13 February 2015

The academic hierarchy has more snakes than ladders

It’s kind of been a disheartening week for data on faculty career hiring. In less than a week, a paper by Clauset and colleagues showed that in computer science, business, history, school prestige is a very good predictor of faculty hiring.

(O)nly 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions more prestigious than their doctorate(.)

A few days later, similar data came out for the study of English.

Of the graduates who get tenure-track jobs, most end up at universities ranked lower than the ones they attended. Virtually no one moves up.

It’s not quite the Matthew effect, but it’s close.

Of course, when the school prestige carries so much clout, it is not surprising that the perceived “top” schools have a lot of their graduates take the few faculty jobs out there.

25% of institutions producing 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty(.)

Of course, I am sure that some will argue that this is fair, and that the most prestigious schools have that prestige way because they are the best. Maybe they are, but I am not convinced that they are that much better. Neither are Clauset and colleagues:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

It’s disheartening on so many levels. It means that programs in lower ranked schools, and students in them, are engaged in busy work, and not making meaningful contributions to academia.

It suggests that there are probably similar prestige effects happening at the lower levels of education: so they way you get into a top doctoral program, you might have to get into a top undergraduate program, and so on. So higher education, instead of being a leveler, is reinforcing hierarchies.

Update, 29 May 2018: New preprint on this here. Hat tip to Needhi Bhalla and Gaetan Burgio.

External links

Where Do English Ph.D.’s Get Jobs? It Depends on Where They Studied.

Clauset A, Arbesman S, Larremore DB. 2015. Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks. Science Advances 1(1): e1400005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400005

Some figures on prestige bias in academia

Photo by Travis on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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