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No, really.

This post over at EcoEvoEvoEco, which stated “Anyone with a decent record can get a faculty position”, made the rounds on Twitter last night. In it, Andrew Hendry posits that, based on his experience (in 2001), if one is not picky (i.e., has minimal selection criteria), and ’sticks with it’, one will end up a tenured professor somewhere, and voila, problem solved.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited a rather fierce reaction by some readers. The academic job market has changed since 2001. ’Not being picky’ amounts to moving anywhere regardless of family, or other constraints. And what I think is perhaps the most germane (here, and in many of these advice posts to academic job seekers): this is the experience of one individual in one set of circumstances in a process that, as someone described it, has high variance and and multiple confounding covariates.

Now, instead of throwing gas on the fire of this perennial topic, I want you, dear reader, to consider the albatross.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

An albatross (of the Atlantic Yellow-nosed variety). Consider it, please.

Because ultimately, this whole discussion is one of demographics, and if there’s one thing I now a bit about (aside from tea, improv, puns, and naan bread), it’s demography. It’s a significant part of my research, and I think the whole ’I can academic job AND SO CAN YOU!!1!’ can learn something from it. But first, some basics.

Albatross lay a single egg each year (or every 2 or 3 years in some cases). Chicks fledge (usually about 70% of the time), and spend the next 5-18 years at sea before returning to land to breed for the first time, and recruit into the breeding population. They then breed (at some interval) for many, many years, and then perish. Albatross’s annual survival can be grouped, broadly, into 4 categories:

  • S1 – the survival of chicks in the first year
  • S2 – the survival of immature birds at sea
  • S3 – the survival of birds recruited into the breeding population
  • S4 – the survival of old birds nearing the end of their natural lives

S1 and S2 are always lower than S3. Those years at sea are tough. Birds have to find enough food, figure out migration, avoid getting caught in fishing gear, learn that eating plastic is bad, and make it to breeding age, court and find a mate.

Breeding adults tend to have high survival. They know what they’re doing, know how to find food for them, and for their chicks, and are pretty adept at avoiding longlines. But as they get older (in some cases, 40, 50, 60+ years old), their reproductive success can drop, and so does survival, and they disappear.

How do we know this?

Scientists have, collectively, put millions of small metal rings/bands on birds, and looked for these individuals year after year, or had bands from dead birds sent in from fishing vessels. And we know that these survival rates, S1 through S4, depend on a plethora of covariates: species, site, year, climate, individual quality, introduced predators, fishing effort, sea temperatures, food availability, … We also have to consider those albatross for whom we don’t know the ultimate fate… they simply didn’t show up in year x, but may show up again in the future.

Consider the case of Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. At 64, she’s the oldest bird of known age, and is showing no signs of stopping. But also consider the case of the much lesser-known J22503. J22503 was a Tristan Albatross chick that our team banded on Gough Island in September 2014. S/he was found dead 2 months later, the victim of predation, mice, starvation, or some other factor.

Now, let’s swap ’albatross’ for ’academic’ (leaving aside, for the moment, that this also applies to some non-academic scientists, too).

Academics can apply to many jobs in a year, but the survival rate of those applications is low (at the population level; S2). After enough years of zero job application survival, the academic perishes (stops looking for academic work). And there are many factors that influence academic survival during this ’immature’ phase, while ’at sea’: gender, location, field, sub-field, individual quality, … And some proportion of academics survive this period (find a job), and thereafter have high annual survival (S3) until they approach retirement (S4).

Any scientist worth their salt would tell you it’s pointless to extrapolate from Wisdom, or J22503, to all albatross worldwide. Or even all Laysan (or Tristan) Albatross. Or even all albatross of the same species in the same site in the same year. We simply need a bigger sample. The same is true of academics. A good mark-recapture (or demographic) study needs a minimum of 200 ’marked individuals’ to estimate annual survival (and that applies to each strata we want to potentially consider!). Extrapolating from 1, or 2, or even 10 isn’t sound.

In 2013, I solicited some data on the number of job applications & interviews, and got a decent response. But even this is far too low a sample size (n = 63) to be of much use. What we need is, ultimately, a study that follows the job applications of quite literally thousands of hopeful academics from graduation to their exit from the job market (for whatever reason), along with all the covariates that we know influence job application success. I certainly lack the time (and IRB approval) for such a study. But in the meantime, remember that ’your mileage may vary’, and extrapolating from one person’s (or even 10 people’s) experience is perilous.

Note that I’ve also not said anything about density dependence and carrying capacity of the academic population. Or about how both of those parameters change over time (and have likely changed since 2001). Or about luck and stochasticity. You get this idea.

Yes, there are things one can do to try and improve the probability of a successful job application, but these are by no means a guarantee, and criteria vary by field, location, institution, department, moon phase, …

And I get that these posts are trying to be helpful in some way – showing that success is indeed possible. But they often gloss over many of the finer details (much like How To Draw An Owl).

UPDATE: Katie Burke pointed out on Twitter that a better analogy would be one where leaving the academic job search is a transition to another state, or permanent emigration, rather than death. I, myself, have done such a transition. The model then becomes a multi-state mark-recapture, with all the joys that entails.