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Elitism in the academy

Early-career scholars aiming for faculty jobs at top-tier institutions probably know that they have a difficult road ahead, especially if their Ph.D. institutions are not in the top echelon. A study published in the inaugural issue of Science Advances, Science’s open-access journal, quantifies how tough that road really is: Only about 10% of faculty members work at institutions that are more “prestigious” than the ones where they earned their doctorates.

Faculty hiring “is a topic that everyone in academia has some familiarity with, but for the most part people’s understanding of the market is based on anecdotal or personal experience alone,” says University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, computer scientist Aaron Clauset, the lead author of the study. “The value here is being able to take something that everyone thinks they know about and actually put numbers to it. … This provides real quantitative information to individuals looking for jobs.”

The hierarchy is sufficiently strong that we can’t explain the structure from meritocracy alone.

—Aaron Clauset

The results emerge from a network analysis of hiring data in three academic fields: computer science (CS), business, and history. The authors created a hiring network for each discipline, with the institutions as nodes and individuals represented by connections between the institutions from which they earned their doctorate and the institutions where they hold faculty positions. They learned that just 25% of Ph.D.-granting institutions produced between 71% and 86% (depending on the field) of all tenure-track faculty members.

Aaron Clauset

Aaron Clauset

Credit: Santa Fe Institute

To further investigate those networks, the researchers ranked the institutions in an interesting way. They took an iterative approach, assigning a rank to the relevant department (CS, business, history) at each institution and then counting how many “violations” there were of the pecking order—that is, how many people moved from lower-ranked to higher-ranked institutions. They adjusted the rankings to minimize the number of violations.

For all three disciplines, the resulting rankings are “very close to a perfect hierarchy,” Clauset says. In other words, researchers do not move evenly through the academic system; from a doctorate to a faculty position, most should expect to move down the ladder defined by the prestige rankings. On average, faculty members are hired at departments that rank 27 to 47 spots below where they earned their doctorates. And even though these new rankings are based solely on hiring data, they correlate with institutional rankings by the U.S. News & World Report and the National Research Council just as well as those rankings correlate with each other.

The hierarchy appears to affect women slightly more strongly than men. For example, women in CS and business who graduated from the top 15% of institutions earned faculty positions at institutions ranking 12% to 18% worse than men who graduated from those same institutions.

“It's an impressive piece of work,” writes Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan School of Education in Ann Arbor, in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Faculty hiring is one of the most stratified areas of higher education. … This is a fairly well-known phenomenon, but this paper demonstrates the results beautifully with very high-quality data.” Because these intellectually distinct disciplines show similar trends, Clauset observes, “my feeling is that these results will generalize to other fields.”

An obvious follow-up question is why does this hierarchy exist? Are scholars who earn doctorates at higher-ranked institutions better than those from lower-ranked institutions? Are they more deserving? Sociologist Robert Hanneman of the University of California, Riverside, believes that several factors underlie the observed hierarchy. “Students from high prestige institutions are likely to be better placed not only because they come from high prestige programs with higher social and cultural capital, but also because they are probably more talented and productive than the students who attended less prestigious institutions (on the average),” he writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Selection and training and prestige processes are all operating to generate the extreme inequalities observed.”

Clauset acknowledges those confounding factors but emphasizes that academic hiring is not based solely on merit. “The hierarchy is sufficiently strong that we can’t explain the structure from meritocracy alone,” he says.

It is difficult, though, to disentangle the influence of merit from that of social status. To start, merit can be extremely difficult to measure or even define, Hanneman says. “ ‘Merit’ (and what counts as merit) is determined by those who dominate the prestige hierarchy, and these institutions have the power to recruit and retain the most ‘meritorious’,” Hanneman writes. “Folks would like to say that it is all ‘merit’ or that it is all socially constructed by powerful actors to serve their own interests, but the data—at least these data—can't answer the question. And, the most likely answer is that it is both—in a mutually re-enforcing feedback system.”

These results may not leave those looking for faculty jobs jumping for joy, especially those with Ph.D.s from less prestigious institutions, but it does provide some useful context and perhaps a ray of hope. “The system is not a pure meritocracy, and you should not expect it to function as such,” Clauset observes. “The hopeful note is that the prestige of your doctorate is not your destiny. There are people who manage to move up the hierarchy. … Try to be in that 10%, to not undershoot or undervalue your own talent and your own accomplishments.”

Clauset is in that category: He earned his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and moved up in the rankings with his faculty appointment at CU Boulder. If he were currently a graduate student with hopes of a faculty position down the line, he says this paper probably wouldn’t change his goals. “I like the freedom that comes with being in academia so much that even if I had read this paper as a graduate student, I don’t think it would have deterred me at all. It might have opened my eyes a little bit and helped me understand just how big the mountain was that I was trying to climb, but it would not have deterred me from trying to climb it.”

Clauset hopes his results will prompt discussion about whether the status quo should change. “Are we happy with the steepness of the hierarchy and the way it’s working right now? Are there things we could do as a community that would do more good than harm in trying to reduce the steepness of that hierarchy? … How many meritorious research careers are being derailed by the fact that they don’t have that stamp of prestige, that status stamp, on their record?”

The 20 most elite computer science departments, according to the ranking by Clauset and his co-authors.

Stanford University
University of California, Berkeley
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
Harvard University
Cornell University
Carnegie Mellon University
Princeton University
Yale University
University of Washington
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Pennsylvania
Rice University
University of California, Los Angeles
New York University
University of Chicago
University of Texas, Austin
Brown University
Columbia University