasonably expect to support.

(B) The rise of the biologist R0 so far above 1 is a sign that our entire training system may be fundamentally unsustainable, as argued by the scientific “dream team” of Alberts et al. (2014).

(C) The focus on a single easy-to-grasp number, R0, helps us contemplate the problems underlying it, as well as possible solutions. For instance, I said “MAY be fundamentally unsustainable” above because a high R0 would be acceptable if most PhDs used their academic training as an intentional springboard to wonderful non-academic careers. However, since most biologists would prefer to stay in academia (Sauermann & Roach 2012), a high R0 is a symptom of a serious problem. Partial solutions, then, might include training fewer PhDs and/or convincing more of us to give more serious consideration to non-academic options before we put all of our eggs in one basket.

And speaking of nascent forms of life….

Analogy #2: The soil seed bank

While I liked the R0 analogy enough to feature it in my UW-BERG seminar, I almost used an alternative analogy suggested by my colleague Cynthia Chang.

The basic idea of the soil seed bank is that soil contains deposits of seeds from many different species, any of which could potentially germinate, but few of which actually do.

So what are the implications of considering newly minted PhDs as “seeds” with potential to “germinate” into full-fledged faculty members?

Well, to start with, most seeds will not ever germinate, an obvious point also illustrated by the R0 analogy. But the soil seed bank analogy can be extended to make several related points.

(A) Germination may occur after a prolonged lag, but most seeds do lose their viability over time. People may hang on as postdocs and as adjunct faculty for quite a while, but after so many years, the odds of making the transition to full-time permanent faculty are quite low. Still, the lack of a firm “expiration date” makes it hard to know when to give up.

(B) Different conditions favor different seeds. Each species of seed has its own optimal germination conditions in terms of moisture, temperature, sunlight, etc. Which seeds actually germinate at a given time depends on local conditions at that time. Similarly, within a diverse crop of youngish biology PhDs, those whose strengths match the current needs of specific departments will be most likely to lay down roots.

(C) Seeds’ success or failure depends strongly on luck. A corollary to (B) is that, as conditions change from year to year, the species that sprout will change as well. If a fire happens to sweep through a given region, fire-resistant seeds will subsequently be favored. If instead the region happens to be hit with, say, a flood, different seeds will instead win the germination sweepstakes. The job-search parallels should be clear: whether a given candidate ultimately blossoms depends not only on their personal robustness, but whether they happen to enter the job market at a time and place that happens to favor their particular strengths.

This last point is often hard for hard-luck applicants to swallow. Words to the effect of “It’s not about you, it’s just an issue of fit,” while well-intended and true, are not necessarily comforting. Having had the persistence to come this far, we figure that if we can just hang in there, we will eventually have our day in the sun.

Indeed, some of us will ultimately be great oaks or sequoias, impressive and enduring, the giants of our fields.

For now, though, we are but tiny vessels of unrealized potential and uncertain fate, weathering harsh environments, hoping against hope for a favorable wind and a soft landing.


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