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New study out on academic prestige and hiring


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No new information here, but it's nice to see that someone has finally spelled out with hard data what everyone has known for years: that the academic market is not a meritocracy, and that the name on your degree is the number one qualifier for certain kinds of jobs.

 

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/08/economist-offers-critique-job-market-phds-english

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Yo are you dumb fucks really arguing about this? Let me poop some truth on you. Even if you don't get a tenure track job at Columbia. An ivy league will. Will. Help you get a job at Melbourne or

I think the data they collect shows the truth: that there is an enormous bias in hiring. (And don't kid yourself--the same bias runs through the admissions process. Where you got your BA is a great in

I can't help but turn up with critical theory when thinking about the system of prestige, and how, like capital itself, it reifies its own values constantly. I think prestige is total horseshit, but i

Well, this is indeed one of the reasons why I didn't apply to any schools outside the "top 50" (according to US News...), but there's one fundamental problem with many / most of these studies: they reflect current practices and current trends, whereas for people like us, who will (in most cases) be entering Ph.D. programs in half a year for a bare minimum of five years, and more likely six or seven, the landscape will have changed. Maybe for the worse, maybe for the better...who knows? There is a trend toward the worse, but six or seven years is a long time, and even the best predictive analyses can only do a mediocre job of forecasting the job market in several years' time. Additionally, program qualities aren't static. While the "tippy top tier" programs will likely remain in the top ten, there is always the potential for second tier programs to gain better reputations as time goes on. For instance, WashU's reputation is far better than that ranking implies. Likewise for Brandeis.

I'm certainly not knocking this study, as it is very on point, as most of these studies are...but sometimes I think the doom-and-gloom goes a little too far. It's not a hopeless field for anyone who doesn't get into Yale, Princeton, or Harvard. It's more a case that going to one of those schools helps...but the same goes for virtually all disciplines. In other words, though the article is well-written and supported by lots of good data, there's nothing new here. You invariably have a better chance of getting a TT job if you go to a highly-ranked program. If you wind up going to North Fargo University and publish a stunning, renowned article on solipsism in Finnegan's Wake, you're still going to be an attractive candidate somewhere.

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I think the data they collect shows the truth: that there is an enormous bias in hiring. (And don't kid yourself--the same bias runs through the admissions process. Where you got your BA is a great indicator of where you'll get into grad school.)

 

What I find particularly galling are their conclusions--that lower ranked programs should prepare their students for a life of more remedial teaching (or other types of non-tenure track employment), since that's the absolute best that their grads can hope for. That just smells of classist idiocy. For one thing, everyone who goes to a lesser-ranked program already knows this. I don't know anyone at a less prestigious school that honestly thinks they have a crack at the national job market. These grads already are filling positions at regional and community colleges--often times their teaching experience prepares them for that already (they don't need extra help there), and often times they're actually sought after to do those jobs.

 

Second of all, the authors of the study don't encourage any measures to combat this obvious elitism; they just accept it as a way of life, end of story. It's not. There's no reason why search committees should limit themselves to candidates coming only from the top 6 or 8 schools. It's ridiculous in this day and age, especially when publication and other measures of professionalization (often achieved by "blind" review and with no consideration of where a candidate is getting their degree) are where candidates can really set themselves apart. If someone at school #35 is publishing in top journals, then there's no reason why they can't hang at a top job. If someone from school #50 already has a book contract, there's no reason to think that they can't have an illustrious research career. Unfortunately, search committees rarely see it that way. I've seen a lot of job searches come down to two candidates--one from the top school in the country with a so-so record, and the other at a school in the 20s with an ACLS fellowship and a record that makes you blush. The job almost always goes to the candidate from the best school.

 

Unfortunately, this kind of cronyism is all self-perpetuating. People from top schools get top jobs, and they think that coming from a top school is an indicator of talent. So then they hire people who go to the same schools that they did. And on and on. And even large state schools refuse to consider candidates from their own school's peer institutions, which sends a message to other schools not to hire their grads. For instance, if University of Minnesota only hires out of the top private programs and doesn't consider candidates from peer institutions, then what incentive does University of Maryland have to consider graduates from Minnesota? Etc. etc.

 

More disturbing were some of the comments (always) where people on search committees admitted that they weed their applicant pool solely by looking at where people got their degree--not by dissertation topic or publication or teaching experience or any other thing that might indicate their abilities as a potential professor. But again, that's not surprising. It really should be unethical, but it's not.

 

I post this here not to scare people away from applying to grad school--or from taking on that "Ivy or bust" attitude--even though I know that such an attitude is smart in today's climate. Really, I wish that people would stop perpetuating this elitism altogether. Again, I know that's not realistic, but I wish that people would recognize that grad students outside the top 6, 8, or even 20 schools are just as talented, and that the reason why someone didn't get into a top program is not because they're not as smart, but because they weren't as lucky, or because they weren't set up for that kind of success early on.

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LifeAlive: Excellent points all around. However, one other aspect of the article that irked me is the fact that it implies that a tenure-track professor job means nothing if it is at a teaching-based institution. Of course it would be ideal to land a position at NYU or University of Michigan, but how realistic is this? More importantly, the article's statement that these non-research institutions are filled with students "with a weak academic background" is reductive and elitist. As LifeAlive notes, getting into an elite school (whether BA or PhD) does not necessarily mean intelligence, and if often simply denotes connections, luck, and a well-tailored background. In a brutal academic market, any full-time, TT job is worth coveting, whether it is at UC Berkeley or Santa Monica City College.

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This study defines tiers that are too small and problematic to have any reliable conclusion for all of English studies. In fact, I think the statistics should be interpreted more as telling where five schools farm their faculty than anything else. And you wouldn't have to do a study like this to find that out--just visit the program websites.

 

One example: at first I thought this article almost entirely ignored jobs in rhet/comp. Well, then I realized that of the "top six" programs on USNWR, only one has a comp program at all that I know of, and it is rarely (if ever) listed among the "top" programs in the field. In fact, I'd say "top programs" are situated more around the 45-75 mark, so of course we would all be getting jobs of "comparable" prestige when the first "prestigious" schools in rhet/comp appear in Tier 3. So, that supports the article's claim for--what--like a third of all jobs in English? 

 

Also, why is this article only looking at data from 2008-2011? Why aren't schools equally distributed into tiers? Why aren't all schools in each tier considered? Why don't these tiers match up with USNWR? The whole thing just smacks of English self-flagellation propaganda to me. I would take it with a huge grain of salt.

Edited by Chadillac
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Adding to Chadillac's point, I thought the term 'foreign university' was a strange category in the table. Does that refer to European institutions? Are Canadian institutions 'foreign' despite being in North America? Does 'foreign' refer to Arabic schools? It was a strange phrase to use.

 

However, I thought the article was an informative read, and definitely reinforced my fears about the English PhD in general; there are definitely parts about it that seemed not-entirely-100%, but it does re-establish what many of my professors have mentioned to me about the elitism of the job market in general.

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I'm also not clear on how tiers were divided, or how rhet/comp figured in, or why "foreign universities" was a category while liberal arts college and community college were lumped in the same category. There is a huge difference between landing a job at a community college and a liberal arts college--liberal arts jobs can be just as difficult to procure as jobs at R1 universities, and I wish that people would stop looking at liberal arts jobs as "teaching gigs." (Most these days have serious research requirements for tenure.) I would like to know how these determinations were made.

 

However, I think the study still holds weight. If it is true that graduates of the top 6 programs make up only 8% of those getting PhDs, and yet they land 40% of TT jobs at schools with graduate programs, then indeed there is a conclusion here that can be made.

 

I'm not exactly sure why it's a problem that the study is focusing on 2008-2011. These were crucial post-recession years. The problem cited most often with these types of studies is that they're lumping pre-recession data with Recession-era data, therefore obscuring the trouble that graduates are having right now. My university, for instance, had a pre-Recession placement rate of 80%. The numbers from the last few years, however, are far less rosy. But my alma mater is not as forthcoming with these numbers. 

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While I agree that there are major issues in this study-- perceived in field prestige is more important than general perception of the school, after all, and there are huge differences between the hiring numbers between different programs within individual departments. But I'm also glad to see this in this space, because I fear that this is one of those issues where there can be a bit too much optimism. Of course there are exceptions where people from programs with lesser reputations get competitive jobs, but they are indeed exceptions. And with the overall numbers so bad, the power of these tendencies can be strong. It's very frustrating and unfortunate.

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I'm also not clear on how tiers were divided, or how rhet/comp figured in, or why "foreign universities" was a category while liberal arts college and community college were lumped in the same category. There is a huge difference between landing a job at a community college and a liberal arts college--liberal arts jobs can be just as difficult to procure as jobs at R1 universities, and I wish that people would stop looking at liberal arts jobs as "teaching gigs." (Most these days have serious research requirements for tenure.) I would like to know how these determinations were made.

 

However, I think the study still holds weight. If it is true that graduates of the top 6 programs make up only 8% of those getting PhDs, and yet they land 40% of TT jobs at schools with graduate programs, then indeed there is a conclusion here that can be made.

 

I'm not exactly sure why it's a problem that the study is focusing on 2008-2011. These were crucial post-recession years. The problem cited most often with these types of studies is that they're lumping pre-recession data with Recession-era data, therefore obscuring the trouble that graduates are having right now. My university, for instance, had a pre-Recession placement rate of 80%. The numbers from the last few years, however, are far less rosy. But my alma mater is not as forthcoming with these numbers. 

 

Perhaps you're right, though I don't think a three-year period (in the worst of times, as you've noted) is a very reliable snapshot of how all of English higher ed goes about its hiring. I'm also very skeptical of how this statistician grouped schools together into tiers, which you can see for yourself in the original article. It isn't that far-fetched to assume that these "top six" programs (which we only get five of, by the way--and which don't include Princeton or Yale) just happened to have the best placement rates in a three-year period.

 

Yes, it does appear apocalyptic that six schools represent 40% of all TT placement at grad-granting institutions between 2008-2011,* but I'm trying to suggest that we are getting a very intentional representation of a very complex issue--not least of which is a not-too-subtle elitist inclination by the authors to downplay the fact that this work shows overall placement rates are relatively the same at any tier.

 

* Also, I'm not entirely sure if that's what the data is showing. I think that 40% refers to the percent of graduates in the tier who landed TT jobs in grad-granting institutions, not the percentage of all jobs at institutions with grad programs that went to those graduate students.

Edited by Chadillac
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I'm also not clear on how tiers were divided, or how rhet/comp figured in, or why "foreign universities" was a category while liberal arts college and community college were lumped in the same category. There is a huge difference between landing a job at a community college and a liberal arts college--liberal arts jobs can be just as difficult to procure as jobs at R1 universities, and I wish that people would stop looking at liberal arts jobs as "teaching gigs." (Most these days have serious research requirements for tenure.) I would like to know how these determinations were made.

 

However, I think the study still holds weight. If it is true that graduates of the top 6 programs make up only 8% of those getting PhDs, and yet they land 40% of TT jobs at schools with graduate programs, then indeed there is a conclusion here that can be made.

 

I'm not exactly sure why it's a problem that the study is focusing on 2008-2011. These were crucial post-recession years. The problem cited most often with these types of studies is that they're lumping pre-recession data with Recession-era data, therefore obscuring the trouble that graduates are having right now. My university, for instance, had a pre-Recession placement rate of 80%. The numbers from the last few years, however, are far less rosy. But my alma mater is not as forthcoming with these numbers. 

 

Graduates of the top-6 programs make up 8% of those getting PhDs, that's true, but 40% of the top-6 graduates land TT jobs at schools with graduate programs.

 

It's not the same meaning as graduates of the top 6 programs make up only 8% of those getting PhDs, and yet they land 40% of TT jobs at schools with graduate programs...

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Ah yes, you're right. There's a reason my PhD is in English, not in math, and I did not realize the study was available freely online. However, in the article the authors of the study actually paint a bleaker picture:

 

Of those in the top six programs, 12.4 percent land jobs at universities whose graduate programs are ranked among the top 28. For those in the bottom half of all doctoral programs (who collectively make up nearly half of new English Ph.D.s), only 0.21 percent land jobs at those same 28 universities.

 

In the actual study, the authors point out that:

 

The results, reported in Table 3, provide a similar picture and reinforce the earlier results. Top-six programs get almost 60 percent of their tenure-track professors from other top-six programs and over 90 percent from programs ranked 28 or higher. They get no professors from programs ranked below 63. The professors at programs ranked lower than 63 come from programs of various rankings, including 17 percent from top-six schools and 21 percent for programs ranked below 63. Since graduates from top-six programs comprise only 8 percent of the total graduates, whereas 46 percent of graduates are from schools ranked below 63, few graduates from programs ranked below 63 get jobs focused on academic research.

 

I truly don't understand the rationale of wanting to open data up to include pre-Recession numbers. The discipline has not recovered at all since the Recession (it might actually be worse right now), so giving your potential grad students numbers from 2004 or 2005 is pretty misleading. I would actually recommend for anyone deciding between grad programs to look exclusively at the data from 2010 forward or so, and to ignore completely placements from the beginning of the 21st century. The post-Recession job market is the new normal. And even if it's not, better to go in thinking it is and be pleasantly surprised than the other way around.

 

None of this is to say that I agree with the study's overall recommendations. The recommendation that graduate students of certain programs should "know their place" is insulting. Of course anyone who goes to graduate school should be prepared to take on non-R1 or non-TT jobs; that's just the reality. But telling people not to have certain (research) goals because of where they were accepted is pretty egregious. Moreover, it would be nice if someone would do a study with better controls--to figure out, say, if published graduate students from less-elite schools face the same long odds at a TT job as their non-published peers. The study's recommendation itself also seems a bit pointless, since it points out that graduates of non-elite programs are already getting jobs as generalists or non-academic editors; if they're already in these positions, then why the push to train them for the work they're already landing? In other words, why re-focus these programs when their graduates are already working in these fields? One could argue that their research-oriented work (writing a dissertation, publishing articles) has been valid preparation for non-academic work.

 

Having said that, I honestly wish that people wouldn't dismiss studies like this out-of-hand simply because they reveal a bias, or because they don't clarify their terms as well as we would like. Even if the study is flawed, it speaks to hiring biases in this field that are very real and very unfortunate. 

Edited by lifealive
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Ah yes, you're right. There's a reason my PhD is in English, not in math, and I did not realize the study was available freely online. However, in the article the authors of the study actually paint a bleaker picture:

 

Actually, they don't.

 

Two claims are made here: (1) overall job placement is relatively similar no matter the program's tier ranking, and (2) the top six programs tended to hire from other top six programs from 2008-2011. More than six programs in the world do research, so I'm at a loss for how this article proves "few graduates from programs ranked below 63 get jobs focused on academic research" when their own data shows that about 28% percent of those same 4th tier students land TT jobs at institutions that grant grad degrees. 

 

I understand why you would argue we need recent numbers for the first claim, but the second is bigger than the recession. If someone is going to claim that the "top six" programs hire predominately from other "top six" programs, you are going to need more than 3 years of data, and personally I don't see how the recession would have anything to do with this point. The recession certainly would be a point of major interest for placement rates, but I don't see it as having much to do with making claims for positions that are already assumed to be there. And plus, come on--how many TT job hires does that three-year period even represent--like 5 or 6 at most?

 

And, just so you know, I'm not dismissing this study because it reveals a bias. I'm dismissing it because it is constructed in such a way as to misrepresent the data it presents in order to make us draw conclusions that are not present in that data. It's just bad research. And, I want to add that I'm not trying to pick a fight here. I completely agree with you--this whole piece is rather insulting, from the intro that represents English as needing economists to come save us by revealing how English departments incorrectly do their hiring (which seems to puzzle them because everyone in economics can so easily get a job!) to the repeated insinuation that the only positions that matter and are desirable by all graduate students are research-intensive positions at the top six universities.

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I'm going to comment on the data only, not the authors' "recommendations".

 

1. First, the fact that many tenure-tracked English professors come from top tier schools (>50% of profs have degrees from top 28 schools) does not mean that we do not have a meritocracy. It is conceivable that the top schools accept higher-qualified applicants and/or the top schools have better resources and facilities to create more productive scholars. That is, it's not necessarily true that "most profs come from top schools" is correlated with "profs are hired because of their degree name, not their qualifications". 

 

2. I don't think a meritocracy is actually an ideal we want in academia. I don't think meritocracy is actually fair. We don't have an objective way to measure "merit". Also, we live in a world where small differences in merit can lead to much larger differences in qualifications. For example, a small difference in merit/qualification can lead to student A's selection into a certain group over student B. And if student A's group has more resources and facilities, they might train A into their full potential, while B's group might not be as equipped to get B to their full potential. This could compound at each stage where a "meritocratic" decision has to be made to allocate resources. I think the observation that "most profs seem to get their degrees from top schools" could be related to this.

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Actually, they don't.

 

Two claims are made here: (1) overall job placement is relatively similar no matter the program's tier ranking, and (2) the top six programs tended to hire from other top six programs from 2008-2011. More than six programs in the world do research, so I'm at a loss for how this article proves "few graduates from programs ranked below 63 get jobs focused on academic research" when their own data shows that about 28% percent of those same 4th tier students land TT jobs at institutions that grant grad degrees. 

 

 

The authors actually address that in the appendix:

 

One should be careful when interpreting the results in Tables 1 and 2; incomplete
data and biased reporting may have resulted in overstatement of placement results
into tenure-track positions in lower-ranked schools. For example, none of the
thirty lowest-ranked or unranked graduate programs reported comprehensive
recent placement results, and this lack of data may have made the placement results
for tier 4 graduates seem better than they actually are. In addition, even if some
universities in the lower tiers report their placement record, the universities would
only publish the ones that hold tenure-track positions, or only those graduates with
good placement results would update their current positions. The bias resulting
from such reporting can give a false representation of the placement data as well. My
methodology that includes placement within two years also results in a slightly more
inflated placement rate overall than what the MLA data show. (I use this time frame
because some schools did not publish the graduation year of students placed; thus,
a number of students who obtained placement had been in the job market for one or
two years, if not more.)

 

 

Shoddy reporting no doubt, but this information is indeed extremely difficult to get. They were working from schools' websites, and programs are often very cagey with this information, listing the students who got placements but failing to list the numbers of those who did not or--as they point out--the number of students who dropped out along the way. 

 

I disagree again with the idea that 2008-2011 is too narrow to provide any real insight. Again, I would say that focusing on these years provides the most relevant and up-to-date data. If your program placed people in 1999, no one cares. If your program placed people in 2003, no one cares. You're only as good as your last placement--the recent stuff is what determines the currency of your degree. In real estate terms, we're talking comps. Where people in your sub-field were most recently placed is what determines your probable outcome. The tricky (and somewhat paradoxical chicken-egg) thing is that program prestige is relatively stable, even as your program's most recent placements determine its viability. Higher ranked programs tend to still place their students well enough during tough times and therefore continue to perpetuate their own success. 

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I'm going to comment on the data only, not the authors' "recommendations".

 

1. First, the fact that many tenure-tracked English professors come from top tier schools (>50% of profs have degrees from top 28 schools) does not mean that we do not have a meritocracy. It is conceivable that the top schools accept higher-qualified applicants and/or the top schools have better resources and facilities to create more productive scholars. That is, it's not necessarily true that "most profs come from top schools" is correlated with "profs are hired because of their degree name, not their qualifications".

 

It's difficult to assess merit in such complex circumstances, but not impossible. Do the most brilliant people automatically find themselves in the top programs while the late-bloomers and duds find themselves at Ding Dong State? Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe some combination of things. But that's why I would rather see a study that takes into account the kinds of professionalization people do in graduate school--or, in other words, where and what they publish. Publication is a bit of an equalizer in that it's something you have to do on your own, and because reviewers can't see where you went to school. (I know this isn't true 100% of the time ... but yes, generally.) If people from less-prestigious programs with publications are getting passed over for Duke PhDs with no publications, with all other things being equal, then I'm going to have to do some side-eye. (And frankly, I do a lot of side-eye because I see it all the time.)

 

Now, you can make the argument that it's possible for people at top programs to produce more research and publish because they have better resources, more time away from teaching, and more advisors who take their work seriously. In my own case, it was very difficult to get published because I had to teach so much--80 students a semester, summer teaching, no fellowships, and a very limited 5-year plan in which to complete coursework, pass exams, and write a dissertation. Publishing is the thing that takes a backseat with all of that. But I still managed. So I'd personally like to see a study that takes these kinds of efforts into account.

Edited by lifealive
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I don't think meritocracy is ever real, in any circumstance, and that the case for that is not political but empirical, with a growing tide of meticulous research demonstrating that received advantage plays an enormous role in life outcomes. Take, for example, Gregory Clark's book from last year The Son Also Rises, which demonstrates that it can take as long as eighteen generations for the received economic advantage of parentage to be dissolved. And that's all over the educational research as well. That said, we can and should work to make systems more fair and egalitarian where we can, and from what I've seen, there is a major premium attached to coming from a prestigious program, in a way that's out of step with our typical visions of academic merit. That's hard for people to hear, because there's an inherent bias towards wanting the system you're in to be fair, but I think it's important that we at least have it out about this tendency.

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Yo are you dumb fucks really arguing about this?

Let me poop some truth on you.

Even if you don't get a tenure track job at Columbia. An ivy league will. Will. Help you get a job at Melbourne or Berlin or Penguin or Verso or some other fucking corner of the world where they pay a decent amount of money to talk Marlowe.

So suck it up. And realize that brand name does have value.

And if God forbid. You end up having kids and a partner that loves going to the spa every fucking 9th weekend. You will still fucking need an income to pay for that bs. So here's the cold damn truth -- money matters. Reputation matters. And even if you don't end up teaching. You could make a living as an editor or an administrator. And pay the bills.

Sorry that reality doesn't sound like a Stoppard show.

But here's the truth -- if you got bills to pay, where you come from has significant fucking bearing on where you end up.

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I've already accepted the fact that I'll be Dr. Jessica, your server at that one restaurant on the weekends. I've also accepted that I'll be adjuncting for a while. It doesn't bother me, really. TT would be amazing but probably not going to happen for a few (10) years after I graduate. That's part of my motivation for wanting to start so young.

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