One Weird Trick to Get Hired in Academia


“Be careful. American science is elitist.” A visiting scientist said to a group of graduate students and I at an informal lunch, “The only way I got the career I had was because I was lucky enough to have a post-doctoral position at Yale in a new field.”

A while back, my graduate program hosted a visiting scientist who happened to be a titan in the field of HIV research. We got to have lunch with her. I was intimidated but excited. She had a grant to study a potential HIV vaccine in macaques. For those of you who aren’t familiar with vaccine and drug testing, getting a grant to do nonhuman primate testing is a big deal and involves a lot of time, money and resources. Her talk earlier that morning was exciting and innovative and I was hungry for her advice. I’d been feeling burnt out of my graduate program and was looking for direction from anywhere and anyone. The message I got was demoralizing.

“The only reason I got considered for Yale was because I had a really lucky graduate career and got some papers published, without it the name of my graduate program would have carried no weight in the USA.”

It wasn’t as if this scientist had come from nowhere either. She graduated from The University of Alberta, one of the top five schools in Canada, 64th internationally. It’s not a slouch school and her PhD was not a slouch degree.

“If you didn’t go to a place like Yale you’re basically not going to be hired. My post-doc opened doors.”

I wasn’t sure how much of this to believe. Scientists, I thought, looking at productivity, research impact and research quality rather than brand names. Academics of all stripes surely could look at the quality of somebody’s scholarship.

As it turns out, I was being naïve. According to a new study in Science Advances less than a quarter of schools produce between 71-86% of all tenure track faculty in the US and Canada in the fields of Business, Computer Science and History. The top schools generate far more professors than the other schools, with the top ten schools producing three times as many future professors than the schools ranked 11-20. Those lucky graduate students don’t all stay at the top either, they tend to teach at schools lower-ranked than the ones from which they graduated. Another study from the journal Pedagogy indicates that 90% of the English tenure track jobs in the US go to students from the top 28 schools. Almost no professors get jobs below rank 63 even though almost half of graduate students attend such programs. Upward mobility is almost unheard of due to a combination of factors, not the least of which is a lack of opportunity to gain a track record that distinguishes a PhD holder from the school of origin.

In other words the guest scientist was right. Institutional prestige has an enormous role in shaping the composition of faculty at universities at all levels. Faculty search committees are hiring new faculty based on name-brand and not on merit. The study in Science Advances also indicates a strong gender bias in hiring among computer scientists and business faculty, echoing other studies and accusations of gender biases in academia and sciences.

All of this information makes me wonder how many researchers, scholars and teachers are excluded from the faculty job market by less prestigious doctorates and for my own prospects. I am finishing my degree at a small medical college with a department that punches above its weight in terms of research funding but offers no placement data for its graduates. I wonder how much my own education and career have already been hurt by my undergraduate degree at a small, liberal arts college and at my current institution. I wonder if it’s possible to course correct and snag a position at a top-tier institution, whether it’s right to feel guilty about thinking about my education that way. More than anything I’d like to get some good news about academia but I guess that’s a kind of naiveté too.

It’s depressing to learn that the trick to getting ahead in academia isn’t necessarily your publications, work and scholarship, it’s the name on your diploma.






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  1. Some of it is also that Americans have certain naïve beliefs. Naïve beliefs never go away, but can be suppressed, though they might take different forms. (Someone raised in a religious environment may eventually abandon creationism, but this same person will still be biased in favor of evidence that apparently irrational Biblical laws have some rational basis.)

    You yourself have exhibited a ‘Murica bias here, at points. Again, it’s because of naïve beliefs.

  2. I would have to agree, and add that american science is not only elitist, but myopic. In grad school one of my professors once said “the vast majority of you will fail” meaning not get a tenured position. We laughed about it afterward but at the time it was completely offensive. Classmates have gone on to grant writing, patent law, regulatory consulting, biotech, and (the horror!) second-tier academic institutions. So yeah, very little failure unless you can only see six inches in front of your face.
    That said, it can definitely be hurtful when you first encounter the pecking order. Just go to a grad-student or faculty party in Boston & watch the jockeying begin, it’s almost comical as people ask what you’re working on, and more importantly, where. The status order goes very roughly Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU, Northeastern and there’s so much smug in the room you can barely breathe.
    Finally, the point about a new field is the most important. If you were doing signal transduction in the late 80s or siRNA in the late 90s you were golden even if from a third-tier school, so luck plays a large role since no one really knows what’s going to be hot five years from now. BTW, I bailed & went into medicine – still not sure if it was a cop-out or not.

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