Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Elitism in Hiring!? Shocking!

The latest news is old news: that the top programs in Political Science dominate the hiring process.  Apparently, the top eleven programs are responsible for filling fifty percent of the tenured/tenure track positions at the hundred plus research institutions.*  Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Michigan fill about 20%.  The others in the top 11 in 2009 (the year that was used) are Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, UCSD (where I got my degree), Duke, MIT, UCLA, and Chicago.  Yes, those with significant math skills will note that is actually 12 schools because the last two tied for 11th.
* Note this study only applies to the schools that produce new PhDs, not to liberal arts colleges and not to other universities that do not have PhD programs (not does it include schools outside the US).  So, the folks getting PhDs from schools below the top ten may be getting employment in non-R1s.  Still, to be clear, the academic job market in general sucks bigtime these days with more PhDs being produced than tenure track positions.

I am pretty ambivalent about this hunk of research.  When I went to grad school UCSD was not in the top ten, and so I always eyed reputational stuff with a critical eye but was also suspicious that people were getting the cool jobs because of the brands on their degrees.  

First, reputation: this measurement of top-ness is, dare I say it, endogenous.  The US News ranking is based on surveys of academics about which programs they think are the best ones.  Perhaps these top schools are ranked so high because they have placed their students so well rather than the reverse.  Some of these are also very, very big compared to the rest, so that both their reputation and their placement records are partly a function of size and not quality.  So, on the one hand, this finding should not be at all surprising or even that awful--the big programs that place their students have excellent reputations.  

Second, on the other hand, brand-names or labels tend to gain weight that may not always be deserved.  When I was struggling on the job market as a newbie PhD, I noticed that some folks from the places with the better brands (UCSD was not yet a top ten program at the time or even top tweny?) seemed to get all the interviews, and they seemed to be invited to all the reindeer games (post-docs, edited volumes, etc).  And I saw plenty of bad job talks given by people who had brand names from the best schools.  At the time, it was clear that the best schools had some of the sharpest profs and admitted the smartest students, but varied quite widely in how seriously they trained their students.  Some schools (that would be Harvard) noticeably had extreme variation in how prepared their students were to give job talks, not to mention do research. I have no idea if this is true now because I have not been in departments doing massive amounts of hiring lately (and I was not paying close attention my last few years at McG).  I did notice at McGill a definite trend--Princeton uber alles.  But we hired great people, so that didn't suck too much.  I did try to make sure we didn't go overboard in that dangerously orange direction.

I did notice the people who did get the interviews and who did get the jobs and the post-docs.  And there were and continue to be plenty of folks who received multiple opportunities because they passed through one vetting process (getting into a top school), so the next vetting process (for grants, for post-docs, for jobs) relies on the earlier vetters.  Many of these folks did flame out eventually.  

So is the label everything?  No, as a poker player, I am reminded that when 50% of the folks are from the top 11 school, that also means that 50% are not.  That schools rise and fall a bit (UCSD moved up, other schools have moved down) means that brand-names are not destiny, although it seems like that at times.  Moreover, to be clear, some of this vetting does work quite well.  Over the years, I have bumped into heaps of grad students from the top programs, and most of them have been very smart, very interesting, and very well-trained.  Some klunkers to be sure, but there is a bit of logic to elitism--the places with the most money tend to get the professors with the best reputations (not always earned, not always paid off), that the programs with the most money and best reputations can get the better graduate students, so that many of the best students end up working with many of the best professors, which means they end up doing some of the best work.*
* Yes, this concept of best is tricky, illusive and gives us much to argue over, but unless one buys into a kindergarten view of political science, some work is better than others, that the Incredibles were right--if everything is special, nothing is.
Back to the other 50%: I have bumped to a number of folks over time who were not trained at a top ten school who did really interesting work that makes me think.  Texas Tech, ranked 92nd at the time out of 108, did send its very best student to the University of Georgia where he has thrived over the years.  Why?  Because he had some good ideas, trained with a great scholar, and worked his ass off.

And back to that UCSD story: one of the key things in its rise was hiring some scholars who were underplaced but doing great work.  As my friend who trained the future Georgia faculty member always said, it is about the work, about the work, about the work.  

So, yes, there is elitism in academia.  Some of it is unearned, some of it is earned, and a heap of it is endogenous--that schools that do really well in training their students end up with better rankings.


@AbuMustashriq said...

I too don't find the fact that 12 schools produce graduates that fill 50% of job vacancies particularly shocking or worrisome.

What bothers me - and this study just reminds me of this - is that there are 100 other schools producing PhDs that have very few opportunities. This is both a systemic failure and a personal failure of some of these advisers.

I know that you can't tell with certainty that a PhD applicant is going to be bananas but schools need to be more selective and they need to have more honest discussions with potential students. They need to have the "are you SURE you want to do this... 'cause it's probably gonna suck" conversation.

But this is my axe to grind...

Steve Saideman said...

To be clear, the stats here are for jobs at the research universities. There are other professor jobs out there in the US--liberal arts colleges, non-research universities, etc. So, this is not the entire market.

I tell every student who comes to me about PhD programs that the market sucks and that you have to be really, really into the stuff to justify the gamble.

On the other hand, all but one of my PhD students have gotten tenure track positions....