Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How many papers do you typically need to receive an NSERC CGS, PGS, or post-doctoral fellowship? Here’s the data.

EcologyHow many papers do you typically need to receive an NSERC CGS, PGS, or post-doctoral fellowship? Here’s the data.


Earlier this week, I procrastinated by compiling a bit of data that I hope will be useful to Canadian graduate students and postdocs in ecology. As an ecologist, how many publications do you typically need to have to receive a major federal graduate scholarship (NSERC CGS or PGS), or an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship (PDF)?

To answer that question, I downloaded the list of 2023 CGS, PGS, and PDF awardees. I identified the awardees who are ecologists.* (read the footnote if you care exactly how I defined “ecologist”) Then I searched for the awardees on Google Scholar. I counted up how many publications they had through the end of 2023, how many of those publications were peer-reviewed papers, how many of the peer-reviewed papers and other publications were first-authored, how many were in Nature or Science, and their Google Scholar h-indices. Read the footnote if you want the gory details of what sorts of publications I did or didn’t count.**

In compiling these data, I’m not suggesting that these awards are determined solely, or even primarily, by publication counts or h-indices, or by other measurable quantities tightly correlated with publication counts and h-indices! Because they’re not. I’m not even suggesting that publication counts and h-indices are a particularly good way to evaluate someone’s scientific research productivity. Because they’re not, at least not without a lot of other information. All I’m trying to do here is give Canadian graduate students, and those who advise them, a rough approximate picture of what the typical awardee looks like, on just one of the many interrelated dimensions on which applicants for these awards are evaluated.

I think this is a modest but worthwhile goal. In the past, when I compiled similar data about recently-hired tenure-track asst. professors of ecology, I surprised many readers–and myself!–by discovering that the typical TT ecology hire doesn’t have nearly as many publications as most of our readers (or me!) thought. So I wonder if many people also overestimate how many publications you need to be competitive for an NSERC CGS, PGS, or PDF. It would be a shame if someone were to be needlessly anxious or discouraged about their chances of receiving one of these awards, based on a mistaken idea of how many publications a typical awardee has. There are plenty of normal, understandable reasons to be anxious about your chances of receiving a very competitive award, without adding bad mistaken reasons to the mix.

Ok, throat clearing over. Here’s the data, followed by a bit of commentary:

  • 34 ecologists received CGS awards in 2023, of whom 17 had Google Scholar pages (or in one case, a lab homepage that supplied almost all of the same information). Obviously, CGS awardees with Google Scholar pages aren’t necessarily a random subset of all CGS awardees. In particular, it’s possible that CGS awardees with Google Scholar pages might tend to have more publications than CGS awardees without Google Scholar pages. But I doubt that any statistical biases are so large as to make this post useless, because I’m just aiming for a rough approximate portrait of the typical awardee’s publication output. The mean 2023 CGS ecology awardee had 5.2 publications (median 4, range 1-15). Most of those publications were peer-reviewed papers (mean 4.7 peer-reviewed papers, median 4, range 1-11). The typical 2023 CGS ecologist awardee had an average of 2.1 first-authored peer-reviewed papers (median 2, range 0-6). The mean 2023 CGS ecologist awardee had an h-index of 2.9 (median 2, range 1-7). No 2023 CGS ecologist awardees had Science or Nature papers.
  • 38 ecologists received PGS awards in 2023, of whom 13 had Google Scholar pages. The same caveats about possible statistical biases for CGS awardees with Google Scholar pages apply to PGS awardees as well. The mean 2023 PGS ecologist awardee had 4.5 publications (median 4, range 1-11). Most of those publications were peer-reviewed papers (mean 3.8 peer-reviewed papers, median 4, range 1-10). The mean 2023 PGS ecologist awardee had 1.1 first-authored peer-reviewed papers (median 1, range 0-3). The mean 2023 PGS ecologist awardee had an h-index of 2.7 (median 2, range 1-6). No 2023 PGS ecologist awardees had Science or Nature papers.
  • 22 ecologists received PDF awards in 2023, of whom 20 had Google Scholar pages. The mean 2023 ecology PDF had 13 publications (median 12, range 7-38). Most of those publications were peer-reviewed papers (mean 12.6, median 12, range 7-37). The mean 2023 ecology PDF had 5.4 first-authored peer-reviewed papers (median 5.5, range 2-10). The mean 2023 ecology PDF had an h-index of 7.9 (median 7, range 4-17). Two 2023 ecology PDFs had a Science or Nature paper; one of them had a first-authored Science or Nature paper.
  • CGS, PGS, and PDF awardees vary widely in the proportion of their peer-reviewed papers that are first-authored. The range is 0-1 for CGS and PGS awardees, and 0.1-0.88 for PDFs.

Commentary and take-home messages

Publication rate varies a fair bit among CGS, PGS, and PDF awardees. Just as it does for tenure-track ecology faculty hires, even faculty hired into the same department in the same year. I do think it’s safe to assume that you won’t be competitive for any of these awards without any peer-reviewed publications, no matter how strong the rest of your application packet is. But as these data illustrate, you definitely can get a CGS or PGS with just a single peer-reviewed paper, and with just one (or even no!) first-authored peer-reviewed papers.*** And even at the PDF level, there are PDFs with just a handful of papers, and/or only a couple of first-authored papers. So don’t take yourself out of the running by not applying for these awards, solely on the grounds that you don’t have “enough” publications, or first-authored publications, to be competitive. If there is some absolute minimum required number of publications, or first-authored publications, it’s pretty darn low.

Most publications by most CGS and PGS awardees are in low-impact, specialized journals. I didn’t compile data on this. But just looking over the Google Scholar pages of the awardees, it was very obvious that the vast majority of papers were in low-impact, specialized journals. Hardly any CGS or PGS awardees have any publications in journals like (say) Ecology, Ecology Letters, Nature Communications, Plos Biology, Ecological Applications, Journal of Applied Ecology, Global Change Biology, Oikos, etc. That’s not a criticism! It’s just a description. I wanted to note this in order to head off questions/anxieties along the lines of “Maybe some CGS and PGS awardees only have one or two papers because those papers are in super-high-impact journals?” In contrast, it was pretty common for PDFs to have at least a paper or two in high-impact journals (though rarely Science or Nature).

You don’t have to have a Science or Nature paper to receive one of these awards. Because hardly any of the awardees do!

I hope that the limited, rough-and-ready context provided by these data is useful to you. Congratulations to this year’s awardees, and good luck to all future applicants!

*Awardees in the following disciplines, taken from the awardee list: evolution and ecology, animal ecology, aquatic ecology and limnology, microbial ecology, ecotoxicology, biogeography and landscape ecology, terrestrial ecology, plant ecology, wildlife management, sociobiology and behavioral ecology.

**I didn’t count theses, conference presentations, preprints, errata, replies to comments, blog posts, or datasets associated with other publications as “publications.” I did count book chapters, technical reports, Nature News & Views articles, letters to journal editors, ESA Bulletin articles, and book reviews as publications, but not as peer-reviewed papers. For one awardee, I omitted a couple of peer-reviewed papers that were clearly by a different person with the same name, and recalculated the h-index accordingly.

***I really, really hope I don’t need to say this, but just in case: please don’t react to this by thinking to yourself, “Oh my god, this shows that CGS and PGS awards are handed out totally at random!” Or “Oh my god, CGS and PGS awards go to unproductive undeserving students, probably because their supervisors are famous!” Or etc. Because come on, that’s not what the data show, or imply, or even suggest.

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