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About tenure track positions


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Initially landing a tenure-track position and getting granted tenure are two different processes. Getting tenure is connected to scholarly productivity, teaching, and department service of various kinds, but it's mostly about publishing. Tenure, as far as I can tell, doesn't rely at all on the prestige of the university where you got your doctorate; if that were the case, they probably wouldn't have hired you to begin with. On the other hand, landing a tenure-track position is dependent on a number of factors, of which, unfortunately, prestige of one's doctorate granting institution is one. It is still possible to get a job from a less prestigious school; you'll just have to work that much harder. I should also add that the job market has been very rough in recent years, and there are no signs that it's going to get better any time soon, so everyone is struggling to find jobs, even those at top schools. I'm hearing stories of freshly minted graduates competing against and losing out to people who have done post-docs, are assistant profs elsewhere, and have already published and been out of their programs for a while. It's tough for recent grads to compete with that, regardless of where they got their degree.

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People who work under those considered the most brilliant in their field are generally considered to have the most potential in their field and therefore apply to and attend the universities housing and producing "the most brilliant" scholars. In reality, it is my opinion that those who combine natural intelligence with consistent, hard work in study, teaching, writing, etc... can succeed; however, I wouldn't want to say anything in absolutes (student of the humanities...)

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Is it true that if you do not go to a top tier institution for a MA and PhD that it is impossible to obtain tenure? I have heard this idea from a few people. Thoughts?

My two cents: It's not categorically true that it's impossible to get a tenure track job without coming from a top tier institution, especially for those looking for jobs in specific theological niches. 


 Nevertheless, a job is no guranteed thing even for candidates from a "top tier" schools, which makes it exceedingly difficult to get a job coming out of a non-top program. Nothing can be stated absolutely of course, but even that small school that doesn't really need facutly from Yale, etc., knows their students (and the parents of their students) will be impressed with faculty coming from prestige schools. They build prestige for themselves that way. Imagine your application in there with 10+ applications from people coming from top programs. It'll get thrown out quickly, unless you have some sort of inside connection.


Secondly, working harder to counteract the low prestige of your school isn't really an effective solution. The top tier programs just have so much more support, networks, funding, etc. that make work easier, quicker, and more (metaphorically) profitable. Conference papers are much easier to get accepted (the conference or panel wants your prestige and/or is friends with your advisor); that article you want to submit will be vetted first by the right people (your advisors' friends who are the experts on that topic), you'll have the financial resources to focus on your academic work, you'll organize conferences, and meet anybody you want to meet, etc. Your committee will look like an all-star cast, with the exact experts you need for it. In short, it's either an upward spiral for those (who do well) in the top programs, or a downward spiral for those not in top programs.


Finally, I do think it is really good advice to look around at the types of jobs you want (or even jobs that are worse than the ones you want) and look at where those people went (pay more attention to where assistant professors went; the job market is different now than it was for the senior professors out there). I'll add one caveat though. Of course, just because professor Y went to school Z, it doesn't mean that everyone coming out of school Z could have gotten that job. 


I would strongly recommend against applying to non-top-tier programs. It's just not worth it. Being a PhD student is generally a very difficult, stressful life (despite how rosy it appears while applying). It's even more miserable if you labor for years second guessing whether you'll even be able to get a job (and then don't). If you do apply to other programs, please, please, please, ask about their placement rates before accepting any offers. I know it's harsh, and it's killing the dream seemingly prematurely (if you don't get in to a top program), but it's better now than 5-8 miserable years from now, with another 3-4 miserable years on a failing search for a job.

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