Academic Job Markets and Status Hierarchies

by Kieran Healy on December 5, 2004

Over at Brian Leiter’s blog, there’s a debate going on about the role of publications in the hiring process. Keith DeRose is arguing that a graduate student’s publication record should be given a larger role than it often is:

[W]hich graduate school one gets into and what job one initially lands tragically does very much to determine how well one is likely to do, long-term. It often happens for instance, that extremely talented philosophers who deserve to do as well as those landing the great jobs instead end up at some low-prestige job with a heavy teaching load. Every now and then, one of them quite heroically overcomes the odds of having to write while teaching so much and puts out a bunch of excellent papers in really good journals (which at least often they’re able to do largely b/c the journals use blind review!). But, too often, they can’t get the people with the power in the profession (& who know that the candidate works at a low-prestige place) to take their work seriously. They lose out to candidates (the “chosen ones”) who, despite their very cushy teaching loads, publish little in good journals but who have something that all too often proves more valuable on a CV: a high-prestige institutional affiliation.

The data strongly back Keith up on this point, but they also suggest that the probability that things will change is not very high. Studies of academic disciplines show that by far the most important predictor of departmental prestige is the exchange of graduate students within hiring networks. These networks shouldn’t really be called job markets, incidentally, because they lack most of the features normally considered necessary for a market to exist.

A recent paper by Val Burris in the American Sociological Review, for instance, shows that in Sociology,

centrality within interdepartmental hiring networks explains 84 percent of the variance in departmental prestige. Similar findings are reported for history and political science. This alternative understanding of academic prestige helps clarify anomalies —- e.g., the variance in prestige unconnected to scholarly productivity, the strong association between department size and prestige, and the longterm stability of prestige rankings — encountered in research that is based on the more conventional view.

The “conventional view,” of course, is that departmental prestige is a function of the scholarly productivity of faculty members and graduate students, but this is not the case in practice. A related paper by Shin-Kap Han describes the structure of the exchange network in several disciplines. A I wrote when discussing it last year:

Job candidates in all disciplines are exchanged in a well-defined manner between three classes of departments. Class I departments, at the top, exchange students amongst themselves and supply lower-tier departments with students but do not hire from them. Class II departments are on the “semi-periphery,” generally exchanging candidates with each other (though there is a hierarchical element to this) and also sending students to Class III departments, which never place students outside of their class and usually do not hire students from within their class.

What does all this mean for individual graduate students on the market? In effect, it means they are not market actors at all. They’re the currency in a different exchange system altogether, namely the status hierarchy of departments. The data show that departmental status rankings are remarkably stable—in some cases almost unbelievably so. It’s very difficult to fall out of the Top Tier once you’re in it, despite the enormous turnover of faculty, the way departments age, changing academic fashions and so on. So if you’re thinking about grad school, remember that the prestige of your Ph.D-granting department is the best predictor of your chances on the job market. If you’re at a low ranking school it is highly unlikely that you’ll move up more than one tier when you’re exchanged.

Now, top departments turn out more graduate students than there are jobs in top departments, so many Tier I products will not find Tier I jobs. So it’s not enough just to go to a top school. Formal research is harder to do on this point, but it seems clear that within Tier I there will be further stratification by status, with some advisors and research groups being more powerful or popular than others, and so on. Choosing the right topic and being in the right networks will increase your chances of getting a good position. The upshot is that in some fields it’s possible to get hired on the strength of pure “promise”—but of course only people in the right structural positions will be seen has showing promise, because everyone starts from the position of not having written anything. In philosophy, uncertainly about whether candidates will pan out is perhaps higher than usual because there’s no empirical component to anyone’s project and a lot of work gets done interactively, in conversation. As a result, the field’s collective commitment to the ideal of the individual genius is much higher. This may also make it possible to survive for longer in a high-prestige position on very little output.

Besides the question of whether this is a sensible way for supposedly rational philosophers to organize their field, the network perspective suggests a further irony. As Ron Burt argues in the current American Journal of Sociology, innovation and new ideas tend to come from the edges of networks, not the center:

Opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups, so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving. Brokerage across the structural holes[1] between groups provides a vision of options otherwise unseen, which is the mechanism by which brokerage becomes social capital. … Compensation, positive performance evaluations, promotions, and good ideas are disproportionately in the hands of people whose networks span structural holes. The between-group brokers are more likely to express ideas, less likely to have ideas dismissed, and more likely to have ideas evaluated as valuable.

In other words, it may be that the people in the structural position to get the best ideas are less likely to be hired. At the level of informal job-market gossip there are bits of conventional wisdom that remind people of this worry. For instance, people may say “X is just a clone of Prof Y,” or “X is just yet another person working on problem θ. Boring.” Burt’s argument suggests that in the long run, truly innovative actors should do better than the ordinary runs-of-the-mill, whereas Burris’s suggests that the stable center ought to prevail. I don’t know of anything that considers the structural stability of departmental rankings (and their dependence on exchanging students) alongside the idea that new ideas ought to be generated by unconventionally-networked individuals. It might turn out to be quite a complex dynamic.

My own intuition is that uncertainty about future productivity creates sufficient anxiety that departments tend to choose the safer candidates in the short run—i.e., the ones coming out of their peer-group departments. This might also account for the high propensity of academic exchange networks to herding behavior (where one candidate gets all the offers, initially). Indeed, according to Han’s paper, the discipline that does the most to take the market out of the market—to make it more like a hierarchical queueing procedure, instead, where the top departments get first pick of the candidates—is Economics. This is also a field where it’s conventional for candidates go on the market without any publications.

Notes

fn1. A structural hole is, roughly, a gap between two dense network clusters. If the two clusters have something to offer each other—resources, profit opportunities, information, ideas—then the individual who bridges the hole and serves as the connector between the two groups can benefit. The advantage to the bridging agent declines the more connections form between nodes in the two groups.

{ 29 comments }

1

Dylan Thurston 12.05.04 at 8:18 pm

The link to Shin-Kap Han’s paper is broken; I guess it got published and is no longer a TR. What is the title?

2

jeremy hunsinger 12.05.04 at 8:21 pm

do we have a citation for the prestige indicators? i’ve found some in relation to publishing over the years, but unless this is the paper that was discussed last year about this time(which i only saw in draft), i’m not sure i have anything on this topic, and would certainly like it.

3

Giles 12.05.04 at 8:27 pm

Might the taboo against “in breeding” have something to do with this stability? If a department hires it own graduates and its research/teaching is heading in the right direction then its going to get lots of positive feedback and head up the rankings. By contrast if its going in the wrong direction, it gets negative feedback and it goes down. And obviously any successful inbreeding dynamic ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction as the inbreed department obsesses its self into idiocy. Increased inbreeding would therefore result in more variance in rankings over the long term. Han cites Chicago as a school that practiced successful inbreeding and interstingly it would be one of the school that move up a lot.

Whether its good for the profession as a whole is however another question but I doubt its as harmful as that –the practice of out-breeding would continue if it was. Also the idea seems to be virtually unique to academia, so if other professions can work with it why not academia? Academics are naturally peripatetic so I don think it’d inevitably lea to some sort of cretinised stasis.

4

Giles 12.05.04 at 8:31 pm

Social Networks

Volume 25, Issue 3, Pages 197-281 (July 2003)

Tribal regimes in academia: a comparative analysis of market structure across disciplines*1 • ARTICLE
Pages 251-280
Shin-Kap Han

5

John Quiggin 12.05.04 at 8:52 pm

I’ve been working spasmodically for some time on a paper about the amazing stability of ranking hierarchies. It’s important to observe that the hierarchies are, in general, pretty closely related to aggregate productivity. But the graduate student exchange system probably adds the mean-reversion necessary for long-term stability.

Without this, departments that made a string of bad hires would never regain the lost ground, and rankings would follow a random walk.

6

Cranky Observer 12.05.04 at 9:17 pm

It often happens for instance, that extremely talented philosophers who deserve to do as well as those landing the great jobs instead end up at some low-prestige job with a heavy teaching load. Every now and then, one of them quite heroically overcomes the odds of having to write while teaching so much and puts out a bunch of excellent papers in really good journals […]

I don’t know whether comments like this are amusing, sad, or infuriating. Or a combination of all three.

Point 1: Teaching classes, including those yucky undergraduate classes, is an integral part of the responsibilities of being a university professor. Full stop.

Point 2: sooner or later (and I don’t think it will be much longer), the people who actually pay the bills (upper-middle-class parents paying full freight tuition) are going to start demanding some control over what they are getting for their dollar. I don’t think that “first class” professors with zero teaching experience will fare very well in that situation.

Cranky

7

Matt Weiner 12.05.04 at 9:26 pm

Cranky, nobody is saying that philosophy professors shouldn’t have to teach at all or denying that teaching is an integral part of our responsibilities. But just because teaching is part of the job doesn’t mean that more teaching is better. If you’re teaching several different courses, that means more time preparing and grading (not to mention lecturing), and less time doing the research that is necessary to get other job offers and that helps keep the discipline moving forward. What’s infuriating about that?

8

Gabriel Rossman 12.05.04 at 9:28 pm

I also found the Burris piece very interesting, particularly since I am currently the market currency of the same top 10 department that produced Kieran. However, I have heard it criticized by social networks scholars as relying on untenable assumptions. I couldn’t do justice to their critique, but I’ll mention this thread to them and hopefully they’ll comment.

9

P.D. 12.05.04 at 9:47 pm

In philosophy, uncertainly about whether candidates will pan out is perhaps higher than usual because there’s no empirical component to anyone’s project and a lot of work gets done interactively, in conversation. As a result, the field’s collective commitment to the ideal of the individual genius is much higher.

This is a strange pair of sentences to have strung together. The fact that philosophy emerges from conversation undermines the ideal of the solitary genius. Nevertheless, the field is committed to the ideal.

Overlooking prestige effects for a moment…

Since philosophy doesn’t value collaborative work very highly, a candidate’s worth must be the work they themselves will produce. The candidate won’t pay off as a co-author or as a resource for new techniques, as a candidate might in a less atomized field.

10

Keith M Ellis 12.05.04 at 10:12 pm

What’s infuriating about that?

Because it’s very hard for me to believe that there’s remotely as much social utility in research philosophy as there is for teaching philosophy. That’s why.

11

Walt Pohl 12.05.04 at 11:03 pm

Cranky: Maybe this isn’t true of departments by philosophy, but academic research in general is an incredibly important driver of American economic growth.

12

Josh 12.05.04 at 11:28 pm

This is a point already implicit in Matt Weiner’s reply, but it is useful to point out that Cranky and Keith Ellis’s argument about the importance of teaching — which I think is valid — doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that academics should have to do more teaching. This is surely to confuse quantity with quality. The more classes one has, the less time one has to prepare for each individual class — and, often, the less energy one has in each class. One thing that I think many non-teachers don’t realise (at least, I didn’t realise it until I started teaching) is just how much preparation is required to do a decent job teaching — especially for teachers relatively new to the job.
By all means, I think that devotion to and talent at teaching should play a larger role in training and career advancement for academics; I don’t think that imposing heavy teaching loads is equivalent or conducive to this, or that to object to heavy teaching loads is to deprecate the importance of teaching.

13

Giles 12.06.04 at 1:09 am

“academic research in general is an incredibly important driver of American economic growth. “

Do you have any evidence to support that claim Walt? I think that theres increasing evidence that academic reserach does not automatically cause growth.

14

Kieran Healy 12.06.04 at 1:34 am

Do you have any evidence to support that claim Walt?

You’re welcome to commission a study, Giles ;-)

15

Walt Pohl 12.06.04 at 3:54 am

I only have anecdotal evidence, but Germany’s status as a world power only outlasted its loss of leadership in science by a decade. The United States is the world’s technological leader, and is also the leader scientific research. The connection between Caltech and the rise of Silicon Valley has been frequently remarked.

16

david 12.06.04 at 5:00 am

Publication record, of course, is a shit determination of research worth. Two bad books from good presses is still two bad books, and they’ll do you well, if you come from the right school, blah blah blah.

I write this instead of writing my book, but it’s always best to address the argument and not the person making it.

17

david 12.06.04 at 5:02 am

Publication record, of course, is a shit determination of research worth. Two bad books from good presses is still two bad books, and they’ll do you well, if you come from the right school, blah blah blah.

I write this instead of writing my book, but it’s always best to address the argument and not the person making it.

18

david 12.06.04 at 5:03 am

Ooops

19

Geoff Pynn 12.06.04 at 12:34 pm

In response to Cranky, Keith, and Walt: high-quality academic research in any field at all (even philosophy! even–gasp!–comparative literature!) is a social good, and it would be a good even if it made no difference whatsoever to the economic growth of the society that sponsored it. It would be a good even if it dampened the economic growth of the society that sponsored it. It’s surprising to me that among CT readers there would be any question about this.

20

Jim 12.06.04 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for the nice discussion of this issue. While I generally support the academic prestige argument, I think that many of the empirical studies have strongly over-stated the effect.

The problem is a statistical one related to available data. We only have data for these exchange structures based on people who actually get jobs, those who apply and do not get jobs are lost to the system. This means that when we see lots of hires from department x to department y, we can’t know if means that any given person from x is more likely to be hired, or if x just simply puts out a lot of students. In Sociology (Burris paper) the top departments are also very large. This is compounded (in the social sciences anyway, I’m just not familiar with the others) with pretty poor measures of quality production.

It seems the more interesting question is how strong the association should be. If the market were working perfectly, then would you find a stable hierarchical prestige ranking? I think the answer is “yes”, based on two re-enforcing selection features: good, dedicated students select into the best departments to work with high-quality faculty. So this skews the distribution of quality on the incoming side. On the output side, new applicants want to work at the highest prestige departments and the highest prestige departments want the best students. So if we *could* measure productivity/quality well, I suspect the results would generate a very stable hierarchy. (Of course, this is true in other fields too. Think of the ranking of large law, accounting or consulting firms.)

21

Stoll 12.06.04 at 3:35 pm

Judging from my wife’s experience the problem extends to the graduate school admissions level also. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Memphis. She finished her M.A. there having completed a study of approximately 1,250 churches within Shelby County (metropolitan Memphis). The study was described by faculty as being the equivalent of Ph.D. work, and she and a faculty member are considering publishing results. Her thesis won a university contest as the best M.A. thesis. She has presented papers at conferences, and has taught entry level and upper greaduate level courses at the U. of M. But, she cannot get accepted into the Ph.D. programs she has applied to (U. of M. does not have one). Our conclusion is that U. of M. is so low on the academic scale that she has been adversely affected. Though admittedly biased, I still cannot understand how this has happened.

22

Giles 12.06.04 at 3:38 pm

Interesting example Walt – I’d say that German Universties declined because of the War. Silicon valley was generated by people who dropped out academia – not people in academia.

An alternative hypothesis (Riddell) is that the US education premium is just a demographic phenomonon – caused by an experinece deficit.

23

Gabriel Rossman 12.06.04 at 5:48 pm

Stoll,

I’d imagine that once she actually publishes her research, admission should be no problem since graduate admissions committees weigh publications very heavily. Nonetheless the example is pretty compelling.

24

M. Gordon 12.06.04 at 6:43 pm

Cranky: Maybe this isn’t true of departments by philosophy, but academic research in general is an incredibly important driver of American economic growth.

Yes, but the problem that’s being moaned about sounds like it is endemic to philosophy, or perhaps the social sciences. In a more empirical field (e.g., physics), it’s all about the publications. Nobody cares if you went to Hoofydoo Ivy League University and published nothing but crap in RSI. Similarly, if you went to Small State U, and have three publications in PRL, people will notice. And, forgive me for suggesting this, but I think that the empirical fields are probably the ones driving economic growth.

I won’t argue with the assertion that philosophy produces a social good whether or not it drives economic growth, but that argument was posed by a different poster.

25

burritoboy 12.06.04 at 9:06 pm

As Kieran undoubtedly knows, Rakesh Khurana uses the same idea to explain CEO hiring.

26

Walt Pohl 12.06.04 at 10:42 pm

Scientists started leaving Germany in the 1930s, and the center of gravity of science began to shift from Germany to the United States. As for Silicon Valley, it’s not just the academic research itself, but the culture it creates.

M. Gordan: I’m sure it’s less true in fields like math and physics than it is in the humanities, but is it not true at all? I was curious if the paper included any sciences, but the link was broken. Anyway, I was just addressing Cranky’s point about teaching.

27

Iconic Midwesterner 12.07.04 at 5:39 pm

All of these arguments, although interesting, are pointless in the end. The situation of the top academic departments is analagous, in many ways, to 19th century urban political machines. Cronyism isn’t an exceptional occurance, it is the way things are done. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Academic departments themselves are inherently illiberal and almost aristorcatic in the way they function. You would need something like a new progressive era to impose something like “civil service” reform on academia. But there is no avenue in for reformist ideas, no way to bring effective pressure to bear on the academic elites from outside their enclaves, so its never gonna happen.

28

Anthony 12.09.04 at 12:25 am

Walt Pohl –

as much as it pains me, as a Berkeley grad, to say this, it’s Stanford, not CalTech, which is the research driver of Silicon Valley.

However, it’s not just Stanford’s prowess at research in the sciences, it’s also a policy which allows professors and grad students to profit from their research in ways which most universities don’t allow. If one does research into a highly marketable idea at Stanford, and finds the right backers, one can become far richer than if that same research was done at Berkeley.

29

Anthony 12.09.04 at 12:28 am

Walt Pohl –

as much as it pains me, as a Berkeley grad, to say this, it’s Stanford, not CalTech, which is the research driver of Silicon Valley.

However, it’s not just Stanford’s prowess at research in the sciences, it’s also a policy which allows professors and grad students to profit from their research in ways which most universities don’t allow. If one does research into a highly marketable idea at Stanford, and finds the right backers, one can become far richer than if that same research was done at Berkeley.

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