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Academic arrogance: The school that grants your PhD thinks it’s too good to hire you

The insanity of the academic job market laid out in numbers.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • A new research paper sheds light on the vicious hierarchy of academic prestige, which provides a cruel reality check for those who contemplate life in the Ivory Tower.
  • A tiny fraction of schools houses the majority of prestigious departments, and graduates of this tiny fraction dominate faculty hiring.
  • The chances are that if you earn a PhD from a university, the same university thinks that it’s too good to hire you for a faculty job.

Do you want to be a professor? Countless PhD students harbor this dream. However, a firsthand look at the nature of academic hiring is enough to change the minds of many. A new research paper published in Nature, which explicitly analyzes faculty hiring, certainly won’t help matters: The picture it paints of the academic hiring market is not pretty.

Large universities maintain departments in most academic fields, and the competition for prestige and ranking between departments is ferocious. The paper examines 387 U.S. universities, containing more than 10,000 departments, with nearly 300,000 faculty coming and going over the ten years under study. (Here the term faculty represents a person who is tenured, or in a tenure track position, which gives them a shot at tenure. This excludes part-time instructors and other adjunct positions with no chance of obtaining tenure.)

PhD inequality

One might be tempted to believe that a PhD is a PhD; that is, once you have a “golden ticket,” you are employable as a faculty member. This is not so. The top five universities, which might be expected to produce roughly 1.3% (5/387) of all eventual faculty hires, produce 13.7% (53/387) — more than ten times what is expected. Continuing down the list, the top 3% of universities produce 27% of all professors; the top 10% produce 58% of professors.

If you receive a PhD from a university department, that department will think that it is too good to hire you as a faculty member. Instead, they lust after faculty hires holding degrees more prestigious than the one that they bestowed upon you.

The pattern is clear: If your PhD doesn’t come from one of the very top schools, the odds that you will be hired to the faculty at any university become small. The bottom 308 (79.5%) of the universities produce merely 20% of all professors. If your PhD is from a department outside of the top 20%, you can practically kiss your faculty dreams goodbye.

Moving down in your career

The top departments are tightly clustered together. Five universities — the top 1% of the 387 surveyed — house 23% of the “top 10” departments. Roughly two-thirds of the universities (264/387) have zero top departments in any of the 107 surveyed fields. And within this small group of prestigious universities that produce most faculty, there is a rigid pecking order.

The paper demonstrates that if you are one of the lucky ones hired for a faculty position, the chances are very high that you will be moving downward in the academic prestige hierarchy. Roughly 10% to 20% of faculty are hired by a more prestigious department than the one from which they came, moving up the hierarchy. Around 10% are hired by their own department, a lateral prestige play. Roughly 70% to 80% of faculty are hired by a less prestigious university.

Generally speaking, then, if you receive a PhD from a university department, that department will think that it is too good to hire you as a faculty member. Instead, they lust after faculty hires holding degrees more prestigious than the one that they bestowed upon you.

Groucho Marx Universities

It’s a perverse version of the famous Groucho Marx one-liner: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Groucho Marx Universities say, “I don’t want to hire anyone un-prestigious enough to have a PhD from a place like this.”

Beyond the bias in hiring, there is a similar bias in retention of those hired. The likelihood that a faculty hire will be retained drops along with the prestige of the university whence they graduated. The study concludes that graduates from outside the top departments are less than half as likely to be kept on. So, even if your own department hires you in a lateral prestige move, you have a roughly 50/50 chance of being kept long-term compared to the average hire — who is likelier to come from a more prestigious department.

The patterns of faculty hiring demonstrated in this research paint a damning picture of the academy. A tiny number of universities horde away the vast majority of the intangible asset known as prestige. The less prestigious departments push away their own graduates in the ambitious drive to snap up faculty hires from higher ranked departments, scrambling to capture a little bit of that prestige. Even if they beat the odds, the person hired from a less prestigious alma mater is still more likely to eventually get the boot rather than the embrace of tenure.

In short, if you want to be a big time professor at a major university, make sure to graduate from a far more prestigious one.