It’s common knowledge, and common sense: Earn your doctorate from a top-tier program, and you’re more likely to snag a top-tier academic job. But a new paper, published by economist David Colander in the journal Pedagogy, provides a clearer sense of just how much a program’s ranking influences where its newly-minted Ph.D.’s end up.
We caught up with Colander to find out more. Here are the nuts and bolts:
Why is an economist studying the job market in the humanities?
He was asked to. Colander, a professor at Middlebury College, had already completed a study of the economics job market for the Teagle Foundation when an editor at Pedagogy expressed interest in collecting information on the state of play in English. “I recognize that economists’ supply-demand vision of job markets has serious problems,” he writes, especially in a discipline in which new Ph.D.’s easily outpace tenure-track positions. But “English specialists might gain some insight from an economist’s view. At least, I hope so.”
How did he do it?
Starting in 2010, Colander, with the help of research assistant Daisy Zhuo, categorized the top 149 universities with graduate programs in English into four tiers based on the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (Those rankings might not be beloved, but they do give a sense of how programs are perceived. Plus, Colander says, they’re “easily available” and “all the rankings are quite interchangeable for the type of issues the study was focusing on.”) They then chose representative programs from each tier, considering size and other factors; tracked those programs’ Ph.D. placements from 2008 to 2011 and the education backgrounds of tenure-track faculty; and extrapolated the results for each tier.
What did he discover?
First off, tiering is a powerful force. If you go to one of the top six English programs, like those at the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Pennsylvania, you’ve got a roughly 54-percent chance of winding up in a tenure-track job. (We’ll get into the caveats later.) But if you go to a program in a lower tier—say, at the University of Texas at Austin or Boston University—your chances become slimmer. Those institutions belong to the second tier (programs ranked seventh through 26th) and the third tier (the 29th through 62nd ranked programs), respectively. In those groups, the percentage of Ph.D’s who have landed tenure-track jobs sinks below 50.
From Ph.D. to the professorship, the market moves downward. Of the graduates who get tenure-track jobs, most end up at universities ranked lower than the ones they attended. Virtually no one moves up. Even moving from a fourth-tier Ph.D. program to a tenure-track professorship at a third-tier one is nearly unheard of.
Here's a breakdown of where graduates from each tier end up—if they take tenure-track jobs at other universities with graduate programs, that is. (Liberal-arts and community colleges are taken out of the equation this time.) Not only do graduates of third-tier programs almost never move up to first- or second-tier ones; they almost all move down from the third tier, too.
Overall, the top-six programs get almost 60 percent of their tenure-track professors from other top-six programs, Colander writes. And over 90 percent from programs ranked 28th or higher. They get no professors from programs ranked 63rd or lower.
But, in the end, tiering mostly seems to determine where you’ll end up, not if you’ll end up anywhere. In other words: If you want a tenure-track job—period—it might not matter all that much whether you go to the University of Chicago or Stony Brook University-SUNY. But if you want a job at a research university with a graduate program, then you’ll better your chances by going to a top-28 school.
Wow. At least in English, the academic job market is bleak.
Correct. And the available data don’t paint an entirely accurate picture of the market, Colander adds: “These data do not provide information about attrition, especially how many students started the program and might have completed their Ph.D. but chose not to because there were no jobs.”
In fact, this is the major caveat about the study. If you looked at those 44-percent placement numbers for the third- and fourth-tier programs and thought those numbers seemed surprisingly high, you might be right. One program, for example, listed 35 students who received tenure-track appointments from 1998 to 2010. Elsewhere on the website, the program notes that 12 students start the program each year, but it doesn’t provide information about how many of those original students left voluntarily and could have gotten a Ph.D. If 10 of those 12 reached the all-but-dissertation point and could have completed their Ph.D., then in 13 years, the program could have had 130 students looking for tenure-track jobs and 35 people who actually received them, cutting the department’s placement rate nearly in half.
So what’s to be done?
I asked if Colander was surprised by any of his findings. Not at all, he said. “What I found was what people already knew, but there were no specific numbers,” he said. “I’ve added some.”
What stood out to him, he said, was that nothing has been done to fix a system that seemed, from an economist’s perspective, broken. “It’s crazy to continue like this,” he said.
To that point, Colander puts forth four main recommendations. Among them, he suggests programs make their job-placement data publicly available, and that they redesign their curricula and job training to better match what new doctorates will experience after graduation.
“My own feeling is that putting the information out there will not make a big difference; it will make one feel better knowing they gave students the warning,” he said, comparing the posted job data to the warning on a cigarette pack. “The real problem is there’s a disconnect in the training. Something has to be done about that. And it goes far beyond English.”