The “Influence of Prestige” in Academia

I’ve been meaning to write a post about a recent article that has attracted a fair amount of attention in the past few weeks.  The article, Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks by Aaron Clauset et. al., appeared in Science Advances in February.

As the Slate article points out, the authors systematically analyze a rather troubling trend in faculty hiring, one where “faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.”  I was very interested in this article, not only because I was on the job market this year but also because Aaron was my host when I interviewed at CU Boulder for a faculty position at their (very impressive) BioFrontiers Institute.

Consider a collection of institutions.  For each institution, we have information about where their graduates obtain faculty positions at the other institutions in the collection.  The authors define a “prestige hierarchy” as an ordered list of these institutions, and the “hierarchy strength” is the fraction of graduates that get faculty positions at institutions lower down on the list.  A large strength value means that no graduate has a chance of moving up the list when obtaining a faculty position.

Across disciplines, we find steep prestige hierarchies, in which only 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions more prestigious than their doctorate…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. Clauset. et. al.

The main point of this article can be summed up in a picture. It’s a network, actually – Aaron develops algorithms to analyze networks (including biological ones – hence his affiliation with BioFrontiers).   The nodes are universities, and the edge widths convey the percentage of graduates from that university that obtain a faculty position at the university it points to.  This network can be rearranged to form an ordering — or a prestige hierarchy — that minimizes the number of “downward” weights on the edges.

Fig. 1 Prestige hierarchies in faculty hiring networks. (Top) Placements for 267 computer science faculty among 10 universities, with placements from one particular university highlighted. Each arc (u,v) has a width proportional to the number of current faculty at university v who received their doctorate at university u (≠v). (Bottom) Prestige hierarchy on these institutions that minimizes the total weight of “upward” arcs, that is, arcs where v is more highly ranked than u.

One conclusion from the article is that doctoral prestige is an accurate estimator of faculty placement.  In other words, if I know where you did your Ph.D., I have a pretty good idea where you will become a faculty member.  I really screwed with the system by choosing to become a faculty member at a liberal arts school, but it is interesting to see this prestige hierarchy.

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