Prestige Bias in Philosophy
In this paper, I argue that prestige bias is both the first and the final hurdle to make academic philosophy more inclusive…. Prestige bias is a first hurdle to diversity, because countering it provides a wide-reaching way to make philosophy more diverse even if we did not increase our efforts to increase diversity specifically. By actively working against prestige bias in our assessment of doctorate-granting institutions, journals, topics to work on, and authors to follow, we can get diversity on the cheap, so to speak. We can cast a wider net in recruiting and retaining young philosophers, and many philosophical ideas can flourish. Prestige is also the final hurdle, because prestige bias has been relatively unchallenged compared to other forms of bias. Philosophers are becoming increasingly aware that sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism are not only morally wrong but also bad for the profession…
We can make the discipline only truly inclusive once we abandon prestige as a measure of quality. I start out by examining prestige bias in academia, focusing on philosophy. I then examine whether prestige bias might be justified by the claim that prestige is an imperfect but useful and quick heuristic of some other quality, such as raw philosophical talent or brilliance, or, in the case of journals, quality of argumentation. I show that this isn’t the case, and that there are reasons to suspect that prestige is often valued for its own sake, which creates worrying patterns of exclusion in philosophy, in particular for disabled, non-English speaking, female and other minority groups. I offer some concrete suggestions to counter prestige bias.
The above is from the abstract of “Prestige: the first and final hurdle for a more inclusive philosophy” by Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes). At the link you can find the abstract and the presentation slides (the paper itself is not yet available online).
Some thoughts of mine on the topic:
1. There seems to be a difference worth noting between prestige bias and biases regarding race, gender, sexuality, disability, class. If, under some conditions, we found that the biases in the latter group were in fact helpful in identifying philosophical quality, we would take that as a reason to find those conditions objectionable. In contrast, if prestige bias were in fact helpful under certain conditions in identifying philosophical quality, it is not clear that we would take that as a reason to find those conditions objectionable. In other words, we are open to the possibility that prestige tracks quality, even if, as a matter of contingent fact, it now doesn’t.
2. Prestige bias seems to arise, at least in part, from the outsourcing of judgment of philosophical quality: to rankings of departments, to the “consensus” on the quality of journals, to social stereotypes, etc. Such outsourcing saves time, and has the psychological advantage of being part of the dominant status quo practice. But it is easy to see that if too many people outsource too often and too thoroughly, then the system spins apart. Prestige becomes increasingly untethered to current and accurate assessments of quality, and pre-existing status hierarchies calcify.
3. Given the nature of philosophy, it seems implausible that there could be a metric that tracks philosophical quality as such. Yet, clearly, some philosophical works are better than others. If there are to be qualitative comparative assessments of philosophy, then it would seem that they would have to be within narrowly defined genres (e.g., contemporary analytic work on personal identity over time), in regard to some specified respect (e.g., rigor, creativity, plausibility, etc.), and, likely, in regard to some philosophical aim (e.g., arguing for a comprehensive theory, exploring new territory, raising problems for existing views, etc.). This makes comparative judgments of philosophical quality rather complicated. It also makes it unlikely that philosophical quality maps onto one other thing—especially something as messy and opaque as judgments of prestige.
4. It is tempting to read criticisms of prestige bias and dismiss them as “sour grapes.” That is a way of not engaging with arguments and evidence.
Here’s a previous post on prestige in academia.
Say I’m an undergrad looking for interesting places for graduate studies. I have a rough idea in which direction I want to take my work but I’m open to different fields and am geographically flexible. I cannot read a paper or book by every person in every department in the English / French / German-speaking world to judge for myself whether their work seems to be of good quality. So what other options are there than starting with the most prestigious places? And then narrow it down by interest and come up with a list of ten, twenty, thirty, forty people who seem to work roughly in the area(s) I’m interested in? Would anyone recommend taking a chance and just applying to whatever seem convenient for entirely non-philosophical reasons (say, geography) and trust that there will be some people there who do great work (whether they are known for it or not)?Report
I think this represents a somewhat wrongheaded approach to finding a supervisor. Sure, you can’t read a book or article (or even shorter piece) by every author, nor assess its quality. But there does seem a hidden assumption here, something like “the most prestigious philosophers make the best supervisors”, and there’s nothing to guarantee the truth of that (and enough actual counterexamples that we should feel pretty safe regarding the assumption as false). Indeed, even if we grant that prestige does/can track quality, it’s not clear that it tracks *supervisorial* quality. Indeed, you seem to try to force a false dichotomy: (given the impossibility of reading everything) either one has to start going through “the most prestigious places” or one is left with “taking a chance and just applying to whatever”. But the dichotomy is false. You yourself know what sort of student/philosopher you are, and have/can acquire some reasonable sense of how you work, what you like to work on, how you like to approach philosophy, etc. etc.
Supervisors aren’t one-size-fits-all, and I don’t see that any kind of thoroughgoing ‘prestige-metric’ (which I take to be what’s being suggested is needed for graduate students seeking supervisors) is going to really get at what’s important for supervisor-supervisee relationships.Report
Fighting prestige bias should definitely be a priority in the discipline. The need for this kind of work is especially clear in the application process, given how intimidating and even psychologically distressing it can be for undergraduate students at lower-tier/unknown schools. As a prospective applicant, I remember reading this passage from a post on The Splintered Mind and feeling completely discouraged:
“To get into the top-ranked philosophy departments is considerably more difficult than to get into UCR. To my knowledge no UCR undergraduate has ever been admitted to a top-15 philosophy Ph.D. program (certainly not in the 10 years I’ve been here), though we’ve had some students with straight A’s, very strong letters, and excellent writing samples. When I was a student at Berkeley, it seemed that almost all my classmates were from top universities (Harvard, Princeton) or renowned liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Swarthmore). The few who weren’t from such name-brand institutions seemed to have done time at such colleges (a classmate from Northeastern, for example, had spent a year at Oxford and had letters from professors there). I don’t want to suggest that it’s impossible for a student from a middle-tier school to get into a top Ph.D. program, but the odds appear to be long even if you’re valedictorian.”
Clearly, his point is just to warn students against thinking it is easy to get into a good philosophy program from a “lesser” undergraduate program; however, there is such an echo chamber in the discipline that it started feeling like it was actually impossible.
I had chosen to attend my particular university (a big–though often unknown–state school with a party reputation) for financial reasons, even though I had been admitted to “better” (more prestigious) schools. After reading that passage, and after reading/hearing the way people talked about the admissions process, I felt that I had somehow screwed myself from the very beginning, limiting my chances before I had even begun considering grad school.
Now, as it turns out, I was indeed admitted to a Leiter Top-10 institution. I don’t know if that means prestige bias is more slippery than we think, or if I just lucked out. But ultimately I think things need to change: good students who make sound college choices out of high school (for whatever reason–financial, family, etc.) should not be punished for those choices simply because they lack prestige. As we probably all know, good students can come out of lesser known schools, and bad students can come out of presigious ones. I don’t know exactly what to suggest to remedy the problem, but somehow philosophy admissions should find a way to let students’ work, first and foremost, speak for itself, rather than relying on any “hints” of philosophical ability from a letterhead.Report
“2. Prestige bias seems to arise, at least in part, from the outsourcing of judgment of philosophical quality: to rankings of departments, to the “consensus” on the quality of journals, to social stereotypes, etc. Such outsourcing saves time, and has the psychological advantage of being part of the dominant status quo practice. But it is easy to see that if too many people outsource too often and too thoroughly, then the system spins apart. Prestige becomes increasingly untethered to current and accurate assessments of quality, and pre-existing status hierarchies calcify.”
Hi Justin, Can you clarify? It seems to me that there’s something right about this, but I wonder if you think that it’s possible to get away from this outsourcing. I’m a pessimist. It seems quite plausible to me that there were certain opinions about prestige that existed before the Leiter Report (e.g., some of the sort of strange opinions that were shared with me when I was an UG by people who hadn’t heard of the report) that might have been altered by its introduction. If so, then it seems that we’re stuck with this kind of bias and probably can only hope to shape it or steer it in various ways. (Or maybe people think that exercises in ranking like the Leiter Report makes things worse or created a problem that didn’t exist before it. I’m highly skeptical of this last suggestion.)Report
No, I don’t think it is possible to get completely away from outsourcing. Nor is it desirable. Some outsourcing will make our lives more convenient, our jobs more efficient, and perhaps even in some cases our judgments more accurate. The problem is when the things to which we outsource our judgment go unchecked or remain insufficiently scrutinized and revised.Report
While doing research for this paper (which is still very much a work-in-progress), I was struck by the observation that prestige hierarchies (in departments and journals) exist in many academic disciplines, including sociology, computer science, business, economics, history, and English. And philosophy is not even particularly biased in that respect, there are fields such as English where prestige has an even bigger influence on someone’s ability to get any tenure-track job at all, when compared to philosophy. Perhaps the main difference between the PGR and rankings in other fields is that PGR has a few departments in its top that are not considered to be the traditional top/Ivy all things considered (e.g., Rutgers), but for the rest it exhibits features similar to other rankings in other fields (e.g., relative stability over time, in spite of faculty turnover).
Responding to David’s comment, I think it’s practical for a grad student to choose a prestigious programme, given their better placement records (Dicey-Jenning’s data show this, although there’s still about 15% of placements outside the PGR – make of this what you will), but I think it’s important for people who are (relatively speaking) in positions of power or privilege to be aware of prestige bias, and especially if they want to diversify, e.g., their pool of graduate students, to be led by things other than the pedigree of a candidate’s doctoral or undergraduate institution. I know that would require effort and rethinking how we can vet applications in a reasonable space of time, but I think it would be worth the effort.Report
I’m sympathetic to Helen De Cruz’s position here, but I’m not sure judgments about the prestige of a department are like judgments about the prestige of a journal in the relevantly harmful ways. In both the department case and the journal case prestige is supposed to be a proxy for quality, and that what the person who is relying upon prestige as a proxy is trying to do is get the highest quality candidate they can, given that he or she cannot (for whatever reason) personally evaluate the quality of the candidate or the candidate’s paper directly. We all know proxies are fallible: Some poor philosophers get PhDs from great places, and some very good philosophers come from mediocre departments. Likewise, there are bad papers in good journals and vice versa.
Still, I think most of the harmful biases De Cruz mentions seem to afflict judgments about the prestige of departments more than judgments about the prestige of journals, for the simple reason that prestigious publications are blind-reviewed and dissertation defenses are not. The judgment about the quality of a candidates work offered by the dissertation examiners is tainted by all the biases that De Cruz mentions, plus a few extra she doesn’t mention. For instance, departments face institutional pressures to push people through their programs quickly to reduce time to completion statistics. Further, departments also have incentives to to increase placement statistics which in turns provides an incentive to produce overheated letters of recommendation to try to help even marginal graduates get a job. Therefore, we have some reason to be wary about the judgment of a department (prestigious or not) about the quality of its own graduates. (There seems to be growing recognition of this fact, evidenced by the larger number of external letters of recommendation candidates seem to have been gathering in recent years, or at least so it seems to me anecdotally.)
By contrast, however, journal editors and referees don’t seem to face the same pressures. The referees for the prestigious journal presumably don’t have any demographic information about the candidate available to be biased about when making their judgment as to the quality of Y’s work. Nor, presumably does the journal editor know anything about the author’s affiliation when making the initial verdict about submission. Hence, I have much more confidence in the integrity of the journal’s judgment than I do in the integrity of the department’s judgment. At a prestigious journal, that judgment is: “This is a top-quality contribution, worth of inclusion in an extremely selective journal”. That, to me, says much more than the fact that somebody happens to have a shiny PhD.
Of course, one can reply that I’m overstating the power of the blind review process to eliminate bias. The blind review process isn’t always blind. Sometimes editors peek when they shouldn’t. Sometimes referees use google to try to figure out the identity of authors. Sometimes people are asked to referee a paper written by a friend. Further, there is the evidence, which De Cruz cites that women and underrepresented minorities publish substantially less often in top journals. I am happy to acknowledge all of these points. My claim is simply that these are all *failures* of blind review, not an intrinsic part of the evaluation as in the case of a dissertation defense. Therefore, broken or not, blind-review is still the best tool we’ve got. Thus, the right response to the failures of peer review is: first, a conversation about best practices about how to improve the blind review process in the age of the Internet (don’t post your works in progress or their titles to your website); second, a conversation about how to reach out to increase the numbers of submission to top journals by women and underrepresented minorities (inviting submission on a wider variety of topics, as Mind has recently done).Report
There is a lot of truth in this. However, I think it is also worth noting that submitting to high prestige journals is a big gamble for people on the job market. Even with a strong paper the chances are you will get rejected at least once, and this might mean the difference between having the paper on your CV or not when sending off applications. If you are from a high prestige institution this is less of a risk. The advantage you gain from your institutional affiliation somewhat makes up for potentially not having the paper on your CV. In this way institutional prestige bias makes quality of journal a less reliable indicator of quality (for recent graduates at least). Indeed, I believe the same kind of pressure leads people from mid level institutions to aim to push out many publications without taking the time to elevate their work to the next level.Report
Andy, I completely agree with your point about aiming high being a bigger gamble (on average) for students from less prestigious institutions. And so I also am happy to concede the point that there are ways in which institutional prestige can interact with journal prestige, as you mention.
However, I still think ranking candidates by prestige of publications makes more sense than ranking them by prestige of department, because ranking by prestige of publications is going to give us some false negatives (high-quality candidates who just didn’t get lucky enough to land something in Nous, perhaps due to lack of institutional support, etc.) but no false positives (low-quality candidates who happened to get lucky enough to sneak into a fancy PhD program). If what we’re trying to do is ensure the selected candidate is high-quality, that seems like the right strategy to me.Report
thank you for your efforts. I think this work is a valuable service and hope that it will open up pressing lines of conversations. Nevertheless, I am somewhat puzzled about the inclusion of disability and ableism in your abstract. You write: “I show that this isn’t the case, and that there are reasons to suspect that prestige is often valued for its own sake, which creates worrying patterns of exclusion in philosophy, in particular for disabled, non-English speaking, female and other minority groups.”
In your slides, you offer statistics and arguments to substantiate the claim that prestige bias disadvantages “women” and “racial and ethnic minorities”; however, I didn’t see anything like this information with respect to the the impact of prestige bias on disabled students and faculty. Is this sort of information offered in the paper itself? I saw only passing mention of “ableism” in the slides.
I think that prestige bias affects different social groups in different ways and for different reasons. To take one example: It would be interesting to find out the number of inaccessible buildings at the prestigious universities of the northeastern U.S. How many disabled students have crossed Ivy League University X off the list of potential sites after a campus visit demonstrated to them that their attendance at University X would be a constant source of frustration?Report
Hi Shelley – you are right there is a discrepancy between my abstract and the slides. I do think that accessibility concerns can influence grad students with disabilities in their decision to study at a prestigious university. Many prestigious places are very old (e.g., Oxford colleges) and so do not always take into account accessibility concerns. There’s also the problem of having to live far away from a potential support network. The reason I did not discuss this in the paper was that ultimately, the paper became quite numbers-driven and I do not have figures on how prestige might negatively affect disabled applicants (for grad schools, jobs etc). I would be very interested to discuss this in the paper when I present it for Bristol MAP, and it was an omission on my part for not doing so (the abstract and the talk itself were written with a gap in between).Report
I did a rudimentary search of the Russell Group site and couldn’t find any information about disabled students and enrollment figures or policies whose aim was to increase the number of disabled students or faculty, with the exception of some info about a STEM bursary that is sometimes awarded on the basis of disability.
I’m sure that you could get numbers for disabled students and faculty if you approached the appropriate administrative and legal offices of each of the universities in the Russell group (I think they are required to make that information available if a Freedom of Information request is made). To get general figures about the number of disabled students, faculty, and staff in the U.K., you could refer to the U.K. Equality Challenge Report (an annual report), which I’m sure you already know about.
Here’s an article about inaccessibility at Columbia: http://columbiaspectator.com/news/2016/03/08/students-and-faculty-disabilities-say-inaccessible-buildings-lack-awareness-limit
(I have an article about inaccessibility at UC Berkeley, but can’t locate it at the moment.)Report
here is an informative list. Notice how few “prestigious” institutions made it on the list:
Thanks for that, Shelley – it’s interesting. (I think that some college should hire whomever did the graphics, as they made all of the schools, even some I know personally to be not so pretty, look great!) Some of the schools are surprises – not what I would have guessed at all. For a philosophy Ph.D. student, I’m not sure the list is super disappointing, though, as there are several great places to study there, from which a graduate can get a job at all of the top schools in the US and beyond (Michigan, USC, Arizona, U.T. Austin – all of which have placed grads in top programs recently) and another quite good school, U Conn. I take this to be not ideal, but mildly heartening. (I have no idea how the particular faculties would be in making welcome and providing needed accommodations for disabled students, of course, and that would obviously matter.)Report
I went to a top M.A. program in philosophy, and when I began preparing PhD. applications, I sent one of my advisers my list of schools (mostly top 20 PGR), and I asked him if he would be willing to write me “exceptionally strong letters to each of the schools.” His response was that he would be happy to, but he added that I shouldn’t bother applying to most top twenty programs. He explained (and note that he has been working at this M.A.program for quite some time and has written many, many letters to PhD programs) that even if he wrote me the best letter that he had ever written, I still would likely not get in because “these schools tend to only take their own kind.” Other professors gave me and other students similar advice (young faculty members were the exceptions).
It seems to me that we should be concerned that a selective M.A. program that has been shipping out 13+ students to PhD programs a year for many years does not think that it can get a student into a top 20 program even if they write that the student is the best that they have ever had.Report
By the way, the “information” you received here is nonsense. There are lots and lots of people in top-20 schools from non-prestigious MAs and undergrad institutions, and lots from top MA schools like Tufts. I know of a couple of top-10 schools that are actively recruiting outside the usual prestige circles, and the result is a very diverse grad student body at both schools. Your professor did you a disservice with this advice.
One big factor here, in my opinion, is whether your less-prestigious school has letter-writers who are *known* by those at the upper-tier school. Letter-writer trust goes a long way, and if a friend at a less-prestigious school has consistently sent you great students, you’re more likely to trust their evaluations. I am not sure if this increases prestige bias or not.Report
Of course there are some students with less prestige glow who slip through. But the general point, that top schools are wildly over-represented at other top schools and that even the very best students from institutions featuring the word “State” are often excluded from the party, stands. I genuinely think that folks in the know have to admit that prestige, gender and race are the primary factors in PhD admissions, assuming a baseline level of excellence that over 100 of the applicants are going to have. And hey, maybe that’s fine. Maybe prestige tracks quality really well, and maybe top programs are getting applicants that are both excellent philosophers and bring a diverse perspective whom they can admit without sacrificing anything of philosophical value. But since prestige is so often tied up with white, upper class maleness, it is surprising that philosophers don’t seem interested in correcting for it.Report
It must take some sophisticated math to figure out how “race” could be among the “primary factors in PhD admissions” when only 1.3 % of philosophers in the U.S. are African American — even if most of them are being presumed manifestly less qualified. Or perhaps, “White Dude,” in an ironic riff on the standard “race card” meme, you’re suggesting that whiteness in an overwhelmingly white profession is the de facto race factor.
Jesse Helms “Hands” Ad, 1990:
Joe–I agree that what matters is most often does the ad com know your letter writer, but the odds that they know your letter writer are much higher if you are at a top ranked PGR school than a non-pgr state school. Also, if you look at the actual students who have been admitted recently to top five programs (that’s all I had time to go through) you will notice that only 4 out of the last 50 admitted students went to non-prestigious/pgr ranked American undergrad programs. Those are actual numbers.
Prime-I agree that there is no data that suggests that race is taken into account in admissions, but I think White Dude is correct that women have a huge advantage.Report
>I agree that there is no data that suggests that race is taken into account in admissions, **but I think White Dude is correct that women have a huge advantage.**
Where’s your data to support this?Report
When it comes to hiring and prestige, someone several years back on NewApps (John Protevi? Mark Lance?) made the argument that prestige or pedigree should actually pull in the other direction. If you have two candidates with equivalently good writing samples, evidence of teaching excellence, and so forth, where the first candidate came from a prestigious department and the second came from a non-prestigious department, you should go with the second candidate from the LESS prestigious department. I believe the reasoning was that the candidate from the prestigious department likely had a deeper supply of resources–more funding, fewer teaching responsibilities, more renowned and knowledgeable advisers–while the second candidate had done work as good as the first candidate with fewer advantages. I wonder whether in today’s job market, where candidates from prestigious departments are fortunate to get jobs even at schools with heavier teaching loads and less knowledgeable colleagues on whom one could depend for feedback on work, the case for going with the second candidate is even stronger. If she has graduated from a department with heavier teaching loads and fewer knowledgeable faculty advisers than the first candidate, hasn’t she already demonstrated that she could flourish in more teaching-oriented departments?Report
To Perplexed Job Marketeer.
I think that the person you are thinking about may have been me, though my official position is that search committees should simply IGNORE pedigree when it comes to selecting for the long-list. Having gone to a top school naturally confers a range of advantages, and it seems to me obviously unfair that candidates from Leiterrific schools should be rewarded twice over, once for the use that they have made of their advantages (by getting publications in top journals etc) and again for having had those advantages in the first place. Here are some places where I have argued this point.
However my alternative involves what Helen and Justin may regard as an element of prestige bias, since I think job candidates should be selected for on the basis of the number of papers published, multiplied by the prestige of the venues, divided by the time out from the PhD.. I don’t think this is bad for the reasons suggested by Shane Wilkins. I argued this point with Marcus Arvan. in the last-named site.Report
It was Mark Lance: http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/12/more-substantive-advice-to-admissions-committees.htmlReport
That’s the one–thanks, recent grad. But I do think that Charles Pigden is correct, that at the initial stages, pedigree would have to play NO role. Otherwise, candidates from non-prestigious departments would likely often be eliminated at the beginning and these situations described by Lance where we have two candidates–one from a prestigious department, one from a non-prestigious department–being compared against each other would not commonly, if ever, exist.Report
How should we weight the prestige of venues? You’re proposing a quantitative approach—to which I’m very sympathetic—but I wonder how it would actually work in practice.
Are we looking at impact factors, h-index, selectivity, number or readers, or some combination of those to come up with the journal weightings? How much weight should we give specialist publications in the applicant’s AOS vs. publications in general journals that don’t tend to publish a lot of work in the area?
Finally, I think your point about weighting productivity by time elapsed since the degree is spot on. All I would add to it is that we might also want to take notice of the how productivity has been balanced with teaching and other service responsibilities. A person who has published two papers a year for three years is impressive. But the one has has published those same six papers while teaching 6, 7, or 8 courses per year is *more* impressive than the person who has published the same six papers while on a research-only postdoc, other things being equal, no?Report
The short answer to Shane’s question is that (as a search committee member) I have never had to get really precise about journal rankings since I have never had to deal with a REALLY large number of applications. Fifty or sixty was perhaps the largest number that we ever had to cope with. I think that my colleagues and I operated with a rough idea of the prestige of the various journals based on such things as published journal rankings and our own sense of which journals were better and which best. A publication in Mind or Analysis or a top-ranked speciality journal would count for a lot more than a paper in the Nevereardovit Philosophical Quarterly or the NoName Journal of Philosophy. A paper in a top-ranked speciality journal would count for us a much as a paper in a top-ranked ‘general’ journal, especially if we were looking for a specialist in the relevant area. The number of applicants has never been so large that we had to make fine distinctions between – say – top-ten and top-twenty journals, and anyway the gradient between the top journals and the less distingushed ones has not been all that steep, (At a guess I would say we were, in effect, multiplying papers in top journals by 1 and papers in low-ranking journals by 0.5 or 0.4.) Search committees having to sort through *hundreds* of applications might have to make much finer distinctions in order to ‘stretch’ the list of candidates out and to prevent bunching. (If too many candidates come out tied, this makes the selection process much more laborious as you have to use *other* criteria to sort them.) How exactly departments should make these fine distinctions would be up to them and would depend on departmental priorities. For example, large, rich departments, which can afford to pay for specialists in out-the way areas, might place a higher value on papers in speciality journals, whilst departments, looking for scholarly excellence combined with versatility (small but ambitious departments for example), might give papers in specialist journals a relatively low ranking.
Turning to Shane’s second paragraph, I am glad he approves of my suggestion that the weighted number of publications should be divided by the time out from completion of the PhD. (Pre-PhD publications should be multiplied by the time TO completion.) The idea is that people should be neither favored nor discriminated against on account of their academic age. It ought to be about what you have managed to do with the time that you have had to do it, not how long you have been in the game. I agree too that it would be nice if there were some way of adjusting to take into account OTHER (non-research) demands on the candidate’s time. In particular it would be nice if a candidate could say, knowing it would not be held against her, ‘I got my PhD in 2013, but 2014 was a slow research year for me as I took time out to have a baby’. (This is an issue for me as my daughter is about to complete her PhD – NOT in philosophy– and would quite like to be able to have children in her optimal twenties rather than her sub-optimal thirties without prejudice to her academic career.) Is there a way this could be done? Yes. One line on the standard CV could be AAA (‘Adjusted Academic Age’) The candidates would list their dates of completion, together with any reasons for thinking that they might be academically ‘younger’ than they appear to be at first blush, such as having taken time out to do something non-philosophical. This would level the playing-field in all sorts of ways and would have the particular advantage making the profession a bit more woman friendly, given that many women – though not of course all ¬ – would like to have children and would prefer to have those children before their biological clocks have been ticking for too long. (I know of course that the are some women who can power through pregnancy and child-birth without missing a beat, but I don’t think this is true of everybody.)Report
I think that prestige bias at the hiring stage is particularly pernicious and irrational. We should all keep in mind that a person’s grad school pedigree is (i) based on out-of-date information and (ii) highly contingent. Whether a student got into a school with a PGR ranking of #10 or #31 often depends on what they looked like partway through their senior year of college. A *lot* of time has passed since then, and outsourcing our hiring decisions to the judgements of graduate admissions committees of PhD programs 5 to 10 years ago doesn’t make a lot of sense. And because there are such a huge number of applicants to good PhD programs, and decisions crucially depend on judgment calls on qualitative factors like the writing sample and letters of recommendation, what program you get into has a large element of luck. I know of people who got into prestigious programs on April 15 off of the waitlist because the 1 accepted person with the same interests declined an offer–and if that hadn’t happened, they would have gone to a much less prestigious place, with exactly the same application.
Even if we assume that graduates of prestigious schools are on average stronger than those of less-prestigious schools, there is no reason to rely on prestige as a proxy for strength. If those applicants are stronger, it ought to be reflected directly in their writing samples, publication records, and teaching materials. (I also think that it would be better if CVs and writing samples could be evaluated anonymously so that prestige bias doesn’t cause people to read the application materials of prestige+ applicants more charitably than those of prestige- candidates.)Report
Certainly, there’s some truth to this: “We should all keep in mind that a person’s grad school pedigree is (i) based on out-of-date information and (ii) highly contingent. Whether a student got into a school with a PGR ranking of #10 or #31 often depends on what they looked like partway through their senior year of college.”
But I must take issue with this claim: “… outsourcing our hiring decisions to the judgements of graduate admissions committees of PhD programs 5 to 10 years ago doesn’t make a lot of sense.” My problem with this is that when search committees rely on pedigree as a proxy, they’re not just considering that you were admitted to a top-5 program. They’re also considering that you survived and even thrived in such a program, many of which are incredibly cut-throat.
I went to a PGR top-5 program. Of course I accept that there was some contingency in my getting into this program. But once there, it was extremely hard work the whole way through. Many people dropped out. The star faculty members were largely indifferent to grad students. We had to bust our asses to convince them that our work was worth anything because we all assumed the way to get a job was to get good letters for them. That we would get decent letters from them was not at all a foregone conclusion. Further, we competed with each other because we suspected (though this might not have been exactly true) that our letter-writers would rank us, or at least would suggest how we compared relative to our peers, so we felt we had to be the best grad coming out in our AOS in a given year.
In short, my Ph.D. from a prestigious program doesn’t just represent the potential I had in college. It represents years of very tough work and that I was resilient enough to make it through, even with frighteningly smart peers and largely discouraging responses from faculty. If that kind of persistence doesn’t suggest something to search committees about whether I might be able to make it through a grueling tenure clock, I don’t know what would.
And a different point: there may be benefits to being from a non-Leiterrific program, at least in some cases. Suppose you are the star at your top-25 program. You might well get more attention from faculty than other students, and to be especially praised and pushed ahead when it comes to the market. But just because you’re a star at a top-25 program doesn’t mean you’d be a star at a top-5 program (it might, but it might not). So your letters from your top-25 faculty might be more glowing than they would be if you did the same work at a top-5 program. That is to say, to some extent, you are competing with your peers on the market, since search committees, as I understand it, try to figure out from letters where you stand in comparison to your peers. Those coming from very Leiterrific programs arguably have a disadvantage there.Report
Perhaps it is a small point, but I’m not sure how much I would like the idea of hiring someone who was groomed (and thrived) in a competitive environment with indifferent faculty. My worry is that such a competitive mood permeating a department can be a detriment to the communal element of said department. I would much prefer to be in a department with a vibrant community wherein students and faculty are happy to read the work of others and provide honest feedback without any sort of alterior motives (i.e. if I’m competing with this student and notice a crippling flaw in their work or think of such an objection, why shouldn’t I just let it blindside them to better my own position). In this sense I see competitive attitudes as not just capable of fostering a shitty community, but also having potential to turn out work that might be below individuals’ capabilities.
Hiring someone groomed in such an environment seems like a slippery slope in terms of the possibilities that could be opened up regarding the philosophical community at a given department.
Can’t we all just get along?
P.S. I’m sorry that your “star” professors were indifferent. Mine have had nothing but the most positive of impacts on both my philosophical work and my personal development.Report
I partly agree w/ you, Public Skool. At least, I don’t think the cut-throat atmosphere is an ideal breeding ground for future philosophers, and I wish grad school was not like this for anyone. But I do think that those who make it through show some grit and very likely, a very deeply-rooted interest in philosophy. I was attempting to highlight that point, not in the least to praise the competitive climate, which I personally find/found repulsive. And I was also wishing to highlight that simply getting into a good program isn’t a magic key to a kingdom. You actually have to do something while you’re there and find your way to the other side. Sometimes I see comments in threads like these that seem to suggest that those admitted into Leiterrific programs are comfortably ushered through into blissful careers, and I find that suggestion so utterly at odds with my own experience.
I would hope that those who come out of cut-throat programs manage to do so without becoming a**holes. I’d say some do, some don’t. I’m doing my best to be one of those who does not carry that hostility forward.Report
I can jive with this. I do think that in some sense the character of an applicant, insofar as it is able to be excavated or deciphered from the contents of the application, is something very important for admissions and hiring committees to consider.
It may not always be apparent, but I think that when one gets a whiff of hyper-competitiveness (as well as clues pointing to other character traits) they ought not be taken lightly, both good and bad. What the applicant has accomplished is very important, but I’m inclined to think that the way in which they come across (i.e. what sort of impression they give off) is just as important, maybe even more so.
What’s nice about this aspect of the application is that there’s relatively little that prestige in and of itself can say about an applicant’s personality.Report
Hi Philosopher. Thanks for the reply. I agree that the process of getting through a graduate program can make a difference, so it’s not just the “strength” (in whatever sense of “strength” is relevant) of the people initially getting into a program that matters. But I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help justify prestige bias.
I see two different ways that the process might help make the people coming out of program X stronger than the people coming out of program Y (leaving aside how strong they were entering the program). They’re not mutually exclusive:
(1) “Survival of the fittest.” Program X ruthlessly weeds out people, and the ones who make it through the gauntlet are stronger on average than the lucky duckies who got through program Y. (I worry that such a ruthless “weeding out” process doesn’t really select for people who are better at philosophizing, rather than mowing down its victims based on other irrelevant factors, or acting capriciously, but I’ll grant for the sake of argument that the rigors of a program could act in this sort of way.)
(2) “The Six Million Dollar Philosopher.” Compared to program Y or most other programs, program X excels in nurturing the aspiring philosophers in its care, making them better than they were before. Better … stronger … faster.
Here is my main problem: why think that prestige+ programs are on the whole better than prestige- programs in either of those ways? Prestige rankings of departments aren’t based on any detailed knowledge of what the graduate programs of those schools are like. Some might have “effective” hazing rituals, some might do an excellent job of developing their students’ talents, and some might be merely dysfunctional and indifferent to their students. And once again, if school X does do a particularly good job of helping increase the average philosophical skills of their graduating students through either of those methods, we should be able to measure that more directly through the applicant’s own work–writing sample, publication record, and teaching materials.Report
I think one of your points is right. There are people (possibly overrepresented in blog discussions) who think that you get a magic key to the kingdom if you graduate from a Leiterriffic program and don’t have good reasons to think that. (Maybe that changes/changed over time. I don’t know.) Still, I think there are a few points that I’d take issue with. I don’t doubt that it takes grit and determination to make it in a top program or that this might track attributes that hiring committees would find desirable in a candidate, but part of the issue here is comparative. There are many paths to the terrible search for a permanent position and I’m pretty sure that it takes grit and determination to follow any of them. Some people have to struggle to get ahead in the non-ideal circumstances you describe. Some people have to struggle to get ahead in the non-ideal circumstances that others describe when they describe their experiences searching for a permanent position with a degree from a non-Leiterriffic program. I guess I have a hard time seeing why we should think that an applicant from a top program has more by way of grit and determination than, say, someone who is on the market because they’re trying to get out of a contingent faculty position or someone who is on the market while being the primary care provider for a child.
“In short, my Ph.D. from a prestigious program doesn’t just represent the potential I had in college. It represents years of very tough work and that I was resilient enough to make it through, even with frighteningly smart peers and largely discouraging responses from faculty. If that kind of persistence doesn’t suggest something to search committees about whether I might be able to make it through a grueling tenure clock, I don’t know what would.”
Sure, I’ll buy most of this, but I wouldn’t buy this as a defense of giving grounds to prestige as a marker for higher than average levels of grit and determination. (I don’t know if this is part of what you’re driving at, but I think it’s an interesting issue.) I’d only buy that if someone could make the case that by attending such an institution a candidate was thereby put at a competitive disadvantage in the market. I’m not sure if you’re trying to make that case, but while I think you’re right that many of us harbor unrealistic views about how good people have it in the top programs, I don’t think that correcting this misconception would establish the claim about competitive disadvantage. (I’m not sure that you’re trying to establish that. And I think that much of what you say is a fair corrective to the kinds of claims that people sometimes make, which is that we should give weight to the candidates from less prestigious programs because of their grit and determination.)Report
I have one thing to add about cut-throatness and being “a star” among non-stars at a “top 25” and how it compares having to shine among many stars at a “top 5”. There are a lot of factors that go into selecting grad students for admissions, and it’s possible for a lower ranked program to have a wonderful group of excited and talented students. I’ve seen that. But yeah, those of you who are reminding us that grad students at higher-ranked programs are *likely* to be better, aren’t wrong. But that can actually make things harder for the “stars” in the lower ranked programs. I mean, it’s more pleasant and helpful to be among people who are good at philosophy and excited about it than it is to be among people who are neither of those things. And “lower-ranked” doesn’t somehow translate to “kinder”. Maybe there is a correlation there- I sort of suspect there is, but I really don’t know enough to say. The point is, sometimes it’s very hard for “stars” or anyone who is even perceived to be a star, to make it through the cut-throatedness in their programs. The moral of the story is that we’re obsessed with prestige. It’s intrinsically terrible and disgusting. Not to mention, it’s just distracting, and it gets in the way of getting good work done. We REALLY need to make it stop. SOMEBODY MAKE IT STOP!Report
There is a problem here. Any way you might try to measure prestige ‘bias’ as a proxy for philosophical quality (e.g., in hiring decisions) will have to assume, I take it, that prestige is the factor being used to the exclusion of, or weighted unduly more heavily than, other factors (like writing samples, letters, teaching evaluations, etc.). But how do we know that in hiring decisions, those other factors aren’t being given very heavy roles (perhaps more weighty than the prestige of an applicant’s grad program)?
The data showing that people with PhDs from prestigious depts are hired (at least by many other prestigious depts) more than those from other depts could be easily explained by search committees giving very strong weight to those other factors — particularly if those from prestigious depts have strong letters, writing samples, evals, etc.).Report
Yes, whatever the explanation, many grads coming out of top tier programs have stronger writing samples and research that has more potential for fruitful work in the future, i.e., their projects aren’t overly narrow or overly commentary-on-some-existing-literature. To simply suppose that search committees are hiring just on the basis of institution is incredibly uncharitable and ignores the inordinate amount of time search members put into reading work and scrutinizing candidates. If they were just looking at prestige, how much work they could spare themselves.Report
Don’t forget about base rates. How many PhDs from top depts are applying for TT jobs each year and not getting one? It turns out that most years in recent memory, many of their graduates fail to get TT jobs; in some years, half or more of the job applicants (many are just graduated, many are nearly-defended ABDs) of some top PGR depts do not get jobs. In other words, claims of rampant prestige bias can lead one to think that all or nearly all the applicants coming out of NYU, Rutgers, Princeton (et al) are getting TT jobs; but that’s false. So at the very least, we need clarification on what exactly ‘prestige bias’ is supposed to amount to.Report
I’m in complete agreement, M. I did not mean my comment to suggest that in fact, those at top programs are doing better overall than others. I was rather suggesting that if they are, superior writing samples & research programs might easily explain this.
In fact, the recent placement data from Jennings seems to suggest that Leiterrific programs aren’t performing that well. Sure, some people from these programs get stellar jobs. But what goes unnoticed is the many, many people from those programs who get very little or nothing, who labor for years without employment. There are tons of those people. I know this too well, because I went to such a program and am well aware of how many under/unemployed grads from my program are still trying to get something, even while some of their peers immediately got plum offers.Report
M, I am afraid you are wrong here. For the data-set includes may self-reports by search-committee members who openly admit to using pedigree as a weighting factor. Indeed the practice has been publicly defended, by, among others, Brian Leiter. Unless you assume either that all these people are lying or that they are a radically self-deceived about how prestige-driven their hiring decisions really are, then I think you must admit that weighting for pedigree is a widespread practice. Furthermore , since weighting for pedigree is simply unfair it follows that all such weighting is, to use your terminology, ‘undue’.
I think it highly likely that if pedigree were systematically ignored, people from top-ranked programs would still do better on average than people from less distinguished schools, since they have been selected, in part, for perceived talent and have had, on average, a better education. . How much better? Who knows? If search committees could be persuaded to be a little less snobbish, then perhaps we could run the experiment and find out.Report
Charles: you say you think it “highly likely that if pedigree were systematically ignored, people from top-ranked programs would still do better on average,” for the reasons you indicate. But if you thought that, why would you think that “weighting for pedigree is simply unfair”? Especially when such weighting presumably derives in part from one’s own experience with graduates from certain of those elite places?
Yes, many people may self-report to weighting for pedigree. But many committees also self-report ignoring pedigree, fighting against those who do, or systematically anonymizing the CVs and other application materials they evaluate. So it seems that we are in fact, in some circles, running the experiment. What is needed is to get data from those searches.Report
The issue here is whether it is fair to weight for pedigree as opposed to actual achievements . Here are my reasons for thinking that it isn’t. I am reposting them from a debate that I had with Brian Leiter a few years back (Google ‘Stale PhDs), since I get fed up with finding slightly different words to make the same very obvious points over and over again.
Brian thinks that I am a bit extreme in suggesting that pedigree should not be a consideration for fair-minded search committees. His argument is that ‘pedigree is a decent if defeasible proxy for training’ and that other things being equal it better to have a philosopher you have reason to believe to be well-trained rather than one of whose training you are effectively ignorant. If training were all you had to go on this might be a good argument. But in the current climate it is not. Nowadays there are plenty of philosophers who have given evidence of the use that they have made of their training, whether good or bad. It is surely irrational to prefer someone you only believe to be well-trained over somebody who has demonstrated that they have profited from whatever training they may have received. And if it irrational to prefer pedigree to achievement it is unfair to prefer achievement-plus-pedigree to achievement alone. For that is to reward the candidate who has done well given good chances over somebody who has done equally well given worse ones. If Sophie F with a PhD from Boondock U is as well-published (given her time out from completion) as Yolanda Y with a PhD form NYU, then it seems most unfair to prefer Yolanda to Sophie, simply because Yolanda had a better start in life. If anything it ought to be the other way around.
Brian says that ‘there is a reason that, e.g., almost everyone from NYU these days does very well on the job market, and it’s not mindless pedigree worship, it’s because these students worked with really good philosophers’. Perhaps so. But let’s reward them for what they have made of their opportunities and not simply for having had such wonderful opportunities in the first place. And that’s precisely what my publication-based heuristic would be likely to do. If they have benefited from working with those ‘really good’ philosophers, this will tend to show up in their record of publications, and NYU alumni will continue to prosper. But they won’t be prospering for no better reason than that they had a better chance in life than their rivals.Report
Here’s the second instalment of my debate with Brian (after this he shut the discussion down on the grounds that we were drifting off-topic).
Returning the charge. You are on the admissions committee for an Oxbridge college. You have two candidates for one place (and remember folks, getting in to Oxbridge a very big deal in the UK, a real life-changer). The two candidates have equal scores on the entrance exam, but one is from Eton and the other from a state school. (This is some time ago. The Oxbridge entrance exam has now been abolished.) You choose the Etonian on the grounds that he has had a better training and is therefore more likely to shine in his finals thus maintaining the college’s illustrious status at the top of the academic rankings. Obviously unfair, yes? An obvious perpetuation of privilege, right? And obviously silly too since the state school candidate has done equally well with a worse education and is therefore likely to be the smarter of the two.
Now in the current climate, when it comes to permanent hires we have ample and easily accessible evidence of philosophical talent in terms of papers published, multiplied by the prestige of the venues, divided by the time out from the PhD. That’s the equivalent of the entrance exam. Suppose we have two candidates one educated at NYU and the other at Boondock U who both get the same scores on their publications. We pick Sophie from the NYU rather Yolanda from Boondock U on the grounds that Sophie has had a better training and is therefore more likely to shine as a researcher thus maintaining the our department’s Leiterrific status at the top of the academic rankings.
Obviously unfair, yes? An obvious perpetuation of privilege, right? And obviously silly too since the Boondock U candidate has done equally well with a worse education and is therefore likely to be the smarter of the two.
Let’s go back to the Oxbridge example. Again we have one place. This time we have two candidates, an Etonian who hasn’t taken the entrance exam AT ALL but has got a REALLY good write-up from his housemaster and the state school candidate who has taken the entrance exam and done very well. But we choose the Etonian a) because he had a better training than the state school candidate and b) because his housemaster (whose pay and status is partly dependent on how many of his students he can get into Oxbridge) recommends him very highly. If it came out that admission decisions had been made on this kind of basis there would have been a public outcry and rightly so. But it seems that when it comes to TT hires, analogous decisions are being made right right now across America. People with the right pedigree but no publications are being hired over people with good publications but a less distinguished pedigree. This seems to me a disgrace: obviously unfair and not only unfair but deeply irrational if the object of the exercise is to hire competent and productive scholars.
I suggest a two-track solution. 1) Pedigree should not be a consideration at any state of the selection process. Period. 2) The first cut should be made on the basis of publications times the prestige of the venues divided by time out for the completion of the candidate’s PhD. Though far from perfect this would be a lot less unjust and a lot less irrational than what currently seems to be going on.
Only after this did it occur to me that my argument implicitly takes for granted another kind of prestige bias. Definitely in Britain and often elsewhere, getting into Oxbridge will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life. I am pretty sure that it has worked pretty well for me.Report
I didn’t see a definition above. It might be helpful to offer a definition of “prestige bias” in order to better understand this or prevent negative effects from happening. As “M” suggests above there is some nuance to people’s decisions. Is the idea that things like perceived quality of someone’s education should never be counted as relevant in any way to decisions like hiring? Or is the idea that this can sometimes be a reasonable factor, among many others to countenance, but that this becomes a bias when doing so at inappropriate strengths in proportion to people’s other actual accomplishments or other factors the scholarly community deems valuable.Report
I think we should get rid of prestige bias (especially, e.g., things like simply weeding out all of the candidates from schools outside the top ten, or twenty, or whatever, at the first stage (unless there are extreme mitigating factors, e.g. letters from famous people within the top ten, stellar publications, etc.), which I know is how some elite departments conduct searches. But two quick things:
1) We shouldn’t conflate explicit prestige bias (like the above, or actually using it as a weighing factor) with just the fact that people from top schools tend to get “top” jobs. To do so seems a bit like assuming that on average all grad students at all programs are similarly good, and this is just not true.
2) How big of an issue you think this is depends I think on how desirable you conceive of different kinds of jobs as being. Lots of less prestigious departments have been doing significantly better with placement in terms of raw number of tt jobs than more prestigious departments have (I don’t want to call any departments out, but I’m pretty sure that at least one, and I think more than one, “top ten” school placed zero first time job candidates in tt jobs this year, and I know of schools pretty far down the rankings that placed at least four–and if anything the size difference goes in the opposite direction of what you might expect would mitigate this mismatch). Maybe if we stopped assuming that R1 and “elite” jobs are somehow intrinsically better, we would also see that prestige bias can also hurts candidates from elite schools.
If we’re going to abolish prestige bias (which I think we should), I’d like to ask departments to stop tossing files from people they think are “too good” for them. I don’t just mean: this person came from a top school and (e.g.) lacks a lot of teaching experience. I mean: this person is clearly outstanding so they are definitely going to get better offers, so we shouldn’t even bother interviewing them. Both prestige bias and this kind of “reverse” prestige bias feed the system of intellectual snobbery and elitism. And anyone who thinks that students from elite programs have it easy, or are even any more likely to land a tt job, should look at this year’s placement numbers (though I’ve noticed that lots of top ten schools have not made placement data for this year available, or have made it available in a misleading way, which I suspect is no coincidence).Report
I’m not sure it’s safe to reject the assumption that on average all grad students at all programs are similarly good. There might be some positive correlation between (i) a student’s talent or ability and (ii) the prestige of their grad program. But things like raw talent and ability are notoriously hard to evaluate accurately, and it’s not clear how teaching talent and research talent correlate. In fact, there seems to be a widespread (false) belief that they correlate negatively. If we reject the the assumption that on average all grad students at all programs are similarly good, we’ll continue to face the very problems you’re worried about. Namely, grads from elite programs will be automatically considered bad fits for teaching jobs, and grads from lower ranked programs will be passed over for research jobs.Report