Ph.D. candidates at elite schools have advantage in academic job market, study finds| Mar 1, 2015
Ph.D. students at elite schools like the University have a systematic advantage in being hired on the academic job market, according to a recent study.
Elite schools have shown a trend of hiring Ph.D. job candidates from a small pool of other elite schools, coauthor Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said.
He conducted thestudy,“Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks,” with coauthors Samuel Arbesman and Daniel Larremore, who did not respond to a request for comment.
The study looked at hiring trends among Ph.D. candidate job applicants and found that only 9 to 14 percent of job applicants are able to get jobs at universities ranked higher than those at which they completed their education. The vast majority of applicants become faculty members at lower-ranked universities than universities where they got their Ph.D., Clauset explained.
“One of the real benefits of our study is that we looked at multiple disciplines and very different scholastic traditions, and we found essentially the same results across the disciplines,” he said. “People move down the hierarchy in a overwhelming majority.”
The research focus should perhaps be on the small percentage of applicants who are able to move to a higher-ranked university from their Ph.D. program, rather than on the vast majority of applicants who move down the hierarchy, Clauset added.
“If we could identify what they’re doing, then perhaps we could shift the rest of system to focus on finding people like that,” he said.
John Borneman, director of graduate studies in the Department of Anthropology at the University, explained that admissions for Ph.D. candidates are extremely competitive. Approximately three to 10 applicants are accepted out of a pool of more than 170 candidates, he said.
“We can’t do any remedial work if people come here unprepared for the advanced work,” he said. “People have to enter at a very high level.”
He said that, although there is a trend in some departments of hiring from mainly top-tier institutions, the elite programs are not necessarily the best at preparing students for graduate level work in many fields.
“Some of us are skeptical of the elite programs,” he said. “At Harvard, most of the teaching is done by graduate students, which does not necessarily prepare them for grad school. Many small liberal arts colleges prepare people excellently.”
The study focused on describing the current state of affairs and was not intended to suggest policy recommendations or identify and change the impact this imbalance has on society, Clauset said. Rather, the data provokes two questions in particular for people who do not like the current system’s preference for prestigious degrees.
The first question asks if there are changes that could be made in the system that would be more beneficial than harmful, either from the perspective of Ph.D. job applicants or people involved in general scholarship production as a whole, he said, while the second asks how many meritorious careers are being derailed by the current workings of the system, which is not something the data from the study can answer.
In addition to looking at general Ph.D. job hiring trends among hundreds of institutions, the study explored gender discrepancies within placement success rates, Clauset explained.
“We don’t try to venture into the cause and effect realm; we don’t try to explain why this is happening, but the fact that women slide further down the hierarchy than men I think is clearly an indication that the system is not working as a whole,” he said.
He added that there are a multitude of reasons why women could be sliding further down, a topic which would be very much worth investigating through further studies.
Clauset added that most Ph.D. job applicants understand that the market is very difficult and a strenuous career choice.
“I hope that this study, for people who are thinking about careers as researchers or scientists, would just give them more information in order to make a more informed decision,” he said.
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the Graduate School Cole Crittenden GS ’05, Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni and Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prenticedeclined to comment.