The Academy’s Dirty Secret

An astonishingly small number of elite universities produce an overwhelming number of America’s professors.

The top 10 universities produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20. Above, Harvard University’s Kirkland House.

Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Photo by William B. Plowman/Getty Images.

The United States prides itself on offering broad access to higher education, and thanks to merit-based admissions, ample financial aid, and emphasis on diverse student bodies, our country can claim some success in realizing this ideal.

The situation for aspiring professors is far grimmer. Aaron Clauset, a co-author of this article, is the lead author of a new study published in Science Advances that scrutinized more than 16,000 faculty members in the fields of business, computer science, and history at 242 schools. He and his colleagues found, as the paper puts it, a “steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.” The data revealed that just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in these three fields. Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.

While elite universities, with their deep resources and demanding coursework, surely produce great professors, the data suggest that faculty hiring isn’t a simple meritocracy. The top schools generate far more professors than even just slightly less prestigious schools. For example, in history, the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20.

One explanation for this skewed hiring system is that lower-prestige institutions are trying to emulate their high-prestige brethren. For a university, the easiest way to burnish your reputation is to hire graduates from top schools, thereby importing a bit of what made these institutions elite in the first place, while signaling to prospective students and faculty that you attract top talent.

Another factor could be that it’s not easy for schools to evaluate job applicants on merit alone, because merit can be difficult to define or measure. In the tenure system, a professor might work at the same institution for 40 years. But when hiring for tenure-track positions, schools often have to guess about lifelong productivity based on just a few years of experience. Hiring faculty is therefore a high-stakes decision; while you can always deny someone tenure, doing so means you’ve wasted years nurturing talent that you don’t want to keep. With so much uncertainty involved in the process, it may be natural to go with what seems like a safe choice: an applicant trained at a high-prestige school, even at the expense of exciting candidates from slightly less elite institutions.

At first glance, this hiring system may be seem like good news for college students at least. Whether you go to a prestigious or less prestigious school, you’ll be learning from the best of the best. But the situation isn’t so rosy for the students who dream of making ground-breaking discoveries as faculty members themselves. The elite schools are producing so many job-seekers on the faculty market that they can’t hire them all themselves, so the vast majority end up at less elite schools. That means that even if you manage to be admitted to a Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, the chances are slim that you’ll stay at that university, or even a similar university, when it’s time to get a faculty job. In fact, after graduating with Ph.D.s, only about 10 percent of faculty move “up” the academic prestige hierarchy as defined by the Science Advances study (with “prestige” being determined by the university’s ability to place faculty at the widest variety of other institutions). Most faculty instead slide 25 percent down the scale.

Here’s further evidence that the current system isn’t merely sorting the best of the best from the merely good. Female graduates of elite institutions tend to slip 15 percent further down the academic hierarchy than do men from the same institutions, evidence of gender bias to go along with the bias toward the top schools.

Robert Oprisko is among those who believe the hiring system isn’t a meritocracy. He graduated in 2011 with a Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University. He had won a hefty number of awards, published articles, and had a book contract for his dissertation. But the best he could do on the job market was a one-year visiting assistant professorship at Butler University. Now he’s a research fellow at Indiana University, a position that doesn’t pay, but, as Oprisko puts it, “makes you appear that you are still in the system, so it gives you a prayer of getting a job within the academy.”

At the same time Oprisko was struggling to find work, he says his Ivy League political science colleagues, like a friend of his at University of Pennsylvania, had no problem landing elite postdocs and professorship opportunities. “He’s a wonderful guy, but he hadn’t actually done anything,” Oprisko says of his friend from UPenn. And Oprisko doesn’t think he’s imagining this bias against him; he says he’s been told by his mentors that, “There is an imprimatur of being ‘Ivy’ all the way down. You’re the cream of the crop if you can claim to be of a certain status from bottom to top.” He’s stopped listing his master’s degree from Indiana State on his résumé. He’s been told it’s better to have it appear as if he was doing nothing at all during that time than to be associated with a low-prestige school.

Oprisko’s experiences inspired him to research faculty hiring on his own. In 2012, he conducted a review of the 3,709 political science professors who were then employed by Ph.D.-granting universities and found that just 11 schools had produced 50 percent of the total. Harvard, at the top of the list, was responsible for 239 of the professors. Purdue, on the other hand, was responsible for 10 of them.

These facts bring up an uncomfortable question for nonelite universities, which account for the large majority of all Ph.D.-granting institutions. Both Clauset’s and Oprisko’s research suggests most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting Ph.D.s at all?

Clauset’s findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Yes, being a professor isn’t simply about making it to the top of the heap. But imagine if you had to start your chosen profession knowing that unless you were among a select few, you might never land a job.

Of course, some people do manage to move against the current. Who are they, and what makes them special? To find out, Sam Way, a doctoral student in Clauset’s research group at University of Colorado–Boulder, mined the information on the 16,000-plus faculty members in the study, looking for those who achieved the greatest positive difference between the rank of their Ph.D. institutions and the rank of the universities where they now work. We then contacted a few of these standouts to find out what it took for them to move up the academic ladder.

For starters, it took a heck of a lot of work. “I killed myself,” says one female business professor who worked her way up from a midlevel undergraduate university to a top-level faculty job. To get there, she labored so hard she alienated her fellow students, annoyed her academic adviser, and even sacrificed her health. (“Looking back, I must have been insufferable,” she says.) She requested that we not use her name or credentials, because she says some of her former colleagues are “weirdly conflicted” about her success—and her success in her field is so unique that even just revealing the universities she’s been associated with would give her away to her associates.

Jim Herbsleb also had to hustle to get from the University of Nebraska (ranked 128th in prestige in the Science Advances study, where prestige was determined by a university’s ability to place faculty at the widest variety of other institutions), where he earned his Ph.D., to Carnegie Mellon University (ranked seventh), where he’s now a computer science professor. The key step, he says, was a successful stint as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan (ranked 28th). “Once you have a track record, people tend to care much more about what you’ve actually done and less about weaker predictors of how you will do in the future, such as the stature of your degree-granting institution,” he says. “The most difficult part is the first step, having the opportunity to build the track record.” For Herbsleb, that first step wasn’t easy: He cold-called his prospective postdoc adviser, Gary Olson, and offered to work for free until a postdoc position became available. “I did programming, data collection and analysis, literature reviews on new topics they needed to know about, and whatever else came along,” he says. “I thought of myself as a kind of ‘walk on,’ like someone unknown who shows up to try out for a sports team. Sometimes they make it.”

It also helps to have someone very powerful in your corner. Adam Siepel, for example, believes he was able to move up from the University of California–Santa Cruz (ranked 32nd), where he earned his computer science Ph.D., to an elite faculty jobs in computational biology at Cornell University (ranked sixth), mostly because of the reputation of his particular Ph.D. program: Siepel worked under David Haussler, who famously spearheaded the first successful effort to sequence the human genome. “It wasn’t your typical U.C. Santa Cruz graduate training experience,” says Siepel. “I had a pretty easy time.”

These days, however, competition in the field of computational biology has become so fierce Siepel isn’t sure that the reputation of someone like Haussler would be enough to land him a job. “I turned down higher-ranked graduate schools to go to Santa Cruz,” he says. “If the job market had been what it is like today, that might not have been the most strategic decision.”

It’s not clear how, exactly, to fix this skewed hiring system. There’s no central regulating body that coordinates hiring across institutions—and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine the elite universities, which often dominate conversations in the world of higher education, would support major changes, since they benefit from the current system where their students land the most, and best, jobs.

It’s not just young scholars who suffer under the current hiring hierarchy; innovation across all disciplines may be stifled. Because graduates from only a small number of universities account for the majority of faculty jobs, new ideas and discoveries from those elite institutions may be far more likely to gain traction in academia and in the wider world than those from outside this group. (Not to mention that bad ideas coming out of this core group of schools may get more attention than they deserve.)

History is full of examples of important discoveries that were slow to catch on because they came from academic outsiders, from continental drift to the origin of eukaryotic cells to the existence of quasicrystals. Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.