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Does academic prestige outweigh concerns of academic inbreeding?


kaputzing
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Getting your BA/MA/PhD at one institution is often frowned down upon and will cause your application to be thrown into the trash. Search committee members will worry that you are restricted provincially, that you only have experience of that one type of academic culture and thinking, and that you'd be poorly prepared to adapt to other schools/areas.

 

However, as always, there are exceptions to this. We all know that one person in the field who's gotten all their degrees at Yale, right? :P (And god, some people stay on at Yale afterwards!)

 

So at what point does academic prestige (Top 2, Top 5, Top 10?) outweigh concerns of academic inbreeding?

 

(Mods: If placed in wrong subforum, please move.)

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really? is this really frowned upon? weird
This is what I've read elsewhere (I'm not sure where, possibly reddit’s /r/gradschool): 1. I'd be wary of doing a PhD at the same school that you did your undergrad *and* master's at. You've already been enrolled there for 5-6 years most likely, and in that time you've probably taken away all that you can from the department and the university as a whole (in terms of course offerings, making professional connections, learning research techniques, etc.). Does School A really have anything more that it can offer you? It might, but probably not that much. My undergrad department has a strict policy of not accepting its undergrads into its graduate program for this very reason. I'd bet that you would benefit a lot more from a new school... you'll be exposed to different perspectives, expand your academic network through professors in a new department (and the connections that they may have elsewhere), and may be able to take courses in subjects not offered at your old school. You'd probably learn a lot there, and it would probably also look better to have more than one school on your CV.
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This is what I've read elsewhere (I'm not sure where, possibly reddit’s /r/gradschool): 1. I'd be wary of doing a PhD at the same school that you did your undergrad *and* master's at. You've already been enrolled there for 5-6 years most likely, and in that time you've probably taken away all that you can from the department and the university as a whole (in terms of course offerings, making professional connections, learning research techniques, etc.). Does School A really have anything more that it can offer you? It might, but probably not that much. My undergrad department has a strict policy of not accepting its undergrads into its graduate program for this very reason. I'd bet that you would benefit a lot more from a new school... you'll be exposed to different perspectives, expand your academic network through professors in a new department (and the connections that they may have elsewhere), and may be able to take courses in subjects not offered at your old school. You'd probably learn a lot there, and it would probably also look better to have more than one school on your CV.

 

That's something I wrote in a different thread (this one: ). As such, I agree with it! :-P

 

However, I don't think that choosing to stay at one's alma mater is automatically the "wrong choice." There could be several compelling reasons to do so. Perhaps it's the only program that offered good funding. Or perhaps the research fit at all of one's other schools is significantly less ideal than the fit at one's alma mater. Maybe it's even the only school that has a strong program in your field of interest (a real concern for those of us in pretty obscure fields). You definitely shouldn't choose a program that is a poor fit for you academically just for the sake of choosing a new school. If your alma mater really is the best fit for you, or if it's really the only choice that makes sense financially/professionally/for whatever other reason, then you should stay there for your PhD. I don't think staying at the same school for multiple degrees is some kind of automatic academic suicide (though you would, as Mr. Cage suggested, want to do your postdoc elsewhere).

 

That said, more often than not it's probably better to branch out and go to a different school for your PhD if that's a feasible option for you. Generally, if there are other good (i.e. well-funded, good-fitting) offers on the table, I would advise switching schools rather than staying. With all other things being equal, I think that most people would benefit by completing their education at a different university for all of the reasons that I described in the thread I linked to above. Again, you need to ask yourself... can my alma mater *really* offer me much more? Chances are that you've already taken away all that you could from that school.

 

To answer the OP's question, I don't think there's really a clear-cut point at which prestige counteracts the effects of "academic inbreeding." It probably varies depending on a load of other factors. In my opinion, though, I think that prestige should only win out if there is a huge gap in the rankings (i.e. one is near the top while the other is near the bottom of the list). I say this because, in general, if you've done your undergrad and master's at this prestigious institution, then you've probably already benefited from that school's prestige as much as you ever will. Its name will forever be associated with yours on your CV. And you've already built up strong connections at that school that can open doors for you later on. Staying there for an extra 5 or so years most likely won't change that very much. In almost all cases, it would be better to go somewhere else, mainly to (1) expand your professional network via professors in a new department [and the connections they may have elsewhere] and (2) expose yourself to new perspectives as well as new resources that may not have been available at your old school. One exception to this, of course, is if you'll be doing your PhD work in a different department than you did your other degrees, or if you're working with faculty members that you didn't interact with much in the past (maybe the school has just hired a new "academic rockstar" in your field?). In that case, there *is* a lot left for you to take away from the school.

 

Also, this all assumes that you're planning on a career in academia. If you want to go into industry, the situation will likely be very different. Your potential employer would probably be more impressed that you did your PhD at a prestigious school and likely wouldn't care that you also did your MS and undergrad there.

Edited by zabius
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Ahh, I didn't mean to down vote you. You'd think that after 20 years I'd have enough coordination with my finger to tap a green arrow. Not so. Sorry!

Given what OP has said in a private message to me, I'd say staying at his undergraduate institution is the right choice. I say this because his field is very very small.

Edited by kimolas
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Interesting question! I think zabius covered the general topic quite well, and I don't have much to add to that. I just wanted to say that I've been checking out a LOT of academic profiles (just getting a sense of what trajectories look like in my field), and the only two professors I've seen do all three degrees at the same school have come from Harvard (now a prof at MIT) and MIT (shoot, now I can't remember who this person is or where they ended up). I also randomly know an English professor who was 3/3 Harvard and is now employed at a fairly low-ranked private liberal arts college. No idea if the possible inbreeding factor hurt him, though.

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Ahh, I didn't mean to down vote you. You'd think that after 20 years I'd have enough coordination with my finger to tap a green arrow. Not so. Sorry!

Given what OP has said in a private message to me, I'd say staying at his undergraduate institution is the right choice. I say this because his field is very very small.

 

Ha, no worries! :-)

 

Every situation is unique. I've also talked to the OP via private message, and agree that his alma mater is an appealing choice in a lot of ways (though it's a tough decision without a really clear-cut "best option," as is usually the case). My post above was mostly for people who may be reading this thread with similar concerns, but hopefully it's been a little helpful to you as well, kaputzing!

Edited by zabius
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I think one of the other concerns with 'inbreeding', whether it's legitimate or not (probably not in general), is that it suggests an applicant/job candidate could only be accepted by people who already knew and were personally familiar with them, not 'blind reviewers', as it were, who only knew them through their work. That is, there's a slight, perhaps unconscious, feeling that some sort of favoritism or, perhaps, unfair advantage, was at play. Again, I don't buy it in most cases, though I have to say I know some people who I feel this would apply.     

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Every moment I settle on one of my choices, I end up somehow talking (or rather, thinking) myself back into indecision.

 

@ wtncffts: I did get into other excellent places (and actually did not get rejected anywhere, though I did get a few waitlists), but I have to admit, I have always felt like a fraud. :P I do agree that sometimes applicants have a easier way "in" -- not because they are of lesser quality than the other applicants (I doubt anyone on the committee wants to lower the quality of their program!), but because the people vouching for them know they can hypothetically do the work, and it is often the case that it's better to take the low-risk student (will they drop out? will they take the offer?) vs. an outside applicant ... But then the students have a difficult time transitioning from undergrad --> grad, and it shows.

 

Some more detail on my situation: My alma mater typically does not accept its own students in my particular subfield. However, the department is going through a turnover, so none of my letter writers will be active faculty next year. Of the two remaining professors there, I've never even met one of them in person, while I've only taken intro classes from the other.

 

My field is also tiny. There are less than ten schools in the USA that have what I consider to be "full-fledged" programs, and typically, there are only two or three tenured or tenure-track faculty per school (and each of those usually work in different areas). This year's particularly difficult to judge, since many programs are restructuring.

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I've spoken to some professors about it. The responses (paraphrased):

 

- "No serious hiring committee will discount an applicant for that reason. If you don't get hired, it's not because your CV says BA/MA/PhD [university]." -- Prof at my university.

- "Normally, it matters, and I have seen applications thrown into the trash purely because they got their degrees from one school, but if your field is very small and the school is highly regarded, then you can note it in your cover letter: 'Due to the small size of my field and the high ranking of my alma mater, I decided to complete all three degrees at [university].' You can try to temper it with research summers or a year spent at another school." -- Outside prof

- "I don't know. It does mean you can't do your post-doc here." -- Prof at my university

- "You shouldn't worry about that. [Prof X] and [Prof Y] are retiring, and we are getting new faculty, so you will be exposed to new ideas." -- Prof at my university

- "Is that a thing? We're hiring new people ..." -- Prof at my university

- "That was one of my concerns when we were discussing your application, and I normally like to think of grad school like an apprenticeship program ... you go one place, you go another, get exposed to new ideas ... but because there are so many people retiring, we agreed that it wouldn't harm your intellectual development." -- Prof at my university

- "Oh, it's nice to get out and get exposed to new ideas." -- Prof at a university I was accepted to.

 

It's difficult to judge, because everyone is so biased. Every school (alma mater, X, Y) I am considering has significant cons, e.g. funding (X), fit (X), lack of tenured and established profs to oversee research (Y), lack of resources (Y), inbreeding (alma mater), etc.

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it doesn't matter if some professors do not think it will harm your future chances. What matters is that some do care!

 

 

To be honest, I would like to avoid close minded professors either way.  Let the person discuss with you and decide from there.

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I was referring to a hypothetical hiring committee

 

to the extent that a committee is representative of the general mindset, my statement remains

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I do share these worries. I have a PhD offer (hopefully with some funding to come) from my alma mater, where I did my BA and MA. It's funny because whilst it's probably the best place for my research topic and supervisor (who I've known for three years), my research interests have been shaped so specifically by my MA (the only course in the country) that I only really 'fit' in at my alma mater and a couple of other schools!

 

Anecdotally, I also think that in the UK more people stay put for three degrees, I know plenty of people who only applied to their alma mater for the PhD, this may be because they have a better chance of funding, which is so limited here.

Edited by hmurray
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I know of a couple of people in my field that have done that, but they balanced it out with residencies, summer programs, and being active in the community. Doing a post-doc somewhere else can also help. I think it might depend on the reason why you stay at the same school as well - I knew someone who stayed at a certain school for all three degrees for family reasons (I believe it was an extremely ill relative) and by the time she started her post-doc she was able to move and now is successfully employed.

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I think this issue is completely overblown.  In my field, if you attend Michigan or Stanford (two of the top programs) for undergrad and really get into a good project there - let's say you were interested in racial discrimination in social situations; both of those programs are noted for their work in this area - and get into their PhD program and decide to stay - and are productive - then there's NO reason someone (re: hiring committees) would turn their nose up at you because you got your bachelor's there as well.  TBQH when I look at people's CVs I don't even notice where they went to undergrad anymore, because it's sort of irrelevant at this point.  And when I talk to people about postdocs now, nobody asks me about my undergrad experiences.

 

Getting exposed to different ideas is a great thing, but there are other ways to do that besides attending a different school for your PhD; there are always postdocs; and it's a bad idea to turn down a great program that is a great fit for you just because you went there for undergrad.  I'd say that's true regardless of the ranking of the program.

 

I also disagree that spending 5 years somewhere as an undergrad or master's student means you have taken all that you can from it.  Being somewhere as an undergrad is completely different than being somewhere as a PhD student.  You may not have even begun to touch the graduate level courses offered there, much less taken advantage of the university's support for grad students.  Professors will interact with you on a different level.  There is so much that is different about being a grad student somewhere from being an undergrad, especially at a very large research university, that I don't think undergrads can conclude that they've gotten all they can out of a place.

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