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How prestige shapes the professoriate

More than 400 American institutions offer doctorates in science and engineering. The degrees they award, however, are not created equal, at least as far as landing faculty jobs is concerned. Research shows that in many disciplines, only a relative handful of programs in each field produce a large proportion of the Ph.D. recipients eventually hired for tenure-track positions.

Getting into one of those top departments as a graduate student is therefore vital for a real chance at a faculty career. So how do those all-important admissions decisions, which essentially determine who will be landing tenure-track jobs 5 to 10 years hence, get made? A revealing new book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping by University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, education researcher Julie Posselt, investigates the processes at 10 top-ranked departments—including astrophysics, biology, physics, economics, linguistics, political science, and sociology—and examines the values and practices that appear to govern them. (Beyond their disciplines, she carefully masks the identities of the departments she studies.) 

A hierarchy of hiring

The students invited to attend their fields’ most prestigious departments are likeliest to become the next generation of professors because tenure-track hiring “is highly skewed, with only 25% of institutions producing 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty,” write Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-authors in a paper published last February. In only a small number of exceptional cases, it appears, do Ph.D. researchers without elite academic pedigrees end up in full-fledged faculty jobs at research universities. Clauset and co-authors reported on the conclusions they drew from “complete and hand-curated data on the placements of nearly 19,000 tenure-track or tenured faculty, among 461 North American departmental or school-level academic units, in the disciplines of computer science, business, and history[, which] … represent highly distinct scholastic traditions.” Despite differing drastically in the topics they study, the research methods they use, the sources of their funding, and many other respects, these disciplines differ hardly at all in “the enormous role of institutional prestige in shaping faculty hiring across academe,” the authors found.

Other research finds similar patterns. As reported in a 2012 book, for example, Robert Oprisko, at the time a visiting professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and collaborators studied 3135 tenured or tenure-track faculty members in political science at 116 research institutions. The top-ranked department, at Harvard University, “successfully placed 239 political scientists at 75 institutions,” and the top four—Harvard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor—have together placed 616 professors, which accounts for “roughly twenty percent of the total tenure-track lines in the discipline at research-intensive programs.” The top “eleven schools contribute 50 percent of the political science academics to research-intensive universities in the United States. Over 100 political science PhD programs are graduating students [who] will contest the remaining 50 percent of openings.” So admission to a top school vastly increases the chances of landing a tenure-track position.

Long odds

Posselt’s book focuses on the administrative and intellectual methods that admissions committees use, rather than on giving applicants clues about how to get in. Her observations, however, still provide clear, consistent insights into what admissions committees look for. 

“[T]he three strongest determinants of access to graduate education [at these top schools are] college grades, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, and the reputation of a student’s undergraduate institution,” she writes in her book. Her analysis goes on to show how the structure of the admissions process helps perpetuate the privileges of students already in the academic stratosphere. Unlike undergraduate admissions, which are handled by administrative staffers in offices dedicated to the purpose, selecting students for graduate programs is the responsibility of individual departments. Committees made up of faculty members, who also have many other duties vying for their attention, make the decisions, assuring that members only have time to read and consider in detail a fraction of the applications that these leading departments receive. To make the task manageable, the first round of the process consists of discarding the great majority of candidates on the basis of two quantifiable, and therefore supposedly objective, standards: grade point average and GRE scores, including those in specific subject matter tests. The undergraduate institution becomes important during later, more “holistic,” evaluations.

Those candidates who move forward to the final rounds of review therefore overwhelmingly have “very high GRE score[s and] had earned very high grades from a well-respected college or university,” Posselt notes. But, she pointedly adds, these “objective” cutoffs disproportionately exclude from the sciences members of underrepresented groups, including women and non-Asian racial minorities, who, on average, do less well than white and Asian men on the GRE, especially on the all-important math section. 

Considerations of diversity and inclusion thus generally come up only after the vast majority of the candidate pool has already been disqualified on “objective” grounds, Posselt observers. But even for the underrepresented candidates who remain in the running, the importance of undergraduate prestige can damage their chances. Many from modest or minority socioeconomic backgrounds attend less prestigious colleges than their more privileged counterparts. As we have previously reported, for example, the top 21 undergraduate colleges producing African-Americans who go on to earn science Ph.D.s include 17 historically black institutions and not a single one from the Ivy League. Posselt writes that, in some cases, including astrophysics and biology, admissions committees made allowances for certain “specific ‘underrated’ universities whose reputations for strong training in the field surpassed their college or university’s relatively weak overall ranking,” but she provides no hints about which programs these may be, so it is not clear whether any are at institutions that enroll significant numbers of students from non-elite or minority backgrounds.

“For the small number whose applications survive to receive full review,” Posselt continues, “judgments are thus holistic, complex, and unpredictable.” In other words the values, opinions, experiences, and preferences of the particular people on the committee—and the politics and dynamics of their interactions—come into play. In one case, she quotes committee members who jokingly speculate about whether an otherwise well-qualified graduate of a small religious college is a “nutcase.” This candidate was cleared to move on to the next stage of consideration but ultimately rejected. (That is by far the most common fate. On average, fewer than 1 in 10 of the applicants—who, one surmises, must be smart, talented, and hard-working to consider applying to these elite institutions in the first place—got in. Physics accepted about 1 applicant in 5, biology and astrophysics about 1 in 7, sociology about 1 in 10, and economics and linguistics about 1 in 12.)

“When comparing generally qualified students, seemingly small matters matter very much to an applicant’s chances,” she continues. These can include “[a] single, ambiguous line in a letter of recommendation; the appeal of a writing sample’s introduction; the poor reputation of a letter writer for speaking too highly of too many students; an applicant’s weekend hobby or hometown;” impressions of a candidate’s “fit” with the department; judgments about which candidates might work best with which professors; the committee’s desire “to construct ‘balanced’ cohorts of students;” and considerations of diversity. For science students, furthermore, the quality of any research they have done is increasingly important because “faculty increasingly expect that at the point of admission the student will already have had some research experience,” Posselt notes. This emphasis also likely reinforces the importance of collegiate prestige, because wealthy, prestigious colleges probably provide more such opportunities than those of lesser rank and resources.

Academe, of course, is hardly the only career ruled by the tyranny of prestige. The young lawyers who land U.S. Supreme Court clerkships, one of their profession’s premier jobs, also overwhelmingly come from a very short list of super-prestigious institutions. But Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, though himself a graduate of the ultra-elite Yale Law School, reportedly subscribes to the unconventional notion that talent can blossom at schools not among the U.S News & World Report top 10. “My new bias, which I now embrace, is that I don't eliminate the Ivies in hiring, but I intentionally prefer kids from regular backgrounds and regular students,” he told an audience at the University of Florida, as quoted by Business Insider. He has denounced bloggers who denigrated clerks of his with law degrees from Creighton University, George Mason University, George Washington University, and Rutgers University—none an alma mater common at the high court—as “TTT,” or “third-tier trash.” The admissions and hiring committees that control the composition of the nation’s university faculties, alas, rarely share Thomas’s view.

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