Only Harvard Grads need apply

It’s hard to take articles in Slate too seriously, but I have to admit I was quite perplexed about the following article (with the concomitant research publication here).

The main thrust of the article seems to be as follows. A disproportionate number faculty at research universities in the US received PhDs from a small number of prestigious institutions, and hence (?) such hiring practices reflect profound social inequality. Is it just me, or does this appear to be utter bollocks? There is an obvious pair of hypotheses that would completely explain the data, namely:

  1. There is a hierarchical system of admission to graduate programs,
  2. Universities hire the strongest candidates they can, and admit the strongest graduate students they can.

Let’s examine these possibilities in the context of graduate school in mathematics. I have, on several occasions, been responsible for graduate admissions at my institution. I would say, on the whole, that prospective graduate students are among the most class conscious of anyone in academia. I would guess that, at least 75% of the time, a student will accept either the program that is the most highly ranked amongst those where they were admitted or a school within at most one or two places of their highest ranked option.

What about the second hypothesis? The worry here is that universities might view “undergraduate/graduate institution” as a proxy for “quality of candidate.” In my experience (being on hiring committees), this is utterly preposterous. I am not claiming that mathematical judgements are not a slippery thing — there are many variations which relate to matters of taste and inclination — but there are some reasonable objective criteria (GRE scores for graduate applications, publication record for job candidates) which would serve as a check against any implicit bias in this regard.

We here at Persiflage, however, are open to the idea that we may have missed something. So here are some other possibilities:

  1. You are talking about Mathematics, a field for which it is easier to make reliable judgements about the quality of research, and a field for which there is a more pronounced spike in talent at the top of the scale. Is this true? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps whatever field it is that produces papers like the one under consideration is not something for which talent of any kind is an asset, and so there is no real difference between graduates from Harvard or from Podunk U. Less sarcastically, suppose (say) I compare the English department faculty at the top ranked place (taking from this list) Berkeley and compare it to a place also ranked in the top 25 schools but closer to the bottom of that list, say UIUC. Then, if I knew something, could I confidently say that one department is much better than the other?
  2. You are talking about the experience of hiring/admitting students at a Group I university. Perhaps it is the case that, for lower ranked universities, there is insufficient expertise to hire on the basis of talent/output, and so PhD institution serves as a lazy way to evaluate the candidate. This seems to be a somewhat condescending argument, but it’s true that I don’t have any idea how hiring works at non-Group I universities. But surely the letters of recommendation would carry the most weight, and they would reflect the quality of research? At the very least, if you are going to claim this is what happens, you need to come up with a way to substantiate that claim.

Ultimately, I certainly don’t feel that I can rule out bias when it comes to hiring, but the fact that the paper under review uses “prestige” as a dirty word and doesn’t seem to acknowledge in any way that there is some correlation between prestige and quality of graduates is highly disturbing. Perhaps, as with this paper, the main goal is to substantiate the political beliefs of the authors rather than to undertake a serious academic inquiry. Still, even if the methodology is flawed, I would like people’s opinion on the conclusion.

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9 Responses to Only Harvard Grads need apply

  1. Academia, mathematical or otherwise, is a very imperfect meritocracy, and admission/hiring decisions are surely full of all kinds of ugly biases, both implicit and explicit. That said, I also don’t understand why their findings are inconsistent with even a perfect meritocracy given your hypotheses. All the math PhD programs I’m familiar with grant many more doctoral degrees each year than they hire new faculty, I’d guess at roughly a 10:1 ratio. So if quality of graduates is largely a function of the quality of matriculating students, then in a perfect meritocracy one would still expect graduates of the top departments to dominate the faculty much further down the list.

    As a practical matter, having been part of the PhD-granting math departments currently ranked 3, 5, 7, 17, and 73 by US News, there are certainly big differences in the average qualifications of incoming graduate students at the various levels, e.g. in the number of graduate-level classes taken as an undergraduate. At the undergraduate level, I believe there are studies indicating that a student admitted to a school A but who attends a lesser-ranked school B has on average an outcome comparable to a student who actually attends A. I suspect the sorting process of graduate admissions is actually noticeably more meritocratic than at the undergraduate level…

  2. AV says:

    As regards graduate admissions, I think this line from the article reflects my experience:
    ” 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.” This is not just a matter of “prestige” of course: you have a very good idea what you’re getting when the letters can compare to persons X, Y, Z at your current program. But it seems to play a significant role.

    • To the extent that “prestige” is a factor in graduate admissions, I think it is mostly through the mechanism that you indicate: letter writers at high-prestige schools are more likely to be able to make such comparisons and are also more likely to be personally known to the reader. One reason that REU programs in math are a good thing is that they allow people like me (BS Oregon State, #73) to get letters that include a similar perspective.

    • I know the effect you are talking about. But it sometimes works both ways — we have certainly admitted (at the last moment) seemingly “undistinguished” students from top schools who turned out to be really strong.

  3. Michael says:

    I don’t know whether deans at most universities automatically accept the department’s recommendations for hiring, or whether they need to be convinced that the candidate is a good pick. If the latter, and if the dean is from a very different field, then the fact that the candidate’s degree and/or postdocs are from a prestigious school might count for a lot. At some universities, such as mine, a department may be able to get an extra position for an “exceptional” candidate, in which case it’s necessary to convince a university-wide committee that the candidate is better than the ones being proposed by other departments.

  4. Kevin says:

    William Stein had some interesting comments when a similar article was posted on Hacker News a few weeks ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9162001

    (Original Post: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9161777)

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