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Faculty Hiring Dominated by Graduates of Elite Institutions

SAN JOSE, California — Faculty careers are shut off to all individuals with Ph.D.s except those from a small number of universities, a new study of 19,000 faculty hiring decisions reveals. The research appears in the 12 February issue of the open-access journal Science Advances.


Aaron Clauset answers reporters' questions at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting. | AAAS/Ashley Gilleland

The analysis by Aaron Clauset at the University of Colorado Boulder and colleagues revealed that only 25% of the institutions produced 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty. Between 70 and 90% of professors at these elite schools received their doctorates from other elite schools, while only about 5% received training outside this group.

The researchers also uncovered a systematic bias against women with elite doctorates, who slid further down the hierarchy in their faculty jobs compared with men from the same institutions.

"We can see there is this bias in the system, but we can't say yet what causes the bias." Clauset said, speaking to journalists at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting. There are a variety of possible reasons for this that the researchers hope to explore next, to determine whether there might be bias in hiring decisions, or if women are exiting the job pipeline in different ways than men.

Clauset and his colleagues spent three years compiling this massive hiring record, without the aid of any centralized database."There is no organization that actually tracks faculty placements generally in academia, or even within most disciplines," said Clauset.

"These findings may help individuals who are contemplating a faculty career, and I hope they encourage a frank discussion more generally of whether the system is operating the way we want it to," he added.

“What this paper essentially tells us is that we have important, fundamental and basic forces working in the academic hiring system that are working against diversity, and that should be troubling to everyone in higher education," said Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science Advances. "Because it’s not just merit, it’s not just necessarily the best and brightest, but there is some insider club that is deciding who is being placed in the top spots.”

The study looked at the educational history of current faculty members in computer science, history, and business fields who received their doctoral degrees from 461 institutions across North America.

Ranking schools based on their position within this faculty hiring network may be a more accurate predictor of a Ph.D. graduate's eventual academic placement than authoritative rankings by the U.S. News & World Report and the National Research Council, the authors say.

The same methods used in this study could be used to assess the educational outcomes of undergraduate programs, or be applied to different networks such as the movement of employees among companies.

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flazingo Photos/CC BY 2.0]