Quantifying the Influence of Prestige

Quantifying the Influence of Prestige


A new study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers focuses on “who hires whose graduates as faculty” in order to “present and analyze comprehensive placement data on nearly 19,000 regular faculty in three disparate disciplines. Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.” The disciplines the authors looked at were computer science, business, and history, but were thought to be sufficiently different from one another so as to be an adequate basis for making some generalizations about academia overall.

Some of the findings:

  • Across the sampled disciplines, we find that faculty production (number of faculty placed) is highly skewed, with only 25% of institutions producing 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty.
  • Across disciplines, we find steep prestige hierarchies, in which only 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions more prestigious than their doctorate (ρ = 0.86 to 0.91). Furthermore, the extracted hierarchies are 19 to 33% stronger than expected from the observed inequality in faculty production rates alone… indicating a specific and significant preference for hiring faculty with prestigious doctorates.
  • When combined with the observed inequality in faculty production across institutions, the average rank change implies that a typical professor can expect to supervise two to four times fewer new within-discipline faculty than did their own doctoral advisor. This falloff in faculty production is sufficiently steep that only the top 18 to 36% of institutions are net producers of within-discipline faculty.
  • A greater fraction of faculty trained at higher-ranked institutions make smaller moves down the hierarchy than those trained at lower-ranked institutions.
  • Male and female faculty experience similar but not equivalent rank change distributions… with the median change for men being 21 to 35, whereas that for women being 23 to 38. Differences by gender are greatest for graduates of the most prestigious institutions in computer science and business… That is, the hierarchy is slightly steeper for elite women than for elite men in these disciplines. In contrast, we find no gender difference in median placement for history.
  • Across disciplines, prestige hierarchies make the most accurate predictions of faculty placement.
  • High-prestige institutions are separated from all other institutions by many fewer intermediaries than are low-prestige institutions. As a result, faculty at central institutions literally perceive a “small world” as compared to faculty located in the periphery.

The authors make available a very well-designed interactive graphic with which you can explore the data.

In their discussion of their findings, they write:

These results demonstrate the enormous role of institutional prestige in shaping faculty hiring across academe, both for institutions and for individuals seeking faculty positions. Prestige hierarchies are also likely to influence outcomes in other scholarly activities, including research priorities, resource allocation, and educational outcomes, either directly through prestige-sensitive decision making or indirectly through faculty placement. Despite the confounded nature of merit and social status within measurable prestige, the observed hierarchies are sufficiently steep that attributing their structure to differences in merit alone seems implausible.

They also raise some questions for further study:

More broadly, the strong social inequality found in faculty placement across disciplines raises several questions. How many meritorious research careers are derailed by the faculty job market’s preference for prestigious doctorates? Would academia be better off, in terms of collective scholarship, with a narrower gap in placement rates? In addition, if collective scholarship would improve with less inequality, what changes would do more good than harm in practice? These are complicated questions about the structure and efficacy of the academic system, and further study is required to answer them.

The study is here. Its authors are Aaron Clauset (Colorado, Computer Science), Samuel Arbesman (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation), and Daniel B. Larremore (Harvard, Epidemiology).

Inside Higher Ed has an article about it here, and there are discussions at The Philosophers’ Cocoon and Digressions & Impressions.

UPDATE: Helen De Cruz posts some related numbers from philosophy and other fields here.

(image: screen captures from the study’s  interactive graphic)

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