Sunday, February 20, 2011

What is the Value of Prestige in Academia

There is always much ranting and raving about rankings and relative standings on the Political Science Job Rumors site, and now one thread tries to address the question of prestige directly: what would it cost for one to move to a place with less prestige.

It got me thinking about prestige on a slow Sunday morning.  I think I cared much more such things before than now.*  Why is that the case?  Am I less narcissistic?  No, just more aware of my narcissism.  I think I care less about prestige now for a couple of reasons (noting that it is easier to care less when one is at a more highly ranked place).

My previous job was at a place that was poorly ranked.  Actually, it was accurately ranked given that it could not hold onto good junior faculty.  Moreover, I felt that I was outside of the professional networks due to the physical location and prestige of the institution.  Now, I am at a school that is highly ranked (one of the top three in Canada and pretty visible in the US) with much better** graduate students and undergrads.  I definitely feel better about the place I work, less embarrassed by the name on my badge at conferences.

But does it matter that much to me?  I think it matters less because I have been around long enough.  What does time do?  Well, first, I feel that I have done enough via books, articles, conference presentations, networking, and the like that people know who I am and what I do.  My institutional affiliation matters less to me in terms of how I feel others see me.  Second, over the course of time, I have met enough folks at places that are not highly prestigious who are quite smart, producing great work, and teaching me a great deal that it is far less about what people's affiliations are than what they do (I am sure Dumbledore would agree).  Third, I have seen enough idiosyncrasies in the hiring processes of the places I have worked and not worked to discover that the market does not distribute "talent" (brains, good ideas, training, ambition, whatever else) as efficiently as often averred.  Plus some people end up in certain places because of personal issues.  Finally, I think that the net makes a difference--that it is much easier to contact and network now than fifteen years ago with blogs, twitter, facebook, and all the rest.***

Together, this means that affiliation and, with it, prestige matter far less than many folks (especially aspiring graduate students) think. The name on one's PhD matters a great deal, especially at first, but the name of the place you work matters less so, especially over time as the individual track record, for good or bad, becomes well developed and well known.  ****

*  Is there any proof of this?  Well, it is public knowledge that I interviewed at a school that was not among the top three in its state a few years ago, and would probably have been as a downward move, prestige-wise. 
** That is, in general, they have had significant life experiences, did better in high school/college (better grades and test scores), took feedback more seriously, worked harder, etc.
***  Of course, with posts like these, I may be doing more harm to my prestige.....
**** A question--would it be better to put the footnotes at the bottom or interject in the middle perhaps in italics the way Alan Sepinwall does it?


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful discussion. From the point of view of outsiders, I also think the prestige of the institution/ brand is used very much as heuristic to rate younger scholars, but this becomes less important for more established scholars.

Steve Saideman said...

If I could articulate things that well, my blog posts would be shorter. Thanks.

nicopolis said...

It's very interesting this subject. I think that you have made at least 2 hip. 1)wich is highly likely I would say, that there's 2 different types/levels of academic prestige: individual and institutional 2) There is not a 1 to 1 relation btwn the 2 of them (You could be a great researcher in a not so good institution, and vice versa?) The question that I have is how and why do you think that that is possible? I mean, how a not so great institution can attract a talented individual and not be able to transfer any of his/her prestige to the institution? Plus, we have to add the undergrad and grad students (the relationship btwn quality of students and institutional prestige)