The Prestige Hierarchy: Five Universities Trained One Of Every Eight Tenure-Track Faculty At Doctoral Universities


According to a new study, one in eight (13.8%) of U.S.-trained tenure-track faculty members employed at doctoral universities earned their PhDs from just five prestigious universities: the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Stanford University; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

In addition to that remarkable discovery, the study, Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty hiring and retention, published online in Nature, also found that 20% of PhD-granting institutions in the United States awarded the doctoral degrees of 80% of tenure-track, U. S.-trained faculty members employed at major universities across the country.

In order to examine the extent to which institutional prestige plays a role in faculty hiring, the authors of the study examined the educational background of tenured or tenure-track faculty employed between 2011–2020 at 368 PhD-granting universities in the United States. The total sample included 295,089 faculty in 10,612 academic departments.

The research team – K. Hunter Wapman, San Zhang, Aaron Clauset and Daniel Larremore, all of whom are at the University of Colorado – obtained these data from the Academic Analytics Research Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

To examine whether the institutional prestige effect varies depending on the field of study, Wapman and his colleagues sorted the faculty members into 107 academic fields (such as Physics, Psychology, Ecology) and eight domains (Education, Natural Sciences, Applied Sciences, Math and Computing, Social Sciences, Engineering, Humanities, Medicine and Health).

Even when divided into the eight different domains of study, the prestige effect remained powerful, with 80% of faculty trained at a range – depending on the domain – of between just 19% to 28% of the nation’s doctoral universities.

The Prestige Hierarchy

The study also found that it’s hard to move up the prestige hierarchy, as most PhD’s who’ve ever been on the academic job market can attest. The institutional pecking order of “who hires whom” is remarkably steep across all field and domains of study, ranging from only 5% (classics) to 23% (animal science) of faculty employed at universities more prestigious than their doctoral university.

Measured by how much they restrict such upward mobility, prestige hierarchies are most steep in the Humanities (12% upward mobility) and Mathematics and Computing (13%) and least steep in Medicine and Health (21%). The researchers describe academia’s hiring network this way: “a connected core of high-prestige universities that exchange faculty with each other and export faculty to—but rarely import them from—universities in the network periphery.”

Prestige of a faculty member’s doctoral university also affects the likelihood of them leaving their employing institution. Professors who earned their graduate degrees from less prestigious schools leave the field more frequently that their peers who trained at more elite institutions, a pattern that was also discovered for professors who trained outside the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

Gender Effects

The study also sheds light on the percentage of women hired on the tenure-track because the researchers were able to identify the gender of 85% of their sample of faculty. Whereas the majority of tenure-track U.S. faculty in this data set were men (64%), the percentage of women significantly increased over time in academia overall, in all eight domains and in 80 (75%) of the 107 fields.

But that increase occurred primarily because of an unequal swap – a majority of the faculty who retired in this period were men, compared to a higher proportion of women among the newly hired faculty. In fact, women’s overall representation among new hires has remained flat over the past decade, and newly hired faculty were still more likely to be men. Gender parity among college faculty is far from imminent.

Self Hires

Faculty who are employed by their doctoral university after earning their degree – known as self-hires – accounted for about one in 11 (9.1%) of all U.S. professors in the study. That’s a surprisingly large percentage, given the historical hesitancy in higher education to engage in the practice of “academic inbreeding.”

It turns out that self-hires are more likely to leave their employing institution than non-self-hires. Self-hires leave at 1.2-fold the rate of other faculty, a risk factor found in all eight domains and in 36 of the 107 fields.

The researchers also found that sitting faculty are more likely to be self-hires as the prestige of the university increases, but this relationship becomes progressively weaker among younger faculty cohorts and was either attenuated or not significant for new hires.

While the authors are careful to note a number of limitations in their study, the results add to a growing body of findings that tend to undercut the notion that academic hiring is a level playing field. For example, another recent study found that tenure-track faculty are up to 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a Ph.D, and that rate is nearly twice as large at prestigious universities.

The implications of this stratification of university faculty are profound. It challenges the belief that the hiring and professional development of faculty involves a straight-forward meritocracy. It highlights the degree to which access to the professoriate is influenced by socioeconomic status and institutional elitism. And – most important – it raises serious questions about how these factors may constrain the questions that scholars ask and the implicit biases they may be bring to their scholarship.

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